Surya taking her medal off.
(For Surya Bonaly- a 90’s French ice-skating champion
who struggled for gold on the world stage).
At the next World Championship, she’d had enough.
She did not accept the silver medal, nor did she stand on the second-place podium as the medallions were presented.
Bum-rushed by the press before even leaving the ice,
She made sure they knew she had no ill will against the other skaters,
But right then,
We all knew.
Just like we’d known in the Olympics prior to that when the young champion was humiliatingly made to perform last, and
She came in 4th place.
Or, the Olympics before that when her coach forbade her from attempting a quadruple turn,
Even disputing, bullying and threatening the child and her mother moments before her turn to skate.
Or even the Olympics or World Championships before that
When everybody’s favourite pretty-little-white-girls always took home gold.
Meanwhile, Ms. Surya was praised for her strength. And,
Her musculature was coded as masculine. And,
She was fetishized for her athleticism. And,
Her athleticism was coded as super-human. And,
According to the other champions at the time, Surya was denied gold due to her exoticism.
This all amounted to the fact that sports commentators and judges alike didn’t know where to place her. And
This is a direct quote:
The judges and sports reporters didn’t know where “she fit in.”
Black people don’t fit in.
Especially dark skinned Black people.
Surya was a dark-skinned Black girl.
The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.
Her coal Black skin glistening and gliding against the ice.
That in itself is such a sight that it genuinely appears frightening to the untrained eye.
And by untrained, naturally I mean untrained in looking beyond the veil of race.
Then, gliding backwards steadily to a mezzo-soprano,
Surya seamlessly executes a backflip and lands on a single blade, then
Seamlessly leaps into a triple spin - she’s bad!
She is bad!
The crowd bursts into a roar!
Applaud lingers as she finishes.
Ice-skating judges at the time it seems,
Were drawn from a pool of untrained eyes,
At least according to the other champions interviewed in the Netflix special on Surya’s career,
A part of a series called Losers.
According to the series, Surya’s skin made her a loser – not that she stood up for herself.
Surya on ice.
Surya shined, when pale-skin skaters faded-in.
Surya challenged her own athleticism, when other skaters stuck with what they knew-
What the girls knew was ‘pretty’.
Surya knew she had to be twice as good to get half as far.
And her she was going for gold.
In one championship performance, Surya wore a fire-red suit.
A simple, typical one-piece swim suit, only a few dangly bits,
But the fiery color, against her coal black skin, against the snow-white ice,
All twirling fast, gliding gracefully,
Careful set-ups to dramatic leaps,
Surya was like her name: The sun.
She was literally the Black gold of the sun.
This all was not enough.
So finally, Surya pulled a Muhammed Ali and took her medal off.
Where Ali came home in 1960 as an Olympic gold medallist, and
Couldn’t get served at a business in the downtown of our own hometown, and
Legend has it: Ali took off his medal and cast it off the Second Street bridge into the Ohio River.
The irony of the symbolism of the Olympics – masters of their craft- versus the reality of just being black was too much to let idly pass by.
Such instances deserve to be marked.
Whether or not the legend is true, the sentiment is shared – then and sadly now.
Shared by Colin Kaepernick kneeling before football games as the national anthem.
Now it’s a hashtag.
Sad, especially from one of the sports that explicitly relies on black muscle.
Surya basically did the same.
She rejected second class citizenship on ice. And
She had to finally take a stand. And
She refused to accept the silver medal. And
Tired of the coded racist language-
Tired of the coded racist language in other facets of life,
But coded racist language somehow looks uglier in sports.
As blunt as a ball hitting a net.
Or a gymnast balancing on a vault,
Or a diver slicing the water.
Or a runner crossing first.
The coded racist language that colored each competition Surya entered;
The sort facing the ‘brute’ musculature of Serena Williams today –
Serena can’t even grunt while returning a fast one on the court without provoking coded racist responses from fans and commentators.
In 2018 Rupert Murdock’s newspaper in Melbourne printed the most racist caricature Serena as a Jim Crow-era stereotype of an angry black women too ridiculous to describe here.
Serena and her opponent Osaka - two women of color competing in championships - rendered racist stereotypes for fun.
Osaka, who is of Haitian and Japanese heritage, was caricaturised as a benevolent slender, pretty little white girl with a long blond ponytail.
And as sports commentary by mass media, but certainly it reveals the mass culture’s undead lust for these stereotypes.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Mr. and Mrs. Jim and Jane Crow, Jr. You can follow them on the Gram.
The Olympic gold medallists Simon Biles or Gabby Douglas can stick as many landings as they want,
But folks are still gonna hate on those black chicks’ hair choices.
This fetish certainly plays out on Black girls’ hair, dress and decorum everyday, all day.
Black children get the message at home as early as possible:
The hair that grows out of our heads is inappropriate.
Imagine how many hot combs these girls have survived!
Our wide noses are ugly, and
Our thick lips only look good on pale people.
Our dark skin is offensive.
Seeing Surya on ice, head held high, in all her excellence and glory, challenged all these accepted standards of beauty and power.
Surya was dark, nappy-headed, with thick lips and thighs!
Surya was an image of beauty, and
For this she needed to be crushed.
Surya stood upon that ice as the other winners took to their respective podiums,
And lifted the silver medal off her chest,
Bearing witness to the world
What it means to be Black and excellent.
Young. Gifted. And
Dr. Diepiriye Kuku: "I am a Black, queer, Buddhist, writer, model, activist, and global educationalist from Louisville, Kentucky. I use dance, ethnography, pop culture critique and spoken-word to expand empathy. I've lived, studied and worked in Mali, South Korea, Thailand, Germany, India, and the UK. I currently live in Hanoi."