Zaila Avant-garde, 14, of Louisiana USA, won the event in Lake Buena Vista, Florida becoming the second Black champion in the bee’s 96-year history. The only previous Black winner of the spelling bee was Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica, who won the event in 1998. Her win is significant to us, because black children were often excluded from participating on the national stage, even well after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Schools were ordered to racially integrate in the late 1950s, but this did not prevent white supremacists in governing positions within these schools to purposely exclude black children, by cunningly finding ways to make it difficult for black children to advance in the contest.
During Zaila’s spelling stint, she appeared virtually unaffected by stage fright. In fact, the only bump in her night came when she spelled “nepeta,” a genus of Old World mints.Chaitra Thummala, 12, of San Francisco, was the runner-up, and Bhavana Madini, 13, of New York City, placed third. The winning word was of course, an unusual one. “Murraya,” which is the genus of a fragrant tropical Asiatic and Australian tree.
She has been competing in spelling bees since she was 12, and participated in the 2019 Scripps Spelling Bee but did not place, and last year’s tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This now 14 year old also shares her love for spelling with basketball. She holds three marks in the Guinness World Records for her basketball prowess, according to the Times-Picayune. She owns records for the most bounce juggles in one minute with four basketballs (255), set last November, and most basketball bounces in 30 seconds (307), also with four basketballs, also set in November. In January 2021, she tied the record for most basketballs dribbled simultaneously by one person, bouncing six at once to share the record with Joseph Odhiambo, of Mesa, Arizona. She got her first record in 2019 for the most bounce juggles with three basketballs in one minute, finishing with 231.
Avant-garde said she hopes to become an NBA coach someday or work with NASA, the Times-Picayune also reported. She added that she might also pursue neuroscience, a topic she learned about while listening to the NPR podcast “Invisibilia.”
With her talent on the court and her otherworldly intellect, Zaila serves as real inspiration to black children, like Venus and Serena Williams have been to a new generation of Black women tennis champions. Remember the The against-all-odds success story featured in the 2006 fictional film “Akeelah and the Bee?” Now we have Zaila and the bee, and her inevitable success will play a significant role in fostering a new generation of black success stories.