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Simone Biles and the weight of the world

From Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka to Nikole Hannah-Jones and Kerby Jean-Raymond, the fight for Black brilliance, Black dreams, and Black being is heavy.

“I felt like I was still doing it for other people,” Simone Biles said after dropping out of the Tokyo Olympics.
“I felt like I was still doing it for other people,” Simone Biles said after dropping out of the Tokyo Olympics.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

We wrestle with the world so often at times the only way to win is to walk away.

This grapple is not exclusive to Black folk, but we disproportionately spar with inequities, and even peace of mind requires winning a war. Sometimes I think our pain is normalized, even amongst us, to the point of equanimity. Black women? We often carry stress with smiles. We push through pain with ease and only yell silent screams. We tuck and twist our hurt in places no one can see and keep on moving. On.

When Simone Biles — the greatest athlete in the world ― withdrew from Olympic gymnastics events because “fighting all of those demons” kept her from being in the right headspace, I cheered for a victory that will come with no medals. I cheered for her wellness and her freedom.

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“I felt like I was still doing it for other people,” she told The New York Times. “So that just, like, hurts my heart, because doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.

“At the end of the day, we’re human, too. So we have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do,” she said. “With the year that it’s been, I’m really not surprised how it played out.”

Biles has won four Olympic gold medals and 19 world championship medals. She did much of it while fighting USA Gymnastics to protect survivors of Larry Nassar. She, herself, is a survivor. Unprotected and disrespected.

She flies and makes harmony with gravity, stretching and pulling it into her, crafting maneuvers so bold and daringly difficult. She soars. Multiple maneuvers bear her name.

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And yet, her greatness is punished. The judges don’t value her moves at their proper worth.

“I’m almost 99 percent sure that if any other athlete were to do it besides me, they would give it correct credit, but since I’m already way ahead of everybody, they kind of want to pull it back,” Biles said in “Simone vs. Herself,” a Facebook Watch series. “They don’t think it’s fair that I win all the time.”

We are over-punished when we make mistakes, much like Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended and left off the US roster over marijuana use, while Megan Rapinoe gets to celebrate CBD. We are penalized if we manage to achieve a piece of perfection, like Biles, like Nikole Hannah-Jones.

“At some point when you have proven yourself and fought your way into institutions that were not built for you, when you’ve proven you can compete and excel at the highest level, you have to decide that you are done forcing yourself in,” Hannah-Jones said in a statement when she turned down tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her tenure offer was hollow, as the university had been complicit in baselessly denying the MacArthur Genius and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist in the first place. We cannot out-excellence white spaces determined to uphold whiteness as a superpower.

Hannah-Jones, along with Ta-Nehisi Coates, are taking their talents to Howard University, the mecca of historically Black colleges. It’s not entirely different from USA gymnast Jordan Chiles ditching oppressive coaches and racist training to take Biles up on the invitation to join her Black-owned gym, World Champions Centre, in Texas.

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Just three years ago, Chiles thought she’d lost her gymnastics dream. She’d been told both her body and her hair were too big. Having a voice of her own was conflated with anger. She was tired of fighting it. Now she’s at the Olympics for the first time. She stepped in to take the floor when Biles bowed out, helping Team USA win the silver medal. Chiles is on the team because she is an elite athlete. And Biles, another Black woman, saw that in her when white gymnastics culture tried to deny her.

Too often, our humanity is debased, policed, and leveraged when it serves others. We’ve seen it with Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. When Osaka withdrew from the French Open to focus on her mental health, the madness was immediate. People didn’t think her struggle was real.

In part, it’s because folk don’t register the pain of Black folk. Also, we have been trained to believe depression, anxiety, and trauma live out loud. We all carry that bag differently. A magazine cover, a Barbie, and an Olympic game are not a sign of wellness. We grab our joy where we can get it, but depression can take the lead and dance all over you at any time.

The pressure to be everything you want to be, and all the world expects from you or refuses to let you do, is too much. When Osaka lost her Olympic match earlier this week, the headlines read that she “failed,” “crashed,” or “setback” Japan. She competed at the highest level in the world. It’s a lot of things. Failure is not one.

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But there is a tendency to erase greatness, particularly when it’s attached to Blackness. This is why designer Kerby Jean-Raymond uses every platform he gets to amplify the story of us, to fight for our memory and future.

When Raymond debuted his first haute couture Pyer Moss collection as the first Black designer invited to Paris Couture Week, he chose to show at Madam C.J. Walker’s estate in New York. From start to finish, his show was about solidifying our history, our genius, our truth. The show opened with Elaine Brown, the first woman to lead the Black Panther Party.

Look after look was an homage to Black inventors. Models dressed in avant-garde designs to look like inventions, such as the water gun, air conditioning, gamma electric cell, crop rotation. Black folk made these things. This is the American history that gets erased. Because it’s Black, greatness goes unrecognized.

Every day we carry that erasure with us, fighting for our memory, grasping for our place. We are always pushing against limits and dismantling definitions meant to keep us from rising. And when you manage to rise above it and into your beauty, your brilliance, your truth — there is someone looking to devalue your achievement. This is part of the weight on Biles’s shoulders.

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The finale look of Raymond’s show featured a model wearing a refrigerator, a nod to Frederick Jones. And on the fridge were magnets spelling out a question:

But who invented Black trauma?

Not us. It hurts. Hell, I hurt. Every day is a battle to remember your worth so you aren’t swallowed by American determination to bankrupt us of self-love. There are pounds of pain we carry, knowingly and unknowingly. But as Hannah-Jones, Biles, Osaka, and others have shown us more and more, we can walk away. The win is in dropping the weight of the world.

Because when you’re double-dutching with double-consciousness, you are bound to lose your footing.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.