WILMINGTON, Del. — Backstage at a downtown hotel, Saniya Gay, the reigning Delaware Miss Juneteenth, is holding court among a sea of sequins and the smell of hot curling irons.
Gay, who was crowned the first National Miss Juneteenth last year, offers advice to the nine girls, ages 8 to 17, who are about to take the stage for the 2021 Delaware Juneteenth Family Enrichment Program and Pageant — one of whom she will crown as her successor.
This group has been preparing the pageant for six months doing community service, writing essays and taking biweekly classes on Black history, dance and etiquette.
Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the day in 1865 when news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached enslaved people in Texas, is typically celebrated with family barbecues, street festivals and parades.
A growing number of communities also celebrate with a scholarship pageant, part of a long tradition of Black beauty pageants that seek to carve out space to celebrate and educate Black women.
For decades, beauty pageants have been criticized for objectifying women and for their lack of diversity, but organizers and contestants insist Juneteenth pageants are less about looks and more about fostering sisterhood and teaching young Black girls parts of their history they never learned about in school.
“You’re not getting in the pageant just to look pretty,” Gay, 18, said. “It’s so educational.”
Black beauty pageants give space to be ‘unapologetically Black’
Women of color were first permitted to participate in the Miss America pageant in 1940, but they initially had little success on stage.
So in September 1968, Black Philadelphia businessman J. Morris Anderson launched the Miss Black America pageant at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlantic City just hours after and blocks away from the Miss America pageant.
Miss Black America would eventually attract celebrities, including the Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder, and helped launch the careers of contestants, notably singer Toni Braxton and television personality Oprah Winfrey.
“It billed itself as a protest pageant and started as a way to celebrate ‘Black is beautiful,’” said Hilary Levey Friedman, author of “Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America.”
“While it was separate from other major pageants at the time, it was also seen as a way to sort of integrate those pageants.”
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Two years later in 1970, Miss Iowa Cheryl Browne became the first Black woman to compete in Miss America and in 1984, Vanessa Williams was crowned the first Black Miss America.
In 1986, another pageant, Miss Black USA, was started by Karen Arrington in Washington, D.C., in part to offer scholarship money. At the time, Arrington told USA TODAY, Black women were “barely getting undergraduate degrees.” While data shows the number of degrees earned by Black women has increased significantly in recent years, Black women also hold the most student loan debt and earn less than men with equal education.
Miss Black America celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018 with a “rebirth” designed to rekindle its protest roots and address ongoing racial disparities, Anderson told the Des Moines Register at the time. New programming focused on issues facing African Americans, including mass incarceration, the pageant founder said.
“We are really concentrating on some of these problems that existed for Black people in the 1960s and still exist today,” Anderson said. “We are aware that there’s an absolute need for this pageant to continue.”
Friedman said mainstream pageants have more work to do to be inclusive of women with different body types, LGBTQ contestants and women of color, particularly Latina contestants. But Black women have since had major success. All five major titles were held by Black women for the first time in 2019.
“Many of them competed and won with very different types of hair and hairstyles,” she said of the five 2019 winners. “We celebrate them as Black women, as different expanded notions of what beauty is.”
Arrington compared Black beauty pageants to historically Black colleges and universities, saying they remain important because they give contestants a space to be “unapologetically Black.”
“There’s no code switching in Miss Black USA,” she said.
While it’s affirming to see Black women be rewarded by the traditional pageant system, that may only be temporary because those organizations aren’t dedicated to uplifting Black women in the same way, said Ryann Richardson, who was crowned Miss Black America in 2018. That success also doesn’t indicate a shift toward “true inclusivity” in the wider beauty industry, which Richardson said is still centered on whiteness though it appropriates parts of Black culture.
“Beauty standards, frankly, are not even shaped by pageants,” Richardson said.
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Juneteenth pageants are about ‘knowing about your culture’
Like Miss Black America and Miss Black USA, Juneteenth pageants “celebrate Black excellence and Black girl magic at its finest,” said Andrea Sledge, director and chairperson of the Miss Juneteenth pageant in Fort Worth, Texas. The city is the focus of the 2020 film “Miss Juneteenth,” which earned critical acclaim after its Sundance premiere.
“They don’t have to straighten their hair, they don’t have to look a certain way, they don’t have to be certain size in order to be considered beautiful,” Sledge said. “We want them to understand that their Black is beautiful regardless of the hue.”
In addition to public speaking training and networking opportunities, the pageants also offer young Black girls and their families the opportunity to learn more about their history and culture. Even in Texas – Juneteenth’s birthplace – some girls don’t have a complete understanding of its importance, said Sledge, who recalls celebrating Juneteenth growing up with massive picnics at her grandparent’s church.
“The reality is that our children are not going to learn about Juneteenth in schools,” Sledge said, citing recent legislative efforts to ban the teaching of critical race theory. “It is extremely important that we not let that die.”
The competitions typically attract a handful of girls who spend weeks or even months doing community service and attending educational outings to learn not only about Juneteenth, but about Black history as a whole.
Sylvia Lewis-Harris, president of the Delaware Juneteenth Association that has been holding its pageant for nearly 25 years, said one of the key goals had been to get Juneteenth designated as a national holiday.
“That in itself is going to be amazing because young Black children will have something to be proud of,” she said.
The push to make Juneteenth a national holiday gained momentum last year amid nationwide protests against systemic racism. Major companies rushed to recognize it as a holiday for their employees, and this week, the U.S. Senate and the House passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, which would make it a federal holiday. President Joe Biden on Thursday signed the bill to create the federal holiday, effective immediately.
Juneteenth is recognized with some form of observance in every state and the District of Columbia, except for South Dakota. In Hawaii, Gov. David Ige signed legislation this week to recognize Juneteenth thanks to a campaign launched by Samantha Neyland, the first Black woman to be crowned Miss Hawaii USA.
Neyland said she started to lobby for the recognition after learning about Juneteenth while watching the sitcom “Blackish” and becoming frustrated that she’d never learned about it in school. She credits her experience with pageantry as the inspiration behind her effort.
“I don’t think I ever would’ve launched a coalition and decided I wanted to make a law if I wasn’t already in this community of women,” Neyland said.
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As Juneteenth celebrations gained popularity, so have pageants, organizers say. Lewis-Harris estimates she’s helped people in at least six states set up pageants in recent years.
Although the coronavirus pandemic limited participation in some cases, cities including Jackson, Tennessee, held the first ever Miss Juneteenth pageants last year.
Tisa Day, chairperson of the Jackson Juneteenth Coalition, said contestants attended history lessons on the Middle Passage, the civil rights era and the Black Lives Matter movement. Each girl also had to write an essay outlining what Frederick Douglass’ speech, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July,” meant to them.
“I call it a pageant with a twist because not only was it about beauty, it was about knowing about your culture,” Day said.
Day, who was crowned Miss Juneteenth in 1987 in her hometown in Wisconsin, said the pageant also provides training for the girls to enter mainstream competitions
“We want our girls to be Miss Tennessee and Miss Universe,” she said.
In 2020, the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation also organized the first national Juneteenth pageant in Memphis, Tennessee. This October, local winners will compete in Tulsa, Oklahoma, giving them the chance to learn more about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Among them will be Sophia Hughes, 15, who won the title of Delaware Miss Juneteenth over the weekend. Hughes said she initially was interested in competing in a pageant but learning more about Juneteenth got her “hooked.”
The pageant “helps me learn more about my ancestry and my history,” she said. “That is very important to know as a young Black girl.”
After wowing the judges with her essay on overcoming bullying, interview and a performance of “The Prayer” by Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli, Hughes took a moment to celebrate with family in her dazzling light pink ball gown before being whisked away for more photographs.
But she’s already focused on her new obligations as the winner.
“I’ve got work to do,” she said.
Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg
The new National Miss Juneteenth Pageant has its first winner: And she’s from Delaware.