Saturday, August 4, 2012

Black Hair & The Single Black Mom: America's Fascination with Gabby Douglas

     I don’t know whether or not to celebrate the Olympic triumph of Gabby Douglas or malign the African American community and American media for lauding her as a ‘Black Exception’.  On July 31, 2012, Gabby and her U.S. teammates won the team all-around gold medal and two days later, she won the individual all-around gold medal making her the first African-American woman, and female of color, to win the event in the history of the Olympic Games. 

     Sure this feat is outstanding for any woman, no matter her race, to accomplish, but much of the media fawning has come due to the upbringing of young Gabby being raised by the proverbial single Black mother, as well as social network jabs on Twitter and Facebook aimed at the styling, if not the texture, of Gabby’s hair.  But, the issue here is much more than low brow ridiculing of a young, Black teen’s hair or the heroism connoted with the matriarchal perception of the strong and devoted Black woman.  It is Black America, and America, deeming what is acceptable in a Negro’s public appearance via hair, and the ‘After School Special’ commercialization of the sacrifices of the single Black mother, though foolish as it may be, and the paramount focus Black Americans put on this particular circumstance.
     Ironically, when Black Americans, particularly athletes, attempt to assimilate and infiltrate American popular culture they must ‘look’ the part, at least with their kempt if not ‘good’ hair, and their origins should be, and are oft times most preferably by the media and the consumers and patronizers thereof, from a ‘broken-home’ ( one’s father must be estranged, neglectful, absentee, or unidentified ) in order to substantiate or validate the Horatio Alger story that has, for almost a century, been America’s calling card and utopian-like ideological insurance policy that implies that ‘anyone’ can make it in the U.S.A, home of the free, land of the brave. 

     So, when Gabby Douglas, daughter of an unwed mother of four, wins Olympic gold, and she happens to be of African descent, popularly referred to as ‘Black’ since the mid 20th century, she must align with the sociocultural attributions that one in her position must possess:  Single mother? Check. Stereotypically athletic?   Check. Recognizably Negro?  Check.  Kempt hair? Not so sure.  Yes, the Twittersphere and Facebookland, or at least the Black residents thereof, had differing opinions on the presentability of Gabby Douglas.  I believe the answer lingers somewhere between ¾ of ‘yes’.  Sure, she’s Black, and is the product of the proverbial single-parent home and maintains elite athletic abilities, yet whether or not her hair is kempt or ‘good’ is up for debate, particularly amongst the millions of pairs of eyes of the Black critics. 

But the irony of Gabby’s media-constructed story of the against-all-odds achievement Black athlete is that she isn’t ‘really’ a product of a single-parent home.  For all practical purposes, young Gabby is a product of two loving and sacrificing parents who happen to not be in a marriage or relationship or reside in the same home. But for the media to construct the young Olympian’s biography as if her mother’s sacrifices, both financially, emotionally, and physically (she allowed Gabby to move from Virginia to Des Moines, Iowa to train under renowned gymnastics coach Liang Chow), are the impetus for young Gabby's success is a tool of disempowerement that further castigates the Black American family and the individuals thereof as dysfunctional and scarred. This is the part of the story that the media supresses:  Her father, Timothy Douglas, who has only been briefly mentioned in newspaper articles, blogs, and visual news outlets, is a member of the U.S. armed forces and is currently serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan, yet he did find the time and the funds to attend her gold medal performance this past Thursday.  This act doesn’t reek of an absentee father or paint the picture of a man who is inactive in his daughter’s life.  Timothy may not be in the Virginia home with Gabby and her siblings and Natalie, but I imagine he visits, calls, and pays child support in order for his seed to be properly nurtured and eventually blossom into a successful adult. 

I hope the viewing and reading audience uses the gift of discernment to deconstruct the narrative that has been parlayed to us via the national media pertaining the Gabrielle ‘Gabby’ Douglas.  I especially hope, Black Americans, don’t buy into the stereotypical mythology of the Black athlete rising out of the gutter to achieve tremendous success through talent and a ‘strong,’ ‘independent’ Black woman as her ‘only’ guide in life.  Numerous fathers, Black particularly, who maintain their duties and responsibilities of fatherhood should be ashamed at the way the media is seemingly deleting Mr. Timothy Douglas from his daughter’s Olympic victory and athletic triumph.  Though her father is deployed, I am almost positive the U.S. military will allow and the media can finagle some form of accessibility as a means for this man to garner the same recognition that her mother is receiving.  Gabby was not conceived in a sole effort by her mother and her mother should neither receive the sole authorship nor copyright to the narrative of American success which is Gabby.
                                                                                   Gee Joyner


  1. Thanks for the perspective.
    The media's repetition of negative comments about Gabby's hair was outrageous, mostly because she is a child and the line should be drawn. The tabloids always criticize women's hair and dress and body style, but they should not pick up the comments about children!!
    I am astonished at the presentation of Timothy Douglas "absentee father," instead of stating that he is stationed in Afghanistan! They really did a job on presenting the "strong black woman" as solely responsible for this child's success.

    I am so glad you are speaking up about this. Our consciousness needs raising. I was not even aware of this unfair presentation! Keep up the good work.

  2. Good post Gee when black men are part of their children's lives we often get excluded. Society loves to psych up our women with the illusion that "They do it all by themselves" when in fact its quite the opposite. Sgt. Douglas not only has he been a part of her life, he exemplifies the ultimate father as a man who can serve his country and his family the same.If sisters only knew how society keeps our race down by taking their trust away from their own black kings maybe they wouldn't so often try to replace us with themselves.

  3. We need to continue to redefine our own images and take our stories back from the national media. In the past this was not possible. Today is not only possible but rather imperative.

  4. This was a great post. My husband and I were just commenting last night on the absenteeism of her father's mention. Now whether he's as involved as mom is up for discussion/verification; however, the simple omission of that part of her story in main stream media is disappointing. I can't imagine how he must feel as the father of an Olympic gold medalist and history maker and not being a part of her story of success. I hope in the days after the Olympics that more about her father and support system as a whole is mentioned so America can see that not every success story in our community is as stereotypical as the media would portray and we as a people often accept. Again, great post!