Just like you did when you told us: “If you can get through the hard days, you can get through anything.”
And then you beamed that million-dollar smile.
Hang in there like you did when the interviewer asked you a question that might have thrown someone else: “Did you think that was a gold-medal performance?”
“Yes,” you said, so confidently. “Yes.”
“Wow,” we thought, “this little girl is wise beyond her years.” You were so focused that night on making history and not focused on things that were irrelevant, the small-minded nothingness that would follow. You held your gold medal high. You walked regally waving to adoring fans.
We all watched you as you rose to quick fame.
Innocence in your pretty brown eyes.
Then just as quickly as you rose, mean, little people who sat behind computers and smart phones began attacking you with little tweets, focusing on insignificant and petty issues despite the pride with which you represented your country in the most international arena- trying to break you down. Trying their best to dismantle that confidence — to shake you. And then too many people on television and in newspapers gave them a voice.
Oh, we thought, Gabby is far too young for that. Far too young to be hurt by mean words that multiply in the parallel universe on the Internet. Far too young to be exposed to that kind of hate. Far too young to be exposed to questions about definitions of black beauty.
Those questions are always hovering out there, ready to strip black girls of their confidence, of their self esteem. Hovering in a society that trumpets European aesthetics, that has even affected other black women, making them question their own beauty.
Those questions are the reasons poets over the years have written words to celebrate the black girl and infuse her with strength, because they knew once she grew up and left the house and went out into the world, somebody would try to tear her down, even her own sisters.
We heard it in the words of “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou:
“Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.”
We heard it in songs of the “Black is Beautiful” movement affirming our beauty that began in the ’60s and flourished in the ’70s.
“Say it loud,” James Brown shouted, “I’m black, and I’m proud.”
We heard it in the songs of Grammy-winner India.Arie’s “Brown Skin,” “Beautiful,” and “I Am Not My Hair.”
We saw beautiful black women on big screens flaunt their natural hair, big Afros that sat like crowns. We heard it from our mothers and grandmothers who spoke softly, filling our heads with affirmations of black beauty, telling stories about kings and queens from Africa, explaining that black skin was sprinkled with gold, and black hair was a crown that was built to protect us from the sun.
“See,” our mothers would say, “you don’t need a hat in the sun.”
“See,” she would say, “see how your skin sparkles in the sun. It’s just beautiful.”
All those words were meant to prepare us. They thought if they could fill our heads with enough words about our natural beauty, it might be enough to carry us through moments like these.
We thought we had ascended. Thought the country had moved beyond a need for explanation.
But we see more lessons must be taught about acceptance, more knowledge must be instilled. Until the small-minded people who have not moved beyond small conversations about our beauty, until they have learned that beauty can be tall and thin, short and round, long and spiked, straight and natural, locked in twists or smoothed back with a little gel.
Until they learn the real definition of black beauty is that you are beautiful just the way you are.
Until they catch up, until they learn, all we can say to you, Gabby, is: Keep your head up. Keep that beautiful head up.
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