Can't handle the pressure.
These are just a few of the many negative adjectives used in the days preceding Gabrielle Douglas' historic gold medal win in gymnastics this week. Search any antecedent video and print stories about Gabby done by NBC, ESPN, the New York Times, and just about every other bastion of American journalism. It is easy to confirm that, repeatedly, these were the descriptors that always managed to be worked into any statement about her gymnastic efforts or to describe this lovely 16-year-old athletic powerhouse in comparison to her (losing) teammates on the U.S. Olympic team. Even when talking heads and pundits begrudgingly acknowledge that the speed of Gabby Douglas' rise to the top of the women's Olympic mountain was meteoric, they still cannot quite grasp how it happened or why it happened.
"The thing I love is that it makes people worry, it just shakes them up," Douglas said of beating Wieber. "They say: 'Dang, I am so shocked. I need to upgrade this and that and, oh gosh, where did she come from?'"It seems that little credit is given to what must have been extremely hard work, to rise from a non-entity in the world of gymnastics to holding its highest female honor in just 2 years. Little credit appears to be given to the fact that Gabby Douglas won the all-around medal precisely because she posted excellent scores on all 4 gymmastic apparatus, the balance beam, vault, uneven parallel bars and floor exercise (unlike her teammates, most of who did not even compete on all 4 and did not score as well as she did on those they did compete on).
No credit at all is given to the resilience of her poor, single, Black mother; our nation doesn't care about, let alone reward, the indomitable will and spiritual strength it takes to actually be a single Black mother in America raising four children. Or the strength it takes to allow your 14-year-old daughter, your baby, to move far far away in terms of literal and cultural distance to chase a dream. Hell, even after the team gold was won with Gabby being the highest scoring qualifier for the all around, the Today Show did a whole "Parents of the Fab 5" segment in which it not once mentioned Gabby by name, although it was sure to let us know who Jordyn Wieber's parents and Aly Raisman's parents were. (It is Natalie Hawkins, btw, not Missy Parton, no matter how much the media is running around saying that Gabby had a white mother too.)
Hell, the haters even dissed the poor child's hairdo (the same hairdo as her teammates—and therein lies the problem.)
If there is any place in popular women's Olympic sports that has earned the name "The White World of Sports", it's women's gymnastics.
It's not like she's the first Black woman, though, to excel at this awesome sport.
If you want to name someone that even came close to rivaling the all-around greatest the sport of gymnastics has ever seen in terms of skill, shrewdness and personality (the ethereal Nadia Comenici), it isn't Jordyn Wieber you need to talk about. It isn't Shannon Miller, part of the 1996 Magnificent Seven team that NBC waxed rhapsodic about on Friday night in a lenghty segment without once mentioning the name of the Black woman who also, like Gabby Douglas, outscored her teammates on 3 out of the 4 apparatus in the all-around. And it isn't Mary Lou Retton either, though her personality and punch justifiably left her beloved after the 1984 Olympics in which she took the all-around. It isn't even Shannon Miller, the woman who was the Jordyn Wieber of the 1996 Olympic team, yet who herself ultimately had her legacy diminished because of another woman who became America's darling only because she risked lameness for the team, Kerri Shrug.
You wouldn't name any of them. Instead, you would name a woman who at 15 scored perfect "10"s on what may have been the most athletically-demanding (aka fuckin' superb) floor routines the world has ever seen. While still excelling at every other apparatus as well. The woman who in 1996 became the first Black woman to ever win an Olympic medal for her work on an individual gymnastics apparatus:
Despite her being the only American woman to have won three Olympic gold medals and compete in different medal-winning Olympic gymnastics teams (1992, 1996 and 2000), Dominique Dawes is remembered now only to those whose love for the sport of gymnastics is never-ending. Dominique Dawes was the only woman on the American gymnastics team in 1996 to have had her scores from all four events counted rather than thrown out in the team event that earned "The Magnificent Seven" America's first team medal in women's gymnastics. She electrified the world and, for a short time, America too, with her sheer beauty and talent and joy in the sport even as a young girl. Yet today Dominique Dawes is not a wealthy gymnastics coach and few who do not know gymnastics know her name. She is not even a regular news commentator on the sport she too elevated with her grace and beauty—and fierce athletic prowess. Had the Obama Administration (thank you Michelle!) not lifted her up and allowed her to continue to publicly inspire, it seems she would be today making most of her living as a motivational speaker. Largely forgotten.
Except how can you forget something like this? Who would even WANT to?
Dominique Dawes should be a household name in our country, just as Gabby Douglas should have been before she ever set foot in London last week. But she isn't. Just as Gabby wasn't, until folks literally had the choice between looking like public fools and acknowledging that yes, this year she is the best America had to offer in one of the world's most beloved women's sports.
Overachieving Black women are everywhere. In every profession. In every field. Many of them should be household names given their impact on their fields and our world. Yet too many aren't, especially when compared to their Black male and white female counterparts.
Yet most Americans don't even know their names. Sure, they all know Oprah, and Halle Berry. Tyra Banks, Aretha Franklin, Missy Elliot and Michelle Obama. Celebrities, although these women too had to be strong and smart and talented to make it where they have.
But what about all these other women whose biographies and work legacies are a testament not just to the best that Black women have to offer, or Black people have to offer, but people have to offer? Here is just a handful of their overachieving names. All of these best of the best of the best Black women are known by far fewer Americans than their way-beyond-normal intellect and talented biographies would suggest is and was their due.
- In Law: Hon. Constance Baker Motley (be sure to click on the Congressional Resolution upon her passing—but leave yourself plenty of time to read about her LONG list of accomplishments)
- Journalism: Charlayne Hunter-Gault
- Economics: Dr. Julianne Malveaux
- Space: Dr. Mae Jemison (who came to The Farm as a 16-year-old freshman and who gets bonus points for being one of the best, most intense, dancers I've ever shared a Stanford reunion party space with!)
- Medicine: Dr. Patricia Era Bath (opthamologist, surgeon and inventor)
- Science: Dr. Dale Brown Emeagwali (Microbiology) (who doesn't even rank have a Wikipedia page in her honor, let alone the tenured position at an elite science institution that would have otherwise clearly found her given the nature of her discoveries)
- Even Fashion: Iman (not to mention the business of fashion, with a respectable side of global philanthropy just to mix it up a little.)
These remarkable women all have at least one thing in common with Gabrielle Douglas, who folks are running around today calling "America's golden girl" (with the incongruity of this completely lost upon them given that she is dark, and lovely) or the "flying squirrel" (a moniker allowing for some really weird flights of fancy: are we talking about a flying rodent? Rocky as in Rocky the flying squirrel? Something else? What on earth was Marta Karolya's reasoning behind this moniker, as opposed to others far less susceptible to negative connotation?)
None of them have received the national (as in American) recognition, the 'household name' status to which their biographies and histories indicate they are and were due. Status based not upon their status of being various types of"firsts", but instead because their names in any non-racist, non-sexist world, would truly be some of the first that come to mind when you think of the 'best of the best.'Even Black women that the Left hates haven't gotten the due that their biographies would have seemed to earn them.
For example, one of the most hated Republican women on the planet (with very good reason) may be Condoleezza Rice. Condi's low standing in the "moral politicians" category is not definitely undeserved and this diary makes no efforts to rehabilitate her political image. That being said, however, much she is hated an honest person still has to ask why her star hasn't shined far even more brightly in Republican politics. Her resume makes clear that she not only has done extremely well in politics, she has excelled academically and personally and accomplished things that no one but her own parents ever expected her to, like enrolling in college at the age of 15, becoming a world expert in the (then) complicated Soviet political science, managing to balance the budget of Stanford University in less than 2 years as Provost when all the men said it couldn't be done, and being a piano virtuoso on top of it. More significantly, Condoleeza Rice has been everything the right has asked for, the ultimate "hard work is all you need" and "racism is no excuse" story, and then some. Yet the idea of her being "at the top" appears to be the farthest thing from anyone's mind in the Republican party. This is despite Condi's own tacit recognition that as a Black woman she is, in fact, just as qualified to be president (more so, much as she is hated) than the men whose water she has carried as the closest thing she will ever get to being anything with the word "president" in it during her lifetime:
My parents had me absolutely convinced that, well, you may not be able to have a hamburger at Woolworth's but you can be president of the United States.Despite her life story, in which she too has acknowledged the perennial curse of Black womanhood ("we have to be twice as good") despite her skill as a pianist, decades-long cuddly relationship with the echelons of power on the right wing as an extremely young scholar, and the unwavering recognition that she has had for her intellect, to the point despite the calls that Romney to nominate her as his VP pick, she still hasn't gotten "the call" so far as we know (although considering how badly things are going for the Mittster right now, you have to wonder why).
[For the record, this may be the only time that anyone should be grateful that Black women are as used, absued and forgotten as we are: because if Condoleezza Rice had been recognized for what she is intellectually and ended up on the ticket in 2008 instead of the world class ignoramus known as Sarah Palin, the election could have gotten a lot more complicated for now-President Obama.]
Why does the plight of Gabby Douglas and Dominique Dawes, and other Black elite athletes (including Venus and Serena Williams, who originally suffered equal indignities in terms of disrespect and dismissal on both their Black front and woman front—i.e. the number of times both have been called "ugly" is uncountable—despite their clear prowess in their field) even matter? Why should we care, that Black women in other fields who were not just good, not just noteworthy, not just excellent, but brilliant and/or talented almost beyond measure, were largely forgotten? After all, isn't this just part of our nation's racist sexist legacy that we've talked about a billion times?
It is. But in an election year where the nation is (hopefully) going to reelect its first Black president, it is important even more because their plight is mirrored in the political realm, too.
The invisibility of Black women's political and electoral strength has resulted in, at a minimum a failure to harness the maximum political power on the Left. If not a number of missed opportunities for the Democratic Party and the nation to be in charge.
It is easy to say, "Well, duh." After all, a Black man was running for president that year. At least, it is easy until you realize that Black women's electoral power has been ignored for a long, long time. And realize that some were desperately trying to get people to pay attention to this crucial yet ignored demographic of the left long before anyone had ever heard of Barack Hussein Obama.
Who knows what might have been our nation's present had someone only been listening in the year 2000 when it was pointed out that Black women's votes had been the difference that catapulted "the first Black president" William J. Clinton into the White House in 1992 and returned him there in 1996?
The missed opportunity that to me is the greatest price our side of the aisle may have paid by ignoring the political engagement, prowess and genius of Black women in the political realm is the missed opportunity we had nearly 40 years ago, now: to recognize that the greatest female politician in the history of the United States, one who could have united this nation and helped it along towards its perfect vision in a way that few other politicians could have, was a woman named Barbara Charline Jordan.
We lionize Barbara Jordan today on the left for eloquently baring her soul before Congress about the Constitution in 1974. Yet did our party even seriously consider the idea of putting her on the ticket with Jimmy Carter in 1976 even though her "consolation prize," the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, is considered one of the top five American political speeches of all time (not to mention to her statement to Congress introducing the articles of impeachment for Richard Nixon in 1974, which ranks at Number 13—higher than any other woman)?
[Good luck finding Barbara Jordan's entire address to the 1976 DNC convention or entire speech to Congress, btw. As perhaps some of the best evidence of Black woman's invisibility, only the first 25-50 percent of the first and at best 2/3 of the latter appears to be available in either video or audio form anywhere. The 5th and 13th greatest American political speech of all time are thus relegated to the cold record of text—if you can find them.]
If only we'd lifted her up, when it was her time, to more than just a side player in the national show.
Neither did our party even remotely consider rallying behind Shirley Chisholm, despite her run for the presidency in 1972, Jordan's predecessor when it came to being a viable national politician. An almost-as-tragic error in judgment.
Today, we celebrate that Barack Hussein Obama is the nation's first Black president. But we should also listen to Barbara Jordan's speeches (or Shirley Chisholm's) and ask ourselves the following question:
Why wasn't she?
[For those who would contend that the fate of Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm, both of who should have using the ideal indicators of political success (vision, diligence, intellect, and eloquence) been serious contenders for major office including the presidency itself, was merely an artifact of those "ancient" times when both race and gender were disqualifiers assumed to be valid by everyone, I will add another name to the list of Black female political powerhouses that has been largely ignored by the left when it comes to lifting her up, mentioned these days only when it's convenient: The Hon. Barbara Lee. And another: The Hon. Eleanor Holmes Norton.]
It seems that the only consistent reward of elite Black womanhood that can be taken from these stories, arguably is the double-whammy: being dissed, dismissed and/or quickly rendered obscure and forgotten due to the toxic stew of gender intersecting with race. Neither of which operates independently and thus, neither of which can be minimized in the way it can for white females who can choose never to talk about their gender or Black males who can choose never to talk about their race. Even when there is not outright rejection due to race, it seems that greatness is met with only begrudging acceptance. No matter what field or discipline. And if a Black woman does not choose to fit herself into one of the prescribed acceptable categories for Black womanhood (Mammy, Sapphire, Jezebel or Cassandra)?
Be prepared to be forgotten.
Gabrielle Douglas was none the things she was called before she won the ultimate gymnastics prize, and at least before she showed up folks in a way that could not be ignored, was indeed paying the price of being forgotten before she'd even been known. Dissed, dismissed, and trifled.
What does it say when her own team coordinators Bela and Marta Karolyi, considered the gods of gymnastic coaching, even a few weeks before the Olympics began, were saying that their own team's athlete did not have what it took to be an Olympic champion? What does it say about them that it was all about Jordyn, Jordyn, Jordyn. Even when Gabby proved at the America's Cup and the Olympic trials that she was better than Jordyn. Jordan was like Nadia, they said (even though Gabby's physical form and artistics evoke Nadia's memory far more directly)—she was unbeatable. Jordan was like Mary Lou Retton, they said—even though Retton's high energy and irrepressible personality is far more like Gabby's and Jordyn has to by her own admission basically practice looking happy in the mirror. Who could be surprised then, that the media happily followed this narrative of Jordyn good, Gabby mediocre?
Most of the mainstream media in America said it all, little of it good, until Gabrielle Douglas finally shut them up.
But had they only been paying attention to Gabby's heroine, Dominique Dawes. Somehow NBC missed selecting Ms. Dawes when it was hiring famous gymnasts to give live commentary during the Olympic Games. The sad irony is that FOX Sports (aka FOX News) did not make that mistake, with the result that a full month before Gabrielle Douglas became the first gymnast to win both a team gymnastics gold medal AND the all around gold medal at the same Olympics, the two greatest Black women in the history of gymnastics got to meet each other and have a bit of a lovefest:
That's right, it is that bastion of journalistic anti-racism, FOX News, that first realized that Gabby was something special despite the never-ending Jordyn (and, rarely, Aly) show. A full month before the joy that both Dawes and Douglas probably knew deep down was coming when Gabby finally competed in London.
The joy that has had Dominique Dawes reduced to tears ever since.
It says a lot (but nothing good) about our nation that, at only 16 years old, Gabrielle Douglas seems to have figured out the silent power inherent in her status of being initially ignored and dismissed by the American media as a superstar because she is Black and female. Ignored and dismissed until folks had absolutely no choice at all:
I have an advantage because I’m the underdog and I’m black and no one thinks I’d ever win,” she said. “Well, I’m going to inspire so many people. Everybody will be talking about, how did she come up so fast? But I’m ready to shine.And, as is too often the case, the white person who had the most to lose from ignoring her simply dismissed it all:
But so far, Wieber doesn’t seem shaken. Asked what it felt like to lose to Douglas, she seemed perplexed.But shine Gabby did. Without fervent support from the very places she had a right to expect support from—her country's media, and her own team coordinators. Perhaps this is because Gabby Douglas used the fact that she was dissed and dismissed, like so many other Black women before her, to her advantage when it really mattered. So, in her success once again for a brief period of time it is all that to be the best of the best and a Black woman at the time same.
But already Gabby's star seems to be dimmer than it otherwise might be. It has been only 36 hours and looking at the media, it already feels like old news. Certainly, Gabby is no longer top of the fold. Instead, it's back to same old same old: Michael Phelps (and Ryan Lochne). It seems that even though Mary Lou Retton adores her, she won't be the next Mary Lou Retton, who was the subject of 24-7-365 coverage for days and weeks after she took gymnastics gold in 1984. We can even pretty much guarantee that Gabby will not become the next Tim Tebow, darling of the right wing, despite her fierce embrace of Christianity (which doesn't make her all that different from many Black folks who reach success do) and despite the fact that thanking God was the first thing Gabby publicly credited for her triumph in London. You would think that Gabby's heartfelt assertion that "It's a win-win. All the Glory is given to God and all the blessings fall down on me" would make her leading story in the Christian Science Monitor or something—but don't hold your breath. To be sure, someone has already edited "Conservapedia" to include Gabby after yesterday, but it wasn't until yesterday although she's always been clear and public about her spirituality. Even then, Conservapedia was very careful to simply say that she has taken a "conservative or religious" position (as if those are synonymous), just in case she turns out to need to be ignored later because of some equally likely political views that don't quite favor the right wing.
At least for now, we can look forward to enjoying the brightness of her electric smile while we have our morning breakfast. And for the future? Let's hope that our appreciation for her and what she does lasts a lot longer for Gabrielle Douglas than the memory of other, great, Black women in America's history
Who are calm and confident.
And deserving of the recognition their talents have earned.