What Competing in An African Pageant Taught Me About Identity

I am no pageant princess. I am a queen.
Publish date:
October 31, 2014

It wasn't that I had a personal vendetta against pageants -- I didn't give passionate speeches about the conspiracies behind pageantry, waving my excited feminist arms in the air while I scrutinized Ms. Universe.

Actually, I hold conversations like that over other issues, like how it's a shame that some white people are still very confused about black people, and disputes about male gaze or about media's misrepresentations of foreign countries. No, I didn't feel that strongly about pageantry. As a child, I glued my eyes to the television as I watched competitions on TV, putting my bets on the most unique, ethnic-looking contestant. I twisted my fingers in anticipation during commercial breaks and felt a sigh of relief if my candidate won. I became older and started asking myself questions; what do swimsuit competitions have to do with judging and why is the ballroom gown section even necessary? That is when I stopped watching pageants and decided that engaging in the performing arts, connecting with people and traveling the world are far better ways to spend my life. My abandonment of pageantry also has to do with my own personal struggles with beauty and identity. I was a bug-eyed, alien-headed child with kinky hair that my mother and hairdressers struggled with. I raised my hand in class often, answering every question I could, which resulted in my classmates making fun of me. I was so sensitive that I cried whenever anyone raised their voice at me. I was bullied, lonely and awkward. I wasn't beautiful. I didn't truly accept my appearance and personality until I entered college, a playground that seemed to accept everyone in all their shapes, sizes and strangeness. College is where I met loud, opinionated black women with afros just as strong and audacious; quirky, artistic students from foreign nations who had a refreshing view of life; intelligent, progressive-thinking black men with big egos and big...personalities. White people who want to understand the black experience, or at least acknowledge their role in appeasing racism. There's an African Student Association at my Alma Mater. They hold parties, discussions, events and fundraisers. During my junior year, they held the very first Miss Africa Pageant. Guess who was asked to participate? My instinct was to reject the invitation. Memories of my childhood and old TV pageants reminded me that I am not that kind of woman. It wasn't that I was still insecure about myself -- I was performing spoken word, walking in runway shows, writing for campus publications, applying for study abroad opportunities, even songwriting. But I still saw myself as an unusual beauty with nonconformist ideas, not a pretty and poised pageant babe. Yet, so many students from ASA asked me to join that I started rethinking things. Finally, a good friend of mine at the time, who was running in the competition as well, convinced me it was a good idea. I initially thought that competing with her wasn't wise for our friendship, but something about her excitement inspired me. I gave ASA my form and was listed as a contestant before I could say "ASHE!" three times. I was Miss Ghana, even though I hadn’t stepped foot in my family’s country yet and couldn't speak a word of either of my parent's dialects. But it was a huge honor for me, since I always felt an unspoken connection to my roots and a strong desire to go home one day.

Pageant practice was an experience. I bonded with some of the most beautiful and bright spirits that I would have never gotten to know if it wasn't for the competition. I also realized that they were just as eclectic as I. We had photo-shoots and etiquette sessions, with the coordinators individually coaching us on how to make our personalities and ethnicities shine. Not to mention, we had one of the clumsiest dance practices that I ever witnessed. These ladies were amazing. On the night of the competition, things went smoothly. I had one of my closest friends backstage, applying my make-up, helping me dress and fixing my hair. She gave me support, advice and serenity.

The introductions and swimsuit segments went well enough; we individually presented our countries while wearing traditional attire, then modeled in all ivory swimsuits, adorning ourselves with large versions of our flags that we customized in our signature ways. I decided to treat my flag as a cape, feeling like a super-heroine as it flew behind me.

Throughout the night, I found myself growing to feel passionate about the competition. I was proving something by representing the tough-haired, smart-mouthed, unconventional, often misunderstood black woman. This is more than a pageant, I realized. If I won, this would mean something. It was my turn to perform my talent. I walked on stage, in a black bandeau top, black shorts and an unruly afro. Words of controversy were written in white all over my body, words that are often used to represent Africa. The crowd hushed when they saw me. I was a haunting ghost of the media's misconceptions. So went my performance, a dangerously honest spoken word piece of the pain that most African and African American people feel in America. At some points, it felt like a call and response -- the crowd so engaged with my speech that they responded with me at the necessary moments. I shouted, I stomped, I cried, I pleaded. I am no pageant princess. I am a queen.

I heard the audience roar as I finished my piece and walked backstage. I looked into my friend's eyes and she looked back. We didn't have to say anything. We both knew. In the end, I didn’t excel on my interview question. I was lost in a trance from my performance, and I couldn't formulate the generic response I studied so rigorously. (I was first runner up.) The title was given to my friend, Miss Sierra Leone. Beautiful, intelligent and ambitious, I knew in my mind she would be a wonderful queen. But my heart told me I am a queen too. After the show, several people walked up to me, saying how much my piece moved them. I thanked them. That was all I ever wanted.