Today’s Historic Black Queens of America

 

Both historians and nationalists may use many different ways to describe America with a sense of pride (or disdain). For example, one commonly used expression comes from the 1895 patriotic song, ‘America the Beautiful’. But historically speaking, America’s idea of beauty (and what constitutes possessing beautiful attributes) hasn’t been all that inclusive. Rather, it had been rather homogenous to having long blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes and fair skin. These features have even been popularly dubbed the ‘all-American look’!

It was very rare to find any media representation of alternative types of beauty that catered to brown and darker skinned women with brown eyes, large noses and fuller lips. It also didn't help that examples of beauty were symbolized by figures like Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot and even Barbie. And so it was no surprise that this oppressive ideal also spilled over into the US pageant system.

For many decades--with a few exceptions--this societal norm is further reflected during the crowning seasons of Miss America, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA. These annual competitions are held to measure and promote community service, as well as provide educational scholarship for women ages 17-25; Originally its purpose was to measure the utmost poise and beauty of young women nationwide, and until 1984—in it’s 63rd year—black women had never been crowned the revered title of Miss America.

According to the official Miss America website, “Miss America is more than a title, it’s a movement of empowering young women everywhere to dream big, to insist that their voices be heard and to inspire change in the world around them”; but if this were true however, the organization could have made those impactful first steps to breaking barriers between class and race, in order to unite women not as a gendered group, but as a sisterhood. Because for decades, women of color have fought for ‘a seat at the table’ and have continuously turned away based upon the intersection of race and class discrimination. Just when it would seem as if there wasn’t any hope for some sort of historic revolution in the pageant world, the unthinkable happened: the 1984 crown was bestowed upon beauty pageant rookie Vanessa L. Williams, a biracial black woman.

When now-famous actress Vanessa L. Williams was crowned Miss America back in 1984, it had exposed a lot of public upset, so much so that Penthouse publicly published nude photographs of her in order to tarnish her image. The backlash led Williams to step down from the title as 1984’s Miss America and  be succeeded by her first runner-up (another biracial black woman).

 

(Photo by Jezebel.com)

 

However, Miss Williams’ hardships didn’t go in vain. As a matter of fact, they served as a stepping stool for black American pageant contestants to come. Today, groundbreaking history was made as of May 2, 2019; Cheslie Kryst was crowned as 2019’s Miss USA,  joining 2019’s Miss Teen USA winner Kaleigh Garris and 2019’s Miss America winner Nia Franklin. For the first time in American history, Miss USA, Miss America and Miss Teen USA are all black women! Back in 1984, the reality that we face today would have never seemed possible. But with the progression of our contemporary feminist movement and an increase in positive media representation of black women, this moment felt long overdue. However,

this epic feat marks not only a huge win for the black community, but for other women of color as well. This monumental triumph officially marks a possible eradication of America’s historically oppressive beauty standards, and finally introduces the idea of inclusivity with all forms of beauty—both conventional and unconventional. Each of the three pageant winners possess empowering characteristics to ensure that their rightfully earned crowns and titles were a “no-brainer” to appreciate.

 

Here’s a closer look into Kaleigh, Nia and Cheslie:

 

(Photo Courtesy Of Miss Teen USA, Inc. / Miss Universe Organization)

 

First we have Kaleigh Garris who is just 18 years old and has already made such a huge accomplishment! Previously Garris had won the local Miss Connecticut Teen USA 2019 pageant before becoming eligible to compete in Miss Teen USA. Outside of her pageantry work, Garris also enjoys spending extracurricular time assisting disabled people. But what’s most astonishing about the teen’s victory is that she proudly wore her natural textured hair onstage during the crowning—which is basically unprecedented. Even though she has a more ‘presentable’ texture by societal standards (in terms of the 3a-4c scale), it was still a risky choice that could have resulted in racist backlash. Judging by her reaction in the official photos, it can be inferred that she was both stunned and honoured by this truly historic moment.

In an interview with Refinery29, Garris said of her decision to appear with natural tresses, “I know what I look like with straight hair, with extensions, and with my curly hair, and I feel more confident and comfortable with my natural hair”. Garris’ bold and statement making look was one of the few times that the winning crown has been placed on natural textured hair. With this monumental moment, Kaleigh has made the first step towards opening the door for more diverse interpretations of beauty to enter the mainstream spotlight.

 

(Photo Courtesy of Miss America.org)

 

Now if we are talking about someone truly inspirational then we must also mention 2019’s Miss America winner, Nia Franklin. Franklin represented New York in the pageant and was unsurprisingly picked to represent our country. Nia boasts many accomplishments such as; obtaining a Masters degree in Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina, being a classically trained opera singer and music teacher, and had penned over 100 songs. If there were any more reasons to respect her as our winner, it would have to be because she also donated stem cells to her father diagnosed with lymphoma during her freshman year of college.

What made Franklin’s victory so special was that she is a darkskin woman being put forth into the spotlight and received recognition for her accomplishments.  On a deeper level, this win was significant because it was no secret that the relationship between American media and the representation of black women (particularly darkskin women) had been notorious—to say the least. Needless to say, the historic crowning of Franklin will be remembered for many generations. This win showed that it’s okay to embrace your skin as it is, and that it’s possible to be loved and respected. Because that you will.

 

(Photo Courtesy of Jason Bean, Reno Gazette-Journal via USA Today Network)

 

Last but certainly not least, there is Cheslie Kryst, the 2019 Miss USA winner. With the addition of Kryst,  a historic trio of victories honouring outstanding black women was made for the first time in history. Kryst is equally worthy and successful of her earned title. Most significantly Kryst is a North Carolina lawyer known for representing prison inmates pro-bono, or as the term is better known, for free. And like Kaleigh Garris, Kryst was also crowned in her natural textured hair.

Of her bold social norm breaking move she stated, “...I was a little bit worried and anxious about doing it, but I thought, ‘I want to do it as the most real and authentic me,’ and that’s really what my hair represents” (Refinery29). Not only was this a big middle finger to naysayers, but this was also a symbol of her cultural pride. In many past encounters Kryst also tells Refinery29 about the random hair pettings she receives. Hopefully with successful and empowered women like Cheslie Kryst at the forefront, America may seek to reconsider who and what defines beauty.

 

Obviously, these victories were huge moments for the black community but there’s also victory for other women of color as well. Regardless of the minority ethnic group, it is always refreshing to see women of different hues and features being revered in the public eye. In a society that constantly tells the everyday young girl and woman that she isn’t good enough or would be more beautiful if she were lighter, thinner, more blonde—this change is a firm indication that these unspoken rules need to be rewritten. It is with these three beautiful black winnings that I hope we can soon come to see a day where disabled women, plus size women, Muslim women, indigenous women, women with vitiligo, transwomen and every other kind of women are so often ignored and underrepresented, will come towards her own moment in the spotlight because there truly is, room for all of us.