Where the black girls are
The black woman’s body is golden and magical and political — and complicated
Every morning, while I walk to the Metro, my grandma and I talk on the phone. It’s our ritual at this point. Our conversations range from family business to her favorite show, The Young and the Restless, to last week’s tragic shootings. My grandma is 85, and, as she says, there isn’t much that can happen in the world that would surprise her. Not when you’ve lived through the murders of Emmett Till, or four innocent school-age girls in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Or the assassinations of leaders she believed had black people’s best interests at heart — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedy brothers, John and Robert. Her soul bleeds for the families of two men slain by police: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
Theirs are stories all too familiar to her: She grew up under the iron fist of Jim Crow. My grandmother remembers black men and black women’s interactions with police from her younger days. “We didn’t have Facebook or this technology y’all have today,” she said. “You’d be lucky if you heard about it in the newspaper once a week.” Many of the battles she faced as a student at Xavier University in the ’50s, or living in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, in the early ’60s are being fought in places such as Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Ferguson, Missouri, today. And yet, she is as sad for the Dallas police officers who lost their lives to a sniper. “They didn’t deserve to die for the sins of some of their colleagues,” she said. “But, just as important, they were killed protecting the very protesters who were protesting against police brutality.”
On Tuesday, however, she shifted our focus to the Olympics, which of course begin in 23 days in Rio de Janeiro. After venting about health and safety concerns — “They need to just cancel it and do it next year” — her tone turned upbeat. The Summer Olympics are special to her, in part because of the pageantry, but more so for the history. She was a young child when Jesse Owens sprinted past Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany in 1936. She remembers, vaguely, a young Cassius Clay, as well as Wilma Rudolph and Oscar Robertson in 1960. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists eight years later solidified the Olympics for her as meaningful well outside of sports.
Every four years, she plants herself in front of a TV with some form of chocolate (cake, cookies, ice cream) to watch Olympics coverage, in particular the gymnastics portion — her favorite, along with track and field events such as the various relay races and the triple and long jumps. “Those girls are incredible. They’re just jumping and flipping and all that,” she said over the phone. “I hurt my hip just looking at them!”
“The last time I saw them, they looked really good,” she continued, donning her analyst’s cap with regard to the recent trials. “I don’t see why they shouldn’t come home with gold.” She’s right. The 2016 U.S. Olympics women’s gymnastics team should find itself exactly where it left off in London in 2012: gold medal queens of the gymnastic world. The team returns with two of its 2012 starters in Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, who helped USA Gymnastics capture its first gold medal since 1996. Douglas became the first U.S. athlete to win both team and all-around gold medals and the first black gymnast to win an individual gold medal. Raisman, too, won a gold medal in the floor exercise and team gold and bronze on the balance beam.
There’s even talk of the young women — Douglas, Raisman, Simone Biles (already considered by many the greatest ever), Laurie Hernandez, the first Puerto Rican woman to make the squad, and Madison Kocian — being the new Dream Team, a nod to the 1992 U.S. men’s basketball team featuring Michael Jordan, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Charles Barkley and more, who made light work of every team placed before them in Barcelona, Spain.
The arrival of a new Dream Team happens at a fascinating and provocative time for woman of color in sports and beyond. Just peep the last couple of weeks: Simone Manuel and Lia Neal will become the first two black swimmers to simultaneously represent the United States next month. Five members of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, four of whom are black, including Rio de Janeiro-bound superstar Maya Moore, wore T-shirts highlighting recent injustices before a game against the Dallas Wings, which in turn prompted on-site, off-duty law enforcement to leave the arena.
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) June 27, 2016
The U.S. track and field team is about as multicultural as you’ll find in American settings. And tennis star Serena Williams continues to rewrite record and history books as her quest to become the greatest athlete ever moves forward with no end in sight. Plus: The signature image of the 2016 protests against inequality and police violence thus far has been an unarmed black woman standing calmly in front of Baton Rouge police decked out in riot gear. And last year’s photograph of filmmaker and activist Bree Newsome scaling a flagpole at the South Carolina Capitol to remove the Confederate flag inspired a movement. These feats are as athletic as political. As symbolic of balance and strength as commitment to cause.
Diversity has not, historically, been gymnastics’ strong suit. In spring 2007, Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, conducted a survey to determine the participation by people of color in the sport. The results showed, then, that while female participation within the sample was 79.45 percent, 6.61 percent were African-Americans, 3.63 percent were Hispanic and 10.67 percent were Asian. White participation was 74.46 percent.
Comments from the survey yielded a wide range of responses. “Start programs in low-income areas. Once people understand you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to teach and coach gymnastics, it will flourish,” one commenter said. “We are too elitist to appeal to the masses. Bring the cost down [to that of] playing soccer or baseball and you will [increase minority participation levels].”
Others took offense at the implications of the survey. “As a middle-class, white Christian male, is the NBA doing any ‘reach-out’ programs to me and my family? When there is controversy in the NFL regarding the number of black head coaches, and they implement a system that requires NFL teams to interview African-Americans for their head coach vacancies (in an effort to “raise participation in underrepresented racial groups”), do they also implement a system where teams are required to draft at least one Caucasian running back?” one commenter asked. “As far as I’m concerned, the racial makeup for my club is what it is based on the interest of individuals. Implementing programs that raise representation of certain races is racist in and of itself.”
The truth, however, is black and brown girls desire to participate in gymnastics. For financial, societal and cultural reasons, barriers remain largely intact. Queens, New York, native Sophia Buxton, for example, is a lifelong gymnast who never pursued the sport competitively, though she found her way into adult gymnastics classes in her 20s.
“I never thought a black and Puerto Rican girl like myself, from the ‘hood, had a shot,” Buxton said. “I thought I was too fat, and, deep down, I thought Dominique Dawes was a magical unicorn.” Dawes, who flipped and tumbled to national acclaim as a member of the 1996 “Magnificent Seven” U.S. squad that won gold in Atlanta, became the first African-American woman to win a medal in an individual gymnastics event at the Olympics. “But the dream remained in my heart. I even researched the cost and specifications of equipment to see if I could find the equivalent in my everyday life, so I could pretend.”
Rio de Janeiro is a definitive moment for USA Gymnastics. Martha Karolyi — of the famed Karolyi powerhouse family — is preparing to embark on her final Olympics campaign as national women’s team coordinator for USA Gymnastics, a program she’s helped chisel into an international behemoth. And for this year’s team to live up to the hype, all five members (and the three alternates) competing at peak power is mandatory.
Peak power. Similar to when Smith and Carlos, victorious on the track, made statements on a global stage with two fists at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City. To when American sprinter Florence Joyner, with her flowing hair and long fingernails painted in a patriotic theme, made space for black female Olympic style. Biles is as dominating of a presence in her sport as Williams is in hers. Douglas could be the definitive American sweetheart athlete of Obama’s era — she already has her own Barbie doll. And with a strong showing in South America, Hernandez, 16, could very well be a household name by Labor Day. “The bodies of Black women have written a history and herstory in America,” Sonia Sanchez wrote in 2005’s Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and Other Parts. “One of the things we did as [African] women was to put ourselves on the world stage … We demanded to be taken seriously and insisted that people see us as human beings who had something to say, who weren’t just there to satiate sick sexual urges or to fulfill domestic demands.”
“They may not know how big this is,” Buxton said, “or want to acknowledge how their race does play role in the amazingness of what they’ve accomplished, but … this is going down in history. This is a gold medal for the culture. It may be too late for me, but should my future daughter have the slightest twinkle in her eye when she sees a shiny leotard, I’ll be ready to tell her about the day our world changed when three beautiful women who look just like her seized the opportunity to represent our nation and our people.”
Storylines heading into Olympic season, as is the case every four years, are plentiful. Can basketball stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant make Team USA’s chase of a gold medal more of a mere formality than a true battle? Is this the year Jamaica’s track domination, led by the charismatic and punishing Usain Bolt, fades to black? Or can tennis megastar Serena Williams Summer ’16 tour include the trifecta of Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and an Olympic gold medal?
Perhaps most captivating, though, is what goes down on the beam, bars, vault and floor. The far-reaching impact of Biles, Douglas and Hernandez’s participation and expected domination in Rio de Janeiro is a seed more than a bomb. Black and brown girls’ participation in the sport won’t explode overnight. Most wide sweeping changes are marinated, not microwaved, anyway. But the lasting impact for young girls of seeing young women who look like them, share the same body type and pursue the same passion begins the shift of #BlackGirlMagic (or #BrownGirlMagic) into reality. “I got into gymnastics after watching Gabby Douglas in 2012. She was my hero,” 11-year-old gymnast Jihra Hill of Fort Worth, Texas, said. “To see her and Simone Biles on the Olympic team is even more inspirational and groundbreaking.”
This is how stereotypes are debunked. This is how boundaries, many of which, like Buxton’s, were mentally built, are torn down. And this is how the world slowly begins to change.
If a person gets a charge from seeing something, it’s a reminder that he or she also got a charge from not seeing something, too. My grandma, by the end of our daily conversation, was still upbeat. One of her favorite sporting events is three weeks away. And her favorite sporting event is led by young women who could pass as her granddaughters.
“They’ve got my full support. Simone is so good. And I love me some Gabby,” she said before getting off the phone. “With everything going on right now, you want to find something positive to pull for. These young ladies are just that.”