Miss Black Colorado, Jasmine Alexander, is the owner of this year’s Miss Black USA crown and a prize package that includes a $5,000 scholarship and a trip to Africa.
But hers wasn’t the only victory in this atypical beauty competition, which was held Sunday night at the Theatre for Performing Arts at the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, D.C. The pageant was a celebration of community engagement, self-empowerment and sisterhood among the high-achieving women who walked the stage.
Nowhere to be found was the pettiness or superficiality often associated in the public imagination with such competitions. Even further removed were the stereotypes of black women’s adversarial interactions, which are pushed through reality-television shows and mainstream media. Despite competing against one another for the title and crown of Miss Black USA, the contestants, some of whom hold master’s degrees and have established their own nonprofits, fondly referred to one another as “sister queens."
“I’ve built a large sisterhood … it’s a lot more empowering. It’s a lot more helping out [than other pageants],” said Miss Black Florida Shirley Alabre, 26. “It’s not just a pageant, it’s a movement.”
The women, representing 25 states and dressed to the nines in black dresses and metallic pumps, kicked off the evening with a choreographed routine performed to Beyoncé’s “Grown Woman.”
A panel of four judges narrowed to 15 the contestant field, on which the women—whose beauty encompassed all shapes, sizes and shades—squared off in competitive rounds, including a question-and-answer portion, aerobic wear, talent and evening gown. They answered questions including, “Should voting be made mandatory for all U.S. citizens?” “What is the most pressing crisis in the African-American community?” and “Which book would you choose for Oprah’s summer book club?”
Performances, which included spoken word, theater, singing and concert piano, were dynamic, uplifting and, at times, deeply personal.
“As a member of the armed forces, and now as Miss Black USA, I can’t think of a better way to serve my country,” Alexander, an Air Force intelligence officer who holds a master’s degree in human services and executive leadership, said of her win.
She plans to use her reign to promote the Heart Truth Campaign to raise awareness about heart disease, a killer of 1 in 4 women.
Winning or losing aside, the pageant showcased that black beauty—inside and out—was worth celebrating—an all-too-rare message in a society that often portrays black women in an unflattering light and fixates on beauty ideals that can preclude them.
“I really feel like this pageant is necessary because we come from a range of backgrounds and we all look very, very different,” said Miss Black Kentucky LaPrecious Brewer, 22. “I’m very proud of this organization for representing all of us.”
Editor’s note: Also check out the accompanying slideshow, “The Miss Black USA 2014 Pageant: Photos.”
Erin C.J. Robertson is a summer intern at The Root.