On July 8, 2021, Zaila Avant-garde made history as the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee (NYTimes). At only fourteen years old, Zaila became the first Black contestant to be crowned champion since 1998 Scripps winner Jody-Anne Maxwell of Kingston, Jamaica. While Zaila’s monumental victory has sparked well-deserved celebration among the Black community, it has also called attention to the lack of Black representation at the national contest. Racial disparities in the spelling bee echo racial disparities in education at large.
Only one out of eleven 2021 National Spelling Bee finalists were Black, and there have only been 2 Black prize winners since Scripps’ inaugural tournament in 1925. In contrast, there have been a total of 26 Indian American champions since 1999 and nine out of eleven finalists for the 2021 Spelling Bee were Indian American (The Hindu). The lack of diversity in the Bee is largely due to anti-Black practices upheld by the spelling bee industry for years and the United States’s unequal distribution of academic resources.
• Donate to the American Center for Transforming Education, an institute working with state legislators and policymakers to reform the United State’s education system.
• Donate to 826 National, a network of writing and publishing centers aimed at developing writing skills among students from marginalized communities.
• Celebrate Zaila Avant-garde, Jody-Anne Maxwell, and every other successful, young Black speller.
In 1925, nine publications collaborated to create the first National Spelling Bee (Long Reads). The National Bee claimed to uphold an “open door” policy regarding Black students’ eligibility to compete, but the local newspapers that sponsored the National Spelling Bee’s local qualifying competitions were not required to abide by the same rules.
In 1962, teenager George F. Jackson wrote to President John F. Kennedy requesting that the white-only spelling bee contest in Lynchburg, Virginia, be open to children of color. The Black community in Lynchburg generally believed the continued segregation of the local spelling bee was an attempt to set back the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education (Long Reads). It was not until the NAACP threatened legal action that the National Spelling Bee’s director clarified the competition’s anti-discrimination policy.
Though local spelling bee competitions may no longer be explicitly racially segregated, racist disparities in wealth and education continue to serve the same role. “It’s now common for spellers to be coached by other past competitors,” said Dr. Puwan Dhingra, “who can charge about $200 an hour for their services” (Time). Such fees are especially prohibitive for Black families, whose average household wealth is less than $20,000 (Brookings). Zaila Avant-garde had three spelling tutors and used a preparatory computer program to assist her in learning approximately 13,000 words per day. She acknowledges that it would not have been possible without money.
Exclusion from spelling bees ties into larger disparities that block many low-income students of color from attaining higher levels of literacy. Public schools are funded locally, so low-income communities of color dealing with the aftermath of redlining and segregation are continually underfunded. One 2016 study found that “just the increased presence of minority students actually deflated a district’s funding level” (The Atlantic). “For every student enrolled, the average nonwhite school district receives $2,226 less than a white school district” (EdBuild).
Funding for library and media centers in marginalized communities has also declined for years. “In elementary schools with the highest ethnic minority populations, regardless of poverty levels, there are fewer library specialists per 100 students than low ethnic minority status” (National Education Association). Underfunded or nonexistent libraries deprive students of color from enjoying free, educational resources that could be useful for improving their literacy skills.
As a result, “18 percent of Black 4th-graders scored proficient or above in reading; the figure for white 4th-graders was 45 percent. For 8th graders, the percentages were 15 and 42 percent” (Forbes). Seeing as the eldest age of eligibility for the Scripps National Spelling Bee is 15, there is a clear correlation between low literacy levels among young Black students and the lack of Black spelling bee contestants.
Racially and economically diversifying the National Spelling Bee would show African American children that they are fully capable of succeeding in any space they wish to occupy. Doing this requires repairing the United States’ public school system and would allow low-income students of color to gain the necessary skills to thrive in academic endeavors like spelling bees. Organizations like 826 National are working to develop student writers in marginalized communities, filling in the gaps in an unjust educational system.
It’s only a matter of time before more African American children follow in Zaila Avant-garde and Jody-Anne Maxwell’s footsteps. We should celebrate them as we build an equitable education system that will allow us to truly integrate the National Spelling Bee.
• The competitive spelling industry excluded and mistreated African American spellers for years.
• Competitive spelling reforms can actually increase inequitable privileges of wealthy families.
• Zaila Avant-garde’s victory at the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee will likely inspire an entire generation of young Black spellers, so it’s imperative that race and socioeconomic status don’t bar them from succeeding.