A turquoise shimmer glistened in the crooks of Oluwanifemi Orekoya’s eyes before fading into dark blue sparkles. Her lips were stained black, a single gold line traced from underneath her nose to her lower lip. Gleaming below a voluminous afro, some passersby may miss the large, gold earrings hanging in the shape of a young woman’s profile with “Black Girl Fly” written across the silhouette.

“[I’m] from a country out of Africa, and this is a way to just embody myself and showcase what I like to do,” Orekoya said outside of the Hoff Theater at the Stamp Student Union, where a Wakanda Forever Best Dressed Contest was taking place.

Orekoya, a junior information science major at the University of Maryland, moved to the U.S. from Nigeria to attend college. After learning about the dress contest from a flyer in the Nyumburu Cultural Center, Orekoya knew she wanted to participate to show off her style, mingle with new people and see the diverse outfits other students assembled.

For Delisha Thompson, the diversity, equity and inclusion co-chair for the public policy school’s alumni board and the curator of the contest, that was the goal for the event.

“[The event is] just an ability for people to express themselves,” she said.

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The Wakanda Forever Best Dressed Contest, co-sponsored by Student Entertainment Events, was held Feb. 8 and invited individuals and groups to dress up in Wakanda-inspired attire to celebrate Black History Month. 

Last year, the alumni board screened King Richard. However, because previous events were canceled during the COVID-19 pandemic, this year, the board had enough funding to give out cash prizes of $200 for the best dressed individual and $300 for the best dressed group.

“I told my board this could be someone’s light bill or gas bill or grocery bill if they win,” Thompson said. “It could change somebody’s entire week.”

While the event offers financial support to students who participate, the idea for the dress contest was to create a culturally celebratory space where students could have fun and relax without having an academic element involved.

“From the very first Black Panther movie, there were so many viral videos and photos of people just going and dressing up,” Thompson said.

When Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was released, Thompson and her mother dressed up to watch the movie in theaters. Black Panther, the first movie set in Wakanda — a fictional African nation representing an amalgam of African countries and cultures — was praised as a cultural phenomenon that spotlighted and celebrated Black culture. The sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever gathered similar hype after directors incorporated a new anti-hero derived from an underwater mythical nation rooted in Mayan culture.

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“The first one represented, obviously, Black people in America, specifically from Oakland, like me,” Yereni Butcher, a freshman meteorology major, said. “The second one, also, showed the other part of cultures that aren’t really represented in Marvel movies, like Hispanic cultures. So it’s nice to see that Black Panther did both of those things, and they both technically identify with who I am.”

But bringing attention to a strictly cultural event with no educational component was difficult, Thompson said. Some deans and department heads told Thompson the event wouldn’t be sent out on the college listserv because the money wasn’t directed toward a cause and the event wasn’t in line with an academic context.

“This month at Maryland, I have voter suppression happening later this month, I have policing that the African American studies department is doing, [but] nobody’s doing just a fun, happy event,” Thompson said. “Education is great, but we can also have fun.”

Orekoya won the best dressed contest, earning $200 alongside five runners-up who took home $100 each in lieu of a group award. Wrapped in a light blue, patterned skirt with gold cuffs around each wrist, Orekoya’s “Black Girl Fly” earrings proved even more true with the evening’s prize money secured.

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify that Student Entertainment Events was a co-sponsor of the Wakanda Forever Best Dressed Contest.