Monday, August 6, 2012

Medaling While Black

I was not an athlete growing up. The only running I did was away from gym class until my sophomore year of high school when I escaped to modern dance.

By the time I reached adulthood, I shed some of my shyness about being a klutz and started working out regularly. But intellectual ability still outranked athletic agility in my book. When I turned 40 though I had a life-changing experience when I joined a women of color triathlon team. Learning to balance training with the rest of my life was challenging even though I wasn’t trying to win; I was simply trying to finish. So, it is only in my mind’s eye that I can even imagine what it must be like to train for the Olympics-- the grueling workouts, extreme sacrifice and the dogged determined that is required to compete with the best.  

Watching the athletes from the comfort of my home compete to medal, I have felt my breath freeze in my chest. I have felt the sting of their defeats as well as the glory of victory of  these amazing athletes! But even in watching the Olympics I am reminded of the “otherness” of Black athletes. It started with the comments about Gabrielle Douglass’ hair. The medal wasn’t around her neck long enough before the comments started rolling in on social media about her hair. 

Many of the comments were those of Black women who felt like Gabby was not representing African-American well because her hair was not quite up to par. Initially, I thought the comments were nitpicking, but after some reflecting, I sadly understood what was going on even though I felt the criticism was unwarranted. Black people still carry the burden of the race—real or imagined--on our backs so it’s important for us to cultivate the appearance of first class citizens even when we’re viewed as second class citizens in the home of our birth. Some of us are still trying to prove our worth to White America.

Then Bob Costas backhand compliment added more insult to injury regarding Gabby’s win. "You know, it's a happy measure of how far we've come that it doesn't seem all that remarkable, but still it's noteworthy. . . "The barriers have long since been down, but sometimes there can be an imaginary barrier, based on how one might see oneself." I couldn’t believe that he formed his lips to say that “the barriers have long since been down.” Do we live in the same country? The fact that in 2012 we’re still recognizing “firsts” shows that even though things have improved, we still have to a long way to go.

Lastly, is the controversy surrounding Serena Williams’ victory after winning the gold. Fox Sports' Reid Forgrave, said, “And there was Serena — the tennis legend. . .the best player of her generation, the American girl being crowned at the All-England Club as the queen of tennis — Crip-Walking all over the most lily-white place in the world. She didn’t do it on purpose. It was a moment of unbridled joy. . . You couldn’t help but shake your head. It was as if Serena just couldn’t seem to avoid dipping into waters of controversy even as she’d ascended to the top of her sport.” I shake my head as I follow these stories. I feel for the Black athletes competing under the glare of mainstream America. 

In this culture of false bravado, everyone is living out loud, and people feel that they can say what ever they 
 want. And they can. But when someone can rise to the top of their sport and bring home the gold and the only thing some people can say is something negative about something so meaningless as how they wear their hair or choose to celebrate their accomplishment, I think back to the word of my elder when I was a child: "If you ain't got nothin' good to say, don't say nothin' at all."


  1. Jennifer Brown BanksAugust 8, 2012 at 10:15 AM

    Amen, Steph. Spoken from a true "winner" in my book! :-) Be well.

    1. It takes a winner to know a winner ;) Thanks much!