African American teenager makes history at US spelling bee

Zaila Avant-garde (14), a basketball prodigy, breaks streak of Indian-American champions

Zaila Avant-garde, 14, has become the first African American to win the 90-year-old Scripps US National Spelling Bee by correctly spelling "Murraya," a genus of plants. Video: Reuters


The US Scripps National Spelling Bee has crowned its first ever African American winner.

Fourteen-year-old Zaila Avant-garde of Harvey, Louisiana, did not show much stress on stage and only struggled with one word in Thursday’s finals.

She is only the second black champion in the American contest’s 96-year history, after Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998.

Zaila described spelling as a side hobby, though she routinely practises for seven hours per day.

A basketball prodigy, she hopes to play in the WNBA and holds three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously.

Zaila leaped with excitement after spelling the winning word, “Murraya”, a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees.

As she stood on the Scripps National Spelling Bee stage in Florida, Zaila even peppered pronouncer Jacques Bailly with questions about words’ Greek and Latin roots.

“I was pretty relaxed on the subject of Murraya and pretty much any other word I got,” Zaila said.

Zaila Avant-garde with her trophy. Photograph: Scott McIntyre/The New York Times
Zaila Avant-garde with her trophy. Photograph: Scott McIntyre/The New York Times

The bee has been a showcase for spellers of colour over the past two decades, with children of South Asian descent dominating the competition.

Zaila’s win breaks a streak of at least one Indian-American champion every year since 2008.

In 1936, MacNolia Cox, became the first black finalist at the bee but was not allowed to stay in the same hotel as the rest of the spellers.

Zaila said of her victory: “I kind of thought I would never be into spelling again, but I’m also happy that I’m going to make a clean break from it.

“I can go out, like my Guinness world records, just leave it right there, and walk off.”

Many of top Scripps spellers start competing as young as kindergarten. Zaila only started a few years ago, after her father, Jawara Spacetime, watched the bee on television and realised that his daughter’s affinity for calculating complicated maths problems in her head could translate well to spelling.

She progressed quickly enough to make it to the nationals in 2019, but bowed out in the preliminary rounds.

Private coach

That is when she started to take the contest more seriously and began working with a private coach, Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale student and the 2015 Scripps runner-up.

“Usually to be as good as Zaila, you have to be well-connected in the spelling community. You have to have been doing it for many years,” Mr Shafer-Ray said. “It was like a mystery, like: ‘Is this person even real?”’

Mr Shafer-Ray quickly realised his pupil had extraordinary gifts.

“She really just had a much different approach than any speller I’ve ever seen. She basically knew the definition of every word that we did, like pretty much verbatim,” he said.

“She knew, not just the word but the story behind the word, why every letter had to be that letter and couldn’t be anything else.”

Sometimes she knew more than she let on. Part of her strategy, she said, was to ask about roots that were not part of the word she was given, just to eliminate them from consideration.

Only one word gave her trouble: “Nepeta”, a genus of mints, and she jumped even higher when she got that one right than she did when she took the trophy.

She said: “I’ve always struggled with that word. I’ve heard it a lot of times. I don’t know, there’s just some words, for a speller, I just get them and I can’t get them right.

“I even knew it was a genus of plants. I know what you are and I can’t get you.”

Zaila – whose father gave her the last name Avant-garde in tribute to jazz musician John Coltrane – is a singular champion of a most unusual bee, the first in more than 25 months.

Last year’s bee was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and this one was thoroughly modified to minimise risk to children and their families.

Most of the bee was held virtually, and only the 11 finalists got to compete in person, in a small portion of a cavernous arena at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Bay Lake, Florida.

The in-person crowd was limited to spellers’ immediate family, Scripps staff, selected media – and first lady Jill Biden, who spoke to the spellers and stayed to watch.

Zaila won the event in less than two hours, meaning that a lightning-round tiebreaker, was not necessary.

She will take home more than $50,000 dollars €42,000 in cash and prizes.

The runner-up was Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from Frisco, Texas, and another student of Mr Shafer-Ray. She has two years of eligibility remaining and instantly becomes one of next year’s favourites.

Bhavana Madini, a 13-year-old from Plainview, New York, finished third and could also be back.

“Zaila deserved it. She’s always been better than me,” Chaitra said. “I could review a lot more words. I could get a stronger work ethic.” – AP