The Sweetness and Light of Gabby Douglas

The 16-year-old gold medalist retains an innocence that most black girls her age don't get to show.

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(The Root) -- There's something about Gabby.

Of course, the 16-year-old gold medalist is inspiring millions of little black girls for whom Dominique Dawes is relegated to YouTube clips. It's no big secret she's broken barriers of perception that persist despite evidence to the contrary. But there's more to this young woman who can fly than just her strength -- it's her lightness that gets me.

The girl is sweet. There is joy in her eyes. Her smile is a given. Her positivity is downright Pollyanna-esque. She is, in short, a black female athlete not just with heart but with a heart as seemingly gold as the medal adorning it. She is allowed an innocence that so many black girls her age don't get to show, especially as one with an entire nation's expectations on her shoulders. But instead of hardening to the task, Gabby Douglas seems to be lifted by it.

In an interview with the New York Times, she sounds like a teenager with declarations like "Holy cow!" and "Oh, snap." When explaining her initial lack of focus, Gabby could be any 16-year-old: "It's very tough for me to focus," she said. "I'm like, 'Look, something shiny! No, focus. Oh, there goes a butterfly!' "

Just reading that interview made me smile, made me wonder how this young woman has managed to hold on to a piece of her childhood innocence like a talisman. Her Facebook and Twitter pages are all exclamation points, smiley faces and OMGs. Even the way she handled the overblown coverage of criticism surrounding her hair was more schoolgirl than schooled.

"Are you kidding me? I just made history. And you're focusing on my hair? I just want to say, we're all beautiful inside out. I don't think people should be worried about that. Nothing is going to change," she said in an interview with USA Today.

What's so smile-inducing about Gabby is that so often, black women aren't allowed access to the innocence that other young women get to experience by right of their youth.

In my essay on "Reserve" in Black Cool, I write: "There's something curious that happens to Black girls on their way to puberty: We disappear into an imaginary telephone booth and emerge as miniature superheroes. Hit by a speeding bullet of outside forces -- race-based sexism and society's impossible expectations -- former civilians begin to take cover behind an ancient mask of impenetrability. Our secret identity -- sweet, innocent, approachable -- becomes just that, a secret."

Scholar Michael Eric Dyson describes something similar in his introduction to Touré's Who's Afraid of Post Blackness? Dyson writes of the world's most visible black woman, Oprah: "Like most Black folk, Oprah found the batteries of Blackness included at birth, and ripped open the packaging and slid them in and started using the instrument of race before reading the manual."

My phone booth and Dyson's battery pack are comparable memes. Both are involuntary responses to racial identity that are passed down without comment or critique. We just do it.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM