Gabby Douglas and the burden for Black girls
For all of history, but especially the last four years, the world has been blessed with some true Black Girl Magic in the form of Gabby Douglas. She is an Olympian, who vaulted into our hearts in 2012 at the London Olympics where she won gold medals in both the team and individual all-around competitions. Gabby is the first woman of color of any nationality, and the first African-American gymnast in Olympic history to be the individual All-Around Champion. And she didn’t stop there, Gabby is also the first American gymnast to win gold in the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympic games. A feat her teammate at this years Rio Olympics, Simone Biles was able to accomplish as well, arguably because of Gabby and the history she made.
Gabby has wowed us with her Black Girl Magic. I personally remember sitting enthralled four years ago as she vaulted, floor-routined, beamed, and barred her way to the gold. I loved her because she was and is still excellent – and most of all, she looked like me. (It helps that we also have the same first name). But for all of the accolades and praise we heaped on her, she was also privy to so much scrutiny. In 2012, it was remarks about her hair. Why wasn’t it done? Was it a weave? Why would she go up there looking like that? Doesn’t she know she’s representing for all of us? This year, while her hair was still a hot topic, different questions plagued her. Why didn’t she seem happy for Simone and Aly? Why didn’t she place her hand over her heart during the medal ceremony? Why did she look so salty in the stands?
Hmm, I might be a little salty I wasn’t allowed to compete in the individual all-around competition because of an arbitrary rule that sets a limit on how many gymnasts from a country can compete at once. I also might be a little salty if a mantle I used to wear was being passed on with seemingly little thought or care for the previous owner. Of course, we will probably never know what was going through her head, unless she writes a tell-all book and spills all the tea. But, that’s not the point here.
The point is, that once Gabby, like so many other Black women, stopped performing, being useful to society, fulfilling the needs and desires that can be unduly placed on our shoulders, society turned on her. Black women are scrutinized, looked down on, questioned, even hated when we sparkle and yet, dismissed when we no longer shine. Our magic is only approved of when useful – often for purposes that exist outside of ourselves/our communities. We are questioned when we choose to use our magic for purposes that benefit our families, our neighborhoods, our struggles. We are forgotten when the loads and burdens of societies expectations have beaten, squeezed, and pounded all of our magic out of us. Gabby is beloved when she is winning gold medals – even if her hair is a little messed up. But, when she is underperforming or not smiling – when she no longer fits into the set of behaviors and facial expressions prescribed to her, when she is no longer playing her assigned role, well, feed her to the dogs because she’s not needed any anymore.
But here’s the gag, Gabby, and millions of Black girls like her, have and always will be magical. It has and always will be lit to be a Black girl. Our skin absorbs the sun. Our hair and sometimes-athletic abilities in Gabby’s case, defy gravity. Our strength saves our families. Our intellectual prowess helped send men to the moon. Hell, we go to the moon! The way we adorn ourselves inspires designers all over the world. I could go on and on…we make history everyday. We are history.
So Gabby, from this Gabby to another, from this Black girl to another, I hope you know that we, your sisters will forever see and value you. Thank you for making history. Thank you for representing us and for representing us well. We love and appreciate you. And if the load gets too heavy, we’ll be here to help you carry it, or to lay it down entirely. Up to you.