Gabrielle Douglas, the first black woman to win gold in the gymnastics individual all-around, will not escape the burdens that the spotlight brings – especially when it comes to the media’s portrayal of her family.
To his credit, NBC’s Bob Costas highlighted the historic nature of the win in his closing remarks for the evening after it aired. But his analysis of the significance quickly turned to patting a “post-racial” America on the back: “The barriers have long since been down but sometimes there can be an imaginary barrier based on how one might see oneself,” he opined. Long down? Imaginary barrier? How one might see oneself?
That’s a very odd statement about an expensive sport that continues to be overwhelmingly white. Dominique Dawes blazed the trail in 1996 as the first black athlete (male or female) to win an Olympic medal in gymnastics (she won as part of the US team’s golden performance). And until now, few have followed her to compete in the games.
Gabby did imagine herself very differently, even compared to national team coordinator Marta Karolyi, who just six months ago considered her an “average good gymnast.”
While the media focused attention on her disappointed teammate, Jordyn Wieber, who didn’t make the cut in the all-around competition, Gabby gracefully flew above the razor-thin balance beam, peaking at the right time and in the right place.
Despite the ritual cleansing of America’s racial past implicit in Costas’s remarks, try as she might, Gabby can’t control what others write or say about her. Even as many across the globe have warmly embraced and celebrated her victories, age-old stereotypes about black families have been insinuated in her life story.
Gabby grew up with a “single mother,” Natalie Hawkins, we have been told. Such a moniker when attached to African American children typically is seen as a never-married mother, a derelict father, and multiple signs of family dysfunction. Some assume that Gabby’s story is no different.
Trudy Rubin, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer on an NPR program in discussing Gabby’s achievement offered: “Her father doesn’t seem to be in the picture.” Based on what verifiable information, I ask?
She also referred to Gabby’s host family (Travis and Missy Parton), who took care of her for the past two years while she trained in Iowa, as her “foster parents” – even as she expressed admiration for both families. And yet, “foster parents” is a term usually reserved for caretakers of children who are wards of the state.
Writer Lisa Suhay questioned Ms. Hawkins’s choices as a mother. Commenting on how Hawkins conceded to her teenage daughter’s desire to move to Iowa to train with coach Liang Chow, Ms. Suhay wrote in The Christian Science Monitor: “It made me ask, ‘Who’s the parent?’”
But according to Ms. Suhay the silver lining is that Gabby got to trade in her dysfunctional family of origin: “Perhaps the stability and not just the coaching is what this child really needed coming from a home where her mother, who according [to] the Virginian-Pilot divorced the same man twice and has struggled on disability to provide for her needs.”
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.
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.
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.