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Opinion

Olympian Gabby Douglas – the gymnast is golden, but her family is obscured

Olympian Gabby Douglas has broken through a racial barrier in sports only to be boxed in by old canards about who she is and where she comes from. The more complex story of her family’s influence on her rise on the way to gold deserves to be told.

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Negative stigmas have been associated with black families all the way back to the era of slavery. They have been used as a rationale for oppression and exclusion from many of the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship for as long. Since the late 1970s, the idea that black female-headed households are aberrant family forms that are the source of all the ills that blacks face in society has been especially hard to shake. They not only continue to influence popular attitudes but also impact public policies.

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The fact that Gabby’s host family is a white two-parent household rarely goes unspoken. The host family appears to be loving, generous and genuinely adoring of her. This makes insidious comparisons to her biological family all the more unfortunate. It continues a tradition of seeing black kids as functioning best under white surrogacy and tutelage.

Noticeably absent from most media portrayals of Gabby’s family is her father, Timothy Douglas. This is both a failure of basic news reporting to ask questions about him and the resilience of cultural assumptions about black families that suggest the answers are already known.

Timothy Douglas is a staff sergeant in the Air National Guard. He has done three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, starting when Gabby was only nine. She has discussed the challenges of living with the anxiety of knowing her father is in harm’s way in a foreign land, explaining that her prayer for his safety is part of her life. The pair have kept in touch by Skype.

He did not make it to the London Games (for lack of tickets, a spokesman for the Virginia Air National Guard told FoxNews.com). But he did attend the Olympic trials in California in June.

The financial and emotional stresses of military deployment on custodial parents and offspring are well documented. In London this week, Gabby said it was “really hard for us growing up” because of her father’s absence. “My dad didn’t really pay the child support. He was short [on money].” It’s a description that could fit many families separated by war and many other families in America.

Whatever may be the tensions between reportedly divorcing parents is not our business to know. But isn’t it curious that an active duty soldier would be largely written out of the familial script of his daughter representing her country at the Olympics?

Not so fast Mr. Costas. Gabby Douglas has broken through a racial barrier in sports only to be boxed in by old canards about who she is and where she comes from. The more complex story of her family’s influence on her rise on the way to gold deserves to be told.

Tera W. Hunter, a professor of history and African-American studies at Princeton, is the author of “To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War.” Via The OpEd Project Public Voices Fellowship at Princeton University.

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