Simone Biles and Simone Manuel stole our hearts with Olympic gold. Black America cheers them fiercely because their rare and historic accomplishments have much deeper meaning than sport. But when we cheer the Simones are we actually cheering for the United States? Or are we cheering on two black women who happen to be from the Houston area? In Houston the median income of blacks is roughly half that of whites. Such disparity indicates that the Simones and the rest of us live in two separate Americas. Living in separate Americas creates separate identities and as such we are capable of rooting for the same person but not necessarily the same America. After the games have ended, we should remember this and keep rooting for ourselves.
We see ourselves in the Simones and in some way rooting for them is to root for ourselves. They both happen to compete in sports traditionally dominated by whites–our everyday experience in black America–and as such, their accomplishments say something larger about our capabilities as a people. So we cheer. That they represent the other America is secondary. Yes, their victories add to the U.S. medal count but they also add to ours. We do not necessarily see their wins as triumphs for the United States, at large. We are celebrating triumph over oppression and greatness even in the face of obstacles presented by our home country. As Damon Young pointed out, the greatness of the Simones in these games emerged as we acknowledge the two year anniversary of Mike Brown’s killing and coincide with the release of the scathing DOJ report on the Baltimore Police. The greatness of the Simones stands in stark contrast to what everyday life can be in the other America. Knowing this, black America cheers them and not necessarily the other America we must overcome daily.
So it was in 1936. As Nazi Germany was making claims of supremacy, America looked to black athletes to take Hitler down a peg. Some 18 black athletes competed for the U.S. in Berlin, where they could eat at local cafes and walk about freely–none of which was possible in the U.S. at that time. That same year Joe Louis was the American savior who defeated the German Max Schmeling. Joe Louis and the 18 Olympians (including Jesse Owens) boosted the nation’s medal count and pride but their accomplishments didn’t radically alter life for black America. Thus black America identified with and lived vicariously through their triumphs, even as the country struggled to embrace them as a people. We understood that athletic triumph was a separate space in which blackness was embraced by the other America, for its own gain. We cheered our athletes but understanding all the country represented for us, we weren’t necessarily cheering for the same America.
As black people we are fully American but we struggle to identify fully with the other America. This has always been true. As World War I approached many of us struggled with the idea of fighting for the nation we lived in. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote “Close Ranks” in order to make a case for our involvement. Many of us even struggled to see September 11th as our tragedy. All of this is the result of living in the other America. The Simones are American and so are we, thus we cheer for them; but not always the team they play for. Through them we are rooting for ourselves, inhabitants of the other America. In that same spirit I rooted for myself and the other America this weekend. I needed to purchase a cake and someone recommended a bakery. Discovering that it neither employed or was owned by someone from the other America, I found a bakery that fulfilled both requirements. When the Simones leave the limelight we can still root for ourselves, it will just look slightly different.
**No one can oppress you unless you give them the money to do it**