When I Saw You Win, I Felt Free | Gradient

When I Saw You Win, I Felt Free

The tweet below may make you curl your lip, but there’s one making the rounds right now that rings true for many of the black people I know. A tweet from user @petty_colada reads:

Another from George Johnson reads:

Muhammad Ali. Cam Newton. Dominique Dawes. Usain Bolt. Jesse Owens. Wilma Rudolph. LeBron James. Rafaela Silva. Black and brown bodies winning in ways that the world did not want them to. Living in worlds that did not want them, too. Whose wins make us puff our chests out, not for pride in our respective nations but for pride in us, an us that crosses national boundaries and languages.

In a summer when each new trauma seems to compound the pain of the last, it means something to see us win. We know it won’t save us from getting passed over for jobs and opportunities. We know it won’t save us from being seen as less than human. We know it won’t spare our families from having to see body cam footage of them slapping fives over our dead and dying bodies.

But, damn. It’s really something else to watch us win.

I’ve heard commentators, gold medalists from years’ past, coaches and scientists alike puzzle at Simone Biles pressing the frontiers of physics with how she moves through time and space, how she masters new skills in days when others could take months or a lifetime to do the same. I don’t usually get choked up by 3D reenactments, but watching the digitally-rendered figure perform “the Biles,” her signature move, my breath caught in my throat. Look at us.

My screen blurred as I watched Simone Manuel take the podium following her win, tears pooling in my eyes. As they played the American national anthem, she stood solemnly with her hands behind her back. Her first tear formed on the line, “that our flag was still there.” And the tear rolled down her cheek as the anthem built to its climax. Her face filled the screen during the part of the anthem where the words “land of the free and home of the brave” belong. Her eyes were wet, but her gaze never wavered as parallel tracks of tears ran down her cheeks. As the song concluded, she wiped her cheeks and waved to the crowd with a closed-lip smile.

Her smile stood in contrast to Penny Oleksiak’s broad and beaming grin. Both Gold medalists, both teenagers, both hardworking young women who made their countries proud that night; but perhaps only one who might have been overcome by the gravity of swimming and winning in a pool that she might not have been allowed to share with her co-gold medalist some 60 or 70 years prior. Perhaps only one whose insides twisted with both inexorable pride and the sting of promises undelivered as her country’s flag was raised. Perhaps only one who views that flag with both deep veneration, and a fear so real it seems to crack your chest and crawl around inside. And certainly, only one who felt compelled to dedicate her Gold medal to all the African American swimmers who came before her and who will come after her.

Speaking with NBC Sports after the win, only one said, “It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. Coming into the race, I tried to take the weight of the Black community off my shoulders. It’s something I carry with me.”

We carry that weight with Simone Manuel, and we wear the same masks to work or school or Olympic training workouts on days when the weight is too heavy.

As people of African descent in the United States, our tongues have never tasted liberation. We’ve never held it in our mouths or arms or hands or laid our eyes on it. But when I saw you turn to see you’d won your race, Simone, I felt free. The weight was still there, the weight of holding your ancestors in the tension between your shoulder blades, and their blood coursing through the blue veins on the hands that sliced through the water. You found a way to hold us, the people, in such a way that we did not drag you down, but rather propelled you forward.

You win, and it feels like we all are winners, too.

Look at us.

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