The Emancipation of the Black Athlete

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When Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the National Anthem, he did so to raise the conversation of black genocide at the hands of the state. If there is any indicator as to how urgent it was for him to do so, it was in the response from the viewers, the fans, the owners, and even our President. It has been a message that has always been given to athletes–black ones especially. That message was, and remains to be, to stick to sports.

That saying is the definition of black life in America. Many remember in the movie The Great Debaters, where Denzel Washington’s character references Willy Lynch, one of the early white supremacists, inventors of lynching, and author of How To Make African-American Slaves For A Thousand Years. In discussing how to make slaves useful, the idea was to ensure the physical strength, but mental weakness of the enslaved. He wrote of a system that would enable slave owners to control their slaves in order to ensure maximum productivity, with the least likelihood of rebellion. He writes, “Keep the mind, take the body! In other words, break the will to resist.”

When Trump told owners to “get that son of a bitch off the field”, he was carrying not just the tradition of Willy Lynch, but the idea that black athletes value rests only in their body, and any other worldly pursuits should be abandoned. It’s that rhetoric that would have kept black folks from obtaining an education, from having the right to vote, and kept our enslaved ancestors from learning how to read. It is also the rhetoric that has kept Colin Kaepernick from a job, and a means from NFL owners to teach a lesson to the other field negroes that they just need to stick to sports, lest you end up like that other nigger who talked too much.

To see the growth  Kaep has made over the years is empowering. But his growth does not exist within a vacuum. For anyone (wypipo) who can’t understand the significance of what is happening on the field right now: just know it’s book 2 of The Hunger Games, Trump is President Snow, Kaep is our Mockingjay, and all the other tributes are finally getting in formation, with the power of the people behind them. Kaep did not invent the wheel, a whole lot of folks been on the ground working and dying up until now, but he came at the right time to make a point. He added oil to an already burning fire.

The conversations in sports have always mirrored society’s consciousness. We can look to the field to show us how low we can go as a people, but that same field can also show us something better to aspire to. 

Black folk have looked to sports to not just escape our reality, but to empower it. In this sense, athletes could never just stick to sports, because their existence transcended it. Kaep is not the first, nor will he be last. In Kaep, we can see the 1968 Olympics, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, Jack Johnson and so many others who today’s black athletes stand on the shoulders of.

What we are witnessing is a century long battle of the emancipation of the black athlete, and thus the emancipation for black folk. Black athletes are showing their value is not in their bodies, but in reclaiming the power in their voice.

Whether or not every player in the NFL kneels or not today, it won’t matter, because the wheel has been set in motion, and it won’t turn back. We will be free. 

 

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