Winning is cool. But, we must learn to exalt the magic of black girls when they come up short, misstep, or fail.
The communal forces behind the sky full of confetti pouring on Simone Biles and Simone Manuel, two black women who performed extraordinarily in their respective sports fields during the summer Olympic games staged in Rio, is pride and admiration.
Black people were especially elated when Manuel used the opportunity to link her accomplishment to the BLM movement’s multi-year campaign against police brutality.
“It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on.
Judging by social media, it has, at least the part about bringing “hope.”
There are plenty of lessons about blackness and patriotism, representation and racialized citizenship, Jim Crow swimming pools and black inferiority, black excellence and opportunity, that we can, and will, take away.
However, there is one lesson, I feel, that may be lost in celebration. We may frame it in form of an interrogative: Are black people, in any capacity, allowed to fail? And when blacks — especially black girls and women — do fail, will we still see their magic?
Understanding the significance of Black “Firsts.”
Black “firsts” have been imperative to building the self-esteem and collective consciousness of Black people.
Last week, Biles racked up gold medals and “firsts” on the balancing beam, exercise floor, and vault. Manuel made history as the first black woman to win the individual swimming contest. Both of these achievements mean something. It’s worth asking why.
There have been many “firsts” that preceded Manuels, too many to account for here. And not just in sports but in every quarter of Black, professional life.
Charles Hamilton was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review; Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court Justice; Robert H. Lawrence, first black astronaut; Bessie Coleman, first black licensed pilot, and a Black woman at that. Alexander Lucius Twilight, first black to receive a B.A.
Partly due to legal and extra-judicial segregation, partly due to the diffusion of biological pseudoscience surrounding the abilities and functions of black bodies, the black community is still a spectrum of society enamored with “firsts.” For good reason.
One of the centrifugal features of white supremacy in America has been to monopolize not just wealth and resources, but the “civilization” narrative. What is that saying, “To the victor goes the spoils.” Those spoils include writing history. Writing American history (“white history”) has traditionally meant writing blacks out, or, at minimal, downplaying the contributions Blacks have made to the progress and development of the human species.
Notions of black inferiority fed — and continue to feed — the psychosis of white supremacist logic. It has enabled this putrid mindset to grow, spread and evolve. Black achievement of any kind, especially being the first to achieve some great feat in a formerly all-white male dominated field, betrays this peculiar evolutionary trend.
However, being “first” also carries with it a burden. In an observation that undoubtedly applies to Biles and every single black athlete competing in this year’s Olympics, Manuel said, “My color just comes with the territory.”
That “territory” is a complicated space to reside in. Manuel admits as much in a follow-up remark, stating that it
“is something I’ve definitely struggled with a lot. Coming into the race I tried to take weight of the black community off my shoulders. It’s something I carry with me. I want to be an inspiration, but I would like there to be a day when it is not ‘Simone the black swimmer.’”
We can engage in all sorts of speculations about the reasons why Manuel appears to backpedal from her position as a race woman. One reason I would like to draw attention to is social demand that blacks be “twice-as-good” as their white counterparts.
The “twice-as-good” talk is an indispensable rite-of-passage for black children and adolescents. It is a conversation as elemental to growing up black as is the talk about racial profiling and police brutality. Its specific content may vary from family to family. But, the core lesson remains the same.
What parents, caregivers, and guardians strive to communicate, as clearly and painlessly as possible, is that black life is caught up in white gaze, and to thrive in this form of society, Black people must an extra 20, 30, 50 plus miles to prove their worth and humanity.
White humans, by contrast, are exempt from this responsibility, for they are the gold standard blacks have spent a historical lifetime striving to meet.
When a black parent advises her or his child to be “twice-as-good”, she’s not just issuing a pep talk, but a survival tool with life or death consequences. Anything less than this standard of performance spells doom for the health and safety of the community.
Failure to be “twice-as-good” results in police brutality and incarceration.
Failure to be “twice-as-good” results in substandard health care.
Failure to be “twice-as-good” results in sub-par housing.
Failure to be “twice-as-good results in justification of cycle of poverty and income inequality.
Failure to be “twice-as-good results in the perception of cultural pathology.
Failure to be “twice-as-good” results, in the final analysis, in imminent death and extinction.
As you can imagine, it’s been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for every Black child and adult to fulfill this expectation.
For black girls and women, the problem is compounded by the issue of gender. Sandra Bland, Dejerra Becton, and Korryn Gaines were not just black, but “sassy”, “smart-mouthed”, irreverent and opinionated women. In the patriarchal eyes of whites and blacks alike, these women are representative of the black woman majority and their refusal to abide by the rules of respectability politics justified their deaths at the hands of the state.
America continues to train blacks to connect acceptability and admission to perfection.
Black Girl Magic Must Mean Room to Fail
I say all this to assure you that I understand the significance of celebrating “firsts”, of pointing to mountaintops like Biles, Manuel, and Michelle Carter while existing on the plains. I know the psychological stakes of spotlighting individual achievements.
Firsts still mean something to Blacks because America has spent centuries making Blacks second and hasn’t abandoned the practice.
Every first means defying racist science, religion, and moral stereotypes. Every first is a referendum on the community, not just the individual.
But, as inspirational and aspirational as “firsts” are, they have another, more hostile, even abusive, effect than the one intended.
When Barack Obama became the first black American male to win the presidency and the media declared that we, as a society, had graduated into an era of post-racialism, black people felt collared and trapped.
Race critics on the offense pointed to the Obamas as the standard bearers of black success and used their brand of respectability as means of downplaying the impact of racism in contemporary America.
Obama’s life, like the lives of many other firsts, has been used to offset the impact of structural racism or blame social problems that are, in essence, systemic on individual shortcomings of black people.
So, when individual blacks achieve anything of merit with the full “weight of the black community” pressing on their shoulders, they simultaneously cuddle their black heritage and distance themselves from it. They do this because black people, in most cases, are not allowed to fail and retain every dimension of their humanity.
This must change.
Every black person will not grow up to be president of the “free world.” Every black girl will not grow up to be a star athlete or compete in the Olympics at the level of a Simone Biles and Simone Manuel. Every black girl will not be “first” to do something spectacular. And, that’s okay. In fact, we shouldn’t have it any other way. The deserve our protection, love, and respect just the same.
On the flip side, Biles and Manuel, as well as all black girls the continent over, should be allowed to misstep, to fail, and still be seen as magical, still be embraced as representative of Black America and Black excellence.