From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

The Bionic Woman Is Black

I feel that the most important requirement in success is learning to overcome failure. You must learn to tolerate it, but never accept it.

Reggie Jackson

I can still remember my mother and father sitting my brother and me down one summer day and explaining the Educational Integration Program that was to be instituted in the fall. The program was designed to take inner-city kids—like us—and provide them the opportunity for a better education in the traditionally white suburban communities. I was not sure what “better education” meant, but I trusted my mom and dad when they said that this was something they had never had—a chance at receiving an equal and fair education.

On the first day of school, riding on the bus an eerie silence and thick tension in the air confirmed that the other kids on the bus were just as anxious, hopeful and frightened as me. When our bus arrived on the school grounds, I expected a big “Welcome” sign greeting us as the first class of integration students. After all, this was 1979 and we were in Los Angeles—right?

To my surprise, however, we were greeted with eggs, tomatoes and rocks thrown at our bus. Fear and confusion overwhelmed me. I had seen this type of thing on TV. Tears of pain and anger stung my eyes when I witnessed water hoses hurting the people marching for equality, and I got chills when I heard Dr. King say, “ . . . one day little black kids and little white kids can play together and go to school together . . . free at last, free at last.” I realized that I was that little black girl he was talking about, and maybe staying in this scary school with these mean people was my way of contributing to what Dr. King had died for. If I ran back to safety, then we really weren’t “free at last.” So I convinced my parents to let me stay.

An athlete since the age of eight, I had just begun to run track when tryouts were announced for both a Charlie’s Angels and a Bionic Woman competition. I was thrilled and sure I could win. At ten years old I ran the fastest in the entire school. I had mastered my roll . . . stop . . . point . . . and “Freeze, sucker!” to sheer perfection. In the days leading up to the big competition, which included over forty hopeful little girls and over seventy-five curious onlookers, I sharpened every skill to ensure my placement. I knew all the key lines of both the Angels and the Bionic Woman.

On the day of the big competition I was calm and assured.

“Ready. Set. Go!”

I was out in front instantly! When I finished the one-hundred-yard race, many of the girls were just approaching the seventy-five-yard mark. This gave me the additional boost of confidence I needed as the only African American in the competition. The judges were five very popular girls and a boy I guessed represented Charlie.

Only the first six of us who placed in the race advanced to the “Roll, Freeze and Pose” competition. I waited to be the last candidate, and my competitors did just as I thought: They giggled, fumbled and foiled the freeze. I, however, froze right on the mark—hot asphalt and all. My performance was so impressive that the audience gave a gasping “WOW.” You would have thought I had been an Angel for years—at least since I had been six!

Finally, it was time to decide who would be Charlie’s Angels and the Bionic Woman for the entire school year. I stood there as the judges huddled, periodically looking over their shoulders before their final selection. With six girls left, three would be Angels, one would be the Bionic Woman, and one would be alternate. This would leave only one person who would not be selected at all.

I looked to both sides to see who that could be. Maybe Cindy—she came in last in the race, or Kim—she couldn’t coordinate herself enough to roll and freeze. Maybe it would be Michelle, who made a habit of calling everyone ugly names and just did not come across as an Angel. I felt sorry for whoever was not going to be chosen.

“The decision is made!” exclaimed Charlie’s agent.

“The official Charlie’s Angels will be Diane, Tiffany . . . ,” I felt my heart sink, “and Cindy.”

“The official Bionic Woman . . . ,” the young judge went on to say.

My mind was racing, partly in disbelief and partly in hopefulness. One chance, I know I will be chosen for this, I thought, as I could feel my palms sweating and my chest getting tight to hold back the tears.

“Bionic Woman will be Michelle.” He went on to announce, “Kim was chosen as the alternate.”

Boos began to fly from the audience.

As each person approached me to protest the decision, I could see nothing but blur between my tears. My head spun, and my anger rose. I had been cheated and I didn’t know why. I stood frozen on my mark. I replayed the entire chain of events in my head to see what I could have done better or should have done with more passion. After five horrifically long minutes of scanning my brain for answers, I concluded that I could not have produced better results. I had outperformed every other girl.

I deserved an answer, so I walked directly over to the judges, “Why was I not selected if I outperformed everyone in each competition?”

Suddenly, as if waiting for me to ask that question, the school ground fell silent. Everyone stopped and stared, and I wondered then if I had made a big mistake. Nothing could embarrass me more than what just happened, or so I thought.

The judges just looked at me with no sense of care or concern for my feelings and asked the question that would change my life forever, “What hero have you ever seen that was black?”

Another girl taunted, “We did not choose you, Lisa, because you don’t look like any Angel or the Bionic Woman, but you can try out again next year if you happen to begin to look more like them in the future.”

I walked away crying, as they laughed hysterically.

That day in September 1979, I became acquainted with some of the pain and hurt my grandparents and great ancestors endured. Since that year in fifth grade, I committed myself to being a hero for other little girls who needed one, and so I became a motivational speaker.

Twenty years later, during my keynote at a church in Los Angeles, I shared my commitment to change and the importance of empowerment. I emphasized that the cost of living this dream can never exceed the cost of throwing it away. I received a standing ovation from the audience and was elated and overjoyed.

As I made my way through the crowd stopping to acknowledge admiring guests, a hand touched my shoulder and the most familiar voice said, “You are so inspiring; you are a true heroine.”

I turned and nearly fainted. I stood amidst three thousand people and hugged Lindsay Wagner (television’s Bionic Woman), scrambling to explain that she was my longtime favorite.

She said clearly and with conviction, “Today, you became my favorite and the true Bionic Woman.”

On that day, I forgave each of those judges from my childhood for judging my outside—and not seeing my inside. I also forgave myself for being angry for the dark skin I was born in and the pain that it brought. I knew in that moment that it didn’t matter which heroine I looked like, because I now knew exactly which heroine I resembled: me.

Lisa Nichols

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