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.
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SOURCE: USA Today, N’dea Yancey-Bragg