The first time I was told that Bubba Wallace was an athlete, I assumed he was an offensive lineman for the University of Alabama or one of those white boys competing in an American sport bubbling with white fans named Bubba. I knew nothing of NASCAR, nothing of pit stops or SAFER barriers. I had not an ounce of resentment for major American sports that bubbled over with white fans named Bubba; I just relished watching black athletes, preferably Southern black athletes, beat the sunblock out of white athletes loved by white American fans named Bubba.
Last year, there was no black athlete who routinely competed against Bubbas, under the gaze of Bubbas, more than Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr., the 24-year-old rookie NASCAR driver from Mobile, Alabama. I knew him as Bubba before I knew him as Darrell. On the track and off—he was the voice of Bubba Wheelhouse in Pixar's Cars 3—Wallace has shown why he's the future of NASCAR.
In mid-February, I watched Bubba Wallace—who has the nose of LaMarcus Aldridge, the hairline of Ezekiel Elliott, the hair texture of Devin Booker and the voice of a less-country Randy Moss—sit at a table and celebrate his second-place finish at this year's Daytona 500. It was the highest finish for a black American. In the middle of the press conference, Bubba's mother, Desiree, walked toward the table.
"You did that thang," she said. "I'm so proud of you, baby. You have waited so long."
"You act like we just won the race," Bubba responded, his face buried snugly in his mother's shoulder.
"We did," she replied. "We did win that race, baby."
I knew, far too well, what it feels like to win in front of white folks when you've technically lost, and what it feels like to lose in front of white folks when you've technically won. Watching Bubba and his mother, I thought of the 20 years my family spent watching Eldrick "Tiger" Woods play on Sundays, even though Eldrick—we always called him by his given name—did everything possible to let us know he would seldom consider himself any more of a black athlete than the white men he beat religiously on Sunday afternoons.
I thought back to how there was little in the world that felt more joyful than when my family and I huddled up around the TV to watch Serena Williams beat white women, particularly overrated white women full of performance-enhancing drugs, in tennis. Part of this had to do with Serena's dominance, but most of it had to do with her insistence that she was a black woman doing something few expect of black athletes in majority white sports.
I wonder, though: What does it feel like to be the only prominent black athlete in a sport that seems to celebrate and calcify conventional tropes of whiteness in this country? For Bubba, I wonder if there is less or more pressure—since your car, and not your black body, is what fans see flying around that track.
The desire to not be seen or treated as black, and the trauma of being perpetually seen and treated as black by white folks, has led some black athletes to sprint toward a kind of race neutrality, which is tragic but understandable. But to whom, and from whom, are these athletes running? Though Bubba has not been racing professionally very long, it means everything to me that he has not sped away from the importance of blackness in his life and sport.
"There is only 1 driver from an African American background at the top level of our sport," Bubba wrote in a tweet still pinned to his twitter account. "I am the 1. You're not gonna stop hearing about 'the black driver' for years. Embrace it, accept it and enjoy the journey."
It takes a courage I am very familiar with to remind a world looking to define and dismantle your blackness on their terms that you are, and will forever be, a proud black athlete committed to winning, not just being present. In Bubba Wallace, I met my second black Bubba—Bubba Smith, the former Oakland Raider who later starred in Police Academy, was my first—and I intend on enjoying his journey as a phenomenal black NASCAR driver, who's proud to be a phenomenal black NASCAR driver, as long as it lasts.
Kiese Laymon is the author of the memoir HEAVY: An American Memoir, the essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourselves and Others in America, and the novel Long Division. Follow him on Twitter: @kieselaymon.
Check out more rising stars on the B/R POWER 50 Glow Up list: