For the time being, my niece gets to watch a TV screen filled with achievement by people of color at the Rio games, not stories of bad things that happen to them
A week before the Olympics before the US womens team were the toast of the globe after winning the gold Tuesday evening my niece decided that I needed to watch her perform gymnastics.
She bounced into splits and pulled herself up, James Brown style. Her second trick of the afternoon involved a handstand into backbend, and for her final performance, she threatened to do a flip, but was promptly stopped by my mother, who vied to save all her art pieces surrounding us. I tried to redirect my nieces energy.
Have you seen the US Olympic girls team? I asked. I pulled out my smartphone, excited to bestow on her Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and Laurie Hernandez, all three of whom have afro-roots (Douglas and Biles identify as African American, and Hernandez is Puerto Rican). But my little niece merely shrugged and said, Ive seen them.
When I was my nieces age, the Olympics showcased many great black female athletes, but we didnt have the luxury of taking them for granted. Some were victorious, like Flo-Jo, who smashed records with her ratchet nails popping and fresh-pressed hair flying in the wind. Some endured an uphill battle like Surya Bonaly, whose very existence challenged European figure-skating standards with her strong build and her monstrous, one-blade back-flip that even the men couldnt do.
Then there was Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes, who appeared on the gymnastics scene in Barcelona with such confidence one would have thought shed always been there. I remember being in awe of her. Two years later, in 1996, Dawes, part of the magnificent seven, would win the gold. But she was the exception to my mind rather than the rule.
She still is. Today, most depictions of black bodies on TV arent there because theyre being feted, but because theyre being mourned. The most heartbreaking is the onslaught of viral videos and news stories carrying death via police brutality. Ive cried many tears over the last two years, wondering what it takes for black women like me to be valued and loved by anyone.
Our athletes continue to shoulder the burden of change for us, existing loudly, gloriously, in spaces from which women of color were historically excluded. That is the epitome of the US womens gymnastics team, as it burns so brightly with #BlackGirlMagic.
Douglas had already made history in London as the first black American to win the individual all-around and the first American gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics. Laurie Hernandez made her mark had the internet dancing to her savvy floor routines. And Simone Biles has only made her Olympic debut, but did so as the first black American to be world all-around champion and the first woman of any race to win three consecutive world all-around titles. And she nailed the Olympics, too, helping lead her team to victory in team gymnastics in Rio.
For many of us, these three young women more than half the team serve as a much-needed reminder of what women of color can do. We have the ability to shape cultures, impact societies and excel against all institutional odds.
This is what my niece is used to seeing. She isnt like me. She doesnt yet know what the USA looks like without the Obamas. She doesnt yet know that her mothers vigilance to keep her hair natural comes from a cultural movement of self-love and care, and not just a state of birth.
And she certainly does not yet know a US womens Olympic gymnastics team without Gabby Douglas or Simone Biles. She takes seeing black excellence for granted, and a part of me hopes that she always does that shell never know the ugly parts of the USA like I do. I hope shell never have to become keenly aware of societal standards that seek to limit us due to our gender, our melanin or whom we love. I hope all of this for my little niece, although sadly, a part of me suspects that its futile to do so.