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."
She twirls. Her black hair is natural and twisted into an updo. She has skin that looks like velvet. A dusting of Black Opal purple eye shadow. She is an intense beauty. "We celebrate our heritage, drawing strength from our foremothers all the way from Africa to our modern day sheroes, Oprah to Michelle Obama, we celebrate black women." She stops. "I really should go." Then she disappears into a dressing room full of steam and women applying makeup, chaperones smoothing dresses.
Pageants are not for the shy, and no one thinks defining black beauty is too hard a question. Because the question is like those that contestants have to answer in the final competition, smiling and not flinching or stuttering.
There is Breyuna Williams, 28, Miss Black D.C., a graduate of Howard University School of Law. She has competed in other pageants in the USA Pageant system as well as the Miss Georgia Teen Pageant. But with this Miss Black USA Pageant, she feels a difference. "There is more of a sisterhood," she says. "We have doctoral candidates, historians, teachers. It is a competition, of course. Only one person will take the title of Miss Black USA. But we are patting each other on the back."
Roger Bobb, supervising producer of Tyler Perry Studios and a pageant judge, says: "There are still areas of the country where women who look like them are not necessarily appreciated or respected. It's a certain amount of strength that comes with black beauty. Beside the skin complexion, the body types, there is a certain attitude that comes with being an African American woman no other race can emulate."
What do you mean?
He stares down: "Don't make me quote Maya Angelou on you."
He catches the Angelou spirit if not the words: "It's in her walk, in her eyes, in her strut," he says. "And there is a difference I can't articulate."
You turn and there is Ian Smith, of Celebrity Fit Club fame and founder of the 50 Million Pound Challenge for weight loss in the African American community. A hairstylist spots him and tries to hide a Snickers bar. She teases that she is doing the weight loss challenge, then admits she is not.
"We think it's a post-racial era," he says. "But it is very important that when you are considered a subculture to have your own reward system. If you try to assimilate, you will always be looking for validation from the majority group. That can do damage to your psyche."
By 8:40, 40 minutes after showtime, the house lights dim.
The contestants appear in black cocktail dresses and introduce themselves. Then there's a fitness routine, bouncing -- running, push-ups in fitness suits that replace the usual bathing suits of pageant competition.
"There is nothing like an accomplished proud black woman. I love to be a black man," says actor Lamman Rucker, the co-host. "But then, I digress."
Pale yellow, royal blue. Gold glitter. White dresses with debutante bows. The eyes grow tired. Whispers when Miss Black Virginia comes onstage: "That dress is stunning. She looks like an angel."
Co-host Deya Smith announces "Miss Black 14!" She smiles. "Sorry, I must be tired," then corrects herself and introduces "Miss Black Wisconsin."
Then the questions, such as: "What contributes to a purpose-driven life?"
Miss Black Mississippi shares a personal story about assault. She wants to tell others "you can grow from something awful into a woman with confidence."
Miss Black D.C. would advise children: "Life doesn't come with instructions. So just enjoy. Things happen for a reason. You have to enjoy your journey."
Miss Black Tennessee talks about black queens and her grandmother "who wore the same dress every day. I have to recognize her for what she did in my life. Everything we ate at her table came out of her back yard or my grandfather shot it."
The audience laughs.
Miss Black Pennsylvania, a ninth-grade teacher in D.C., says: "How do you tap into power? I look at my students who are reading on a second-grade level at the age of 18. And I tell them power lies in them."
More questions. More answers. The contestants line up a final time, then step forward and peel offstage.
It's 11:43. We have sat through three hours of smiles and glitter and acts.
The 15 finalists are standing in the wings, waiting for their final calls.
"This is a very scary time," whispers Alisha Lola Jones, 28, Miss Black Maryland 2008.
Some of the contestants hold hands before the runners-up are announced. And the winner is . . . Gasp. Pause. Drum roll. Come on, it's way late.
"Miss Black Pennsylvania!"
A coordinator stage-whispers: "Everybody go hug her."
And soon Shayna Y. Rudd, 23, wearing a pale pink sequined gown, is enveloped in hugs. Her hair is slicked back from her face in a tight bun, onto which a rhinestone tiara is placed. Two bouquets of red roses are pushed into her arms. She blows kisses to the audience. And just as in any other pageant, she cries.