When I first heard about Olympic Gold Medalist Gabrielle Douglas being nicknamed The Flying Squirrel I thought it was a perfect nickname/term of endearment. She does have those little poofy cheeks when she smiles. And her smile is one of those smiles that make's the world feel lighter. And then I thought, 'that'd be cool to give all the gold medal champs a super hero nickname. Jack Black could be in charge of it, he's so gung ho about things like that, a la Kung Fu Panda. Hell, it could even be a Wheatie's like national contest or something.' Seriously, if anyone deserves little plastic toys made with their impressions on them, their faces on cereal boxes, and be labeled with national terms of endearment, it's the Olympians - not the made up super-hero's.
But the next thing I know there is a bend to the whole notion of referring to her by that moniker. Apparently, there are some who thought the "flying squirrel" nickname was derogatory and or racist. Truth be told, that's up to her royal awesomeness, Ms. Gabrielle Douglas. That conversation would go like this:
Me: Hi. I think you're an amazing gymnast.
GD: Thank you.
Me: As a matter of fact you also have a beautiful smile that lights up the whole gymnasium.
GD: Thank you.
Me: Watching you at the Olympics’ while I sat on the couch and stuffed my face with pork rinds and cookies made me very happy.
GD: I'm glad it brightened your day.
Me: I heard someone nicknamed you the flying squirrel. Can I use that term for you? Can I too call you the flying squirrel? 'Cause I've got this idea to give all the gold medalist superhero nicknames. Wouldn't that be cool?
GD: (Smiles) I have to go. I'm on a schedule, but thank you for your support.
Me: Ah! You're blinding me with that bright smile.
GD: Ma'am, you're getting pork rind grease on my sleeve.
Of course I just made all that up, I don't eat pork rinds.
But it's not the first time I've made some kind of racial faux pas. I grew up in a small southern town so white the only "others" we had were Catholics. I didn't know black from white. It didn't even register in my young mind that there were "colors" of skin. I can't actually recall ever hearing the word "Nigger." (Yeah, I said that and I'm gonna do it again.)
One of my favorite shows was The Jefferson's. (I think I was too young to know it was a spin off of Archie Bunker.) I loved it when George would do that funny walk where he'd make his arms really stiff and take long strutting strides. I would then imitate that walk around the house and call my older sister "Weezie!" SO then there was that episode with Willie and Lester. (Willie Tyler was a famous ventriloquist and his dummy was called Lester and they were Black/African American.) It was possibly the funniest thing I had ever seen on television. All my young self saw was this guy who made his doll talk to people and everyone laughed. Well, then the Sears catalog came, THE CHRISTMAS EDITION! (I told you it was a small town.) And there in the toy section was Lester. Man, I wanted that dummy so bad. I could do that thing where I don't make my mouth move when I talk and people will laugh. I was so excited.
Fast forward to Christmas. This was spent out of town with relatives; Aunt's, Uncles, Cousin's, Grandparents the whole 'fam-damily' would be there. Amazingly, I had gotten Lester and my mom even gave me some 'ventriloquist lessons' - how to use the letter N instead of M, and D instead of B so my lips don't move. It was a great Christmas morning. I loved that Santa shopped at Sears. (I was a naive 7 year old.)
We get to my Aunt's house to exchange gifts and do the dinner thing and of course I bring Lester cause now we'll have a bigger audience. As we all sit down for the gift exchange, (To this day, I can still see the room and where everyone sat.) I pull out Lester. And my Aunt howls out, "Oh! You got her a nigger baby! Look at that nigger- baby!" I can still see two of my cousins laughing in this garish fish-eye lens of memory. I didn't understand what they meant. "Are you gonna make that nigger-baby talk?!"
I can still see the steely poker face of my mother who locked eyes on me and managed to widen her mouth into a thin-lipped grin for me. But her toes always gave her away and they were curled under, not a good sign. I didn't understand the words, but I understood I was being laughed 'at', not 'with'. I understood something cruel was happening. Why does she keep saying 'nigger-baby?' I remember the look of horror on my older sisters face. I remember feeling absolute terror. I knew this game, if you cry they will mock you. I looked down at Lester. He had brought this on me. He was the nigger-baby and he was bad. At some point someone made the teasing stop and my mother tried to encourage me to show them all how Lester works. But I couldn't, I couldn't even lift my head up. (We would never spend Christmas with that Aunt again.) Later, I would play with Lester. Quietly, I'd shut my bedroom door and pull him out of the bottom of my toy chest and practice not moving my lips.
BUT NOT THIS TIME YOU TURDS! If Gabrielle wants to be called The Flying Squirrel then she is the HIGHEST FLYING-EST SMILING-EST SQUIRREL THERE IS! I don't care what color she is, what color the squirrel is, what color her little leotard is. Her performance was GOLD! So everyone on both sides of this craptaculous racial debate shut it. Let her have her moment. Let everyone revel in it, let us give her a term of pride and endearment. The Olympians are as close to a "super-hero" physical performance most of us will ever see in real life. And that goes for all of the Fierce Five too. Flying Squirrel! Butterfly! Wasp! Dragon! Betty! Fly my pretties, fly!