Murraya, the prize-winning word spelled by 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion Zaila Avant-garde, is still a top Google search after the Harvey, Louisiana native became the first African American to win this esteemed competition. Zaila is also being hailed as the “real-life Akeelah,” a shoutout from actress Keke Palmer who played the fictional character Akeelah Anderson in the 2006 film “Akeelah and the Bee.” Just like the storyline for Akeelah, Zaila, 14, did not have many years of training in preparing for the Scripps contest. It was mind-blowing to read that she only had two years of practice under her belt winning local and regional competitions.
When Zaila’s historic victory was announced, many people instantly thought of “Akeelah and the Bee” simply because we have never had a Black American Scripps winner. But Zaila told reporters that she was thinking of a spelling bee trailblazer whose story is not well-known, MacNolia Cox. Cox was a 13-year-old Black girl from Akron, Ohio, who competed in the National Spelling Bee competition in 1936. Racial resentment from the bee’s White, southern judges prevented her from having a fair chance to win. The fact that Zaila had done her research on Cox, in addition to studying over 10,000 complex words seven hours a day, is equally impressive.
As Zaila was being interviewed on major network news shows, she exhibited an adorable, shy innocence but also a mature acknowledgment of her place in history. She expressed on “CBS This Morning” that it was “sad” that there had not been any African American winners in almost 100 years of the bee’s existence. While the absence of Black children on the national stage during the initial years of spelling bees is due to the racism that Cox experienced, the lack of diversity today can be attributed to structural inequality that results in poorer schools not having a curriculum that would prepare minority students for the rigors of a Scripps competition. For example, in “Akeelah and the Bee,” Akeelah’s middle school is in the Crenshaw District of South Los Angeles, which struggles with low standardized test scores and dispirited morale from students. Her school did not have a Latin class, one of the essential courses needed for students to master spelling. When Akeelah finally decides to participate in her school’s inaugural spelling bee, she wins easily, but she is asked to spell words that are regularly used in everyday language, such as “doubt” and “fanciful.” The simplicity of these words pales in comparison to the difficulty of spelling “solidungulate” and “Nepeta” as Zaila did this year. In the film, Akeelah is fortunate to come under the tutelage of a UCLA English professor who coaches her to the Scripps bee. In reading more about Zaila’s preparation, she and her father began using commercial word lists featuring words spelled by former Scripps champions.
Many doors are now opening for Zaila as a result of her spelling fame. She has full scholarship offers from the presidents of LSU and Southern University. I believe that she will probably have to choose either an athletic or academic scholarship when she begins to narrow down her college selections because she is also a basketball prodigy. If you’ve seen Zaila’s dribbling Instagram videos, you know that her “handles” would have NBA All-Star guards Chris Paul and Steph Curry on their heels. With athletic talent combined with her academic acumen, Zaila is posed to go far in life. In thinking about the great opportunities that she will have, another scene from “Akeelah and the Bee” comes to mind. In this part of the film Akeelah is asked to read the famous poem from Marianne Williamson, which begins with “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.” The latter part of the poem states that “We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” Zaila’s light is shining bright with her God-given abilities on display, and her accomplishments will encourage all children that any goal can be achieved with hard work. This is what makes her Scripps win extra special.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at [email protected] @JjSmojc