Fourteen-year-old Zaila Avant-garde was a twirling testament to Black excellence with the confirmation of her historic win this past Thursday (July 8). The teen prodigy from Harvey, Louisiana became the first-ever Black American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee and took home a $50,000 cash prize in the process. Still, this was not the soon-to-be ninth-grader’s first time breaking ground globally.
Avant-garde “... holds three Guinness world records for the most basketballs dribbled simultaneously (six basketballs for 30 seconds), the most basketball bounces (307 bounces in 30 seconds), and the most bounce juggles in one minute (255 using four basketballs),” as recounted by The New York Times. Already en route, the wunderkind has aspirations of playing basketball professionally for the WNBA. And for some viewers of the ESPN2 at Walt Disney World Resort broadcasted event, the victor’s face was familiar. Previously, Avant-garde was televised on the network alongside the NBA MVP Steph Curry in a sporting commercial.
Even so, the shooter prioritizes her academics atop her athletic gifts. Concerning her latest achievement, the 96-year-old challenge was created to “...help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives,” according to the contest’s website. And the blooming talent’s father had the foresight to change her surname from Heard to Avant-garde — to manifest his daughter’s greatness — in the resemblance of the “A Love Supreme, Pt. II - Resolution” composer, John Coltrane. Several cultural leaders share the parent’s sentiment in this exciting time including Former President Obama, Halle Berry, Vice President Harris, and Oprah Winfrey, among others.
Yes, Zaila! We are so, so proud of you!— Michelle Obama (@MichelleObama) July 9, 2021
The claim: Is Zaila Avant-garde the first Black winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee?
Our findings: False. Zaila Avant-garde is the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. However, she is not the first Black title-holder. In 1998, Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica won the bee.
Avant-garde deserves to celebrate her moment fully. Last year, the spelling bee was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. In regards to education, the student’s advanced methods make her a contemporary national symbol. For the past two years, the intellectual and her father have set a rigorous research schedule to maintain her practice. The Oneida Daily Dispatch confirmed that the 2021 spelling bee victor studied with a private mentor — Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale scholar and the 2015 Scripps runner-up.
Specifically, Avant-garde became aware of 1936’s unspoken 13-year-old pioneer. MacNolia Cox, the first Black finalist at the bee, was not permitted to sleep at the Willard Hotel with her white speller peers. These retro experiences were said to have heightened the newcomer’s sense of purpose and inspiration during the recent competition.
Scholastically, the Scripps National Spelling Bee summarizes:
“Every year, students from all walks of life have the opportunity to participate in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The National Spelling Bee began in 1925 when nine newspapers joined together to host a spelling bee. Little did they know that 90 years later, their literacy effort would reach 11 million students each year.”
Amid the youth’s estimated annual sum, only two Black competitors have been deemed final prizewinners in the case of the National Spelling Bee. Both of these determined champions were heroines — the first being Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica. The then 12-year-old Kingston-based Ardenne High alumnus won the bee in 1998. Caribbean platforms, such as Loop Jamaica News, emphasized Maxwell’s story with Twitter annotations from viewers such as:
“May we one day stop erasing Caribbean women’s achievements. Jody-Anne Maxwell, a young Black girl from Jamaica, won over 20 years ago. I’m very happy for Zaila, but let us give flowers where they are due.”
A predecessor does not take away from Avant-garde’s hard-earned triumph last week, which began with 209 spellers between 9 and 15. However, in an effort to accurately document the fulfillment of Black scholars, it is essential to provide data on these individual advancements. The Jamaican spelling champion was not only the first Black adolescent to obtain the title, but she was also the bee’s first non-American winner. She won her title spelling the word “chiaroscurist.”
Upon the Merriam-Webster affiliated event shifting its participation regulations approaching outside national territories and additional domains, Maxwell served as an archival first in its then-71 years. Similar to now, publications including The New York Times ran reports suggesting the bee should be referenced as an international competition. A widespread article titled “Placed in the Shadows By a Chiaroscurist” compares notes as follows:
“The bee... is open to English speakers [ages] 15 and under. The 249 contestants this year  represented 49 states (no Vermont entry), five United States territories, Mexico, the Bahamas and Jamaica. In light of Jody-Anne’s victory and the foreign participants...The only previous winner from beyond the mainland United States was Hugh Tosteson of Puerto Rico, who won in 1975 by spelling ‘incisor.’”
In headlines, technicalities were emphasized upon this Caribbean nation’s gain, as our country has colonized the latter Caribbean territory since the end of the Spanish-American War. Beyond required comprehension, a position that makes 2021’s National Spelling Bee champ distinctive is Avant-garde’s desire to acknowledge the linguistic origin of words and former spelling records next to her own. That grace is not a requirement.
Further, she described spelling as a “side hobby,” to AP, with the notation that she “routinely practiced for seven hours a day.” As explained by her tutor, Shafer-Ray, one of Avant-garde’s abilities is she knows “... not just the word but the story behind the word, why every letter had to be that letter and couldn’t be anything else.”
This trait was valuable in Avant-garde outspelling her competition with the winning word “Murraya” to end the 18th round of the bee. Upon the confetti-bursting conclusion over her center stage significance, she told journalists:
“I’m really hoping lots of little brown girls all over the world... are really motivated to try out spelling... because it’s really a fun thing to do, and it’s a great way to... connect yourself with education, which is super important.”