Black Girls Rock! Considering Gabby Douglas, Cultural Phenom
Gabrielle Douglas is the 16 year old two-time Olympic gold medalist (at the time of this post) in the team and individual all around gymnastic events. Her success is a testament to the almost single-minded drive of a young woman, her family, and coaches. In a few short days she has been transformed into a pop cultural phenomenon. She is, first and foremost, an Olympic champion. Gabby has also become America’s sweetheart. Finally, she is a black girl. The three identities are inextricably embedded in her public personae. The gold medal-winning athlete and surging popularity will follow a well-established path in the public consciousness. It is the fact of race that both complicates and potentially deepens her impact on cultural history.
Gabby Douglas’ story can be easily recounted in the familiar terms that world-class athletes use. She spent thousands of hours in the gym, sacrificed greatly, and continued to perform through pain. She moved from Virginia Beach to Iowa at 14 years old in order to train with a winning coach and live with a host family. She talks convincingly of blood, sweat and tears at the gym because one must remember that she has shed them all in pursuit of the top spot in the world. She has the nickname of the “flying squirrel,” due to the ”height on release moves on the uneven bars.” The name reflects her skill, power and precision. Gabby Douglass joins Dominique Dawes, an African American woman, who won the gold for the team gymnastic event in 1996. After winning the individual gold, Gabby posted the following on her blog: “I was ready to seize the moment, to focus and to trust in what I can do.” She stands alone as the first black woman to win the individual all around gold medal.
The experience of watching her perform is transfixing. The iconic picture by AP photographer, Gregory Bull, captures Gabby in motion. Her arms are stretched out as she leaps above the balance beam to complete a split in the air. She would go on to win the individual all around gold that day. According to the AP deputy director of photography, the photo is striking because it captures the “graceful motion and the horizontal lines between the balance beam and her perfectly-positioned body.” She is a strong and graceful athlete. As a fan of the sport of gymnastics, I liken her performance to the virtuosity of great jazz players like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. They are so good that they make the difficult and technical elements of their respective fields seem effortless. Gabby has mastered gymnastics and her genius is evident in the performance.
She has stepped quite easily into the role of America’s sweetheart. Her athletic prowess is undeniable. She is also quite clearly a bright, bubbly teenager who will appeal to a large cross section of consumers. She has already received the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes cereal and Proctor & Gamble beauty (Cover Girl, Secret, Pantene) endorsements that are worth millions. She has massive pop cultural appeal because she has gained support from Lil Wayne, Beyoncé and President Obama. She is young, articulate and accomplished. This is an American success story that everyone should celebrate. She is being justly rewarded for the years of sacrifice.
Yet Gabby’s tale does not end with the waves on top of the Olympic podium and newfound cultural prominence. As a female athlete, there is another level of scrutiny that she must endure. Women in sports are judged for their looks, style of dress, and her case, hair. Much of the uproar has taken place online where the black people are making negative comments about her hairstyle. This would be an acceptable critique, perhaps, if she were in a different setting like a church, night club, or beauty contest. She wears her hair in typical gymnast fashion, which means it is anchored by a couple of barrettes, held by ties, and most importantly does not interfere with her performance. Gabby’s hair is a non-factor in critically evaluating her an Olympic gymnastic event, full stop.
The origin of those Twitter comments are based upon a misguided notion that the only way to define black beauty and hair is to mimic white paradigms in an absolute manner. Black hair is considered “done” when is it permed with a chemical or straightened with a hot iron. For many black girls, their unprocessed hair is curly, wavy, and thick. That natural hair could be beautiful is a product of the black freedom struggle of the 1960s and 1970s. From James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” to Angela Davis’ Afro, these cultural icons spread the idea that black traits can be celebrated and applauded. The fact that black people are still fighting the cultural war over the state of hair is disconcerting. It also flies in the face of a long history of that has solidified the idea that black people can be free to love black traits.
Black people are wrongly being critical of Gabby’s hair, which is gorgeous. Yet I do not want to uplift natural styles and denigrate chemically processed hair. I would, moreover, offer the following response to those Twitter users: All black hair is good hair. Each style contains an equal level of beauty. Black hair is great precisely due to its kinky, wavy, and irrepressibly curly character. Despite the protestations to the contrary captured in the Chris Rock documentary, Good Hair, all black hair should be celebrated. It can be braided, pressed, weaved, knotted, dreaded, relaxed, curled, or straightened. And it is glorious in all its forms.
Gabby’s shine is not diminished in the least by the marginal snubs by those black folks in the online community. The complication inherent in constructing a healthy and fully realized black identity that embraces the rich depth of African ancestry continues. For this this moment, we can eagerly anticipate the next chapter in a story of a young black girl turned Olympic champion. It has been nothing less than extraordinary.