I write this as my beautiful habesha sleeps in the room next door. I told her she could stay up to watch the olympics because she wanted to see Gabby Douglas, but she just couldn’t make it. She fell asleep during volleyball, minutes away from gymnastics.
Yesterday we watched the highlights of the team competition on my computer. It was late afternoon hot, and her skin stuck to mine as we crowded close together on the sofa.
“Again,” she said, reduced to monosyllables. “Again.”
“That girl,” she said, “that girl is brown like me.”
Her face made tears spring to my eyes. Of course I’m thrilled that she is finding a model in a girl who seems utterly worthy of praise. But her open-mouthed wonder that a brown girl can be a gymnast? Breaks me open.
In the car after camp today, I told her we’d stay up for it–for the highlights.I knew the end results, of course, but decided to play dumb. “Who do you think will win, Selam?” “The brown girl, Gabby Douglas.” “Well, there are lots of good gymnasts, we’ll have to wait and see…” “But mommy, it’s a brown girl’s TURN to win!” How does she know this? I have no idea.
In fact, while she sang Herbie the worm and took swimming lessons at camp today, a brown girl took her turn and became the first African American woman to win Olympic all around gold. It was her turn.
And while we celebrate, the internet is alive with critiques of her hair. Her hair. This child –16 years old–just won Olympic gold. Twice. And still she’s not good enough? Her hair (which, for the record looks just as good as all the white gymnasts’ hair. It’s not a hair show, folks) and the teammate who didn’t make the cut as expected are stealing the show. It’s like it’s just too much to let a black girl, a brown girl just shine.
The young women are doing flips and twirls on a slender wooden beam now. Their costumes sparkle in the bright lights. Ponytails fly in the air. Chalk clings to tiny legs. And Selam sleeps.
Sometimes I see in her a shadow of what she will be. Mostly, though, she’s a mystery to me. What will be her thing? Will she have a thing? She’s creative and funny. She likes to draw. She runs fast and swims well. Her grace and flexibility point to strength in dance, or even gymnastics. She’s definitely dramatic. Will one of these things be the thing that makes her heart sing? Maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s nothing at all. Maybe she’ll just find joy in dribs and drabs of activities. That’s fine, too.
But let me say this: whatever grabs your heart, little girl, I pray that you will be celebrated without qualification. I pray that your hair or teammates or the color of your shoelaces not be used to diminish you. Tonight it was Gabby’s turn. Someday it will be yours.
Selam just woke up and came out to the sofa. She’s curled up next to me, asleep already, having seen approximately ten seconds of swimming. “Did the brown girl win?” she asked. Before I could answer she continued, “Did she have fun? Miss Elizabeth says if you had fun…” she doesn’t finish her thought, going back to sleep with her pre-school teacher’s words on her lips. If you had fun, you won. That’s what Miss Elizabeth always said.
I think she did, Selam.
I hope she did.