Black women Olympics patriotism racism Rio
How Watching the Brilliant Black Women of Team USA Turned Me into a Reluctant Patriot8/22/2016
by Kimberly Foster @KimberlyNFoster As a woman who is both Black and American, my identity is frau...
by Kimberly Foster @KimberlyNFoster
As a woman who is both Black and American, my identity is fraught. I have not yet figured out how to reconcile all of its parts, but I do know I am hesitant to embrace patriotism. Because I grew up in the Midwest and South, public displays of strong nationalist sentiment are an immediate cause for concern. If, for example, I encountered a group of white men chanting “USA!” anywhere, I would immediately find an escape. What others may interpret as benign shows of pride are, to me, signals of imminent danger.
My fears have roots in the racist past and present. For much of the 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan flew American flags at their rallies and exalted, what historian Trevor Griffey calls, “Christian patriotism” while they harassed and terrorized Black and Jewish Americans. These same sentiments embolden white “patriots” today to demean and harass anyone who is not white or Christian, and they undergird the rise of Trumpism as an accepted mode of political discourse. Although it was the stolen labor of my ancestors that “made America great,” my body is still is not seen as sufficiently American in many contexts. Black and brown people wrapping ourselves in the flag offers little protection from those who idealize the United States as a land of white rule; thus. we are perpetually subject to the indignities of simultaneous hypervisibility and erasure.
Though I rarely carry the mantle of national pride, I did not choose to forego the quadrennial ritual of cheering on Team USA at the Olympics. I’ve been awaiting the Games in Rio for months, mostly to see Simone Biles’ dominance. But I had many more sisters in my head to encourage through my TV screen: Simone Manuel, Gabby, Lia, Venus and Serena, Ibtihaj, Allyson, Clarissa, Michelle, Ashleigh, Brittany, and Nzingha, just to name a few.
Nothing delights me more than the thought of an elite Black woman athlete returning to the United States with more than the sense of satisfaction that accompanies a job well done. I hoped they would accomplish the goals they set for themselves as children. I wanted them to win.
They did more than that. They dominated. Black women took home nearly a quarter of the medals won for the United States.
I’m still not sure what to make of it all because the Olympics stir up feelings I often suppress. Each time someone I admire stood atop a podium to receive her gold medal, I felt my heart nearly burst with pride. As the National Anthem blared and the stars and stripes were raised into the air, a rush of emotion overtook me. I was moved not just because these women successfully completed their journeys but because I get to share in the accomplishment by virtue of where I was born. These are the times when the muddy intersections of Black womanhood and U.S. nationalism present themselves most clearly. The fondness elicited during such displays is foreign and confusing. I can describe it only as something like a love of country.
As I’ve been immersed in the joy of triumph for the past fortnight, I realized that my fascination with the event is particularly pointed in this moment. As Black people continue to struggle to be seen as full and free citizens of the United States, this is the rare time when that goal seems like a real possibility.
This world of sport provides a unique opportunity for Black Americans to be rewarded equitably for their talent and drive. Jesse Jackson noted in 2003 that this is because athletics are our closest example of a true meritocracy. “We do well when the playing field is even and the rules are public and the goal is clear,” he said. The Olympians put in the work and get to reap the rewards, something the bitter unfairness of a racial caste system often prevents.
There is a profound joy in seeing young, Black women defy, if only for a time, the systems that have long exploited our labor. Gymnast Simone Biles, for example, is the breakout star of 2016. She is a three-time world champion, arguably the most dominant athlete alive, who had to wait for the short window in which the world pays close attention to her sport to get her due. With a handful of national endorsement deals already inked, she will soon be a household name. Biles has few privileges to trade on. She’s four-foot-eight with dark skin and a muscular frame. She is getting this acclaim because she earned it.
But even while I watched women accumulate their hardware with glee, the lived experiences of those on the margins never left my mind. It is impossible, in the age of #BlackLivesMatter, to forget that these same women and the millions who look just like them are locked out of realizing the promises of American democracy.
Most pernicious is that exceptional Blackness becomes a symbol to feed the fiction of the American Dream. 19-year-old Biles has the kind of success story mainstream media loves. Despite her birth mother’s battles with addiction and her short stint in foster care, she is a juggernaut. These feel good stories embolden us to ignore the Simones who will never be Olympians. And once those narratives are no longer useful, the women can be unceremoniously knocked off their media pedestals. All it took for Gabby Douglas was a less than supernatural showing in 2016 (mind you, she still won a gold medal) and a fabricated controversy over her failure to put her hand over her heart during the national anthem to make her a target. Gabby endures this because gold medals are not shields from misogynoir. They are alluring and often inspiring, but they are still just symbols.
This isn’t the first time seeing Black symbols of American promise have aroused such tension in me. These athletes challenge any attempt to remove myself from investing in U.S. nationalism in much the same ways the Obamas have. As the public faces of the Republic, I find myself unsure of what to do with the rhetoric of American exceptionalism the President and First Lady often endorse. At the Democratic National Convention in July, President Barack Obama and the First Lady made the case for the United States of the greatest, most equitable nation on Earth. “America is already great. America is already strong,” the President explained, responding to Donald Trump’s accusations of national decline. Their dynamism makes it difficult not to be drawn in when they speak. But sometimes it feels like they’re living in a different land. There is a dissonance between the Land of Liberty they extol and the plight of Black americans whose systemic oppression leads to less wealth, poorer education, and shorter lives. The Obamas, being the brilliant duo they are, surely know numbers. And it seems their displays are genuine. They speak of what they believe in. America is surely broken. But they radiate hope.
I admit there's something quite dreary about lauding achievement in the face of an oppression that should not exist. The feelings of satisfaction are real and deep, but they are fleeting. What does it mean that one must be in the 1% of physical specimens to embody the sort of freedom that should be available to us all? But the history of being Black in America is finding joy in spite of the suffering. So I will continue to basque in the afterglow of the home team's Black Girl Magic.
Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor-in-chief of For Harriet. Email or Follow @KimberlyNFoster