Miss Mississippi Asya Branch didn't know what to expect when she shared her incarcerated father's story in the competition
Posted in , Mar 22, 2019
I stood in front of a panel for my interview for a Miss Mississippi preliminary pageant, trying not to let my nervousness show. The judges were taking a long time to look over my paperwork. What kinds of questions would they ask?
Most people think that pageants are about beauty, and they are—but not just outer beauty. Each contestant also picks a platform: a cause to bring awareness to and volunteer for, to help her community.
My platform was about the importance of giving blood. I truly believed that blood donors were everyday heroes. I donated every 56 days, as often as you’re allowed, and was eager for an opportunity to encourage others to give blood.
I went over my platform points in my head, thinking about my father. He’d talked a lot about beauty—inner beauty—when I was little. If I had a bad attitude, Daddy would say, “Asya, God doesn’t like ugly. Pretty is as pretty does.” He told me that the best way to turn an ugly attitude into a beautiful one was by doing good.
I learned a lot about charity, compassion and community from my father. He’d been in the Army, and he was committed to serving others. When I was 10, he took in a friend’s troubled son, as well as a family struggling financially. It was as if our farm in Booneville became a haven for the down and out. Growing up as one of eight children, I was used to living with a crowd. Even with so many folks around, Daddy still made me feel special. Every day as I left for school, he called to me from our wraparound porch, “Have a good day, Asya! Love you!” And he was always there waiting for me when I got home.
I liked making Daddy happy, but we were both a little headstrong. I signed up for my first pageant when I was seven, and he tried to talk me out of it. He worried that pageants would teach me to seek gratification from others rather than God. But I was outgoing and loved any chance to shine. I put my foot down, and Daddy gave in. He couldn’t help but pamper me.
Still, he made sure that all of us kids knew what was important. He took us to Burning Bush Church of God in Christ whenever the doors were open. Daddy was big on quoting Scripture. One of his favorite verses was Galatians 6:10: Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone— especially to those in the family of faith. Little did I know that trying to do good would be Daddy’s downfall.
“Asya,” said one of the judges, looking up from my paperwork, “it says here that your father is incarcerated. Can you tell us more about that?”
I flashed back to the day I came home from school and Daddy wasn’t waiting on the porch. Instead, our house was surrounded by strange cars—government vehicles. I was not quite 11 years old, and I was so scared. Where was Daddy? Later I learned that the boy who lived with us had robbed a woman. No one was hurt, but there were drugs involved. Daddy had tried to help him undo the crime and paid a heavy price.
Life since Daddy’s arrest hadn’t been easy. We missed him so much. After he went to prison, Mama did everything in her power to keep things normal. My older brothers and sisters had grown up and moved out. But my younger sisters, who were only five and two, kept asking why Daddy was gone and when he would come back. Frankly, we didn’t have many details to give them.
I was used to having slumber parties almost every weekend. Then my friends’ parents began making excuses for why their daughters couldn’t spend time with me. I was so naive, I didn’t understand what was happening.
Until one day, Mama said, “Asya, these girls’ parents aren’t going to let them come over.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because of your dad.”
“He’s not a bad person!” I said. “Why don’t people see that?”
The difficulties weren’t just emotional. After Daddy was convicted, the government seized his property. They took our tractor and farm equipment, his truck and the old cars that he used to work on. Everything in his name—gone. Without Daddy contributing, Mama lost our farmhouse. We sold everything we could and moved into a smaller place.
I struggled with my self-worth and closed myself off, praying for answers about why this happened. Maybe God is teaching me to be independent and grateful, I thought. My parents had given me everything I wanted when I was little. After Daddy’s incarceration, we couldn’t afford those extras anymore.
The one extra I allowed myself was pageants. I picked them up again in high school. Sometimes it meant wearing a used dress, doing my own hair or borrowing the entrance fee from my grandmother. I loved competing as much as I had when I was seven. It helped me forget everything I’d lost— my friends, my home, my daddy. Onstage none of that mattered. I was Asya Branch—a strong, confident young woman. And it was my chance to shine.
In private, I was still Daddy’s girl. I sent him letters and pictures. He loved hearing about my pageant experiences, and I wanted to make him proud.
I was out of practice with pageants, but to my surprise I started winning. In twelfth grade, I competed in local pageants, collecting titles that would later open the door to compete for Miss Mississippi. I wore dresses bought on major markdown because stores were getting rid of the last season’s inventory, and I had to work multiple jobs to pay for everything. It was worth it. I was finding my confidence again.
But there was always one item in the paperwork that gave me pause. How has the world you come from shaped your dreams and aspirations?
That was where I’d written that my father was incarcerated and, in a way, our whole family was serving a sentence. Now the judge was asking the question I’d dreaded: “Can you tell us about your dad?”
I felt my whole body tense up. “Yes, he’s in prison, but he’s a good man,” I said. “He leads a prayer group and Bible study. My father is connecting people to God and the Word. That’s something that a lot of people in prison need.” I told the panel that more than 50,000 children in Mississippi struggle with the incarceration of a parent. “I’m not the only one.” The judge, rather than recoil, gave me a gentle smile.
Right after the pageant winners were announced—I was one of them—that judge took me aside. “Don’t you see?” she said. “Helping children of incarcerated parents—that’s your platform.”
I was shocked. Did a pageant organization, a program that looks for the best of the best, really want me to speak publicly about something that most people tried to hide?
Then I thought about the section on platforms in the pageant rules. A contestant’s platform is supposed to be something she feels passionate about. Aside from God, nothing meant more to me than my family, my father.
I remembered that verse from Galatians Daddy liked to quote. Whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone. Maybe if I spoke about my experience openly, it would help other children of incarcerated parents feel less alone.
I decided to move forward with my new platform, Empowering Children of Incarcerated Parents. In June 2018, I became Miss Mississippi. What I’d worried would be a liability turned out to be a strength. Next I would compete in Miss America and share my story with the country.
I was hesitant to tell Daddy. He had often told me, “Asya, I’m so sorry for what I’ve put you through.” I didn’t want to make him feel worse by talking about our family’s struggles in such a public way.
A few weeks before Miss America, I went to see Daddy. The warden helped arrange a private visit. Daddy didn’t even know. I didn’t want every media outlet in the state taking photos of Miss Mississippi visiting her incarcerated father, using Daddy as a spectacle.
After Daddy got over the surprise of seeing me, he asked, “Are you ready?”
“I think so,” I said.
“You go knock ’em dead!”
“Are you sure you’re okay with my platform?” I asked. It’s not every day that a Miss America contestant has a father in prison, and I’d heard that some reporters had already tried to interview Daddy.
“Asya, I’m happy that you’re using your influence to better the lives of others,” he said. “Don’t worry about the media. I can hold my own.”
On the night of the Miss America pageant, the warden let Daddy watch. The other inmates were excited to cheer me on. They were more upset than I was when I didn’t win. Daddy was so proud, I might as well have won.
As Miss Mississippi, I’ve kept my promise to empower children of incarcerated parents. I work with a prison ministry program called Day1. Their initiative, Love Letters, allows mothers in jail to send weekly letters to their children. We supply the stationery and stamps, and have funded more than 300 letters between mothers and their children. I also write to each inmate’s child to encourage them. I tell them that I personally know how hard their circumstances are but that they can do anything they put their minds to.
Daddy is scheduled to be released in 2022. He has been incarcerated for half my life, and I mourn the time we’ve lost. But I remind myself that God is the Great Redeemer. Only he could have transformed the hardest thing I’ve ever been through into an opportunity to do good and let my inner beauty shine.
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