WASHINGTON –Thirty young, Black women shimmering platinum and white evening gowns, silver, sapphires and dandelion yellows, rubies lit the Theater of Performing Arts at the University of the District of Columbia. They prayed through perfect pageant smiles thinking: “Please don’t call my name.”
It was an exciting moment that each one of them had dreamed of over and over, but no one wanted to hear their name called. Not yet. Not until the very last name was called.
The name of fourth runner-up, Miss Black Michigan, was called. Next, the third runner-up, Miss Black Minnesota. Then, the second runner-up, Miss Black North Carolina.
“It’s getting warm up here, right?” chuckled pageant co-host Brian Christopher. A rambunctious audience member quickly corrected him. “No, it’s hot!”
The hopes of Miss Black Oklahoma, the first runner-up, were dashed when her name was announced. Audience members applauded, wild with anticipation, some still waving signs bearing the name of their favorite contestant.
The time had arrived when the remaining contestants finally wanted to hear their name. They would hear it now or not at all. It got even hotter in the room.
“And the winner of Miss Black 2012 USA…Scholarship…Pageant…Competition…is…” Stacey McKenzie, fashion model and pageant co-host, stumbled over the hand-written card, which only added to the mounting suspense. Co-host Christopher beat out a drum roll on the podium… “Miss New York! Miss Black New York!”
That would be Salena Watkins. At first, Watkins said, she didn’t even hear them call her state. Then, everyone started staring at her.
“I knew this was the perfect opportunity for me,” said Watkins. “[Miss Black USA] is about celebrating women of color. I’m dark-skinned and I have curly hair and I can be myself and still be a Black queen.”
In a sense, Watkins’ win was a victory for other women who look like her.
And that was exactly what Karen Arrington had in mind when she created the contest 25 years ago.
Arrington grew up during a period when “blonde hair and blue eyes” were still the accepted standards of beauty in America, ruling out gorgeous and graceful and Black women who didn’t fit that European mold.
“They weren’t women that looked like me in magazines and there were very few images of Black women in mainstream media,” Arrington recalled. “Anytime you are a part of a subculture, it’s important for you to define your own standard of beauty and it’s important for you to celebrate who you are.”
Karen Arrington founded the Miss Black USA Pageant to celebrate the talent, beauty and intellect of young women who were often overlooked by mainstream pageants. Twenty-one contestants from across the nation competed in the first Miss Black USA Pageant on June 6, 1987 at the J.W. Marriott hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C., and that night, Miss Black Maryland Tamiko Gibson captured the crown.
And Monday, April 13, 2012 was Salena Watkins’ night.
Watkins cited the importance of parental involvement and teacher accountability to improve education during the question-and-answer segment, flexed her guns during the fitness portion, showcased her talent and electrified the audience with a fusion dance number to Nina Simone’s “See-line Woman,” and floored the judges in a white and gold strapless, mermaid-fit floor-length gown.
Dawn Moss, one of the judges from the pageant, said that she was looking for that “it factor” in each contestant and Watkins brought “it” each time she glided onto the stage. Moss held the Miss Black USA crown in 1996 and produced the pageant from 2007-2011.
“That title and that crown are so powerful,” said Moss. “The sky is the limit. Whatever her dreams are she can make it happen.”
Watkins has dreamed of dancing her entire life, following her big sister into a free community ballet class at age 4. In 2011, Watkins graduated from Rutgers with a bachelor’s in fine arts in dance and journalism.
According to Arrington, 80 percent of the contestants in the Miss Black USA Pageant this year were enrolled in professional or graduate schools, up from 60 percent last year. Miss Black Georgia is a practicing attorney. Miss Black Nevada is a physical therapist.
“They see it as a vehicle by attaching themselves to this organization,” said Arrington “[The pageant] creates opportunities that wouldn’t be available to them before.”
And year’s winner is ready to take advantage of opportunities that lie ahead.
“I’m ready for the work,” Watkins said.” I know that it’s not going to be easy, but I’m ready.”
The Miss Black USA Pageant is partnering this year with The Heart Truth campaign to raise awareness about heart disease and how it affects Black women. The Heart Truth is a national awareness campaign for women about heart disease funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), a division of the National Institutes of Health.
Heart disease kills more women than any other disease in the United States, and it’s more common among Black women than White women.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 37 percent of Black women suffer with high blood pressure and 80 percent of African-American women are overweight.
The organization also partnered with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“We know that when our children are reported missing they’re treated differently by the media,” Arrington said. She plans to use the crown and sash of the Miss Black USA to shine a spotlight on the issue to increase awareness.
Every day, 2,000 children are abducted. Forty-two percent are Black. “So we’re empowering our own communities to learn how to keep our children safe,” Arrington explained.
Empowering young Black women, by extension, empowers the Black community.
“The pageant isn’t just a pageant it’s a movement,” said Watkins echoing the mantra of the Miss Black USA Pageant. “We’re not just being prepared for the night of the competition; we’re being prepared for a lifetime and to compete in a global society.”
That’s why Arrington wants to take the pageant international: to showcase the gems of the Black community on a global stage. In 2007, Arrington and Moss flew contestants to the The Gambia, West Africa for the only international-edition of the show giving the young women an opportunity to connect to their ancestral home. Arrington wants to host the pageant in another African country or in the Caribbean in 2013. Yet in the era that a Black family occupies the White House, Arrington remains steadfast in her desire to raise the profile of young, gifted in Black women on American screens and magazines.
“We have young African-American women in their 20s who are practicing attorneys who are practicing physicians who are holding master’s degree. How come I don’t see that in mainstream media? How come I don’t see them when I turn on the television? How come these beautiful, young Black women aren’t the images that I see when I open up magazines?”
Although those images may be absent, but that night they sparkled brilliantly and Arrington hopes that the display gave audience members a greater sense of pride in the community.
The pageant founder said that seeing a Black president and first lady in the White House gives her hope that the Black aesthetic will one day be embraced by mainstream society. Arrington hopes that the Black community continues to be inspired by the beauty, talent and intellect personified in the 2012 Miss Black USA crown holder Salena Watkins and the young women that represent their states this year.
“Mainstream America was surprised when they saw Michelle Obama,” Arrington said. “She’s a smart and gorgeous Black woman and every year I have 30 to 50 Michelle Obamas.”
By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent