Meaning of Miss Black USA Scholarship Pageant Runs Deep

The 2009 Miss Black USA Scholarship Pageant held in Washington, D.C., featured beauty, leadership -- and like any pageant -- a few tears.
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Late into Monday night, or shall we say in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, when everybody else was feeling tired and ugly, the final 15 contestants in the Miss Black USA pageant stood on the auditorium stage at the University of the District of Columbia. All glittery and poured into their evening gowns, curves revealed, cheeks aching from all that smiling. Lipstick still perfect.

They clapped prettily for their competition, pretty eyes glancing around, wondering whether the next girl might look better in that dress, might have a little bit more talent, might have that added crispness to her answers or a dimension that makes her sparkle a little more brightly before the judges seated in the audience below.

Wondering who would win the coveted title of Miss Black USA.

Jeweled dresses, bows, feathers, silver stilettos and stage whispers from the audience. "Keep your head up, girl, keep that pretty head up."

It was a long evening full of spunk and sashays, those difficult pageant walks in which the upper torso is turned to impress the judges as the legs are walking across stage in another direction.

Around midnight, when the audience is losing steam, is hardly the time to take an assessment of the state of black beauty in a so-called post-racial era. And yet somebody has to do it.

It is necessary because a ceiling has been shattered and there is a black man in the White House. And where better to ask the question than at a black beauty competition: Why is there a need for a Miss Black Whatever in 2009?

Organizers say the Miss Black USA Scholarship Pageant was founded in Prince George's County in 1986 to showcase leadership among African American women, and to provide an opportunity "to young women of color to develop the whole woman, mind, body and spirit." This year's 28 contestants (some states did not have representatives) were competing for, among other prizes, a $5,000 scholarship, free cosmetics from Black Opal and a trip to Ghana.

The contestants were tall and thin, short and round, an ample selection of black beauty. They wore their hair short, long, spiked, straight and natural, and with locks twisted into crowns piled on top of their heads, competing in a world that some say has found only a certain aesthetic beautiful, and has "been absolutely suffocating to women of color all over the world," says one woman. You see Asian women changing their eye shape through surgery. Black women wearing blue contacts, Latinas bleaching their hair. All these contortions and foolishness going on to reach a Barbie doll standard.

The reason, they say, there needs to be a Miss Black Whatever: so black differences can be appreciated. Then the variety within a subculture can be fully explored and celebrated, and a beauty that does not conform to a dominant standard can be recognized. Because in the mainstream pageants, someone is always left out. Sometimes there can be years before a black winner emerges. In a black pageant, black beauty will win every time.

Earlier in the evening the smell of curling irons wafted backstage amid harried nerves and the rustle of evening dresses.

"I would say black beauty is all about embracing oneself, embracing individuality, uniqueness," says Miss South Carolina, Molesey Knox Brunson, 26, a business owner from Columbia, S.C. "It's different because instead of conforming to a certain ideal, we are allowed to define beauty on our own. We bring to the table what we think is beauty. We celebrate our curves. We celebrate our dark complexion. We celebrate our natural beauty."

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