Discuss and debate the issues that mean the most to you.
I am a pageant girl. No, I am not the typical blonde, blue-eyed bombshell, beauty queen one may imagine competing in the Miss America and Miss USA pageants. I am, in fact, part of a smaller lesser-known tribe of beautiful, brown women that compete and work in the world of black pageantry.
I got my first taste of this world as a student at Howard University. Each year Howard hosts a series of pageants throughout the year to select a Miss and Mr. Howard University. The lady crowned Miss Howard University then goes on to compete in the NBCA Hall of Fame pageant in Atlanta, Georgia. Watching these bold men and women command the stage as they competed in question and answer, talent, and evening gown was one of my most enjoyable times at Howard. My sophomore year of college I competed in my first pageant at Howard. Though I lost, I was pleased with my performance and enjoyed my experience.
I began to do some research into more black pageants in the area and came across Miss Black USA. Just before my senior year of undergrad, I began my reign as Miss Black Michigan USA 2014. My overall experience in the Miss Black USA system was nothing short of amazing. I had the opportunity to appear in the America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, be interviewed on television, deliver keynote speeches at schools in Michigan, and attend a number events and fundraisers. As a competitor in the national pageant, I placed in the top 15 competitors and I got to meet wonderful women from around the country, women I now call my sister queens.
While all of these experiences were wonderful, I found myself facing criticism regarding why I chose to compete in a black pageant. As Miss Black Michigan USA 2014, I woke up one morning to see the following message sent to my official Facebook page.
After competing in the national pageant I moved to Philadelphia and chose to become a state pageant director. As the current director of the Miss Black Pennsylvania USA pageant, I am working tirelessly to revive the Miss Black Pennsylvania pageant in Philadelphia and send a contestant to nationals next year. After sending out a press release about the pageant to local news outlets in my area, I learned that one newspaper published an article titled “Call for Black Contestants Ignites Debate over ‘Racist’ Pageant.” The newspaper’s reader started a debate on Facebook about whether the Miss Black Pennsylvania USA pageant was racist.
Here are some of the highlights from this riveting discussion.
I have had numerous individuals from varied ethnicities challenge me regarding the relevance and legitimacy of a black pageant. Black pageants were created to celebrate the bodies, minds, and accomplishments of women representing the African diaspora. Like the mainstream pageants seen on television, Black pageants judge contestants in the area of interview, talent, evening gown, and fitness. What makes these pageants different are that they cultivate sisterhood, social and political consciousness, and the scholastic accomplishments of various ethnicities of women throughout the African diaspora.
In a world that constantly attacks the beauty, intellect and mere existence of black women, black pageantry serves as a refreshing contradiction. Women who compete in Miss Black USA and similar pageants are students and professionals, many of whom have competed in non-black pageants and found that their aesthetic and strength were unappreciated. Competing in a black pageant made me fall in a deeper love with being a black woman.
Black pageant critics often say that black pageants are unnecessary and discriminatory because black women can compete in the Miss USA and Miss America pageants which except women of all ethnicities. In its 94-year history, Miss America has only crowned 8 black queens. In the past 63 years, Miss USA has crowned 6 black queens, and Miss Universe has crowned 4 black queens.
Black pageants around the world provide an opportunity for black women to celebrate their beauty and talents in an honorable and edifying way. The Miss Black USA Pageant organization was founded in 1986 and has awarded its winners with international trips, a variety of prizes, and scholarship funds.
Miss Black USA and other black pageants in no way perpetuate racism. Racism describes a system and ideology that systematically disadvantages a person or group based on racial identity. Black pageants actually provide opportunities that are often not available to "black pageant girls" in other systems. Many contestants flock to these pageants because they enjoy competing in competitions where their curly hair, curvy bodies, and brown skin are appreciated. Former notable black pageant contestants include Deya Smith, Valorie Burton, and Oprah Winfrey just to name a few. The black pageant industry is rapidly expanding and will continue to remain a safe and cherished space for “black pageant girls”.