By Helen Bezuneh,
Special to the AFRO

As a self-described “Black pageant queen,” winning Miss Black USA 2021 meant the world to Myja Gary, who represented the state of Virginia. But, to her, the crown was just the cherry on top––sharing the stage with other Black women was a monumental experience in and of itself. 

“Being able to represent these other amazing Black women, who are so often overlooked, was a highlight,” she said. “I think competing against women who look like me…and sitting in the hotel rooms together, we just shared our experiences growing up as Black women. Whether I won or not, I got on the stage to be with other beautiful Black women!”

Now, Gary is preparing to sit as an audience member at Miss Black USA’s 37th annual scholarship pageant on Aug. 6. The pageant, which has awarded 650,000 dollars in scholarships to date, will be broadcasted on Fox Soul Network. The competition is the first and largest scholarship pageant for women of color. 

“My deepest hope is that every young woman who graces the national stage recognizes and embraces her true identity as a royal queen,” said Karen Arrington, founder of the pageant. “I want her to understand that as a Black woman, she possesses the limitless potential and the power to reach the highest heights in any field she chooses to pursue.”

This year’s queen will win a $50,000 prize package including a full ride scholarship to undergraduate, graduate or law school, representation by a management company and more. Madison Gibbs, Miss Black USA 2015, will be hosting the event, which will include celebrity judges and special guest performances. 

Arrington founded Miss Black USA, a non-profit corporation headquartered in Maryland, in 1986. She created the scholarship competition to offer more Black women the opportunity to pursue higher education.

“When I first started Miss Black USA, Black women faced significant barriers to receiving an undergraduate education,” she remarked. “The lack of federal financial aid funding made it challenging for them to afford college. But today, after 35 years, I am proud that 80 percent of Miss Black USA contestants are pursuing graduate or professional degrees. Our current Miss Black USA is a third year law student at Fordham University School of Law.”

The Miss Black USA contestants are motivated to achieve their goals in higher education through the scholarship provided to the winner at the conclusion of the pageant. (Photos courtesy of Miss Black USA)

Winners have embarked on various career paths, including philanthropy, life coaching, acting and others. Many have returned to the pageant world––Ocielia Gibson-Sprowl, Miss Black USA 2012, recently launched a Pageant Coach Certification program for women entrepreneurs in consulting.

Gary currently works as an internal communications leader for Zoom and hosts a podcast and lifestyle blog. A highlight of her experience in the competition was inspiring young girls who never thought about pageantry in the past to participate and “be a part of the Miss Black USA sisterhood.” 

She sees three huge benefits to participating in Miss Black USA: building community with other Black women, exploring and defining who you are as a woman and improving confidence.

In a world of pageantry where Black isn’t always considered beautiful, Gary considers Miss Black USA to be of extreme importance.

“Miss Black USA contestants come in and they wear their hair how they want,” Gary told the AFRO. “I think what makes [Miss Black USA] different is that when you get up there, you see you- you see many different [versions of] you. One girl is rocking her braids, one girl is rocking her puff, one girl is rocking the lace wig and one girl is rocking the big afro. One girl is curvy, one girl is skinny–you don’t get that from a lot of other pageant systems.”

Beauty standards within Black communities still have room for improvement, Gary said. She said that Black people must learn to accept “who we are” and find beauty in “how we were created.”

“While Black women have made progress in academia, unfortunately, mainstream media and the beauty industry have not kept up,” Arrington said. “These industries still fail to represent the diverse beauty of Black women.” 

This year, Arrington said, the pageant has formed a “transformative” partnership with the 400 Years of African American History Commission, an organization that has worked to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Africans arriving in the English colonies in 1619.

“We have curated a remarkable lineup of activities to empower our contestants, including a tour of the inspirational Mary McLeod Bethune House, a special private screening of The Kemba Smith Story, followed by a captivating discussion with Kemba herself, and a meaningful program and dinner in collaboration with the National Alliance of Faith and Justice,” Arrington said. “It is essential for young Black women to actively engage in social change and activism, and we strive to provide them with the tools and opportunities to do so.”

While Gary eagerly anticipates this year’s pageant, she wants contestants to keep one thing in mind.

“This is your 15 seconds of fame, what are you gonna do with it?” she asked. “With each moment that you have on stage, what are you gonna do with it? What are you willing to do to leave that stage and know that you gave it your all?” 

Some expected contestants include Ebony Graves, Miss Black Illinois 2023; Aryana Bosh, Miss Black Texas 2023; and Ashley Wells, Miss Black Washington 2023.

Gary said she has no favorites, and quoted actress and producer Issa Rae in saying she is simply “rooting for everybody Black.”