Primed for Pressure

How life in the South shaped Kimberly Harris

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LOS ANGELES -- Kimberly Harris knows the meaning of pressure and adversity. She grew up less than an hour from the stony, stoic gaze of the 90-foot-tall carving of Confederate generals Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee at Stone Mountain State Park, which defined life for Black Americans below the Mason-Dixon line.

The Civil War monument represents bondage for Black Americans from the red hills of Georgia to Lookout Mountain in Tennessee and up and around every hill and molehill of Mississippi. It remains a perpetual testament to a sordid history for Black Georgians.

The crestfallen, stodgy monument is an ode to times when the Confederates saw life and their slave-owning traditions enforced with terror, force, and brutality. Slaves were raped and abused, separated, and sold like cattle, human beings beaten or lynched at the whim of owners, overseers and onlookers.

From the Reconstruction era to the rise of Jim Crow, Black bodies dangled from branches by their necks throughout the Confederate South. The brunt of the ideology, policies and practices of Jim Crow and the terrorism of the Klan left droves of Black people in terror.

Kimberly Harris is not like most people; she’s a fighter. She has collided with racism head-on and has sprinted around it. And as the track world will soon discover, athletes like her don’t come around often.

Fearless and Focused

“Kimbie” is the eldest of four daughters to parents who played college sports. Her father, James, played football at North Carolina A&T, and her mother, Cortina, played softball at J.F. Webb High School in Oxford, North Carolina. The track star set the standard of excellence in the house for her siblings.

Her bedroom was a temple dedicated to winning and excellence. The soccer and basketball trophies and track medals adorn the walls and are entombed by her certificates and awards for her top grades.

She wore her hair naturally -- sometimes in twists and braids and others in rainbow-colored barrettes that flummoxed the little boys she sprinted past in football and basketball games. Her rich, deep, milk chocolate skin tone is a ballad of blackness, complimented by her gregarious spirit and infectious smile. But beneath the bubbly personality and warm charm lies a quiet, tenacious fierceness.

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Although Harris cannot recall the year, she vividly recalls one of her first crashes with racism. While Cortina was taking Kimbie to soccer practice, a white man in a pick-up truck adorned with a tow hitch and Confederate regalia ran the Harris women’s minivan off the road. The man veered into their lane, the vehicles swapped paint, and the man spewed hate. Trying to get a handle on the situation, Cortina pulled off the highway into a parking lot to tend and check on her daughters. But, unbeknownst to her, the angry white driver followed the Harris women into the parking lot.

A worried Kimbie had the presence of mind to call her father on the phone for advice. He was in Charlotte, two-plus hours away, where he spent half his time working as an engineer. He urged Kimbie and her mom to not allow the man to approach the car. But the livid driver came toward their vehicle, beet red and seething with anger, berating Cortina.

Her father, trying to gain control of the situation hundreds of miles away from his family, told Kimbie to reach into the glovebox and hand her mother a licensed Springfield Armory 9mm pistol.

As the tension escalated, Kimberly could hear her father’s constant advice to protect her mother and sisters while he was away. She calmly climbed over her sisters to the front seat, reached inside the glove compartment, and handed the weapon to her mother. Cortina brandished the gun to ward off the incensed man. His eyes widened when he saw the brandished pistol. His face turned pale white with shock and fear, and he got into his truck and left the Harris women alone in their minivan to sort through their emotions.

Blocking Out the Noise

Kimbie has grown older. A young woman, “Kimmie,” has been forced to block out voices and the brunt of racism. Yet, the Communications major learned and understands the salience and ability to code-switch.

Code-switching, changing one’s linguistic style, tone, and syntax, is a survival skill that communities of color learn to assimilate and gain acceptance in white spaces. Harris responded with grace and love but built a shield as white students ridiculed her dark skin and the texture and coils of her thick, jet-black, cotton-like crown.

Her adolescent years forced her to think about how she would define blackness and what it meant to be a Black woman for herself in high school.

In August 2018, Geye Hamby, the former superintendent of the Buford school district, was recorded, unbeknownst to him, where he called a group of Black workers the N-word and threatened to kill them. Upon the leaked conversation to the press, Hamby initially denied that his voice was on the recording. However, he eventually resigned from his $308,000 per-year position after protests demanded his resignation.

As tensions rose within the city, students at Buford High School opted to organize to speak out against Hamby and racism. Students that condemned the embattled superintendent organized and opted to wear all black, which the school deemed “gang colors,” in support of Black students and Black lives.

The next day went as any other day -- some students were dropped off in big, red pick-up trucks with Confederate flags flapping in the wind and on license plates, some in minivans or indiscreet compact cars, while other students filed off the school bus.

For years of her life, foes that masqueraded as friends opted to combat the all-black protest; they showed up to school wearing all-white and championed Hamby’s retention. Hence, “Kimmie’s” response -- she noted both supporters and detractors. Although the overt displays of racism that typified the Jim Crow South were gone, the insidious vestiges and tentacles were still displayed for her to perplexingly process and work through.

A true competitor

“Kimbo Slice” is drawn to competition -- regardless of the sport. So, it’s common for her to frantically yell at the television while she watches football, cornhole, and table tennis.

Now a woman, she enters her junior year on USC’s track and field team with the frustration of having her first two seasons cut short due to torn hamstrings. Yet, despite it all, her confidence remains unflappable.

She and adversity have an intimate relationship. Kimberly learned discipline and loyalty from her best friend -- her father. James read books and watched soccer coaching videos to help her improve her footwork, touch, and shooting, after his commutes from Charlotte to Buford, to take her to soccer practices and games.

Before coming to USC, Kimberly was a cornerstone in the Buford JackRabbit Track Club. Her coach, Mark Moxley, gave her the nickname “Kimbo Slice,” named after the Miami street fighting legend for how she sliced and diced her opposition. However, when it’s time to race, Kimberly is no longer gregarious and easygoing.

Instead, she transforms into a speed demon born to sprint that went undefeated her junior year in high school -- an unheard-of feat. In 2019, Kimbo competed at the New Balance National Indoor Championships, seizing the 400-meter title in the Championship Girls with a No. 6 all-time record with a time of 52.62 seconds. At the Emerging Elite sprints, Harris claimed titles in the 55m in 6.94 and the 60 in 7.45 -- the eighth fastest all-time in the race. Her performance was so dominant that she drew comparisons to Olympic champion Sydney McLaughlin.

After two years off, Harris enters the season feeling the best she’s felt in years and looks to reclaim the dominance she is known for in the 400 meters. But, as Kimbo displayed throughout her budding career, her only competition is herself. Nevertheless, she has the fuel and resilience to silence her detractors.

If she remains healthy this season, she has the ability and potential to join the pantheon of USC track greats. And, if Kimbo Slice performs at the levels she knows she can, it won’t be odd to see her slice things up in the Olympics.

Despite her youth, Harris has a keen take on what she’s seen.

“Although those are horrible experiences that no one should endure, I refuse to allow them to define who I am. I want to succeed on the track so I can grow my platform and raise awareness of the various situations Black people endure,” Harris said.

“My experiences taught me to be resilient, push through hard, sad or scary times -- to turn my anger into energy to master my craft. I want my life to teach people that they can turn these encounters into fuel to be better versions of themselves each day to prove people wrong.”