For a Black girl, even the air be heavy.
In every direction, we breathe in oppression — we have to make space to be, exist, and exhale. Pressure. We’re born into it. In order to rise, we must fight to lose the weight of every lie we learn about ourselves. This is how we fly.
Whether you’re an Olympian or a trans girl trying to learn in school, this is our everyday hurdle to jump.
This is the work, the magic, the wit, commitment, and the resilience we see in the swing of Naomi Osaka’s racket, the hurl of the hammer by Gwen Berry, the way Simone Biles bends gravity from the beam to the mat.
Sha’Carri Richardson is running toward the truth of her, the beauty of us Black girls.
America tries to grow us and dress us in stigma, even as toddlers. Our tears and tantrums terrify teachers. According to a 2013-2014 report by the Department of Education, Black girls represent a fifth of female preschoolers, but account for over half of suspended female preschool students. The vilification never ends. It follows us to school, to work, everywhere we go. And there is no amount of excellence that can excel beyond misogynoir — the hate reserved for Black women.
Ikeria Washington and Layla Temple, named 2021 valedictorian and salutatorian for West Point High School, had to share their status, because white parents in Mississippi decided it was their children who deserved the honor.
Serena Williams knows this arena well. She’s been disproportionately tested for doping, penalized for showing the same passion as white athletes, punished for her attire, dehumanized, and consistently forced to act like Maria Sharapova was a formidable rival. She wasn’t.
You can be the brightest, the fastest, the strongest, the best. And America will root you on and be your fan until you show your humanity. Our greatness is best celebrated when it serves others. Standing up for civil rights, for yourself? This is a kind of defiance Black folk dare not do without permission, without white folk on your side.
So when “The Star-Spangled Banner” played and third-place hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned away on the podium at the Olympic trials Saturday, that same rage America gave Tommie Smith and John Carlos after the 1968 Olympics landed on her. The punishment for the Black femme activist athletes of their era, like Eroseanna Robinson and Wyomia Tyus, was erasure.
Republican Representative Dan Crenshaw wants Berry removed from the Olympic team for loving America so much she wants justice for all of its people. These folk place more loyalty in a flag and a song than actual liberty and freedom.
In 2019, Berry raised her fist in protest on the podium at the end of the national anthem during the Pan American Games in Peru. For that act of patriotism, she received a yearlong probation from the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee. She, in some ways like Colin Kaepernick, was denied her game. Now she is being trolled by racists around the world.
The thing is, even if she held her hand over her heart and mouthed, “Oh say can you see,” we might still be here.
Simone Biles was penalized for daring to perform better than any other gymnast and pulling off moves that lesser athletes can’t do. Why does she do it? Because she can. Even when you win, they try to make you lose. Supremacy hates a Black woman’s free will. Naomi Osaka was threatened with suspension and fined $15,000 for not wanting to engage the press during the French Open to prioritize her mental health. Ultimately, she dropped out of the tournament and Wimbledon, too.
To just be Black and woman and live on your own terms is to pay prices no one can afford. The Black Girl Penalty.
Retired tennis great Boris Becker, among those who blasted Osaka, can’t comprehend this kind of pressure. His privilege underlines his criticism of Osaka for her withdrawal from Wimbledon. He asks: Where is the pressure she’s dealing with? A shy American Black girl, both Haitian and Japanese and constantly questioned about it, took a stand against the brutalization of Black folk and anti-Asian hate during a global pandemic —that’s where it is.
She was never allowed to focus solely on serving the titans of tennis. She had to raise a racket for human rights, and for her rights, too.
So when we see Sha’Carri Richardson declare she is that girl, the one with the nails and lashes and speed who will show up and go hard and fast and be committed to her craft and God-given talent, the one who will shout out her girlfriend for her fiery hair and race into the arms of her grandmother, we cherish her.
Some see cockiness. We see Flo Jo and a lifetime of self-love in the face of a society that tries to make us ugly.
We lift the girls like Deanna and Mya Cook, who were punished at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden for having extensions just four years ago. And we know the Crown Act, banning race-based hair discrimination, has only passed in a handful of states.
When Richardson tells you to get her name right, it’s Sha’Carri. Say it with us: Sha-Kerry. We pray for the Black kids with gorgeous names that teachers twist and future employers typecast.
We remember how high fashion called our style ghetto only to commodify our culture. We never forget the policing of our hair, our bodies, our love.
We know that a Black woman, loving who she wants, looking how she chooses, and being her best and better than the rest, comfortably and confidently, is a protest to the image this country relegated us to. And also one she may have to pay for. We pray the price covers the next generation.
So when Richardson says she is that girl we lift her, and we lift the hammer-hurling Berry, throwing that tool with the energy to break barriers. We love to see Osaka rest. We stand with CeCe Telfer and hope she makes it to the Olympics next year. We root for Simone Biles to perform with gravity in ways that they cannot comprehend. We are them and them are we.
Black women beating the odds and riding the air.
Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.