Meet Zaila Avant-garde: The First Black American National Spelling Bee Champion

Spelling Bee
image: Reuters/YouTube

The phrase “everyday is Black history” is thankfully being used more and more, especially after audiences witnessed 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde become the first Black American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in its 96-year history. 

The only Black winner before was Jody-Anne Maxwell, representing Jamaica in 1998.

Thursday night, July 8, was a chance to see history made live and in living color as Zaila Avant-garde, who hails from Harvey, Louisiana, hoisted up the championship trophy after winning the finals on the word “murraya,” which is a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees. 

Zaila knew that she would be the first, a true one-of-one, as she acknowledged to ESPN2 that many Black kids around the country were watching, waiting to be inspired and hoping to follow in the footsteps of someone who looked like them. “I’m hoping that within the next few years, I can see a little bit of an influx of Black Americans,” she said. “And not many Hispanic people, either, so I am hoping to see them there [in years to come], too.”

Zaila follows in the footsteps of MacNolia Cox, who in 1936 became the first Black finalist at the internationally recognized spelling bee competition, and wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotel as the rest of the spellers due to systemic racism and prejudice.

When she wasn’t practicing for several hours with her father, Jawara Spacetime, Zaila worked on her basketball game. Having played the sport since the age of 5, she holds three Guinness World Records for dribbling multiple basketballs at the same time. And with this year’s National Spelling Bee slightly altered due to COVID-19, the competition format underwent an overhaul, as five of the 11 finalists were eliminated in the first onstage round. A new wrinkle was also included: multiple-choice vocabulary questions.

All six remaining spellers got those right.

Only one word gave her any real trouble—“nepta,” a genus of old-world mints, and when she got that one right, she jumped even higher than when she took home the trophy. Unlike other serious spellers who begin competing as early as kindergarten, Zaila discovered her talent for spelling when she was 10 and her father quizzed her on the winning words of years past.

She spelled nearly all of them correctly.

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Zaila’s win breaks the Scripps streak since 2008 of at least one champion of South Asian descent. Winning the bee in less than two hours, Zaila won efficiently, effectively mashing a lightning-round tiebreaker, which wasn’t necessary. 

She will take home more than $50,000 in cash and prizes. She also earned a $2,500 cash prize and a reference library from the Bee’s dictionary partner, Merriam-Webster. In addition, she won an additional $400 of reference works from Encyclopedia Britannica and a three-year membership to Britannica Online Premium. The runner-ups, Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from Frisco, Texas, and third place winner Bhavana Madini, 13, are planning a return for next year’s competition. 

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

Watch the history-making moment unfold in the video below. 

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