Williams faced resistance and potential violence simply because she crashed one of white supremacy’s strangest bastions: the beauty pageant. But she came to mind this week following the crowning of Jamaica’s Toni-Ann Singh as Miss World 2019. Say what you might about the pageant business, Toni-Ann’s title made her one of five black women who hold titles for the world’s top beauty contests, along with for Miss America 2019 Nia Franklin, Miss Teen USA 2019 Kaliegh Garris, Miss USA Cheslie Kryst and Miss Universe 2019 Zozibini Tunzi. (Franklin turned over her crown this week to a Virginian who won the talent competition with a science experiment.)
In the beauty sweepstakes this year, black women have positively, and finally, swept the field.
In the year 2019, can I celebrate this milestone? Is it possible for this antiquated system that forces women to conform “to an outworn, constrictive ideal” really be an agent for change?
I think the answers are yes and yes, but I decided to check with Williams to see what she made of this moment. She called it a “wonderful example of black beauty and excellence."
First of all, she said, it’s a “great sign” that we have more diverse representation of what it means to be beautiful. There are more options for toys and dolls; more representation in the media; and more opportunities to achieve the unthinkable.
Second, she said, these black queens are diverse even among themselves. Williams continued: “It’s different hairstyles, different hair textures, different hair, skin colors and hues and eye shapes and body, you know, body shapes. And it’s just wonderful that it can all be celebrated and accepted. … It’s a perfect reflection of black beauty."
Williams’s recollections made me proud that black women have finally prevailed. Sure, this is your game and you made the rules, but guess what, we’re playing it and we are winning at it.
Much has changed in the 36 years since Williams won her crown. A 20-year-old from New York, Williams was not, as she writes in her book, “You Have No Idea,” “a pageant girl.” She ended up in her first contest only because a college play that she was in was unexpectedly canceled. She had time on her hands and, as most college students appreciate, she was interested in the scholarship award. She knew, she admitted, that she had the talent to win. Just five short months later, Williams was crowned Miss America.
Growing up in an “integrated and multicultural environment” such as New York City left her unprepared for the broader resistance to her victory in the country. She also faced criticism from some members of the black community for her lighter skin color and blue eyes. “Some of the criticism I got was, ‘Oh well, it’s not really a win because she’s not black enough. Well, she’s got light eyes, so it doesn’t really count,’ which basically negated my achievement, intellect and talent."
A generation on, it would be shortsighted to assume that even now these titles have no meaning. From Lupita Nyong’o to Beyoncé, from Lizzo to Uzo Aduba, the definition and expression of black beauty are finally being expanded, acknowledged and accepted. Our features are no longer being cruelly exhibited like Sarah Baartman, but celebrated and exalted. Black women are succeeding in the very environments that created walls or criteria that kept us shut out for so long.
Additionally, these titles allow for pageant queens to elevate their message to a broader national or international audience. The closing statement of Tunzi, Miss Universe 2019, was a powerful shout-out for many young black girls watching at home around the globe. Kryst, Miss USA, and Harris, Miss Teen USA, have decided that their natural curly crown is the perfect complement to their new crowns. These images will undoubtedly have an impact on young black girls (and boys) around the world.
They can also be transcendent moments to older generations. “The most gratifying examples of my creating history," Williams said, "were of the elderly black women who would meet me, and some would be in tears and say, ‘I never thought I’d see the day.’ ” To this day, she continues to meet young women who remember the night that she was crowned and they share their stories with her. It’s just evidence that these trailblazing wins do have meaning and significance.
It’s not quite fair to expect the pageant world to fix our racial and gender issues. With much of the turmoil and downright ugliness in the world, it’s good to celebrate beauty in all its forms. Diverse representation matters. These five young women prove that there isn’t one way to be young, gifted, black and beautiful. You can be dark, light, natural, relaxed, whatever. It’s an affirmation that so many of us deserve.
So ultimately, the significance of the titles might not manifest themselves for years or even decades. As Williams says, "I hope that all these young women that have won realize how lucky they are to be surrounded by so many opportunities that have been afforded to them by people that came before them."