By Elwood Watson
While I was watching television the other day, I saw a commercial promoting the Miss America pageant which is scheduled to air January 24th on the TLC Network. The advertisement took me back to the late 1990s when a colleague of mine introduced me to some research that she was compiling on the annual event.
Being the ever curious scholar that I am, I began to launch my own inquiry as to how much scholarly work had been done on the pageant. Lo and behold, I was surprised, in fact, shocked to see how little academic scholarship had been written about the pageant. I informed my colleague of this fact.
Needless to say, sensing an opportunity to break some previously unfertile ground in the profession, the two of us decided to engage in a collaborative effort to produce some original work on the event. After a few years of intense, tedious, meticulous, exhaustive research and editing the culminating result was the anthology – There She Is Miss America: The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America’s Most Famous Pageant which was published in 2004 by Palgrave Macmillan. We were both pleased with the reaction the collection of essays received from cultural studies and humanities scholars. While we had some reviews (fewer than three) that gave the book a tepid or less than flattering review, the vast majority of critiques were very complimentary. Without sounding arrogant, we both did not need to be affirmed by critics as to the validity of our work. It was original, groundbreaking, scholarly and met all the requisites of what academic scholarship should entail.
Over the past few years, every time something even remotely related to the pageant comes up, either one or both of us are contacted by a media representative to give some commentary about the pageant.
One of the reasons that we decided to engage in research on this annual event was the fact that it was so multifaceted and controversial in its scope. Indeed, controversy is a factor that has plagued the pageant during its eight decade history. One of the most contentious issues that the pageant has had to confront is its racially inflected history. This was particularly the case during the early decades of the pageant. From its inception in 1921 to the famous boardwalk protest in September 1968, race had been an albatross around its neck. In fact, for the first 35 years, all non-White women were barred from participating in the pageant. In response to such exclusion, the Miss Black America Pageant was founded in September 1968 in an effort to celebrate Black beauty. While the pageant had had a few Asian and Native American contestants by the 1960s, it was not until the September 1970 pageant that the first Black contestant, Cheryl Brown, Miss Iowa competed in the national competition. Through the 1970s and beyond more and more Black women and other women of color competed in the contest breaking tradition along the way. Some of these milestones were
• Deborah Lipford, Miss Delaware 1976, became the first Black woman to place in the top 10.
• In the September 1980 pageant, two Black contestants, Doris Hayes, Miss Washington State and Lencola Sullivan, Miss Arkansas made the top 10. Sullivan shattered another barrier, cracking the top 5 as she was 4th runner up.
• Vanessa Williams and Suzette Charles make history as first runner up and Miss America 1984. Williams’s spectacular win would come to an end ten months into her reign when photos of her and another woman appeared in Penthouse magazine. Charles would take over as her successor for the remaining seven weeks and become the 2nd Black woman to wear the crown.
• In September 1987, Mississippi, a state with a notorious history of racial strife, sends a Black contestant, Toni Seawright to the pageant.
• Debbye Turner, Miss America 1990, becomes the third Black woman to win the crown.
• Marjorie Judith Vincent, Miss America 1991, succeeds Turner and becomes the pageants fourth Black winner. Back to back Black winners was another racial milestone.
• Eighteen-year-old Kimberly Aiken, Miss America 1994, becomes the pageant’s fifth Black winner. She is one of the pageant’s youngest winners and the first Black woman from the south (South Carolina) to win the crown.
• Angela Perez Baraquio, Miss America 2001 is the first Asian American contestant to win the crown.
• Multiracial Erika Harold, Miss America 2003, is the sixth Black woman to win the crown.
• Erica Dunlap, Miss America 2004, becomes the pageant’s seventh Black winner.
• In 2006, The U.S Virgin Islands became an official participant in the pageant.
While Vanessa Williams’ green eyes and light complexion, Suzette Charles’ biracial background, Debbye Turner’s, dark, yet Anglo defined features and Marjorie Vincent’s classic Black features were the subject of media attention, later winners did not face such intense scrutiny. In fact, by the time Kimberly Aiken captured the crown, very little was made of the race of these contestants. However, this did not mean that the pageant had moved totally beyond the issue of race.
From time to time the comments of some contestants in interviews made it clear that some of them believed that pageant judges were being “preferential to non-White contestants” or was becoming “politically correct.” Such comments demonstrate that despite the significant racial strides the pageant has made, that it is an issue that remains a controversial part of the pageant as it does in society at large.
Despite its past racial shortcomings, the Miss America Pageant has made considerable progress over its 88-year history. Given our increasingly multi racial society, there will no doubt be more women of color who will win the crown as time progresses. While there has not been a Latino Miss America, (its competitor Miss USA has crowned seven Latino winners) it will probably be only a matter of time before this happens.
My colleague and I plan to tune in on January 24th to watch one young lady’s dream come true.