As Brittany Lee Lewis completes her doctoral dissertation, she continues her work as an adjunct professor at George Washington University D.C. and Wilmington University DE teaching impactful courses in African American, urban and U.S. 20th-century history. She is also a community activist, public speaker and television personality.
Earlier this year, Lewis appeared on the A&E docuseries “Secrets of Miss America,” discussing issues that African American women have faced in the beauty pageant world. This is something she knows firsthand, as Lewis was crowned Miss Delaware 2014, going on to compete in Miss America.
“At a time when we're constantly seeing an attack on the history of race, understanding sex and gender and the ongoing perpetuation of problematic stereotypes as it pertains to race and gender, I can't possibly turn down an opportunity like the A&E series to talk about these things, to contextualize them and to provide additional resources for folks who do want to learn more,” says Lewis.
The first thing that interested Lewis about participating in the A&E series is “always speaking truth to power.” “They asked me to speak about the history of race as it pertains to the pageant, but also asked me for some of my lived experiences and the lived experiences of other Black contestants through the system that I was familiar with,” says Lewis, who appeared on an episode focused on the history of Black women participating in Miss America.
“Of course, I'm biased because I'm a historian, but I think history always matters because it's the foundation upon which we grow,” says Lewis, who served as the diversity, equity and inclusion chair for the Miss America system from 2020–2022. “Unless we're really spending the time to learn and understand the history of the program, how could we possibly make a solid, healthy path forward.”
She notes that there are people still involved in the Miss America system, many of whom are volunteers, who sit on boards at the local, state and national level who don't know the history of Black women in the pageant. Beyond that, they may not be aware of the lived experiences of these women. It fuels Lewis to provide that perspective utilizing her scholarly training to paint an accurate picture.
Recently, Lewis taught two courses for the University of Cincinnati OH: African American History to 1861 and African American History 1861 to Present. At Wilmington, she teaches the courses The Black Woman in the Ethnic Studies department and Contemporary Global Issues for the History department. At George Washington University, she has taught American Slavery and Its Legacies as well as African American Women's History 1852–1990, which were cross-listed by History, Women's and Gender Studies and American Studies.
She incorporates into the curriculum notable biographies because she considers it important to speak about the lived and existential experiences of Black women. There is also study of Black feminist thought and what it means to be “othered.”
“We do look at media images,” Lewis says. “You can't possibly take a class called The Black Woman without looking at the historical stereotypes that we have been met with and also how they continue to appear in the 21st century.”
Lewis greatly values traditional teaching tools of academia but explains it's also important to find various ways to utilize mass media and social media to engage students, since it's clear they're spending much of their time on these platforms.
Lewis, who was Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program Scholar, says she will pursue a tenure-track faculty position upon receipt of her doctoral degree. The topic of her dissertation is “How the Casino Gaming Industry Affected the Black Freedom Movement in Atlantic City,” and she hopes to see it published as a book read by academic and general audiences. This will enable her to bring information, which has real world implications, to as many people as possible.
One of the chapters in her dissertation specifically looks at the history of the Miss Black America pageant and its effect on the Black freedom movement in Atlantic City. In 2017, Lewis became the 49th Miss Black America, continuing the legacy of Black protest via the country's first nationally televised pageant for Black women.
“I come to this work because I love it, because I live it, because it's personal,” says Lewis. “It's not only a matter of academic or intellectual inquiry, but because what we understand and know about these concepts affects the world that we live in, how we create policy and how we show up for each other.”
Lewis envisions race and beauty pageants becoming part of her scholarship moving forward, noting there is much to explore around pageants and nationalism. She will also continue exploring and answering questions of importance to the lives of herself and others who have similar burning questions.
“[In African American Studies], the work that we do, the research that we engage in, is always public in nature because it's for our community,” says Lewis. “It's really important that I use every medium that I have, whether that be through the written word, as a college instructor in the classroom, through television or through social media to talk about these things.”