Zaila Avant-garde Spelling Bee

Even Google Is Celebrating the Black Girl Magic of Zaila Avant-garde’s Historic Scripps National Spelling Bee Win

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If you type in the name Zaila Avant-garde or Scripps National Spelling Bee into your Google search bar today, you’ll see a downpour of confetti, some friendly bumblebees, and the word “Murraya.”

Google screenshot spelling bee

That’s because 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde has won the Scripps National Spelling Bee!

After 17 rounds, Avant-garde was given the word “Murraya,” a word I have, most definitely, never heard of until writing this story, but I now know that it’s a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals.

Yeah, I would’ve lost.

Actually, I wouldn’t have even made it this far.

Avant-garde took the time to ask some important questions before attempting to spell the word. “Does this word contain the English name Murray which could be the name of a comedian?” A valid question, and one that got a chuckle from the judges. After asking the origin of the word (which is Latin from a Swedish name), Avant-garde went on to spell the word correctly.

With a victory twirl and big ol’ smile, Avant-garde not only made history for the nearly century-old competition (it started back in 1925), but the W-I-N is just one of many of her accomplishments.

According to ESPN, Avant-garde is the first African American champion of the spelling bee.

Zaila knew she would be the first African American winner of the bee. She knew Black kids around the country were watching Thursday night’s ESPN2 telecast, waiting to be inspired and hoping to follow in the footsteps of someone who looked like them. She even thought of MacNolia Cox, who in 1936 became the first Black finalist at the bee and wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotel as the rest of the spellers.

The article goes on to say that the only previous Black champion was also the only international winner: Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998. Despite that added level of pressure, ESPN reports that Avant-garde kept a cool head throughout. “I was pretty relaxed on the subject of Murraya and pretty much any other word I got,” said Avant-garde.

Avant-garde is adding this victory to an already impressive list of life goals met at the age of 14. As a basketball prodigy, she’s got multiple entries in the Guinness Book of World Records with not one, not two, but THREE records for simultaneously dribbling multiple basketballs. Her goal after this? To either play for the WNBA or coach a team.

Spelling, according to ESPN, is something that Avant-garde considers her side hobby.

“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,” Avant-garde said. She had competed back in 2019 but bowed out in the preliminary rounds. After that, she began working with a coach so she could be ready to compete again. “I can go out, like my Guinness world records, just leave it right there and walk off.”

Avant-garde also stands out because of when she started to become interested in spelling bees. Most Scripps spellers start as young as kindergarten, but she started doing this a couple of years ago. Her coach, Cole Shafer-Ray (who was a 2015 Scripps runner-up) was in awe of her talent. “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,” Shafer-Ray said. “It was like a mystery, like, ‘Is this person even real?'”

Oh yes, she most definitely is.


Congratulations to Zaila Avant-garde! You truly are magical.

(Image: JIM WATSON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

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Image of Briana Lawrence
Briana Lawrence
Briana (she/her - bisexual) is trying her best to cosplay as a responsible adult. Her writing tends to focus on the importance of representation, whether it’s through her multiple book series or the pieces she writes. After de-transforming from her magical girl state, she indulges in an ever-growing pile of manga, marathons too much anime, and dedicates an embarrassing amount of time to her Animal Crossing pumpkin patch (it's Halloween forever, deal with it Nook)