Written by Serie McDougal
I grew up watching Michael Jordan on TV in an apartment on the South Side of Chicago. If you did that you would inevitably have to sit through commercials. I have to say that my favorite commercials were the ones that featured Jordan. Looking at the sacrifice and protest of Black male athletes today, I recall Jordan’s commercials. One that comes to mind is the “maybe I destroyed the game commercial” in which Michael Jordan explains his hard work, determination, sacrifice, and courage. I was always extremely inspired. I would be so caught up in the values he espoused. I remember being disappointed when I realized that the commercial gave the impression that Michael’s primary goal was individual greatness and basketball success, though you could apply those principles to anything. But why was that a problem? Why would Jordan appear so different to me than Muhammad Ali who public proclaimed he was the greatest of all time? Maybe the answers lie in the reasons why Jordan’s greatness was celebrated during his prime when Ali was so greatly ridiculed.
Have Blacks been hindered in their pursuit of so called “traditional” manhood values such as independence, assertiveness, leadership & strength? Yes… and no. Players like Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, Craig Hodges, and Colin Kaepernick have exercised some of these values during their athletic tenures. However, their exercise of these values became a problem only when they began to support collective Black liberation and/or challenge anti-Black oppression. The purpose of this article is to locate the more recent forms of Black male athletes’ protest within the history of Black male workers’ political protest. For example, in the 19th century, northern Blacks were significantly impacted by European immigration. Employers preferred hiring Irish workers, therefore Blacks lost employment opportunities. Clarke-Hine and Jenkins (1999) explain that before 1820, Black craftsmen were in demand, although employers preferred to hire other Whites. By the 1830’s certain practices were used to successfully drive African Americans from skilled trades.
Many Whites resented the idea of working alongside Blacks. These sentiments were made known through practices used by White workers to exclude Black men from apprenticeships. Sometimes White workers used terrorist attacks (i.e., lynching & bombings) to prevent employers from hiring Black men. In New York, for example, Black men were systematically prevented from achieving the advanced status of “cartman.” During that time, a major concern for Whites was Black collective advancement. In 1802, the postmaster general wrote to the U.S. senate that only Blacks should not be allowed to be mail carriers because the position would provide them a good opportunity to instigate and carry out revolts among the enslaved (Litwack, 1961). In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Black men were disproportionately represented among those who worked as seamen. Seafaring was less segregated than other labor forces in the 19th century. By no means was seafaring without racism, but maritime culture had a system of order, hierarchy, and mutual dependence that made the experience a more tolerable workplace for Black men compared to other industries (Bolster, 1990). This, in addition to the relatively high wages, and relatively less racial intolerance aboard vessels was attractive to Black men. Traditionally thought of as a manly occupation, being a seaman also offered Black males opportunities that would typically not be available to them. Enslavers sometimes hired enslaved Black men out to work aboard ships to receive their wages (Bolster, 1990). Some Black men, eager to make an escape or to temporarily get relief from the high level of racist hostility ashore, sought out seafaring. Indeed, the prominent Black advocate for freedom and liberation, Frederick Douglass, sought his escape aboard a ship. On the heels of Denmark Vesey’s plan for revolt, South Carolina passed legislation (Negro Seamen Acts) deterring Black men from seafaring. Some of the laws required that Black seamen be imprisoned upon arrival in South Carolina until their vessels departed, with their captains paying the expenses of their detention (Bolster, 1990). South Carolina passed Act for the Better Regulation and Government of Free Negroes and Persons of Color, because they feared that Black seamen would infect other Blacks with the spirit of revolt. They were correct, Black seamen, as early as 1809 participated in the distribution of abolitionist materials (Bolster, 1990). They were the defiant ones. Muhammad Ali became legendary and iconic because he refused to submit to the pressure. Harshly ridiculed during his time and admired in death, Ali took the road less travelled by; he was the greatest, but he stood for something greater. Something greater than personal success costed many of our ancestors’ wealth and prestige, but gained them eternal glory. As many football players have pledged to continue to kneel during the national anthem whether Colin Kaepernick does or not, pressure on them will continue to mount. The questions that remain are, will current athletes sustain this movement and will Black people translate the spirit of Black athletes protest into social and political advancement in the settings where we live and work?
Bolster, W. J. (1990). "To feel like a man": Black seamen in the northern states, 1800-1860. Place of publication not identified: publisher not identified.
Clarke-Hine, D. & Jenkins, E.(Ed.) (1999). A question of manhood: A reader in U.S. Black men’s history and masculinity. Bloomington, IA: Indiana University Press.
Litwack, L. F. (1961). North of slavery: The Negro in the free States, 1790-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Reese, F. (2017, August 31). Sidelined, silenced: Unsigned Kaepernick highlights limits of free speech in sports, workplace. Atlanta Black Star. Retrieved September 01, 2017, from http://atlantablackstar.com/2017/08/31/sidelined-silenced-unsigned-kaepernick-highlights-limits-free-speech-sports-workplace/