Mixed Emotions

Zaila Avant-garde holding national spelling bee trophy with confetti coming down

I wasn’t surprised by my mixed emotions, several weeks ago, when headline after headline and several television stations were hailing the accomplishments of Zaila Avant-garde, the first African American champion of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee. My feelings were complicated to say the least:

  • Elation for Zaila and her family and what this means for her future.
  • Collective pride, along with other Black Americans, that her hard work was rewarded.
  • Shame that the screaming headlines that highlighted the fact that Zaila is Black may cause some to draw the illogical conclusion that what Zaila did was extraordinary because Black Americans don’t usually have the intellectual capacity for such a feat.
  • Resentment that the United States is still recognizing “the first” among Black Americans.
  • Anger because “until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Black children were routinely banned from participating in spelling bees. All winners were White until Puerto Rican Hugh Tosteson Garcia was named champion in 1975.” (Shalini Shankar, “Zaila Avant-garde’s Spelling Bee win sends exuberant message,” Opinion, CNN online, July 9, 2021)
  • Disheartened that “Indian American winners who have steadily won since 1998 have endured a litany of racism on broadcast and social media for not being ‘American’—code for not being White. Seen by many as outsiders, and as part of communities subjected to waves of anti-Asian violence, they are left to make sense of negative reactions to their success in the form of calls for ‘real Americans’ to regain control of this contest.” (Shankar, “Zaila Avant-garde’s Spelling Bee”)

Despite my mixed emotions, I’m glad that Zaila received so much attention because her success will alert other families and their children that they, too, can have the kind of success that Zaila, the scholar-athlete, has achieved.

4 responses to “Mixed Emotions

  1. @Gwen, Thank you for sharing.

  2. A big yes to everything you listed. You covered the bases. Thank you for the clarity and completeness.

  3. Jacqueline S Joines

    Amen. I totally agree!

  4. I appreciate you sharing this. Your comments are important on so many levels. .. .”the United States is still recognizing “the first” among Black Americans.” The fact that “until 1964 Black children were banned from participating…” And today black and brown communities live with the lingering effects of earlier exclusion while politicians and citizens are doing everything they can to again limit or exclude non-white people, period. From voting rights to erasing US history, limiting what books can be read… on and on. I used to believe it when I heard people say that as a country, “This isn’t who we are…” sadly that is not an accurate description of our history or our present. Your words are a reminder of how much work remains to be done to form a more equitable and just future, where everyone has the opportunity to give their best. Thank you.

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