When Oprah Winfrey represented her home state of Tennessee in the Miss Black America pageant in 1971, she was part of a pioneering group of young women daring to define beauty on their own terms. In fact, the pageant, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, was launched in protest of the Miss America pageant, which until 1950 mandated that its contestants “must be of good health and of the white race.”
Miss Black America was the brainchild of Philadelphia businessman J. Morris Anderson, who wanted to give his two young daughters, both of whom aspired to be Miss America, a representation of beauty that included them. In direct defiance of the better-known pageant’s all-white veneer, Anderson staged the first Miss Black America pageant at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlantic City, N.J., right across the street from the Miss America ceremony on Aug. 17, 1968.
It wouldn’t be until 1971 that the first black contestant, Miss Iowa, would make her way across the Miss America stage; that same year, Miss Tennessee, Oprah Winfrey, competed in the Miss Black America pageant, held at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Oprah unfortunately wouldn’t place, but the second runner-up to the crown that year was my aunt: Miss Illinois, Helen Arnold.
As a child, I have vivid memories of trying on my aunt’s tiara and gazing at pictures of her radiant and beaming, moments after being crowned. But at 21, Helen—or “Mickey,” as we fondly call her—was a coed at Chicago’s DePaul University, majoring in Physical Education and funding her studies by working as an instructor for the Chicago Parks Department by day and a go-go dancer by night. As she recalls, her entrance into the Miss Black Chicago pageant was an impulse made in an effort to reclaim her self-worth during a dark time.
“I had low self-esteem,” she said. “I was in an abusive relationship, and I was just feeling really bad about myself. And I heard an ad on the radio that talked about this pageant; they were looking for contestants. And I said, ‘I know that I’m not a bad person. I’m going to enter this contest.’”
Helen, a trained dancer and aspiring choreographer, entered, submitting to weeks of rigorous rehearsals and scrutiny by the event’s producers, who would keep scorecards of each contestant’s progress.
“There was an awful lot of effort put into polishing us for the Miss Black Chicago pageant,” she recalled. “We had rehearsals on a weekly basis, we had many competitions leading up to the actual pageant where they scored us on swimsuits, hair and evening gowns. The weekly competitions just helped you refine what you were doing; they gave you lots of feedback—there was always feedback.”
As a born performer, being on stage came naturally to Helen. But what was more challenging was the biting criticism—especially from an important man in the organization—which she felt often came at the expense of her natural charisma and talent.
“He was trying to get me to change everything about myself,” she said. “When I say change everything about myself, it was the hair, it was the talent ... and it was just a very uncomfortable situation because what he was asking me to do did not feel natural. And so, I didn’t do it. I said, ‘Well, I’ll take my chances, because that’s not what I do.’”
Her tenacity paid off on Aug. 7, 1971. “The night of the pageant, I just had a level of confidence ... I know that that night, the swimsuit [competition], I rocked it,” she laughed.
But she still wasn’t sure she had what it took to take the crown; as the contestants dwindled and runners-up were announced, she began to worry that perhaps following her own instincts had been a losing move.
“‘I can’t be that bad,’ I remember saying that to myself, and that feeling that I got as I was saying that,” she said. “It was a pretty scary feeling, thinking, ‘Well, maybe he was right. Maybe I ain’t jack.’ But then the moment happened when they called my name, and I was absolutely frozen in time.”
The rest would become a flurry. After a celebratory party at Chicago’s then-famed Playboy mansion, within a week, Arnold was immersed in another round of grooming—which included renting elaborate new gowns and even new wigs that simulated a large afro—before she would again take the stage to compete for the title of Miss Illinois on August 14—and again, be crowned the winner.
“The outpouring of love after that Chicago pageant was like, unreal,” she recalled. “It was really kind of cool. It was just like everybody rallied around this whole notion of Miss Black Chicago, who ultimately became Miss Black Illinois. And once I became Miss Black Illinois, then it was, ‘Get Helen ready for New York.’... I can’t help but chuckle now in reflection because out of all that hysteria that was going on around me, I just kept thinking to myself, ‘You know, I’m Miss Black Chicago. I really don’t care.’ I had reached my goal, so the rest all became gravy.”
But for the national competition in New York, she was inspired to make one dynamic change: for the talent competition, she choreographed her interpretive dance to Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft.”
“I heard it, and I just lost my mind. ... I was swept up in that energy—that Isaac Hayes energy just took me to a whole other level,” she said.
It didn’t score Helen the crown, but she came very close, winning her third title in the course of a month when she was named second runner-up for Miss Black America. But truly, it’s the ability to make cultural statements like dancing to “Shaft” that reminds us exactly why the Miss Black America pageant was created—and why it’s still necessary, decades after the Miss America pageant crowned Vanessa Williams its first black queen in 1983.
“You can be unapologetically black,” 2018 Miss Black America contestant Leslie Maldonado of Washington, D.C.’s Ward 8 told the Washington Post’s Robin Givhan at the pageant’s 50th anniversary in Kansas City earlier this month. “It’s proper propaganda. It’s about knowing your worth.”
As Givhan wrote:
Miss Black America may be struggling to find an audience. It won’t be televised until February, and then only to local viewers as part of a Black History Month pop-culture smorgasbord. But neither its participants nor its promoters are grasping for meaning. They know why they are here. For them, the Miss Black America pageant is both affirmation and protest. ... And to participate in Miss Black America in particular means claiming a certain old-school femininity that was long denied to women of color.
My aunt Helen agrees: “They don’t get that same level of visibility right now, but they’re still trying to give women of color a platform. I applaud them, because somewhere there may be another Helen Arnold who needs to feel good about themselves ... so it’s a good platform, even today.”
And for Helen, the journey didn’t end on the stage at Madison Square Garden. The following year, she’d compete in the Miss America scholarship pageant, once again clinching the Chicago crown and going on to compete for Miss Illinois. She became an educator, ultimately earning a master’s degree in Kinesiology and a doctorate in Educational Administration and Foundation. She credits much of her success to becoming Miss Black Chicago.
“As an instructor, I was working with little girls, and I saw the impact it had on them, the pride that these little girls had,” she said. “They were just in awe. It was more than just about me once I left the stage. I realized that I was a role model and an example, and I had to keep reaching and keep dreaming and keep succeeding. And I did.”
As one of the little girls who stood in awe of my aunt, I can attest to her impact. Tellingly, the Miss Black America pageant’s motto is: “Sow the Seeds of Positivity and Reap the Flowers of Success.” For Helen, it’s proven especially true.
“I came away knowing that when you make up your mind to do something and you really believe that what you’re doing is the right thing to do, it happens. Dreams really do come true.”