Heels, swimsuits and ear-to-ear smiles may be on display at the Miss Black America pageant, but the symbolism and cultural significance run far deeper than surface level.

At the 50th-anniversary Miss Black America pageant in August, 23 young women ages 18 to 29 gathered to stride across a stage, pose in swimsuits and speak about race, politics and other matters of importance. Ryann Richardson, a tech executive originally from the District but competing for Brooklyn, took home the crown.

Ryann Richardson of New York, NY poses for a portrait during the 50th anniversary of the Miss Black America Pageant. (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)
Ryann Richardson of New York, NY poses for a portrait during the 50th anniversary of the Miss Black America Pageant. (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)

The crowd wasn’t large at the Gem Theater in Kansas City, Mo., and the pageant may be struggling to find an audience — the competition won’t be televised until February, and then only to viewers in a dozen or so markets as part of Black History Month — but neither the contestants nor the promoters are grasping for meaning.

For them, the Miss Black America pageant is both affirmation and protest.

“You can be unapologetically black,” says contestant Leslie Maldonado of Washington, D.C. “It’s proper propaganda. It’s about knowing your worth.”

The road to Miss Black America

The path to Miss Black America does not necessarily pass through a series of local pageants. A woman can also be an at-large contestant or represent a civic organization. Pay a $50 registration, line up sponsorships, and a woman of color is free to compete for a glittering sash, a crystal tiara, a Ford Escape, luxury hair extensions, a photo shoot, an artist development deal and a host of other prizes.

Sasha Washington of Kansas City, Mo. poses for a portrait backstage. (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)
Sasha Washington of Kansas City, Mo. poses for a portrait backstage. (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)

There’s no one-state-one-woman rule. And so there is Miss Bronx and Miss Brooklyn, as well as Miss New York City. There is Miss Washington, D.C., and Miss Prince George’s County and Miss Rockville, and there is also Maldonado, who is quite specific in who she represents: Southeast Washington. Ward 8.

“I’m representing marginalized youth who don’t have a microphone in front of them,” she says.

Miss Black Kansas City had long swingy braids partially swirled high into a pompadour. Miss Albuquerque boasted a wide smile and hands that seemed permanently affixed to her hips. Miss Minnesota (by way of Liberia) strutted forward with her hair in a perky 1950s flip.

Alexandra Germain of Albuquerque, NM works on her pose backstage in preparation for the swimsuit portion of the 50th anniversary of the Miss Black America Pageant. (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)
Alexandra Germain of Albuquerque, NM works on her pose backstage in preparation for the swimsuit portion of the 50th anniversary of the Miss Black America Pageant. (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)

Beauty pageant participants exude a glossy veneer. But to leave it at that would mean succumbing to stereotypes, and that wouldn’t be fair. To be a pageant contestant in the era of third- and fourth-wave feminism means tackling all the preconceived notions about beauty queens. And to participate in Miss Black America in particular means claiming a certain old-school femininity that was long denied to women of color.

Khadijah Lamah of Maple Grove, Minn. performs a monologue. (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)
Khadijah Lamah of Maple Grove, Minn. performs a monologue. (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)

“Stop and look at the true meaning of feminism — and it means choice,” says Brittany Lewis, Miss Black America 2017. “I consider myself a feminist, and I love pageants.”

The pageant’s past

Miss Black America was established in 1968 by Philadelphia businessman J. Morris Anderson in response to his own daughters’ fantasies about winning the Miss America crown when that would have been virtually impossible. By the 1960s, Miss America had dropped its rule stipulating that contestants must be white, but no black women had yet competed.

Alladia Patterson of Los Angles poses for a portrait backstage during the 50th anniversary of the Miss Black America Pageant. (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)
Alladia Patterson of Los Angles poses for a portrait backstage during the 50th anniversary of the Miss Black America Pageant. (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)

“Our protest wasn’t just about the lack of inclusion, but black people buying into the propaganda. Many black people had been convinced that black skin was ugly, that curly hair was bad hair,” Anderson says. “There were kids who might have seen their mother pinching their nose so it wouldn’t be broad and would be more European.”

Culturally, the timing felt right. James Brown had just released “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Civil rights activism was in full flower. Naomi Sims was ascendant as perhaps the first African American top model, on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal that fall.

The inaugural pageant was in Atlantic City, home to Miss America, and in the same year that feminist activists took to the boardwalk to protest the older pageant as demeaning.

For black women, says Lewis, competing in a Miss Black America pageant was their form of protest — an opportunity to celebrate their beauty when the broader culture devalued it.

Contestants wait backstage during the 50th anniversary of the Miss Black America Pageant at the Gem Theater in Kansas City, Mo. (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)
Contestants wait backstage during the 50th anniversary of the Miss Black America Pageant at the Gem Theater in Kansas City, Mo. (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)

Its heyday was the black-is-beautiful 1970s, when the show was broadcast live on NBC and a roster of Hollywood celebrities (Curtis Mayfield, Billy Dee Williams, Louis Gossett Jr.) supported it. Oprah Winfrey was Miss Black Tennessee. Athletes hosted parties for the contestants, and politicians gripped-and-grinned in photo-ops.

Jan Reynolds, who represented Missouri in 1976, had watched Miss America as a girl and dreamed about being crowned with a glittering tiara. She looked at Anderson’s pageant as her chance to experience that. It was a way to “prove black women are just as beautiful and intelligent” as their white counterparts, she says.

In 1991, the pageant joined forces with Black Expo in Indianapolis. Boxer Mike Tyson, a guest of the festival, raped contestant Desiree Washington after inviting her to his hotel room. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

The incident set off a national conversation about date rape, race and gender stereotypes, but also sent sponsors fleeing. The pageant was on hiatus for more than a decade, returning in 2009.

Since then, “there has been some progress, changes that have been good,” Anderson says. But “some of the stereotypes put out there by the power structure about black women’s beauty still exist.”

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