Congratulations, Zaila Avant-garde!
I can’t imagine being a Guinness World Book record holder not once or twice, but three times for extraordinary basketball skills. I can’t imagine, even now in my middle age, being so good at something that I become important to the world, not for who I am but more for what I can do.
Our society is drawn to performance and excellence and let me tell you, Zaila Avant-garde is excellence!
In case you’ve been in a media bubble or have gone sans electronics and technology for the past 24 hours, let me be the one to enthusiastically introduce you to this amazing 14-year-old.
Zaila Avant-garde is an eighth-grader from Harvey, Louisiana. Not only is she a Guinness World Book record holder, she just became the first African American to win the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee in its almost 100 years of existence.
This monumental moment carries far beyond Thursday night’s confetti-covered stage and spills into the homes of African Americans across the country.
After the grief-stricken veil of news that has poured into American homes over the past year relating to the Black community and other people of color takes a favorable turn, we are going to soak it in, support the win, and shout that positivity from our rooftops, newsfeeds, and tweets as loud and as long as possible. If you want to join the party bus, hop on!
Personally, as a mom to two tweens, I took this “Black win” as an opportunity to teach my children about another human who looks like them and is doing important things in the world. I also took Zaila’s win as an opportunity to inspire them by reiterating something I’ve shared with them many times before: “You only fail if you give up.” I know these words aren’t profound for some, but when you’re raising Black children in a world where their wins can be viewed as only good enough if they are considered great by an unknown scale, these words make a difference.
Zaila, like many other well-known African Americans, has been officially accepted into American culture because of her greatness. Even though she had been a Guinness World Book record holder for basketball skills three times prior to her spelling bee win, she hadn’t yet reached the American standard of greatness until the other night when she proved her intellect matched her physical abilities. People will know her name now because she has surpassed “good” at the many things she has proven she can do.
Her door to greatness is now open, and her door opens more of them for others just like her.
This Alice in Wonderland sort of door is more than exciting because African American doors have been known, over time, to be harder to open than most, and it’s not always because they are harder to find.
Zaila has made history, and I believe she is very aware of the path she just paved for young people of color. I believe that, even at 14 years old, she understands the magnitude of her win because she understood before she achieved it that her win would not be one for self-keeping. I think she understood that if she won, it would be a win shared with so many others who look and dream just like her. I believe that even though her achievements are what’s spotlighted and what she is now known for, she holds wonderful qualities of selflessness, humbleness, and gratitude because she knew the prize would never be hers alone. I hope in time, we will also get to know her.
I am so excited for Zaila’s future and how her name will now be known not just in African American homes, but in a variety of households across America and around the world.
I’m making sure my kids know her name, too. I hope they read about her in books as time goes by and her story creates a reminder of what is possible so they appreciate the bar she has set. I want them to know Zaila’s story, not for just being a great speller or outstanding basketball player, but for her resiliency, her endurance, and for following through. I want them to know that greatness is not defined by people saying it is so—it is developed simply by not giving up. That is how you catch wins.
Zaila has made history! Her perfectly spelled winning word was “murraya”—a genus of flowering plants.
I hope she knows that is exactly what she just planted in our African American youth.
Now, they get to bloom!
Three Guinness World Records and now the national spelling bee champ! Congrats, Zaila—your hard work is paying off. We’re all proud of you. https://t.co/UaYoRMGirZ
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) July 9, 2021