Red Dress Reception Brings Contestants Together
All 32 women milling around, greeting each other, introducing themselves and hugging wore red dresses. They attended the Red Dress reception, an annual theme of the Miss Black USA Pageant.
The coronation of the 2012 queen took place at the Theatre for the Performing Arts, University of the District of Columbia in Northwest on Monday night, but the reception, held on Wednesday, August 8, brought all of the women together for the first time.
"There is nothing more exciting or beautiful than seeing young African-American women empowered and helping other people," said Karen Arrington, CEO of the Miss Black USA Pageant to the group during the reception. "I am overwhelmed and overjoyed seeing all of you ... this is a cause greater than ourselves. We're passionate about this. I'm really proud that we're making a difference in the community."
Arrington said she created the pageant, now in its 23rd year, to fill a glaring need and also prove that all black women aren't video vixens.
"At the time I started it, I didn't see images of women who look like me when I looked in magazines or in the mainstream media," said Arrington, who has lived in the Washington metropolitan area since 1969. "I saw it as a vehicle to have them compete and win on stage and in life. If we get the opportunity, we'll win. The Miss Black USA is more than a pageant, it's a movement."
That reality became evident as each contestant got up to introduce themselves, explain the community service projects they're involved in and the mottos that guide their lives.
Arrington said each woman spent a year prior to the pageant immersed in service projects of their choice, including, autism, youth issues, health and wellness, anti-violence, and homelessness. For example, Miss Black New York, Selena Watkins, a fitness coach, and dancer developed "Fit Life," where she interviews celebrities and shares health, fitness and wellness tips.
"Mentoring and community service are the heart and soul of this organization," Arrington said. "What happens is very empowering to the young women. [They] recognize that they have an obligation to give back."
The contestants were self-deprecating, funny, personable and unflappable.
Thalema Williams flew in from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands to the nation's capital. She recently relocated to St. Croix from Orlando, Fla., after completing architectural studies at Valencia College.
"I was chosen as an at-large delegate," said Williams, 24, owner of Le Fusion Dance Company for four years. "This is sisterhood, not criticizing or being negative. It's bringing talent. It is awesome and a great opportunity for women."
The range of women, Arrington said, offer amazing examples of survival.
"I sat in on some interviews and some of the young ladies were asked about the obstacles and how they overcame them," she explained. "I realized that these are my home girls. Some broke down, others were raped a month before the pageant and a few were homeless. One woman came to the nationals and told us that for two years, her father had her and her brother dig their graves."
"They've experienced trauma in some of the worst ways. They have been able to dig deep and move forward. We're really changing lives. There are so many moving stories. With the personal interviews, I'm in tears."
And they all bring so much to each tournament.
"Black women are the largest untapped resource in the world," Arrington intoned. "What we look for is women who fit in the mission of the organization and who have the potential for greatness and the capacity to take on a year of service before they come to the nationals."
Arrington remembers holding the pageant in The Gambia.
"In 2007, we took the pageant to Africa, I thought, if this is really a black pageant, we need to reconnect these young women with their heritage," she said. "Girls were afraid, their parents told them not to go. Yet, under the African night sky, every young woman walked away with a scholarship. We helped them embrace who they are."
Ocelia Gibson, Miss Black USA 2011, reflected on the year that was coming to a close.
"It was a really great experience and I've met so many people," said Gibson, the first contestant from Texas to win the crown. "It's an inspiration to be part of this platform and I'm really proud to be part of this."
Gibson's favorite recollection is her presentation at the NAACP Image Awards in Los Angeles.
"It's such an important award with a magnetic atmosphere," said the Texarkana native who's pursuing a master's in Divinity. "It was an honor to be around prominent individuals. It was truly amazing to get that opportunity."
Several people spoke about the connection of the organization to The Heart Truth Campaign. One in four women is affected by heart disease and the disease affects black woman disproportionally.
Monique Ndenecho, public health advisor to The Heart Truth Campaign, praised the organization for its role in raising awareness. She said her organization, along with the National Institutes of Health, conducts testing and research and develops diagnostic treatment tools.
"... As you say thanks to me, I say thanks to you," she said. "You're on the ground and change happens best at the local level."