Photo: iStock

Utah State University junior Alexis Cooper knew that performing her spoken-word poem for the crowd at the Miss USU pageant was a risk. She had considered a more traditional performance for the talent portion of the competition—dancing, or playing the viola or piano. Still, Cooper wanted to make a statement at last week’s competition, for which the theme was “There’s More to Me.”

“That just really spoke to me,” Cooper told the Salt Lake Tribune. “There are a lot of kind of preconceived judgments and notions that are placed upon me because of things that I can’t control, like my skin color or my age.”

So Cooper, who is black, wanted to share with USU the sorts of judgments and microaggressions she’s dealt with, as well as how she defines and looks at herself. For the talent portion of the competition, she chose to perform a spoken-word piece titled, “Who Am I.”

The poem delved into her experiences being judged for wearing box braids and the loaded comments she’s received from men she’s dated.

“Who am I? I am the first black girl you’ve ever taken on a date. Who am I? I’m the girl whose white mother gets asked, ‘Oh, is she from your husband’s previous marriage?’ Or, ‘When did you get her?’” Cooper’s poem began.

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Because of the stage lights, Cooper couldn’t gauge the crowd’s reaction to her performance. And when she finished the poem, she was at first met with silence.

In that moment, Cooper thought, “Oh my gosh, it’s happening—everyone hated it and I messed up and I just outed myself and all of the people of color on this campus,” she told the Tribune. “Holy cow, now everyone is going to assume that I’m just some angry black woman who’s up here preaching to them.”

Instead, the crowd rose to give Cooper a standing ovation. Cooper would end up winning the pageant, following in the footsteps of her white grandmother, a USU alumna and beauty queen.

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USU couldn’t confirm if there had ever been a black Miss USU winner before Cooper, though with less than 1 percent of USU students identifying as black in spring 2018, the numbers suggest it’s unlikely. More than 85 percent of the campus is white, according to its spring enrollment numbers (pdf).

Riley Michaelsen, a fellow USU student and director of the Miss USU pageant, said that she knew the spoken-word performance “wasn’t going to be the most conventional of pageant talents.”

“But Miss USU … is supposed to highlight the women of our school and all of their unique differences,” Michaelsen said, “And so from that perspective, I thought her talent was perfect.”

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Cooper also told the paper that since the pageant, students have come up to her apologizing, saying that they were unaware of the experiences she faced.

“I feel bad about [the apologies] because I didn’t want anyone to feel bad for me,” said Cooper. “I’m like, ‘No, don’t be sorry. You know, people don’t know any better and now that you know better, be better.’”

But what was special about Cooper’s poem wasn’t the educational purpose it served for others—it gave the agricultural-science major a moment to stand before a mostly white space and define herself, on her terms.

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And that is indeed a queenworthy move.