Zaila Avant-garde understood the significance of what she was doing as she stood on the Scripps National Spelling Bee stage, peppering pronouncer Jacques Bailly with questions about Greek and Latin roots. Zaila knew she would be the first African American winner of the bee. She knew Black kids around the country were watching Thursday night's telecast, waiting to be inspired and hoping to follow in the footsteps of someone who looked like them, the AP reports. She even thought of MacNolia Cox, who in 1936 became the first Black finalist at the bee and wasn't allowed to stay in the same hotel as the rest of the spellers. But the 14-year-old never let the moment become too big for her, and when she heard what turned out to be her winning word—"Murraya," a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees—she beamed with confidence. It was over.
The only previous Black champion was also the only international winner: Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998. Zaila, from Harvey, Louisiana, is also a basketball prodigy who owns three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously and hopes to one day play in the WNBA or even coach in the NBA. She described spelling as a side hobby, even though she routinely practiced for seven hours a day. Last year's bee was canceled because of the pandemic and this one was modified to minimize risk. Only the 11 finalists got to compete in person and the in-person audience was limited to spellers' immediate family, Scripps staff, selected media, and first lady Jill Biden, who spoke to the spellers and stayed to watch.
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