Monday, August 6, 2012

Gabby Douglas, Olympic History, and the Priorities of Black Folk

Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas.
I am an African-American male.  Statistically speaking, by this point in my life I should either be dead, in prison, in a gang, mixed up in drugs, trying to become a rapper, unemployed living in my mama's basement and/or have multiple kids that I never see by multiple women.  Yet, none of those things describe my reality.  When I was a kid, instead of hanging with the wrong (if popular) crowd I hit the books and studied.  It didn't exactly make me the most popular Black kid in high school, but it did put me on a certain path that some of my fellow brothers and sisters unfortunately never got the chance to experience.  A few years ago, I was faced with one of the most difficult academic challenges that I have ever experienced in my entire life: passing the bar exam.  And not just any bar exam, the New York bar exam which is widely accepted by the legal community as one of of the most difficult -- if not the most difficult -- in the entire country.  As if that wasn't enough pressure in and of itself, I had secured a 6-figure
My hair during the bar exam.
salary position with a prestigious Manhattan law firm that was completely contingent upon my passing the bar.  No pass, no job.  As you might imagine, faced with these pressures I quickly got into the zone and remained there for the entire summer leading up to the bar exam.  Certain trivial matters in life no longer mattered; chief among them was my hair.  My hair, which I normally keep short and tapered, grew out to a veritable afro.  Maybe not quite an Afro Samurai level afro, but still a respectable afro nonetheless.  Similarly, my facial hair -- which I never allow to progress to much more than a 5 o'clock shadow -- also grew out to unprecedented levels.  In short, I didn't give a damn about my appearance.  I had more important things on my mind, such as passing the biggest closed-book exam in the known universe which, by the way, just so happened to decide whether or not I was going to achieve my goal of becoming a lawyer or, alternatively, whether I had merely wasted $100,000 dollars and 3 years of my life going to law school.  In the end, after focusing like a laser beam every single day for 3 months straight, I passed the bar on my first try.  However, as gratifying as that accomplishment may be, it pales in comparison to the historic victory recently achieved by Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas who became the first African-American and first woman of color in history to win the Gold medal in the Olympic individual-all around gymnastic competition.  Moreover, she also became the first American (period!) to win the Gold medal in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics.  Upon hearing this historic news thousands in the Black Community took to twitter to talk about one thing: Gabby's hair.

Per The Grio:
Before gymnast Gabby Douglas’ feet could touch the floor in a historic performance at the 2012 Olympics, her precious prize had already been tarnished by black folk getting all in her hair  — literally. These black folk were upset that Gabby’s hair wasn’t properly done.
Also per The Grio:

Gabby Douglas, the 16-year-old Olympic gymnast, has played a large role in Team USA’s recent gold medal. Despite having already won a gold medal and preparing for tonight’s individual competition, she seems to be getting Twitter mentions about her hair, rather than her athletic abilities.
Throughout history, African-American hairstyles have been a focal point of conversation when discussing any black celebrity. Many celebrities’ hair choices — braided, natural, curly, and straight — have become iconic staples in black hair fashion, and many have sparked debates.
Gabby Douglas’ Olympic hair-due is just the latest style to grab the attention of viewers. Several critics have sounded off on Twitter:
So let me see if I have this straight...a 16-year-old Black female makes history at the Olympics doing something that no other American has ever done before and your takeaway from this once-in-a-lifetime event is that her hair wasn't done?  Really?

As I'm sure my female blog partners can further elaborate, the debate over "good" and "bad" hair within the Black Community is something that Black women have been battling with since the days of bondage.  Chris Rock recently did a documentary on the subject a few years ago.  Spike Lee squarely addressed the issue in his 1988 film School Daze with the now infamous "Jiggaboos" and "Wannabes":

Nevertheless, historic struggles with our own self-image aside, these criticisms seem to speak to a larger issue within the Black Community: priorities.  Even if you are of the opinion that a Black woman's hair must be pressed, permed and flowing in order to be "acceptable" in public, an Olympic arena is hardly the time or the place to impose such a belief.  It should go without saying that the priority at all times during an Olympic competition is on the performance, not on the appearance of the performer.  Even a 16-year-old understands this concept:

“I don’t know where this is coming from. What’s wrong with my hair?” said Douglas, the first U.S. gymnast to win gold in team and all-around competition. “I’m like, ‘I just made history and people are focused on my hair?’ It can be bald or short, it doesn’t matter about (my) hair.”
Douglas uses gel, clips and a ponytail holder to keep things in place while she competes, a style she’s worn for years.
“Nothing is going to change,” she said. “I’m going to wear my hair like this during beam and bar finals. You might as well just stop talking about it.”
The bubbly teenager is the first African-American gymnast to win her sport’s biggest prize. She had no idea she was lighting up social media until she Googled herself hours after winning her gold medal.
“I don’t think people should be worried about that,” she said. “We’re all champions and we’re all winners. I just say that it’s kind of, a stupid and crazy thought to think about my hair.”

Your thoughts on the comments made by those about Douglas' hair?
Have we made any progress on the "Good Hair" vs. "Bad Hair" debate?
Stepping away from the hair debate for a moment, what does this type of discussion say about the priorities of the Black Community in general?
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