Not too many young people would be up before 8:30 a.m. on the Saturday of their 18th birthday to talk to a reporter—especially not when they happen to be reigning teen royalty.
But not every teenager is Middletown’s Saniya Gay, the country’s first winner of 2020’s inaugural National Miss Juneteenth pageant.
Gay won the crown jewels in October at the Memphis-based pageant, but she’s quick to point out Miss Juneteenth is unlike any other mainstream competition. It has little to do with beauty and everything to do with commitment—to your community, to service, to Black culture.
“This is about how you think, how you represent your community, and how you give back,” Gay says. “The win felt so critical to me because of what we were going through with the Black Lives Matter movement this year. It felt as though I was representing my community and that I could show, ‘We are not just people out on the streets. We’re more than just “Black people.” We are humans who can achieve, who have beauty and who have true talent.'”
She entered the national contest after becoming Delaware’s Miss Juneteenth, a pageant long held in the state, but likely one you’ve never heard of.
That’s part of the problem Gay wants to solve by proclaiming Juneteenth a national holiday. And she’s calling on someone else who recently won it big.
“Mr. President-Elect Joe Biden is often in Delaware, and I will keep my six feet, but he can expect me to amplify my voice and say, ‘Make Juneteenth a national holiday,’” she says. “It’s gonna be hard to get the progress, but I’m gonna push through for everyone.”
Also called Freedom Day, June 19th (Juneteenth) commemorates the day in 1865 when the Emancipation Proclamation was read in Galveston, Texas, announcing the state’s slaves were free—a full two years after President Abraham Lincoln first made the decree.
“I am on a pedestal now where my job is to make Juneteeth known,” Gay says. “People will say to me, ‘Oh, yeah, Juneteenth. I know about that.’ But my question is, ‘Do you really know about it?’’’
While in Memphis, Gay and fellow contestants visited Slave Haven, an underground railroad museum, and the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
“You could just feel the vibe of the struggle,” says Gay, still awed. “It really just humbled me and made me appreciate where I came from, and it also made you wonder, ‘How are your living your life?’”
She also got to meet a living icon: Opal Lee, the 93-year-old Texas woman who, at 89, embarked on a walking journey from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C. in an effort to have Juneteenth named a national holiday.
Gay humbly, and passionately, accepts the torch.
“For her to be at her age and still marching, still working … I’m just like, ‘Wow,’” she says. “It really opens your eyes to what people do, what people did, and what people are still doing.”
Juggling a national responsibility with a full plate of school work from Middletown High seems like a lot, and that’s before you add in the work on behalf of the nonprofit she started in early 2019, Love Don’t Hurt. She created the program to advocate for victims of domestic abuse after it hit too close to home.
“This is a huge problem in our society right now, especially right now in 2020 with people being quarantined with abusers, but if you don’t see it, you just pass on by,” Gay says.
But she couldn’t stand idly by after her older sister and her nephew were victimized.
“That’s when I knew I had to do something about it,” she said.
Of course, this is still an 18-year-old we’re talking about. With her historic, sparkling jewels lovingly nestled in a hat box that mom, Veda, keeps an eye on (“She makes sure they don’t go nowhere,” Gay says, laughing), Saniya still finds things to do, just for Saniya, like challenge her parents to Uno or kick it with Disney+ for hours.
“I am a kid at heart,” she says. “Between Juneteenth stuff and school, I try to find time to get outside or do something fun. But I like that I have this work to do, because it’s important.”
She’s heading to DSU in the fall on a full ride, with a head full of dreams of escaping to Paris for a bit once the pandemic is over, and earning the communication credentials she’ll need to headline her own daytime talk show, like Tamron Hall or Ellen.
It’ll be the perfect platform for her to do what she most wants—let people be their authentic selves and tell their stories, and be a leader for little brown and black girls around the world.
“I want them to take from this that whatever you do, don’t stop,” Gay says. “Continue to achieve. It won’t be easy. You will get some yeses, you will get some nos. But watch those nos turn into yes—I promise.”