‘Claressa Shields inspired me to embrace my blackness’
Her confidence seemed to be rooted in her soul
When I first discovered Claressa Shields, I was a teenager. It was a late night in May 2012, and I couldn’t sleep. I’d given up trying to close my eyes, tossing and turning in my bed for hours. Bored, I reached for my phone and opened my app to The New Yorker, where I saw a photo of Shields. She was a black girl like me. Her boxing gloves were bright pink, close to her brown face, and she seemed so calm.
I read the profile on Shields, and all I remember is being mesmerized by the honesty in her answers and how normal and carefree she appeared.
She was 17, nicknamed “T-Rex” and was from Flint, Michigan. I live in the U.K. and I couldn’t show you where Michigan was on a map, but there was something extraordinary about this ordinary girl from Flint.
There was, of course, her personal story of fighting to overcome the trials that she had been burdened with, but it was more than that for me. It was the fact that she was so young, in the midst of so much pain and trauma, but she had found her purpose, and she was not willing to make compromises for anybody. It was the way she told a reporter in 2011, “Laila Ali is not my definition of the best. For females it’s me. I’ve never seen a girl box like me.”
And the fact that she didn’t appear to be scared of her determination, that she was not interested in occupying the space that the world had reserved for black girls like her. Her confidence seemed to be rooted in her soul. Then, I didn’t have the term “black girl magic,” but it was clear to me that she was magical.
I closed the tab, and noticed from a faint reflection in the window that I was beaming, a smile born from the joy that Shields made me feel. I was in the last term of eighth grade at my predominantly white school in a small village in Thatcham, Berkshire, an hour’s drive from my family in the bustling multicultural city of London.
The 2012 Olympics were starting that summer, and I was finding it difficult to settle in my new academic environment. At school, I found myself rejecting my blackness. I changed the way I spoke, only being my true self among the other black girls in my year.
I began to feel a sense of otherness, and when you are young and insecure, there is a desperation to fit in with the popular crowd. Whenever I saw my mom, I asked her if I could get a silky straight weave, instead of my normal braids.
Having just recently moved to Britain, I didn’t know if I could embody all my identities: Nigerian, British, young, female, black, without being judged. In her essay, “How It Feels To Be Colored Me,” Zora Neale Hurston writes, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” When I was at school, I could not forget that I was black.
At home, blackness was a thing that was inherently part of who I was. It was not a cloak that I tried to render invisible. It was not to be negated; it was not even a thing that was noticed. Being black did not mean invisibility; was not a source of discrimination or hatred, and it was a thing I reveled in because it was beautiful…
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