Daughter of Africa, Mother of African American Literature, Another American Revolution (Black History Series, African American Literature Series, & New Daughters of Africa Series). Dedicated to Honorée Jeffers.
Olympic gymanist and Gold Medalist Gabrielle Douglas
In the midst of all of the dialogue about Olympic Gold Medalist Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas, including all of the ridiculous and obsessive media stories focused on her hair, I have been most intrigued by her shared qualities with Phillis Wheatley, the author of the earliest book in African American literary history, which is entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). I have been thinking about Wheatley for three reasons over these past few weeks. First, I recently completed an art quilt featuring her (above), which is dedicated to one of my dear friends, the poet Honorée Jeffers. Like me, she is from the state of Alabama, and has been at work on a volume of poetry honoring Wheatley. Second, I was preparing to teach Wheatley, who always leads off my survey of African American literature -1930s. In the process, I was also meditating on Vincent Carretta’s engaging new biography on Wheatley, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (2011) and also thinking toward teaching it. And third, after wrapping up all of my chapter drafts, I was working on the introduction of my second book, which begins with a discussion of Wheatley.
Even as a woman who stands 6’2” and has never taken gymnastics or had an interest in playing sports at all, I have long been a fan of women’s gymnastics and look forward to this event at every Olympics. My 2003 Mississippi Quarterly essay entitled “ Southern Turns” begins with a discussion of what I felt was at stake in the images of antebellum Southern romance that animated the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, from strutting belles to strutting gentlemen, along with the running commentary during the opening parade on nations that had “never won a medal.” As I began my dissertation at Duke that summer, I followed those games with great interest, including the gymnastics competitions. I was especially interested in African American gymnast Dominique Dawes. I was happy when the U.S. won the team Gold, though concerned about the pressure on Kerri Strugg to stick her second vault on a sprained ankle. Even before the games started, it had been frustrating to hear Shannon Miller and Dominique Moceanu described as the U.S. team members most likely to win gold during the Individual All Around. Yet, the reality that most people have forgotten is that Dawes advanced further than either one of them in this competition. I noticed how alone Dawes was every time that she went out on the floor and did her routines and then returned to her teammates on the sidelines, who seemed to ignore her and failed time after time to affirm her or embrace her after these impressive performances. Yet, they embraced one another. I respected Dawes all the more for the strength, focus and tenacity that she demonstrated in spite of it all. When she stepped out of bounds during the floor routine in the Individual All Around, I was devastated and mortified. I literally cried myself to sleep that night because seeing her dream lost was heartbreaking. Talk show host Rosie O’Donnell and many others were crying right along with me because so many people knew and cared about how much was at stake for all of the talented girls competing.
Just as I was happy to see Dawes make history on the team she helped to victory in 1996, I have been heartened and inspired that once again, a black teen gymnast has been instrumental in helping the U.S. gymnastics team win its second gold medal, and went on to become the first black girl and woman to ever win the Individual All Around in women’s gymnastics. One of my undergraduate mentors at Spelman College, Christine Wick Sizemore, published an academic study in 1989 entitled A Female Vision of the City: London in the Novels of Five British Women. I am intrigued by the parallel ways in which London served as the geographical context for the emergence of Phillis Wheatley as a writer of international renown given that it was the site where her first book was published and a place she visited. Similarly, I am intrigued by how the city of London, as the site of the 2012 Olympic Games, has launched Gabby as an international celebrity in recent weeks. Indeed, Skip Gates’s short book The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers, which I have also assigned several times in my African American literature survey, compellingly describes Wheatley as an international celebrity and the “Toni Morrison of her time,” the late eighteenth century. Even beyond these general similarities, I would say that both teens, in spite of their separation by several centuries, have been primarily grounded by their Christian faith. Both teens, for different reasons, and in spite of their clear talents and abilities, were subjected to forms of intense public scrutiny and "tests" of sorts in which they had to “prove themselves.” Stories about Wheatley often highlight the “Attestation” that she famously endured in Boston, in which she was questioned by a panel of distinguished gentlemen to ascertain her authorship of the poems in her volume. Perhaps the most famous and significant signature among the fourteen signatures is that of John Hancock, who later signed the Declaration of Independence, and whose name itself has become the quintessential signifier and noun referencing the signature in our nation’s vernacular. Similarly, Gabby Douglas performed for an international audience under intense scrutiny during the London Olympic Games before a panel of international judges. She seemed to be judged as much in the news media about the question of her readiness and potential to be a champion as a gymnast. In the end, it is much to her credit that she not only proved herself but also proved her critics wrong. It is also intriguing that just as Wheatley, notwithstanding her slave status, received support and tutelage within the household of her white owners-John and Susannah Wheatley-that helped her to gain literacy and come to voice as a poet, Gabby Douglas’s success was enabled not only by the support and sacrifices of her mother Natalie Hawkins, but also by her white host family in Iowa, which included Travis and Missy Parton and their four daughters. Such stories, then as now, not only have important implications related to how and why forms of white patronage have been recurrently instrumental in determining black mobility and success in the U.S., but also have implications for the discourses on transracial adoption and mixed-race identity. Just as the young Wheatley engaged distinguished public figures, from Benjamin Franklin to George Washington, Gabby Douglas has had encounters with figures from First Lady Michelle Obama to Oprah Winfrey, whose embraces and affirmations underscore the significance of Douglas’s historic achievement for little black girls and teens everywhere, as well as for black women, all Americans and fans around the world. While Wheatley wrote and gained her freedom in the face of an Enlightenment sensibility that devalued the black body and mind and viewed blacks as inferior, Douglas has made her mark as an athlete in a millennial culture that has been prematurely described as postracial, and in which the ideological devaluation of the black body persists.
I was inspired to see the interview with Douglas and her mother this past weekend on Oprah Winfrey Presents, as well as her coach Liang Chow, and her host family, the Partons. In this interview, it was particularly sobering to hear about the “bullying” that Douglas endured as a young teen at her former gym in Virginia Beach, to the point of being isolated by other girls and referred to as a “slave," experiences that shaped her choice to leave. It is just as appalling to hear denials of these incidents, including those of her former coach, which suggest that Gabby is somehow lying. For example, Gustavo Maure of Excalibur Gymnastics has stated to E! News that “Gabby’s remarks were hurtful and without merit . . . Her African American former teammates will answer this serious accusation . . . We are good people. We never were knowingly involved in any type of bullying or racist treatment, like she is accusing Excalibur.” Another gymnast said that the comments were “absolutely ridiculous.” Another spokesperson said that “Gabby was never a victim, in fact many would say she was one of the favorites. . . I am not saying that she never felt bullied because when you are in a sport with a bunch of girls it is bond[sic] to happen. However, anything that she may have felt was never about race and I can assure you everyone at some point has felt bullied.”
I find these efforts to dispute, dismiss and discount Douglas’s experiences to be deeply problematic. All that the refutations of Douglas’s story demonstrate to me is that if you are not black or invested in anti-racism, then what counts as racism may not be visible, detectable, or even important to you. Yet, such racial incidents are magnified 50,000 times and are extremely noticeable and hurtful to anybody who actually experiences them, and can do the kind of harm that you don’t, or worse, WON’T, see. The refutations and denials also demonstrate the persisting uses and abuses of the discourses of colorblindness to discredit black experiences of racism. We always have to be vigilant in not re inscribing stereotypes of the U.S. South as a racist region, but the behavior sounds like the kind that could very well happen in a Southern gym. Some girls and women in gymnastics can see the sport as a club that belongs to them and one in which black girls like Gabby have no right or place. Furthermore, in the interview, it is important to acknowledge that both Gabby Douglas and her mother, Mrs. Hawkins, demonstrated a reluctance to claim that all of the problems the former experienced were related to race; Oprah Winfrey also made the distinctions clear. It is not as if Gabby Douglas is crying wolf here, so to speak. These experiences sound very real, and are far too commonplace for her to have ever made up.
I believe her, too, because as she was describing what happened to her at her gym in her interview, I was reminded of things that have also happened to me in academia. For example, her reflections on her experiences at her gym reminded me of how two white women on the faculty on my former job would actually walk into the room for faculty meeting, see me sitting alone at the table there and waiting for it to begin, yet not speak or acknowledge my presence, and just sit down and start talking to each other. It happened several times. It was as if they were trying to hurt my feelings or trying to remind me that they had some kind of “club” of which I was not a part-as if I would have even wanted to be a part of it! One of them even came into the mail room when I was already there several times and walked in and out without speaking. Those behaviors, which some black women in the academy are equally capable of manifesting, were all the more mystifying when considering that there were absolutely no contexts to explain why on earth they were behaving like that. I was the wrong person to try that with, for from my earliest childhood, I was taught by people like my grandmother to stay away from any children who acted funny or as if they didn’t want to play with me. On top of this, I grew up hearing strong condemnations in our household of the types of people who “lick and lap up behind folks” and “buy friendship,” so have NEVER, EVER done those things in my life, nor have I ever cared when someone did not like me. Moreover, a lifetime of hearing one-line sayings like “one monkey don’t stop the show” has also kept me grounded and constantly reminded of who is important to me in the larger scheme of things-and who isn’t. Even in places where racism is not so much institutionally sanctioned and where one’s presence, on top of one’s work and credentials, helps to diversify a place in ways that most other people appreciate, racism can come out in interpersonal interactions in some cases. Minority scholars are often its targets.
Similarly, I was appalled when a topmost administrator (I won’t get any more specific and will just leave it at that) walked up to a group of three white professors in which I was also standing and talking about the subject of home-schooling at a major university conference/retreat in 2006. He spoke to and acknowledged each one of them and shook their hands, but ignored me standing there. That moment, especially as someone who had just gotten tenure the year before, was sobering for me and a real eye-opener. I remember thinking that “If they want to play this dirty game with me, I’m going to show them how to play it!” I remember thinking with the deepest indignation in the ensuing weeks that “I am the one who was a debutante! I am the one who flies first class! I am the one who is in a sorority!” and so forth and so on. Similarly, in the spring of 2008, when I was among the honorees at a gathering, and he happened to be sitting at my table, he asked, “What office do you work in on campus?” instead of presuming that I was a professor on campus. I could not help but think that in his mind, any black woman seemed to register automatically as staff. (That moment was roughly analogous to once going downstairs in my high rise condominium building to pick up a package-the only apartment building in downtown Sacramento with a doorman-and being asked by a new woman in the management office, “Who are you picking up mail for?” as if I as a black woman must be working as a domestic for somebody in the building, instead of actually living there). People like him and experiences like that really compelled me to tighten my filters and narrow my circle as an academic. All of these dynamics, along with the ones that Gabby Douglas describes in her landmark interview with Oprah Winfrey, also remind me of a passage I read in a chapter entitled “The Staying Power of Racism” in Alabama writer and scholar Trudier Harris’s memoir, Summer Snow: Reflections from a Black Daughter of the South: “I remember how shocked I was when a white male colleague and I were both in our offices early one morning, long before others had arrived, and we happened to enter the hallway at the same time. ‘Good morning,’ I called out. He said nothing. Whatever excuses I might have tried to attribute to his behavior proved over the years to be irrelevant, for he had conveyed precisely what he wanted to convey-that he elected not to acknowledge my existence in those private moments. The same was true of another white man. Yet, when these English departments held receptions and public gatherings, both men would join in groups in which I was involved in conversations and pretend that we had been best buddies for years. Both these men valued the opinions of their nonblack colleagues so they toed the proper racial line among them. Yet their hearts remained unchanged.”
I’ve said all of this to say that I believe Gabby Douglas in part because the experiences that she claims to have had at her Virginia gym DO happen to black people and other people of color all the time, and also even happen to some whites on the basis of factors such as race, class, gender, nationality, and sexuality. I believe her because I have experienced similar things myself in instances, along with many people I know. I believe her because of what I even saw Dominque Dawes experience. And because I just believe her.
I want to suggest that the profound continuities in the stories of Gabby Douglas and Phillis Wheatley are useful to recognize and think about in African American literary and cultural history. That in the wake of her Olympic triumph, Gabby has adopted a “new name,” or rather, reclaimed her given name of “Gabrielle,” also compels me to think about how her story adapts, revises and expands recurrent narratives and motifs in African American literary history, beginning with devices established in the slave narrative as a genre, and how her story relates to that of a figure in African American literary history such as Phillis Wheatley. Gabby Douglas, like Phillis Wheatley, has become a global phenomenon, is also incredibly talented and gifted, and has a story that can even help us to introduce Wheatley to new generations of young girls and students. For all of the reasons that I have outlined in this post, I suggest that the story of Gabrielle Douglas is useful to “think with,” “teach with” and write through as a scholar in areas such as American and African American literature, Southern studies, gender studies, cultural studies, popular culture, and Africana studies.
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