14-Year-Old Girl Makes History as the First African American Spelling Bee Champion

On July 8, 2021, Zaila Avant-garde took home the top prize as the winner of the prestigious Scripps National Spelling Bee. While this alone is a fantastic feat, the victory is made even more special because of its cultural significance. For the first time in the competition’s 96-year history, an African American has been crowned the winner.

“It made me feel really proud,” Avant-garde said of her win. “I'm really hoping lots of little brown girls all over the world and stuff are really motivated to try out spelling and stuff because it's really a fun thing to do and it's a great way to kind of connect yourself with education, which is super important.”

Avant-garde is the second Black winner. Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica was the only previous Black winner from outside the U.S., and the only international winner of the competition, too. That was in 1988; the past 20 years have seen kids of South Asian descent crushing the competition. Avant-garde’s win breaks a streak of at least one Indian American champion every year since 2008.

The winning word was “murraya,” a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees. While onstage, Avant-garde exuded confidence as she even worked in a joke about the actor Bill Murray, right before successfully spelling the final term. In addition to the title, Avant-garde was awarded $50,000 in cash and prizes.

Excellence in spelling isn’t all of Avant-garde’s talents. In fact, she sees spelling as a “little side project” to her love of basketball, where she currently holds three Guinness World Records related to the sport. They include the most bounce juggles in one minute with four basketballs, the most basketball bounces in 30 seconds with four basketballs, and the most basketballs simultaneously dribbled by one person with six basketballs.

Avant-garde's win also marks a return of the competition itself; the Scripps National Spelling Bee didn’t happen in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Watch the final moments of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee where Zaila Avant-garde made history as the first African American winner.

h/t: [NPR]

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Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met, Manager of My Modern Met Store, and co-host of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.
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