“Falling Across the Finish Line”

Athletics - Women's 400m Final

2016 Rio Olympics – Athletics – Final – Women’s 400m Final – Olympic Stadium – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 15/08/2016. Shericka Jackson (JAM) of Jamaica, Shaunae Miller (BAH) of Bahamas and Allyson Felix (USA) of USA finish the race. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.

If you know me you know I am in sports and athletics heaven right now because it’s Summer Olympics time. I watch the swimming, gymnastics, and especially the track and field. As a former sprinter I love watching those runners get into their blocks, raise their hips after the starter says “on your mark, set” and then fire the starter gun. At that point we see the runners rocket out of the blocks head down and run themselves into an upright position with their arms and legs churning. The cameras often catch the muscles of their faces shaking and their biceps, quadriceps and calf muscles straining to propel them to the finish line.

Last night, 400 meter racer Allyson Felix, one of the world’s most celebrated track athletes appeared on the court ready to go for her 5th gold medal (7th overall) but just as she approached the finish line, Bahamas’ racer, Shaunae Miller dove (or better yet, fell) across the line just ahead of Felix. Immediately social media went ballistic. Cries of foul and unfair filled the Internet. But was it? Is the rule about finishing first or about finishing in a particular way?

I thought that Miller’s dive was an important life lesson for us all. As an African American academic I cannot tell you how many times I have seen students—especially African American students—dive across the finish line at the last minute. And, when they do their parents, families, and “mama ‘nem” show up at graduation and scream “Thank you Jesus” and “That’s my baby” at the top of their lungs. They do not care that the final project or dissertation was handed in just before the deadline. They do not care about all of the drama that led up to graduation day. They just cheer the accomplishment as their “Baby” walks across that stage.

When I was collecting data for my dissertation in a middle school in a predominately Black community I could not help but smile as the 8th graders in my study prepared for graduation (actually it was just promotion to high school). It was in stark contrast to the upper middle class 8th grade promotion ceremony at my sons’ middle class schools. Theirs was a low key, middle of the day event where the dressiest kids wore slacks and polo shirts. The kids got a few words of encouragement and the event ended with punch and cookies. But in the Black community where I was working students were dressed in their Sunday best. The girls wore semi-formal dresses and some of the boys wore tuxedos. A few of the kids arrived in limousines. I had spent a year collecting data in their classrooms and I KNEW many of them were literally diving across the finish line. They did not sprint across, upright in fine form.

And, it is not merely the students that are diving across the line. If I look back at the road I traveled I had to throw myself across the line a time or two. I didn’t have college-educated parents to give me a head start in the race for success. No, I started way in the back of the pack. I had White high school classmates who had traveled to Europe. I had never been on an airplane. Some of them drove their own cars and there were times in my home when there was no car. And, when we did have a car it was never a brand new one. When I graduated from high school, college, and graduate school my parents and family were jumping up and down like I had won a gold medal.

My own children have had the advantage of middle class life in safe communities. But, there have been instances when they have had to dive across the finish line at the last minute. There has been too much Black Greek life partying, too much athletics, and major battles with anxiety and depression. But, in the end when they were finally able to pull it together with mom, dad, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and community pushing, pulling, and prodding they hurled themselves across the finish line—high school and college graduations, jobs, successful relationships, and great kids of their own—I was there cheering like a crazy woman and I didn’t care that they didn’t always do it upright. Sometimes they dove across that finish line just like Shaunae Miller.

Stay Black & Smart!

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