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. read more…