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Queen of the Virgins

Pageantry and Black Womanhood in the Caribbean

M. Cynthia Oliver

Publication Year: 2009

Beauty pageants are wildly popular in the U.S. Virgin Islands, outnumbering any other single performance event and capturing the attention of the local people from toddlers to seniors. Local beauty contests provide women opportunities to demonstrate talent, style, the values of black womanhood, and the territory's social mores.Queen of the Virgins: Pageantry and Black Womanhood in the Caribbean is a comprehensive look at the centuries-old tradition of these expressions in the Virgin Islands. M. Cynthia Oliver maps the trajectory of pageantry from its colonial precursors at tea meetings, dance dramas, and street festival parades to its current incarnation as the beauty pageant or "queen show." For the author, pageantry becomes a lens through which to view the region's understanding of gender, race, sexuality, class, and colonial power.Focusing on the queen show, Oliver reveals its twin roots in slave celebrations that parodied white colonial behavior and created creole royal rituals and celebrations heavily influenced by Africanist aesthetics. Using the U.S. Virgin Islands as an intriguing case study, Oliver shows how the pageant continues to reflect, reinforce, and challenge Caribbean cultural values concerning femininity. Queen of the Virgins examines the journey of the black woman from degraded body to vaunted queen and how this progression is marked by social unrest, growing middle-class sensibilities, and contemporary sexual and gender politics.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book has benefited from the help of many people over the past ten years. First, I thank my family; my husband, Jason; and my son, Elias; who have supported and nurtured me throughout this process. I am deeply grateful. I owe many thanks to my professors and my colleagues who have supported this work, especially Barbara Browning, whose gentle influence kept me going. My gratitude also goes...

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Introduction: Situating the Virgin Islands—A Caribbean Nation, a U.S. Colony

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pp. 3-18

When the guy made the song Caribbean Queen, we all danced to it. But we didn’t really know what it meant. I know now what it meant, exactly. —Carolyn Jenkins, Miss U.S. Virgin Islands 1999 pageant choreographer On March 21, 1999, Sherece Smith, a twenty-five-year-old customer service representative for the Water and Power Authority of St. John, was crowned “The Essence of the Caribbean,” Miss U.S. Virgin Islands 1999. In a full sweep, Smith...


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1. “Fan Me”: Imperial versus Caribbean Femininities, 1493–1940

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pp. 21-35

The figure of queen in Virgin Island history and mythology evolved early on in the islands’ relationship with European empires. The fashioning of Caribbean governments and social systems designed to re-create small Europes throughout the Caribbean territories left little space for this image in New World ideology. In the European imaginary, any association between royalty and womanhood was...

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2. The New Queen: Pageantry and Policy, 1930–1950

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pp. 36-53

Queens in Caribbean black slave communities who were valued because of their assumptions of power, their honed craft, and overall smarts seemed little concerned with white notions of beauty and appearance. Even slave women’s mimetic performances of the white planter class engaged less notions of beauty and more the accoutrements of class status. European adherence to metropolitan fashions...

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3. Progress Makes a Model Queen: The Birth of Tourism, 1950–1960s

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pp. 54-64

In May 1947, the St. Croix Avis reported on events at the organizational meeting for St. Thomas’s new tourist board. With “the complete cooperation of the public,” the article announced, “a development program of considerable proportions can be instituted.”1 Civic leaders had begun their effort to convince the entire Virgin Islands population that tourism would solve the territory’s economic ills,...


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4. The Main Event: Miss U.S. Virgin Islands 1999, “The Essence of the Caribbean”

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pp. 67-81

The Miss U.S. Virgin Islands 1999 Pageant, titled “The Essence of the Caribbean,” took place in the grand ballroom of the exclusive Wyndham Sugar Bay resort on the east end of St. Thomas. Guests arrived at a small guardhouse, parked their cars, and were shuttled to the main building, designed to evoke a grand colonial feeling with large fans circling near the high ceilings and sloping staircases trimmed...

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5. Promotional Presentations and the Selling of the Native: The Queen Represents

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pp. 82-99

With the new shape of queen in the territory, the emphasis suddenly shifted to representation, and young women were expected to stand for “not just the festival but . . . our community.”¹ Yet to stand for is not the same as to be, so representing the women in the community required the construction of a fiction—consistently and coincidentally the job of tourism—to identify and create cultural “appetizers,”


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6. The Big Business of Queenship: A Competitive Edge?

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pp. 103-128

The day after the Miss U.S. Virgin Islands 1999 contest, the islands were abuzz about the new queen. Sherece Sharmaine Smith was the first St. Johnian to win the crown since Elsa Hall in 1981. The airwaves were flooded with commentary on pageants’ validity and usefulness; on the expenses to parents, businesses, and contestants; on the images pageants portray and whether the U.S. Virgin Islands...

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7. Audience, Appetites, and Drama: The Mystery of Pageantry

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pp. 129-147

Marise James was born and reared on St. Croix, the daughter of local celebrity Randall “Doc” James. After receiving her primary and secondary education at Catholic schools on the island—St. Mary’s Elementary and St. Joseph’s High School—she traveled to the United States and attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She initially intended to follow her father into...

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Conclusion: Re-Situating the Caribbean with Womanhood Front and Center

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pp. 148-151

According to Cynthia Enloe, “There are at least two sorts of feminized beauty . . . the revealed and the hidden.”1 I have identified a multiplicity of feminized beauties—that is, behaviors and characteristics associated with the participation of women of the U.S. Virgin Islands in beauty contests. These identifications do not confine black womanhood to a circumscribed area or set of individuals but...


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pp. 152-162


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pp. 163-171

Index [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 172-190

E-ISBN-13: 9781604733488
E-ISBN-10: 1604733489
Print-ISBN-13: 9781604732429
Print-ISBN-10: 1604732423

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2009