Wednesday, February 10, 2016

From Jack to Cam- a Brief History of the Unapologetically Black Athlete

By Guest Blogger Jessica Newby

I've had this on my mind for a few days now and since it IS Black History month, I finally figured, what the heck? Mini history lesson/musings for y'all.
Let me just preface this by saying that I do not closely follow NFL football. (I'm more a college ball girl.) I didn't know very much about Cam Newton personally, or his career prior to this season. What I have been following and watching lately is the media firestorm that's been surrounding Cam Newton in the days up to and following the Super Bowl. I'm gonna say something about it.

I look and listen to Cam Newton and I just can't help but be filled with thoughts about the first African American Heavyweight Boxing Champion Jack Johnson. History has a funny (if not unfortunate) way of repeating itself and much of the criticism and scrutiny that I see Cam Newton receiving mirrors the kind that Johnson did in his day.
In the early 1900's, in midst of the Nadir Era in America (considered to represent a 'low' point of race relations that was rife with white violence against African Americans) Jack Johnson engaged in direct opposition of what was considered to be "acceptable" behavior for a Black man period,much less a Black athlete. He dressed to the nines in specially tailored suits, wore gold caps on his teeth, drove fast cars, visited brothels and spent lavish amounts of money as if it were pennies. In a time when Black men could be (and oftentimes were) killed for just looking at a White woman, Johnson carried on very public affairs with white women, even going so far as to cause an already married white Brooklyn socialite to marry him instead. He openly taunted and goaded his White opponents in and out of the ring. He and his entourage literally chased White fighters that refused to fight him because of his race from place to place, around the world until they would either agree to meet him in the ring or be called yellow.
The sheer audacity of this behavior for this time period simply cannot be understated. This was the Nadir Era. Blackness itself was demonized and persecuted to the point of violence. And yet, Johnson was not only Black. He was to put it bluntly, unforgivably Black; the "worst" kind of Black that there was perceived to be in his time. His Blackness was unashamed, un-humbled, un-intimidated and unrepentant. He was not gracious and humble when he won. He laughed and taunted the entourages and families of the White boxers that he fought who had come expecting to see him be beaten (he wasn't by the way, and wouldn't be until 1915). While locking a White boxer in his arms by the head, he (a 6 foot tall, dark skinned Black man) would call over the ropes to his own White girlfriend, asking her, "Hey Baby: which round do you want me to knock this chump out in?"
Let me repeat: this was the early 1900's. Think about that.
Race riots literally broke out over the country when and because Jack Johnson won the Heavyweight title. It could be argued that they would've broken out regardless of what type of behavior he exhibited to the public, but I can't help but believe that a significant part of the white animosity and hatred that he garnered for himself was because of his Unforgivable Blackness; his refusal to conform to the standards of what was considered to be "appropriate behavior" for a Black athlete and a Black person in general. It was bad enough that he a Black man that was winning, but he was also a Black man who was winning and didn't have enough "fear", "shame" or "humility" in him to act the way that they believed he ought to behave 100% of the time. This, was unforgivable.
Here's what I know about Cam Newton: he dabs and Supermans in the end zone. He wears Versace Zebra print pants and Louboutin high tops. He acknowledges Ebonics as one of the languages that he is fluent in. He has racked up NFL fines in excess of HUNDREDS of thousands of $ for the footballs that he gives to his young fans in the stands without a second thought. He is an effusive, jubilant winner, and (as he himself acknowledges) a "sore" loser. He is unapologetic, unrepentant and frank about his behavior whether he is winning or losing. And for that, he is being lambasted.

Sound familiar?
I watched this past Sunday's Super Bowl thinking about the title fights that took place between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries (the white boxer that was literally brought out of retirement to beat him even though he failed) and Jess Willard, the hand-picked Great White Hope farm hand that finally did. White American reporters/writers (including Jack London) literally wrote op-ed pieces in newspapers in the days leading up to both of these fights pleading for Jefferies and Willard to finally succeed in "wiping the golden smile" off of Jack Johnson's face. In other words: "This ni**r is too cocky for his own good. He needs to be humbled/beaten to teach him a lesson--to teach him his place."
If you have been following ANY of the general/social media discourse and verbiage surrounding Cam Newton before and after the Super Bowl, you cannot deny the parallels that exist between how he and Jack Johnson's Unforgivable Blackness is processed in the eyes of the world. It speaks to the much broader implication of how Black people (even to the core of their emotions) are still being subjected to white standards of what is considered to be "acceptable" or "appropriate" behavior. Whether we are winning or losing, we are supposed to look a certain way, talk a certain way, and BE a certain thing in order to be seen as worthy of praise or respect. If we (as Johnson and Newton have) refuse, we are then deemed unworthy and disrespectful.
Known for his philanthropy, dapper demeanor and spotless record, how good a player and person does Cam have to be to be above patronizing admonishment, win or lose?
Cam Newton is not the first football player to have a visceral, frustrated (and, to be honest,HUMAN) reaction to losing in the Super Bowl. If we're going to call it a "crime", then from what I understand, it's one that Peyton Manning is "guilty" of as well. But Manning is white,and therein lies the blatant double standard. My TL on Sunday and Monday morning was littered with calls for Cam to have a little more "humility" "graciousness" and "respect" after his postgame press conference. I was particularly frustrated that it wasn't just White people echoing these sentiments either: several brothas and sistas got themselves unfollowed that night/morning by yours truly for the nonsense they were spouting.
I'm gonna wrap this up, but I would just like to say on a personal note that I find Cam Newton's Unforgivable Blackness to be a beautiful thing. (And that's not just because I find the brotha to be fine. I do, for the record.) Cam Newton isn't a perfect man, by any means. Jack Johnson wasn't a perfect man by any means; but his refusal to bow down and conform himself in the face of racist expectations of what is "acceptable Blackness" is just as noteworthy today as it was then. Just as we must applaud him for setting that example in 1910, we must also applaud Cam Newton for keeping with that tradition in 2016.
Like it or not, he IS allowed to be unapologetically Black. Like it or not, he IS allowed to be unapologetically human. Period.

1 comment: said...

Interesting thoughts and opinions and kinda enlightening too. I'd say the world was looking up to this game and the African team deserved it well. It was such an exciting match, thank you for bringing back old memories.