The night Claressa Shields inspired me to embrace my blackness
When I first discovered Claressa Shields, I was a teenager. It was a late night in May 2012, and I couldn't sleep. I'd given up trying to close my eyes, tossing and turning in my bed for hours. Bored, I reached for my phone and opened my app to The New Yorker, where I saw a photo of Shields. She was a black girl like me. Her boxing gloves were bright pink, close to her brown face, and she seemed so calm.
I read the profile on Shields, and all I remember is being mesmerized by the honesty in her answers and how normal and carefree she appeared.
She was 17, nicknamed "T-Rex" and was from Flint, Michigan. I live in the U.K. and I couldn't show you where Michigan was on a map, but there was something extraordinary about this ordinary girl from Flint.
There was, of course, her personal story of fighting to overcome the trials that she had been burdened with, but it was more than that for me. It was the fact that she was so young, in the midst of so much pain and trauma, but she had found her purpose, and she was not willing to make compromises for anybody. It was the way she told a reporter in 2011, "Laila Ali is not my definition of the best. For females it's me. I've never seen a girl box like me."
And the fact that she didn't appear to be scared of her determination, that she was not interested in occupying the space that the world had reserved for black girls like her. Her confidence seemed to be rooted in her soul. Then, I didn't have the term "black girl magic," but it was clear to me that she was magical.
I closed the tab, and noticed from a faint reflection in the window that I was beaming, a smile born from the joy that Shields made me feel. I was in the last term of eighth grade at my predominantly white school in a small village in Thatcham, Berkshire, an hour's drive from my family in the bustling multicultural city of London.
The 2012 Olympics were starting that summer, and I was finding it difficult to settle in my new academic environment. At school, I found myself rejecting my blackness. I changed the way I spoke, only being my true self among the other black girls in my year.
I began to feel a sense of otherness, and when you are young and insecure, there is a desperation to fit in with the popular crowd. Whenever I saw my mom, I asked her if I could get a silky straight weave, instead of my normal braids.
Having just recently moved to Britain, I didn't know if I could embody all my identities: Nigerian, British, young, female, black, without being judged. In her essay, "How It Feels To Be Colored Me," Zora Neale Hurston writes, "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background." When I was at school, I could not forget that I was black.
At home, blackness was a thing that was inherently part of who I was. It was not a cloak that I tried to render invisible. It was not to be negated; it was not even a thing that was noticed. Being black did not mean invisibility; was not a source of discrimination or hatred, and it was a thing I reveled in because it was beautiful.
But at school, the fears of being labelled the angry, cocky, loud, sassy black girl were acute. Shields, on the other hand, was to me a black girl that was steadily meandering into a space that the world does not care to see black girls occupy: a space where she felt comfortable being who she was; a space where she would be the sole determinator of her destiny.
I wanted to be like her, to not care about what people tagged me as, to always see my blackness as something that was beautiful.
Shields made history at the 2012 London Olympics, becoming the first American boxer to win a gold medal. When I watch her box, I lose myself. With every punch, you can see the release it gives Shields, the power she gains from fighting back. The way her punches work slowly on the opponent's face, through her veins, and the more she hits, the more we observe that transition from a young black woman to a ferocious fighter. Shields has found her own recipe for survival, and that is what makes her different and a world champion.
Many summers passed since I last watched Shields. One morning, a few days before I started a new term at school, I cut off most of my permed hair and went natural. When I walked into school on that January morning, I did not have long braids that I could twirl around my finger. I had thick, kinky hair, and I hated it. I hated how I looked, I hated how people's eyes seemed to pierce through me, and I craved my weave.
But I also knew that this was the beginning of my process, where I would really confront the fears that I had about moving through the world as a young black woman.
Now, Shields is 21. In 2014, Shields won the world championships. A year later, she became the first American to win titles in women's boxing at the Olympics and the Pan American Games. Recently, Shields won gold at the 2016 Americas qualifier in Argentina.
"People tell me now, sometimes, when you talk about your record, it sounds like you're bragging. Those are facts," Shields tells co-host Tracy Clayton of Buzzfeed's "Another Round" podcast. "I've had 74 wins with one loss. I don't think it's bragging if it's the truth ... when I say it, it might sound cocky or arrogant, but that's just my confidence, how proud I am of myself for completing that task."
As I listen to Shields speak, especially in the wake of Muhammad Ali's death, I cannot help but compare her to him. It's an easy comparison to make, but you have to listen to her to really understand what it means when one says that they are "black and proud."
When I cut my hair off four years ago, that day was my Shields moment, a new genesis, where I worked hard to be simply satisfied of who I was. I'm still not sure of the person I will become. But I know now that my being a black woman is always a thing to embrace, never a thing to hide, and I look to other black women, too, soaring, because they are comfortable with who they are.
June Eric-Udorie is a writer from London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The New Statesman, The Pool UK, Fusion and Rookie, among many others. She is currently an editorial trainee at Penguin Random House UK.