Rising From the Ashes: 5 Crucial Lessons We Can Learn From Vanessa Williams

by Crystal Tennille Irby There she was, Miss America. She was intelligent. She was talented. She w...

by Crystal Tennille Irby

There she was, Miss America. She was intelligent. She was talented. She was beautiful. And she was Black. In 1983, Vanessa Williams became the first Black woman to hold the title of Miss America. Rooms fell silent at the sight of her on television. It was not only a proud moment in Black history but also a momentous moment in American history.

When nude photos of Williams appeared in Penthouse with only six weeks left her in reign, the world thought that would be the final imagine of Williams embedded in our psyche. But she knew better. She knew as the elders say “trouble don’t last always.” If there is a Bible verse written on her tombstone, it should be Psalms 30:5 “…weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning.” The first and only Miss America to relinquish her crown, Vanessa Williams left a disgraced queen and returned on Sunday, September 13th, 2015, an undeniable entertainment icon. Her epic tale is what Hollywood films and best-selling books, both of which she has under her belt, are made of. And like most tales of triumph, Vanessa Williams’ story is filled with lessons we can use to lift ourselves out of the valley onto the mountaintop.


1) Feel it and move through. Mistakes are inevitable and bad things will happen. Vanessa Williams didn’t allow her mistake, shame, or scandal to define her or be the end of her story. She honored her emotions in that moment. However she didn’t internalize the scandal because, as she says, “I knew who I was.” She focused on what she wanted out of life and all she had to offer beyond holding the title of Miss America. “It was the death of a dream,” says Williams. She grieved what she lost and forgave herself for whatever hand she felt she played to contribute to her circumstances. Remember you can only control your actions, so let the rest go. Be gentle with yourself. Then search for a way to get to the other side.

2) Tell your story a new way. Whenever Vanessa Williams speaks about her scandal, she speaks of it from a learning and healing perspective. She reveals why she made the choices that led to her being embroiled in the scandal and then reveals how she moved through. She doesn’t beat herself up or bemoan the situation. She doesn’t wish for a different journey. Remember once you’ve made peace with your path, you are able to speak from a place of empowerment and enlightenment.

3) Learn the lesson. In the midst of a storm it is easy to get mired down in the chaos. She says, “Everything you go through is to bring you to who you are at this moment.” Williams contends that our mistakes are building blocks to help us become who we are meant to be. Looking at life through this lens shifts the focus of the situation from something that’s happening to you to something that is happening for you. Williams says, “I always ask for guidance… Tell me God which way to go.” She always asks what is the lesson. Remember mistakes are an opportunity to learn a lesson that will prepare you for a bigger moment, a greater purpose and your best self.

4) The dust always settles. Williams consistently says in interviews “Once the dust settled, I knew I would get a chance to prove who I was.” She never gave up on her dreams. Williams says after she resigned, she immediately did an off Broadway play. In the midst of the chaos, Williams continued to prepare herself for her purpose. She believed she was worthy of a second chance. Williams is proof that if we learn the lessons, we will not only rise from the ashes and fly, but we also will soar. Remember to keep the faith. Believe the clouds will clear and be ready to shine. Figure out what it is you want out of life and realize what you have to offer.


5) Return to your village. “I had a strong support system. My family was there to support me and they didn’t pass judgment,” says Williams. In the midst of chaos, she didn’t get caught up in the people who abandoned her. She turned to people who stuck by her. It not only takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to heal a child. Remember to surround yourself with people who will speak life into you. Lean on folks who will fight for you when you don’t have the strength to fight for yourself. Those who truly love you will walk through the fire with you. They will not abandon your ashes. They will pick them up and offer you space to put yourself back together.

In 1984, I could imagine a Black woman winning Miss America because my parents instilled in me that we were worthy and just as beautiful, smart, and talented as our white counterparts. However, I could have never imagined Vanessa Williams’ historic moment would go down in flames. I never imagined Vanessa Williams’ crowning achievement wouldn’t be when she became the first Black woman to win Miss America, but it would be when she returned to the pageant stage as a Phoenix who rose from the ashes of shame, mended her tattered wings and soared. Vanessa Williams is proof we can have the life we want in spite of our mistakes if we choose to believe we deserve an opportunity to rise.

Photo: S Buckley/Shutterstock

Crystal Tennille Irby is an award winning poet and regular contributor to For Harriet. I am currently working on her first book, Bible Belt Black: The Life & Loves of a Simple Girl From South Carolina. In a hashtag, I’m #dragonslayer #faithful (even when I’m scared OUT OF MY MIND) #dreamconqueror #lovelikeachampion and I love God, family, food, shoes, good jeans, nice nails, fly earrings, and shoes but not always in that order. Writing is my first love. Acting is my mistress. Follow me: Twitter - @biblebeltblack Facebook – Crystal Tennille Irby.

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