Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega. Who remembers this moment?
Speaker: And our new Miss America, Miss Vanessa Williams.
Melissa: That was the night when Vanessa Williams became Miss America in 1984 and the first Black woman to wear the crown. I was 10 and I still remember how proud my family and friends were. We loved Vanessa and we still do, but she was not the first Black beauty queen. Black folk have long traditions of crowing our own queens. From the Queen of Zulu waving at Mardi Gras revelers as she passes, to the queens of Historically Black Colleges and Universities profiled each year in Ebony magazine. Even Jet’s Beauties of the Week are queens of a sort.
In many Southern towns, one of the most coveted titles for young Black women is Miss Juneteenth. Filmmaker Channing Godfrey Peoples captured the culture, the drama, the expense, and the expanse of this tradition in her 2020 film Miss Juneteenth.
Speaker: Juneteenth is our holiday where we recognize when the slaves of Texas finally found out that they were free, two long years after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The date was June 19th, 1865, now known as Juneteenth. You see ladies, not only will you represent your beautiful selves, but our history as well.
Melissa: What does it mean to wear a crown that represents your own beautiful self and the history of the people? Here to help us answer that question, is Channing Godfrey Peoples, screenwriter and director of the film Miss Juneteenth. Channing, welcome to The Takeaway.
Channing Godfrey Peoples: Hi, Melissa. What a joy to be here with you. [laughs]
Melissa: I feel the same. You know what, Juneteenth, it does give you that feeling like, "I don't know how this could not feel joyful." Tell me about the pageants in Fort Worth Texas that you grew up attending.
Channing: Yes, it was so interesting because I was listening to your introduction that included Miss America. I think for me, Miss Juneteenth always felt like my own version of Miss America. It was really special to me because I think, as a young girl, seeing all those young Black women on stage, I felt like there's a line in the film that says, "I felt like they were floating," or something like that. Look, I'm misquoting myself, but that's what it felt like to me. [laughs]
It felt like seeing all these young Black women float across the stage and they had this sense of hope and wonder on their faces. I know now that it was confidence-building for me. It was young women of every shape, size, a variety of skin tones and hair textures. As an adult, I realize how special that was and it makes perfect sense that it resonates so greatly in my work.
Melissa: Here's the thing. Those pageants, the Zulu Queen Pageant, all of that, I feel like I have those same gut-level memories. On the one hand, I feel excited that the notion of Juneteenth, the possibilities of its celebration are expanding. There's another part of me that's like, "You know what? This is ours. Could we just keep it? You all just go some other place." What are we meant to do with how important it really was and is to build internally at the same time that we want to share our history and our culture broadly?
Channing: I have a similar feeling. There's so much that I want to protect about it. I think as a filmmaker, I try to portray stories and characters as authentically as possible. That was why it was so important for me and Miss Juneteenth to really focus on the details and the specificity of that particular world. I'm from Fort Worth. I grew up commemorating Juneteenth as a child. It has a different meaning, I think for me as an adult.
As a kid, it was more about the celebration and the centerpiece of it was the Miss Juneteenth pageant and that's what I really looked forward to every year. For me now, it really is about commemorating. I don't have all the answers, but I could just say that I feel like it is something that I want to protect and also think it's important for us to focus on the specificity of that particular day. We're honoring the enslaved people in Texas who didn't find out they were free until two and a half years late. I think it's important to keep that in the focus.
Melissa: One of the things I love about the specificity, the details of your film, is the mother-daughter relationship in the film. I'm the mother of daughters and the daughter of a mother and so that tension that's part of it. Can you talk to us a little bit about those aspects of pride, of tradition, of educational scholarship that are all part of the Miss Juneteenth practice?
Channing: Absolutely. It's interesting because I really focused on-- Turquoise, the lead character is really based on the women in my life, and the community, and my family, and myself, but most especially, my mom. I watched her because she was a single woman for much of my life and I've watched her navigate her own dreams while juggling raising children. There was this sense of grit, this sense of determination, but I also saw her and the women in my community carry themselves with grace. That's something that I really, really wanted to bring to the film. I also was exploring this theme of Juneteenth and what delayed freedom meant for Turquoise as a character, but really, I applied that to each character in the film.
Melissa: That idea of delayed freedom, that is the tension with Juneteenth, right, that we are celebrating freedom but it’s also I always feel like should we be putting a question mark or an exclamation point when we say, “Happy Juneteenth,” because it's also about marking having been lied to for two years about being free?
Channing: Yes, absolutely. I say, “Happy Juneteenth,” at times, but I also hesitate when I say it. That's what I meant when I say I really am as an adult focused on commemorating. It was interesting because last year, in Juneteenth in the midst of a pandemic. I'm so used to every year being able to connect with the community. It's like a family. We get to see folks we haven't seen for a long time. The community really just comes together. Obviously, we couldn't do that in 2020. It was a quiet commemoration for Juneteenth that year for me in particular.
Melissa: Indeed, it's part of the joy of vaccinations is being able to come together again. In just a few moments though, tell me something about what is beautiful about Black folk when we are in a space like the Miss Juneteenth pageants. What actually does it feel and smell and sound like to you when you close your eyes and think about it?
Channing: I’ve made a whole movie about it.
Melissa: I know.
Channing: That’s what I was trying to bring to this film, Melissa, was this sense of joy and this sense of community and coming together. This community that I grew up in, in particular in Texas, this Black community, there's this sense of I can smell food when I think about it, barbecue and there's blues music. It's multi-generational and I can hear children laugh. It's joy. It makes me smile when I think about it.
Melissa: Channing Godfrey Peoples, screenwriter and director of the film Miss Juneteenth. If you haven't seen it, check it out. Thank you for joining me, Channing. As always, we want to hear from you. What are you doing to commemorate Juneteenth this year? Give us a call at 877-869-8253, or record your message at 877- 869-8253, or you could also send a voice memo to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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