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Zaila wins The Bee: A 13-year-old girl makes spelling bee history

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Zaila Avant-garde — Photo courtesy of Scripps National Spelling Bee
Zaila Avant-garde — Photo courtesy of Scripps National Spelling Bee

Nemesis. Today the word is used to describe a long-standing rival. But in 1936, the most common definition of this word was the Greek goddess of retribution (making it a proper noun) — and the word itself was used by despicable people to deliver punishment on a young girl deemed unworthy.

When 13-year-old MacNolia Cox from Akron, Ohio qualified for the National Spelling Bee held in Washington, DC, that year, racism and discrimination turned what should have been an exciting adventure into a personal trial.

First, segregation and Jim Crow laws kept Cox and Elizabeth Kenny (another Black contestant) from traveling with the white contestants, as well as from staying at the same hotel. They had to use the back door to enter the location of the bee and were forced to sit at a separate table while inside.

Then, when Cox qualified as a top five finalist, the judges decided things had gone far enough. On Cox's next turn, the judges abandoned the 100,000-word list given to every speller in the bee. Instead, they gave her an illegal word, the proper noun (which is not allowed in spelling bees) Nemesis.

Cox was unable to spell the word, and her chances of being a champion were stolen, one of many such devastating circumstances littered throughout American history.

In 1908, Marie Bolden, a 14-year-old Black girl from Cleveland, was the first to have her title stolen from her. At the time, the National Education Association organized the spelling bee, which revolved around city teams, and the speller with the most words spelled correctly would be crowned the winner.

Despite the competing teams' demands for her removal and the insensitive words she had to spell, Bolden earned a perfect score, the best on the first-place Cleveland team.

Sometime after, however, the written portion of the contest was put under a microscope, and it "revealed" that a proctor gave the wrong definition of the word "capitol." After this review, two white Cleveland students emerged with perfect scores. Marie was stripped of her title but was allowed to keep her gold medal.

Now, over a hundred years later, Kristen Carrington, Na'amah Morbeth, Keona Thomas, Zahyir Stephens, Cana Gerald, and Zaila Avant-garde, all Black girls, were among more than five hundred others who met the requirements to compete in the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee (SNSB).

Although each of these brilliant girls gave their best, there could only be one winner. On July 8, 2021, Avant-garde beat 561 competitors by correctly spelling Murraya, and thus became the first Black American and second Black person to win the SNSB. (Jody-Anne Maxwell from Jamaica won in 1998.)

This talented girl now holds the National Spelling Bee title and the $50,000 prize, and received a parade in her honor in her hometown.

So, why haven't we had more Black participants and winners when it comes to spell- ing bees? It correlates to America's dark past of discrimination and the unfair advantages bestowed on the white community.

In her interview with Time, Avant-garde made it clear that the reality boils down to one thing: money. It is not that Black children do not want to spell, but they do not have access to the resources it takes to be competitive.

"I can't even describe what not having SpellPundit is like. Like having a book but no pages," she said about the popular prep resource, which costs about $600 annually. Regarding a peer who couldn't afford it, she added, "He said, 'I didn't have it because it was way too expensive.' His family just could not afford it. I mean, [my family] had a little bit of trouble affording it."

The history of our country would like to paint Black and Hispanic families as unable to achieve excellence in competitive academics, but in actuality, the tens of thousands of dollars' difference in their household income, compared to that of Asian and white families, puts their children at a disadvantage. Even for a speller to be coached by past competitors could cost as much as $200 an hour.

Avant-garde knows that her particular circumstances helped her to excel in com- petition. She is homeschooled and able to block out about seven hours each day to study; she also has three spelling tutors and the computer programs needed to prepare.

She expressed to NPR her hope that her victory will inspire other Black and Hispanic girls to try competitive spelling. "It's a really fun thing to do, and it's really great for the mind, [including] just learning how to learn and also learning how to study for school."

Despite the cost of competing, determination and perseverance are qualities that the Black and Hispanic communities are known for. Hopefully, this wonderful girl's display of excellence will be the motivation needed by other brilliant girls just like her.