Black Beauty Pageant’s Role in ‘Post-Racial’ Era

DeNeen L. Brown, Washington Post, August 5, 2009

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

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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?

‘Embracing individuality’

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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.

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“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.” {snip}

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‘A certain attitude’

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. {snip}

“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.”

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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.

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