The little girl is leek-long. Her eyes are hazel, her gaze intense — that is, till she’s off the mound. Then, her body melts upon missing a catch or swinging at air or hitting a foul. She is all early adolescent angst when she isn’t “on,” and her eyes are suddenly more like lakes than stones. I am watching her and recalling what it is to be thirteen and sure about some things. I am watching her and recognizing how much has already changed — for her and for the world she is set to inherit. I am listening to her quick pitch slice through wind and remembering how fleeting everything is.
This week, Mo’Ne Davis became the first Little League player to make the cover of Sports Illustrated. She is the 18th girl ever to play in the Little League World Series and the first to ever pitch a shut-out there. What too few reports of her prowess are mentioning is that she is also the first black girl to do any of it. That matters as much today as it did in the 1940s.
It matters because, while it is sweet that she is a role model for all little girls and an emblem for the mainstream “Throw Like a Girl” movement, she is a particular fruition for the late Toni Stone, one of the only three women allowed to play in the Negro Leagues. She is walking justice — an excelsior in motion — for Mamie (Peanut) Johnson, the only of the three who was a pitcher, the only of the three alive to witness Mo’Ne’s meteoric rise. It all matters because the girl’s infiltration of a mostly white, largely male, and predominantly middle-class space provides specific inspiration to black girls growing up in communities where this kind of diamond has never been presented as a credible aspiration.
As a black woman, this August has been one of the most wearying months of my life, and I do not believe I speak only for myself. Black women spend every day outrunning the hounds of our history, but in this week — in these past 12 days — I’ve felt like they have caught me. I feel those hounds’ incisors at my ankles and when I open my mouth to yell, I hear the cries of four little girls in a Birmingham church. I hear a pregnant Diane Nash calling out from a prison cell. I hear Myrlie finding Medgar in the driveway.
And then, from some far-off place, I also hear delight: a mother muffling the full range of her exuberance in a mostly-white crowd of 30,000. She is yelling for her child who is striking out boy after boy on a baseball field. Four. Five. Six. And this is far from the first time. She doesn’t want her daughter hurt. Or tainted or entirely transformed by her newfound notice. But she is proud — vocally proud, in a way black mothers haven’t always had the luxury to be. She is proud and she wants the ancestors to hear it. She wants the ancestors who were afraid to boast about their children, lest they be sold off or dragged away in the night, to know that, though it may seem so this month, they did not die in vain. All the children are not dying. Some are soaring. Some, like Mo’Ne’s teammate Zion Spearman, have held onto their beautiful smiles even as manhood looms large and threatens to steal the unabashed glee that Little League seems to prolong. And not so far away, there are grown black men feverishly patrolling and penning and processing evidence. Not so far away, there are grown black women returning to classrooms and opening their arms to the scarred and traumatized children. There is always something left to recover. There is always a girl or boy who comes bearing enough joy to replenish all that’s been depleted.
Baseball isn’t even her sport. By college she wants to be a basketball player at UConn. I can already see her there, of course. She is as still long as a leek, full of stony resolve on the court and just as vulnerable on a bench as she was in a bullpen. She plays to keep ahead of her own hounds. She plays as though she’s never been a legend. And darlings, let me tell you: on some dark future days, watching her is the only thing that keeps communities going. On some dark future days, she looks like purest hope we have.