(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.
Black men and women alike are changed by the "battery pack," but black women go into the telephone booth alone, like a butterfly in a cocoon. But instead of coming out lighter, we more often than not emerge weighted down. And it's that moment of transformation that fascinates me. When do black girls go from being blank slates to the bathroom walls, graffitied with everyone else's slander?
Take my goddaughters. At 10 and 7, they are little girls in the most literal sense. They like playing pretend, playing in my hair and playing with my iPad. Last summer on an especially hot day, they noticed a box of hot cocoa on my kitchen counter and begged for some. When I suggested that it wasn't the right time of year for a steaming mug of anything, they protested in perfect unison, "It's always time for hot chocolate!" And I carried the hope in that sentence with me for weeks.
I don't want them to change, but I see it happening. At 7 years old, Anna, the youngest, still loves a good secret. She still wants to cut into every conversation I have with her mom, vying for my attention and begging me to look at her "doing stuff." We had tea after the ballet a few weeks ago, and Anna declared it "a girl's night out!" It was three in the afternoon.
Nancy, 10, is already sort of over it. She sits up straight without being asked and is content to eavesdrop on an adult conversation, nodding in agreement to punch lines she can't have understood. Her schooled nonchalance is almost unnerving. More than just maturing like any other little girl, Nancy is dumping her naiveté as if it's nuclear. I look at her and think, when did this happen?
That's the question, among others, I plan to ask every woman I interview for a new book I'm working on. When did it happen? When did you disappear into the phone booth? When did you go from just being a girl to being a black girl? Was the transition painless? And do you miss it — the levity other girls-cum-women get to slip into that we seem to be barred from?
When did you stop being like Gabby Douglas?
"I have an advantage because I'm the underdog and I'm black and no one thinks I'd ever win," she told the New York Times last week. "Well, I'm going to inspire so many people. Everybody will be talking about, how did she come up so fast? But I'm ready to shine."
The shine part Gabby has down, and that's what I'm hoping rubs off on the rest of us.