Spelling bees are big over in America. They often make the news and there have even been major films and documentaries made about them. Last week, spelling bees were hitting the headlines for a very good reason, because for the first time ever the winner of the biggest spelling contest was an African American.
Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old from New Orleans, won the Scripps National Spelling Bee, correctly spelling “murraya” to win the competition.
Avant-garde’s talents don’t just end at spelling – she has also been in the Guinness World Record three times for dribbling in basketball. The sport is also where her ambitions lie, with the teenager saying that: “Basketball is what I do. Spelling is really a side thing I do. It’s like a little hors d’ouevre. But basketball’s like the main dish.”
But the reason her spelling success has grabbed hold of the world is because of how it highlights the difficulty for Black students to get an equal footing in education – the spelling bee is just an extension of that.
The New York Times brought attention to this, writing about how while the National Spelling Bee (now known as the Scripps National Spelling Bee) did not outwardly exclude Black students, it did make it difficult for them to compete.
The competition which started in 1925, often chose white students to continue into the finals over Black students during a time when schools were segregated. And after schools were desegregated, schools with large Latino or Black students were underfunded thereby being mostly unable to compete.
Shalini Shankar, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University, told the paper: “The bee has never been a true meritocracy. It’s an invention of capitalism. Those who have the resources are going to have an advantage.”
In recent years a number of socioeconomic concerns have been raised about the spelling bee. These include the fact that it’s quite expensive for contestants to train for the competition and then to make their way to the heats and finals. And it seems many children preparing for the bee are doing so with the help of coaches. Six of the winners in 2019 for example, had relied on Spellpundit, a bee coaching company that charged hundreds of dollars to coach contestants, to help them compete.
Avant-garde herself trained for seven hours a day before the competition, saying she tried to do about 13,000 words (per day), and also got tutoring in order to compete. None of which takes away from her extraordinary accomplishments.
Her successes have garnered her a number of famous fans. She received a congratulatory tweet from basketball legend LeBron James. While former US President, Barack Obama, tweeted: “Three Guinness World Records and now the national spelling bee champ! Congrats, Zaila—your hard work is paying off. We’re all proud of you.”
And then Google got in on the act. If you type “Zaila Avant-garde” into the search engine you’ll get a cool surprise.
It seems the teenager is on the path towards great success. She has already been in a commercial with basketball star Stephen Curry, is doing a number of interviews with major media outlets and has been offered a full scholarship to university.
But one question remains for the many Black students like her who may not have access to educational and parental support. How can her success pave the way for others like her?
The answer remains unclear but issues around inequality are something the Bee organisers are aware of.
After her win the teenager spoke about how she would like to inspire other Black Americans who can’t afford to get tutoring. “Maybe they don’t have the money to pay $600 for a spelling program, they don’t have access to that. With tutors and stuff, they charge, like, murder rates,” she said.
Whatever she does, her presence as a winner on a major national competition such as this will be inspiration enough to many children, now and in the future. And hopefully we will see many more Black children winning spelling bees, undoing decades worth of discrimination from the past.
Saman Shad is a freelance writer.