TeKema Balentine didn’t grow up in the pageant world.
Balentine, born and raised in Madison, was drawn to “glitzy, glammy” things at a young age and watched a lot of Miss America. She was in a National American Miss pageant when she was around 12 years old, and loved it.
But she could only participate in part of that pageant, because her family didn’t have money to pay for each section and didn’t have access to a photographer for headshots, she said. And that was her only pageant; her family didn’t have the resources to pay for all the necessary outfits, entry fees and travel.
So now that she’s Miss Black Wisconsin, soon to compete for Miss Black USA, she’s working hard to catch up.
“I kind of figured it’d be like put in an application, I’ll find a couple sponsors and it would be fine. But there’s a lot of digging to do and research,” she said.
She’s thrown herself into study, examining past Miss Black America and Miss Black USA champions, figuring out what sets the winners apart and who gets funneled out fast. She studies the way they walk. She’s taking a ballet class to make sure she carries herself with poise.
“I’m not like a seasoned pageant person … I work in health care and I coach kids. That’s what I do,” she said with a laugh.
But even so, she’s excited as she gears up for the Miss Black USA competition in August, and hopes that win or lose, she will emerge as a role model for black girls in Madison.
Balentine chose the Miss Black USA competition for a couple of reasons, one being that it’s a scholarship program. As a Madison College student headed into nursing, she knows she’ll need the funds. Miss Black USA, which markets itself as the “first and oldest scholarship pageant for women of color,” was founded in 1986 and has given away over a half million dollars in scholarships.
And Balentine’s grateful that in this competition, she can embrace her natural style as a black woman. She can wear her “tight, tiny coils” of hair naturally if she wants, rather than dealing with the stress of trying to find someone to do her hair in Washington, D.C., where the national competition will take place.
“I can’t style hair to save my life. I was really relieved to see that within this pageant … that is what they embrace,” Balentine said, noting that women compete with natural afros, braids and cornrows.
But most of all, Balentine entered the Miss Black USA pageant rather than a mainstream competition because she wants to be a role model for the black community in Madison.
Growing up, she looked up to her basketball coach who she loved despite not being very good at basketball, a track coach who “put a lot of motivation in my bones,” and the social workers who never took sides when there was conflict between her and her mom. But none of them were people of color, she said.
She sees the same lack of brown faces in after-school and mentoring programs, factors she said contribute to the achievement gap. That gap is her contestant platform.
“For kids who are having troubles at home, they don’t know how to go to what they assume is a clean-cut white person who doesn’t understand. Even though that may not be the case at all,” she said. “I feel like if we have people that look more like them, they're more likely to trust.”
Balentine said she was one of a very few students of color who took advanced placement classes at East High School.
“East is one of the most diverse schools in Madison, and to have one or two children of color in your AP class, that’s unacceptable,” she said.
“There weren’t any other children in the class that shared a similar background as me, so it’s like okay sure I’m smart, but it’s hard for me to make connections, to network academically,” she said. “There are definitely a lot of children of color who are in these classes who feel like they have to kind of mold themselves into what they feel will be acceptable, and I don’t feel like that’s fair.”
Balentine wants to highlight “successful brown people” in the community like Sabrina Madison, the founder of the Progress Center for Black Women.
“We need more voices like hers, and people who are putting themselves out there and saying, ‘I know we have not been visible in the past, but successful black women do exist and here we are.’”
And Balentine wants to be one of those people herself. She’s excited by the prospect of the competition, but even more, she’s “excited to see if play my cards right,” which to her means “even though I don’t win, I’m still able to make a difference in Wisconsin.”
“If I win then I’m almost guaranteed to be able to make a difference, but if I don’t win, I’m hoping that people are like, 'You’re still interested in this, we could use your help,'” she said. “I’m just excited to hopefully make a change.”