Tagged Blacks

Brooklyn Fencer Seeks Olympic Gold

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Nzingha Prescod, a United States Olympian, practicing at the Fencers Club in Manhattan last month.

Nzingha Prescod, a United States Olympian, practicing at the Fencers Club in Manhattan last month.Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

Last month, practice was winding down at the Fencers Club in Manhattan when a group of young students paused to watch a Brooklyn-born Olympian relentlessly attack a padded wall. The athlete, Nzingha Prescod, carried on unfazed, her feet shuffling like a tap dancer’s, her eyes darting behind the mesh of her mask. Ms. Prescod is getting used to the increased scrutiny. This summer, she hopes to become the first African-American fencer to win Olympic gold.

“Obviously I want to medal,” Ms. Prescod said, “but what gets me really excited is the idea of little black girls turning on the TV to see someone like them fencing.”

When Ms. Prescod, 23, first began fencing, historically the province of the white and the aristocratic, she had few models in the sport from similar backgrounds. She and her older sister were raised by a single mother in the upstairs apartment of a two-family home in the Flatlands neighborhood of Brooklyn. Her mother, Marva Prescod, tried to keep the girls out of trouble by packing their schedules from a young age: piano, ballet, gymnastics, karate, swimming.

Her mother dismissed fencing as prohibitively expensive before reading about the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a nonprofit that brings fencing and tutoring to young people from underserved communities. The foundation was established in 1991 byPeter Westbrook, who made history himself in 1984 as the first black fencer to win an Olympic medal.

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Nzingha Prescod, a member of the US Olympic fencing team practices at the Fencers Club on West 28th Street.

Nzingha Prescod, a member of the US Olympic fencing team practices at the Fencers Club on West 28th Street.Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

When Ms. Prescod was 9, she began taking free lessons through the foundation. A year later, she won a national championship for her age group. “Nzingha is exactly the same today as she was at age 9,” her coach, Buckie Leach, said. “Just a fantastic athlete with a lot of smarts and a high fencing I.Q.”

To watch Ms. Prescod compete is to witness a world-class tactician in full force. On the fencing strip, she is like Bobby Fischer behind a chess set, considering each movement two, three, four steps ahead of the next. Though Ms. Prescod is notorious for straying from fencing orthodoxy, she is reliably at her strongest, Mr. Leach said, when attacking from a defensive position, often baiting her opponents into a strike that she deflects and counters.

Her prowess recalls that of the woman who inspired her name, the 17th-century Angolan warrior Queen Nzinga. When the Portuguese tried to expand the slave trade into Central Africa, Queen Nzinga is said to have led the front lines of the resistance.

“I love that history,” said Ms. Prescod, grinning after a recent training session. “It says I’m black and I’m powerful and I’m fighting for my people.”

Indeed, Ms. Prescod will be fighting for her country when she heads to Rio de Janeiro next month. Her ascension in the ranks of the sport has already proven groundbreaking. She made history in 2013 as the first American woman to earn a gold medal for foil at the 2013 Grand Prix, and again in 2015 as the first African-American woman to win an individual medal at the Senior World Championships.

Ms. Prescod finished in 22nd place at her first Olympic Games in 2012 after falling to the five-time World Championship medalist Aida Mohamed. But she was still green then — a recent Stuyvesant High School graduate who had just had her braces removed. Now she has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University and has been training with unyielding tenacity. Indeed, her greatest problem is overworking, said Mr. Leach, who worries about injuries. “I always tell her to cool it, but later I’ll find out she’s been practicing behind my back.”

Mr. Prescod laughed off the barb, but all that lunging has caused a cartilage defect in her right hip that will require a procedure after Rio. Given the physical demands of the sport, she knows that her days competing may not last long past this summer. But regardless of her career’s longevity, Ms. Prescod has extracted some lessons that inform her life outside of fencing.

“Fencing has given me access to this whole other world,” she said. “It’s sad, but if you’re going into a job interview, they don’t want you talking like a girl from Brooklyn — they want you talking like a girl from a fencing club.”

Having conquered the fencing club, Ms. Prescod is eager to share something else with her eponymous warrior-queen: a regal piece of jewelry — something bronze, silver or maybe even gold.

Living With Cancer: Being Erased

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Credit iStock

While I recover from a fractured pelvis, I have time to remember the day after a less ruinous fall two years ago. No bones broken then, but I quickly developed a shiner and then slowly an insight into the color of cancer.

A bluish-purple humdinger bloomed beneath my right eye, spreading its tendrils down my cheek. Leaning over or a deep breath hurt. With too many cancer-related hospitalizations, I was determined to avoid the emergency room. Learn from the pain, I instructed myself, and prepare your dish for the potluck: The word tugged me back to the 1970s.

I had slipped on the way to the bathroom at 4 a.m. A thud — my body hitting the hardwood floor — woke my husband who immediately supplied towels to sop up the bleeding from my forehead. Was that fall a consequence of the targeted medication of a clinical trial, a sliver of Ambien, the neuropathy in my feet from past chemotherapies, or all the above?

Still, food needed to be prepared for the gathering I was supposed to attend that evening of retired faculty women from Indiana University. The company would consist of compatriots on all sorts of committees over the course of some 40 years. We were the ones who arrived at the university to integrate the mostly male faculty. Many of these people had consoled me when cancer treatments necessitated my retirement.

I had already blanched the asparagus and started a dressing. As I assembled the dish, I rehearsed parries to the concerned comments my black eye was sure to elicit. “You should see the other guy,” I would tell my former colleagues. Or “It’s a counter-irritant; it takes my mind off cancer.”

After finding my way to the dinner, I joined some 25 variously frail and hale retired faculty women who had brought quiches and salads for a communal meal. They were filling their plates and sitting in small groups.

With only a spasm of pain, I settled on a couch next to a friend and started to launch into one of my usual shticks: that she should participate in the oral history project to document her work establishing gender studies and African-American studies at our university. But she interrupted me.

“Do you realize that I am the first black woman to retire here since I don’t know many years ago?”

Then we were off and running down memory lane: recalling E.S., a pioneering scholar, and C.M., a brilliant teacher. Careers blindsided, people lost to us. What had happened to them? Gone without a trace. Did their isolation in a Midwestern college town depress them and had their depression further isolated them? Were they pigeonholed as representative African-Americans and erased as unique human beings? Although the administration tried various retention strategies, somehow the environment remained inhospitable.

“It’s still a hard place to be a black woman,” my friend sighed.

While driving home I had worried and wondered why E.S. and C.M. did not, could not navigate their way to that evening’s event and whether newly hired African-American women would find the path as hazardous now as it had been then. At my front door, though, a more self-regarding thought stopped me in my tracks.

How odd that not one person had mentioned my black eye! “You look great,” one and all had volubly exclaimed at my coming and then at my going.

Did my friends assume that oncologists routinely punch their patients in the face? Or were they exhibiting some version of Midwestern niceness? Or are cancer patients invisible as individuals, visible only as cancer patients who must be perpetually bolstered and boosted? My colleagues had seen Susan with cancer, not Susan who arrived in their midst with a black eye.

“People who have had cancer are treated as a kind of minority group,” the prostate cancer survivor Michael Korda believes, “as if the most important thing about them is their cancer, much as many people still treat African-Americans, as if the only thing that matters about them (or to them) is that they are black.”

During the following months, I mulled over the hyper-visibility of categorized cancer patients and African-Americans, on one hand, and their invisibility as individuals, on the other.

Only this year, since it takes me quite a bit of muddling to learn anything, did Michael Korda’s insight make me realize how very few cancer memoirs we have from people of color, despite exceptions like those produced by Audre Lorde and Robin Roberts.

The experiences of minorities remain strikingly marginal in cancer literature: not only in memoirs but also in blogs, diaries, essays, stories, plays, novels, movies and television series. Since these genres generally express the perspectives of individuals, we are impoverished in our understanding when what we read and see excludes the reactions of patients from various economic and ethnic and racial backgrounds. Mortality statistics and drug advertisements notwithstanding, the cancer patients many of us imagine — as individuals enmeshed in their own stories – are white.

In the prize-winning book “Citizen: An American Lyric,” Claudia Rankine describes taking a few steps back when someone with multiple degrees said to her, “I didn’t know black women could get cancer.”

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