Earlier this month, 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde won the Scripps National Spelling Bee, becoming the first African American to win the competition. Jody-Anne Maxwell, a Black Jamaican girl, won the bee in 1998.
To her credit, Avant-garde invoked the spirit of 13-year-old MacNolia Cox, who might have won the National Spelling Bee in 1936.
I learned of Cox in 2015, during an interview with the renowned poet A. Van Jordan at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Jordan had come to the school at the request of Peter Kahn, himself a renowned poet educator.
Jordan’s 2004 book of poems, called “M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A,” centers on Cox’s tragic life. She made it all the way to the final round of the 1936 National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., only to get stumped by a word that the southern white judges shouldn’t have asked her to spell in the first place.
Mabel Norris, a reporter with The Akron Beacon Journal, documented how the “judges, all Southern educators, were becoming visibly uncomfortable” as Cox coolly slayed one multisyllabic dragon after another.
“So they’re at the National Spelling Bee in D.C., they go through the preliminary rounds and the people in that round with her are all there on technicality,” Van Jordan told me in 2015.
“Either they misspelled a word or they spelled an alternate spelling of the word, but were allowed to stay in. MacNolia, however, just spelled straight through with no technicalities. It was clear that she looked like the winner.”
But the judges, going against the contest rules, had given Cox a proper noun that was not on the list of 100,000 words she had memorized.
“Believe it or not, the word was ‘Nemesis,’” Van Jordan said, referencing the Greek goddess of retribution. “The word in this situation stands in for injustice. There are people and forces in the world, irrespective of what you have done or prepared for or how you’ve comported yourself in the world, that will come with their own presumptions about you and inflict those presuppositions upon you. [That dynamic] comes in the form of a word like nemesis. People will use that as some kind of tool to pull the rug out from under you.”
Jordan said Cox never recovered from the loss, despite Norris reporting at the time that the little Black girl “didn’t cry, nor did her stoic mother.”
For all the debate that’s currently trending around the teaching of history, what this country needs is more poets.
“[The poem deals] with the emotional resonance behind the story,” Jordan said. “We get the facts of the history, but now we’re trying to get some interiority of this person.”
Imagine yourself as MacNolia Cox, a little girl with possibly the IQ of a genius, who during her trip to the nation’s capital is forced to sit in the back of the train, cannot eat with her white contestants and has to stay at the home of a Black doctor because she cannot stay in the city’s segregated hotels.
But when you read Norris’ account of your trip in the Beacon Journal about a large Negro delegation welcoming you, the “fifth best speller in the United States,” back to your hometown of Akron, you see no trace of your actual experience in Washington, D.C. As smart as you are, how can you not notice the dissonance?
The injustice has been turned into something else (you are now a little school girl “who lost out in her fight for the national spelling championship on her spelling of ‘Nemesis’ Tuesday”). The burden is now yours alone to bear.
And according to the record, you had a grand old time after your loss.
“With Jean Trowbridge, of Des Moines, Iowa, the national spelling champion, as the most important figure in the group, the children were taken to the towering Washington monument for the view of Washington, and the blue Potomac river,” Norris writes.
“Then there was the White House,” the reporter continues. “MacNolia paused before the huge painting of George Washington — remembering her history — she wondered again at Dolly Madison’s being able to save it when Washington was threatened by the British.
And then you were off to Mt. Vernon “for a tour of the famous old home, the expansive gardens, the view of the Potomac.”
In 1937, you and your mother were invited to a luncheon feting past Akron Beacon Journal champions, who brought forth “memories of their own glorious weeks in Washington” so that year’s bee champ, 14-year-old Robert Farrell, would know what was in store for him.
In the grainy photo taken of the luncheon, you and your mother are looking off, as if in your own worlds, flanked by white adults who are smiling or momentarily unbothered.
“The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you,” Claudia Rankine writes in “Citizen,” her luminous book of poems. “It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you.”
Some clarification is in order. Although Zaila Avant-garde is the first Black American winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, she is not the first Black American to win a national spelling bee.
In fact, the nation’s very first national spelling bee, the National Education Association Spelling Bee, was held in 1908 in New Orleans and predates the first Scripps spelling bee by nearly two decades. And a 13-year-old Black girl named Marie C. Bolden from Cleveland was its winner.
The NEA’s bee was team-based and Bolden was the only Black in the competition on the only racially integrated team that competed. The Cleveland team won because it had the fewest errors and Bolden, the only speller on her team with no errors at all, was named the bee’s individual champion.
“Of 510 students, she was 1 of only 3 who had perfect scores,” writes the Root’s Michael Harriot.
Despite the popularity of the NEA’s spelling bee, the organization, forced to confront the fallout from the Black girl’s victory, never held a National Spelling Bee again, Harriot writes.
In Rankine’s book of poems, the narrator is reflecting on being told by someone white that “his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.”
When I look at your face, MacNolia, and the face of your mother, in that luncheon photo, I think of this passage in “Citizen,” wherein Rankine portrays the moments after that micro-aggression, as we’ve come to call systemic injustices that span time and space, seemingly with the cosmic intensity of black holes.
“When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another 10 minutes. You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and want time to function as a power wash. Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists a medical term — John Henryism — for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism.
“They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend.”
So does MacNolia buck the trend, I asked Jordan in a roundabout way in 2015. What happened to her?
“She ended up being a domestic in the home of a doctor,” he said. “And so, she marries a guy who’s more streetwise than her. She’s diagnosed with cancer and dies at age 53. So it’s a pretty depressing story. I start the book on her death bed and move in reverse chronological order to the night before the spelling bee. We close the book at the moment of her greatest potential. Hopefully, the progression, the experience of the read, is one of transcendence.”
If Scripps allows the history of MacNolia Cox to inform its future actions, Zaila Avant-garde’s victory can be transcendent, too.