The clock reads 11:59 p.m. on a Saturday in December 2021, and voters have less than a minute to finish casting their ballots for the next Miss Black Mississippi USA pageant. Inside her apartment in Jackson with her mother at her side, Brianna McField enters last-minute votes on her phone, her fingers moving swiftly and efficiently as midnight approaches. Her friends have been calling her to assure her that they are casting votes as well.
Organizers for the pageant had been giving McField and other contestants weekly updates on voting numbers, but they had been radio-silent for three days as the deadline approached. Nerve-wracked, McField goes to bed once the online polls close, waking up the next morning to attend church.
In the middle of the morning service, McField receives an alert on her phone that the pageant’s site had announced the winner. Opening the front page, she sees her own picture, name and the declaration that she has been named Miss Black Mississippi USA.
She nearly screams then and there in her pew.
Word spreads during service that she won the title, and her pastor pauses his sermon to inform the congregation that she had officially been crowned.
“It was great and phenomenal knowing that all of the people who have been supporting me and waiting to see what the outcome is going to be actually got to see me get another crown,” she tells the Mississippi Free Press later.
“It was crazy—being that this was a system that I’ve always been interested in doing, knowing that I finally had arrived at the moment where I’m doing this,” McField adds. “I get to represent my entire state in Washington, D.C., in a couple of months.”.
The Miss Black Mississippi USA Scholarship Pageant is the state preliminary for the Miss Black USA Scholarship pageant. For more than 30 years, young women have represented each of their respective states at nationals for the annual competition. The Miss Black USA organization is the first and largest scholarship pageant for women of color, having awarded more than $500,000 in scholarships.
“The Miss Black USA pageant system is a pageant system all about supporting and uplifting our Black women,” McField says. “It understands that Black women come in various shapes, sizes, hair textures, the whole nine (yards). And it’s really just about empowering that Black woman to be exactly who she is, unapologetically.”
The 26-year-old pageant queen began her pageant journey at age 3 when she competed in a community pageant in her hometown of Yazoo City, Miss. She competed on and off over the years, and her goal has always been to always defy the odds and the stereotypes placed on her, she says.
“Growing up as a chocolate, chunky Black girl, sometimes they tell you that you’re not beauty-queen material—that you’re not the beauty queen type—but my mother and my grandmother always raised me to know and understand that no one else can define my beauty,” McField says.
“Just because I’m a little bit thicker, a little bit more chocolate than others, (that) does not mean that I cannot win crowns,” she adds.
Unlike other pageants she has participated in, the 2021 Miss Black Mississippi USA pageant presented a new challenge in that it was a virtual competition due to COVID-19 concerns. This year, the people’s choice determined the winner, so whoever had the most votes within a certain time frame received the honor.
“That was a little different for me because I am used to competing. I love competition because I love to know that if I lost that I really lost fair and square,” the Yazoo City native says. “They really only get to see a glimpse of you. You do an introduction video, and you give them a brief snippet … but they still don’t get to see the totality of who you are.”
McField credits the process with increasing her creativity and her ability to tell her story through virtual means in a way that gets across to people why she believed herself to be the best candidate for the position. She made sure to showcase her personality and her authenticity, she says.
Outside of pageantry, McField is currently pursuing her Doctorate of Public Health in health policy and management after receiving her bachelor’s degree in communication from Millsaps College and a master of public health degree in health policy and management from Jackson State University.
In 2020, she founded Brianna Enterprises, where she is using her stories and experiences to empower, educate and encourage those she meets. She started this organization because she understood that her life experiences, which she sometimes calls her “brokenness,” had an assignment, she says.
“I have this poetic, dramatic piece I do, and I talk about how I was supposed to be a statistic,” McField says. “I talked about how I came from a single-parent home, and how my dad wasn’t present, and how we didn’t have a lot of money, and how people will try to count you out. But I know how I overcame each and every one of those obstacles.”
If it was not for her mother and others encouraging and empowering her, McField says she would not be where she is today. In light of that, she wants to give back to those same communities and focus on the importance of education.
“One thing that my mother and my grandmother always taught me (is) they could deny you because of a lot of things. They could deny you because of the color of your skin, they could deny you because of your gender, but what they could never deny is your mind,” she says.
Brianna McField will not have to carry the load of representing the state by herself. Joining her is Jaria Fulton, who won the Miss Black Mississippi Talented Teen pageant in 2021. Fulton, 14, is from Greenville, Miss., and attends Riverside High School. She competed in her first pageant at age 4, and though she did not know what she was getting herself into, she enjoyed it.
“We did this pageant; it was called the Candy Crush pageant. I ended up winning a big title with it, and we just started going from there,” Fulton told the Mississippi Free Press.
Although she has been participating in pageants for 10 years, she was not aware of how far pageantry could go. Events like Miss America were not on her radar until her mentors started having those discussions with her, so it has been a learning experience, she tells the Mississippi Free Press.
Just like the Miss Black Mississippi USA pageant, the Talented Teen competition was also virtual in 2021. To stand out, Fulton says she would dress up—her favorite aspect of the pageant process—for every Zoom call or video.
“Getting pretty, making myself feel good—I have a lot of insecurities about myself, so when I put on a dress or some makeup, it makes me feel good,” the teen says.
Fulton and her mother were headed to Jackson to do some shopping when she found out she won. While picking up food, her mother delivered the news that she had won, which caused Fulton to scream and yell in excitement.
“I’m just moving up. I won the lower title, and it was Miss Black Mississippi Pre-Teen, and so I feel like I just moved up a different level,” Fulton says. “I hope I keep moving up and moving up a different level every year.”
Her many years of participating in pageants has not only afforded Fulton the opportunity to travel across the country, but she has also been able to form a sisterhood with other young girls in her field. It’s made the process easier, she says.
“We get a chance to help each other throughout the process,” Fulton says. “So, if I don’t know something or they don’t know something, we’re all here for each other.”
The Greenville native says she has been able to connect with Miss Black Mississippi Brianna McField as they prepare for the national competition in August.
“We got a chance to bond with each other and talk about the things that we’re looking (forward) to doing such as talent (presentations), interviews, what we’re doing for outfits that we have to have throughout the week that we’re down there. We did a lot of bonding during the photo shoot process,” she says.
Outside of pageantry, Fulton is an avid sports fan and athlete, playing soccer, volleyball and softball for her high school. She is also a manager for her school’s football team. After nationals, she is considering taking a break from pageantry and focusing more on modeling.
“Some advice (for) girls that would want to participate … I would say probably just be yourself and be the best person you can be,” Fulton says.
To learn more about the Miss Black Mississippi USA Scholarship Pageant, visit missblackmississippiusapageant.com. To learn more about the Miss Black USA Scholarship Pageant, click here. Jaria Fulton and Brianna McField will head to the national competition in Washington, D.C., from Aug. 4 through Aug. 8, 2022.