On Football, Race and American Culture
After witnessing the performance of African-American quarterbacks like Mike Vick, Cam Newton, RG III, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kapernick, who started in the Super Bowl for the San Francisco Forty Niners, it is fair to ask: Is the age of the dominant “double threat” black quarterback upon us?
I have seen this country evolve on so many racial fronts in my lifetime that it is almost impossible to convey the magnitude of that change to someone who was born after the passage of the great Civil Rights legislation of the 1960′s. The present celebration and pursuit of black quarterbacks is a dramatic part of that change.
Today the fact that a black family lives in the White house and an African American man is beginning his second term as the President of the USA and Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces, and his beautiful brilliant wife and daughters are the first ladies of this nation, is greeted with a yawn, shows how the unimaginable has become routine.
This is also their response to what is happening at the quarterback position in football, which on the symbolic level is a comparable advancement in the way the leadership abilities of black men are perceived. Given the central position of football in American culture, who plays quarterback is a very serious business. For instance, it has been estimated that a Heisman Trophy elicits more money from Alumni of Texas universities than a faculty member winning a Nobel Prize!
I know this sounds crazy to those who are not football fans, and have no interest in the game, but even after Afro-American Air Force General Daniel “Chappie” James became the commander of NORAD – North American Air Defense Command – with the power to launch a nuclear attack without consulting the President, at the height of the Cold War with Soviet Russia – a decision that could destroy the earth – football fans, sports commentators and team owners were still debating whether a black man could lead a damn football team!!
And by the way, a black Admiral had commanded the Atlantic fleet from pole to pole; a force capable of destroying the world just like a nuclear air attack, and a black man had commanded a space shuttle flight, before a black man was hired to coach an NFL team. Even now, with an African American President presiding over the nation’s affairs, a bunch of head coaches were recently hired in the NFL and not one of them was black!
It is such a scandal, given the proven black talent around, that Dr. Melissa Harris Perry – a professor of political science and MSNBC host – did an investigative report on the situation of black coaches in the NFL. Hence it is not surprising that despite the dominance of the sport by males of African heritage – especially at the glamorous “skills” positions – there has been only one black coach to win the Super Bowl – albeit in a rare and glorious historic moment when both coaches were black! There has been no comparable moment since. Nor is there likely to be unless the selection system changes.
As historians of sports know, sports reflect deeply held societal values. And football mirrors the most fundamental aspects of the American character. Like football, Americans are highly territorial and aggressive. And football teams mirror the organizational models of corporations and military units, and the Quarterback routinely functions like a CEO or commanding general officer – they are routinely referred to as “Field Generals,” the sports equivalent of a “Field Marshall.”
The game even expropriates military battle terms like “advancing into enemy territory,” “Lobbing the bomb,” “battling in the trenches,” fierce players are referred to as “warriors,” and the arms of quarterbacks who are great passers are referred to as “rifles” or even “Howitzers.” Football is a war game that expresses the martial spirit symbolized by the Bald Eagle, a vicious bird of Prey that is our national mascot.
With the entry of black athletes into the NFL new terms were borrowed from the military lexicon, such as “turning on the afterburners,” a term associated with jets and rocketry. This metaphorical imagery is employed to describe the superior speed of black athletes. The terms associated with throwing the ball – a high art when performed on the level of pro-quarterbacks – were used to describe white quarterbacks, and the terms regarding speed i.e. running were used to describe black quarterbacks. Indeed these terms have been substituted for any reference to race.
Some observers view this as a sign of progress. Could be, depending upon how you look at it. If you think it is fine to be color blind when it comes to celebrating the positive qualities that black men possesses, while their vices are everywhere advertised by race is a good thing However the most amusing thing about Colin is the way so many whites are quick to say his black ancestry does not count. That he is as much white as black, and in any case it doesn’t really matter because he is colorless to them. Some have even accused Afro-Americans want to claim Colin and Obama because it make us “look cool.” They forget that Barack chose us and we invented cool!
This blown call cost San Francisco a Super Bowl
Colin threw the ball to exactly the right spot
The truth is that Afro-Americans accepted bi-racial children and white Americans rejected them – and whites are the majority in the US and thus determined the definition of race and defined racial status in law and custom. It is is a testament to the superior humanity of black people. After all, no less an American icon than Thomas Jefferson enslaved his seven children by his slave concubine Sally Hemmings because they were “tainted” by African blood.
Yet visitors to Monticello, his slave plantation in Virginia, say his son Madison looked just like him. Bi-racial Americans have never been given the choice of being “white” in America, and the white males who ran the country refused to acknowledge them because they would have been admitting they were hypocrites, and criminals too, since they would be violating their stated beliefs about white racial superiority and the laws against racial miscegenation that they had enacted. That’s why the great southern writer Lillian Smith, observed in her extraordinary book “Killers of the Dream,” that the Founding Fathers were “Front porch puritans and backyard lechers!”
So the complaints by white males, who now want to claim Colin Kapernick, reflect both a profound ignorance of American history and the present realities about race. It is whites who defined bi-racial children as “black” not us. As far as I am concerned if Colin Kapernick wants to identify as white I say good luck with that. Barack Obama chose to be Black, and his love for Afro-American culture is palpable – it is clearly visible in his choice of music, dance, language, basketball over bowling, his church and beautiful black wife. Barack chose us and we love him…and accepting him as an Afro-American is no big deal because almost every Afro-American has somebody in their family who favors him. He is darker than a lot of people in my family.
Obviously the definition of race in America is sociological rather than biological. Hence it is a group consciousness born of the peculiar experience of Afro-Americans that forms the basis of our group culture and cohesiveness, which is the basis of our group identity. Dr. WEB DuBois, the most important American humanist intellectual of the 20th century, explained it best “The Negro is a seventh son, born with a veil and gifted with a second sight in this American world.”
Hence when Dr. Dubois talks about life behind the veil of color creating a special consciousness, he is also speaking to Barack’s experience. I would love to know more about Colin’s experience since race relations are constantly evolving in America…it has now reached the point where it is hardly mentioned…whereas for most of the history of this country it would have defined him above all his virtues or vices. And that must be viewed as progress.
However statements such as that of Michael Patmas, posted on the San Francisco Forty Niners web site strikes me as wishful thinking: “He is beyond race.” Patmas says of Colin,” he is above race. He is a post-racial person. Calling him black is racist. Calling him white is racist. Just call him Colin, the best QB in the NFL. In a few hours we will be calling him MVP. That’s what he cares about. That’s what I care about. folks in Nevada never thought of him in racial terms at all. It never crossed our minds. We just love the kid.”
I would rather hear this from Colin, the fact that this white guy thinks he has the right to define him strikes me as just another instance of white male privilege, and his assurance that white Nevadans never thought about his race strikes me as delusional. And if it be true it is really something new under the American sun.
Now that Colin’s birth mother – Hedi Russo not Janet Kaepernick, who adopted him –has emerged and made it clear that she would like to meet her son, we can see the resemblance between them because he has her beak. But she won’t discuss his father, although he is rumored to be an African. The basic outline to their story seems pretty obvious from the little we know. It is not hard to imagine that an 18 year old uneducated white girl in Milwaukee, stuck with a black baby 25 years ago, concluded that the best solution was to put him up for adoption: She could have aborted him.
Hedi Russo: Colin’s Mom
Colin has her Beak
While we are assured by Mr. Patmas and his like that whites neither notice or care about Colin’s race today, he was surely black back then and the racist attitude toward black Americans harbored by whites was a major reason why his mother put him up for adoption. But being rich and famous can make it possible to avoid the inconvenience of racism; it can even make it meaningless in one’s own life.
However he was not always rich or famous, and we don’t know what his experience with racism has been; but there is a video taped interview online with his white adoptive parentsKaepernicks, explaining all the measures they took to him feel good about being “different.” They also talk about their attempts to connect him with Afro-American culture by trying to braid his hair in cornrows.
And Colin tells us that they gave him the nickname “Bo,” after bo Jackson – who was also a star in football and baseball like Colin. However if it were just a matter of finding a sports role model John Elway would have been a better choice since he was an accomplished baseball ball player but also an athletic quarterback. Do it asurd for so many media wags and football fans to try and evade the issue of his race as though it were taboo.
As for myself, I could care less about Colin’s race beyond my interests in what it says about race relations in America today, and especially his performance on the football field. In this regard I definitely consider him a black quarterback, because he possess a style and prowess that only black athletes have, the mislabeled “new style” quarterbacks are all African American….including Colin Kaepernick.
The former star African-American quarterback Donavon McNabb, who was great running and throwing, rotinely refers to Colin as “African American.” I believe that along with Michael Vick, RG III, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton, the way Colin Kaepernick’s plays the game represents the triumph of black style at the quarterback position.
I am especially referring to their speed, quickness, and elegance of movement. My daughter – who is a sports scientists and former Division I sprinter in the 100 and 200 meters – tells me that this is due to the distribution of fast and slow twitch muscle fibers in black and white athletes, which explains why on average black athletes run faster and jump higher than other athletes. It’s not an accident that all of the Olympic sprints, where the best athletes in the world compete, black athletes whose roots lie in West Africa hold the world records.
Since I have already written extensively about this question I don’t want to re-litigate it here; if you are interested in a deeper discussion of this issue see “On Race, Culture and Sports” on this blog. Then you will get a better understanding of the points I am making here. My daughter tells me that the ability of black athletes to run faster and jump higher than whites on average is not in question among sports scientists, but everybody avoids the subject because they don’t want to be involved in the rancorous controversy it is sure to inspire. She said that when she was competing in track and a white girl would show up in the sprints or high hurdles, they would wonder if she was a masochist. Hence the movie “White Men Can’t Jump is not just a joke.
What is without question is that black quarterbacks have brought a different style to playing the position, and while the speed and jumping abilities are biological their grace of movement is cultural…the great writer and blues philosopher Albert Murray says it results from the “tendency of African people to turn all movement into dancelike elegance.” This also explains Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordon. In the tendency to improvisation that characterise the black athletes style represents the impulse to innovation that reaches its apotheosis in the art of Jazz.
The question that now titillates Football fans is whether this new black style will become the dominant style in the NFL. It is worth noting that not all black quarterbacks play in this style, some have remained true to the traditional pocket passing style, including Hall of Fame passer Warren Moon, and Doug Williams, the only black quarterback to win the Super Bowl. When asked what he thinks of the new black running quarterbacks on the eve of the Super Bowl, Doug replied: “I don’t believe in the quarterback running.”
On the other hand Johnny “Football” Manzell, who won the much coveted 2012 Heisman Trophy, is a white quarterback that plays in the black style; he also has a black coach at Texas A&M – the only team to beat Alabama, the national champions. “Johnny Football” leaves no doubt that he has adopted the dynamic athletic black style when he tells us that his role models were Cam Newton and RG III. And by the way, all the emphasis about Colin Kaepernick being a good student, in an apparent attempt to distinguish him from other black athletes, is misguided BS, because RG III got his Masters in four years while winning the Heisman.
It is clear that there are people whispering in his ear, and they are telling him to identify with his white side. We’ll see how that goes for him, but despite the fact that he is quoted saying Brett Favre was his role model…he does not play like Favre, but like Randall Cunningham – who also went to college in Nevada, at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. And Randall is the paterfamilias of all the in the “double threat” quarterbacks in the NFL! So whether he knows it or not – and if he doesn’t he’s not half as smart as people say he is –Colin Kapernick is the spawn of Randall the Great.
Yet the most interesting aspect of the Colin Kapernick story remains the way his racial identity has been handled. For most of this country’s history, I’d argue right up to present moment, his black father would have been all the talk and he would have been labeled a “colored man,” or a “Negro” by enlightened whites and a “dirty black nigger” by the others.
For the first 250 years of this country’s history his brown skin, the mark of African ancestry, meant that he would have been described a 3/5 of a man during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Told he had “no rights a white man was bound to respect” by Roger B. Taney, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the Dread Scott Decision of 1857, which means that he could be enslaved. And for a hundred years after that he would have been legally discriminated against in all aspects of life due to the Separate but Equal decision in the Plessey V. Ferguson case of 1896.
That’s why bi-racial Americans like him were in the forefront of the fight against white supremacy – Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington first among them. Interestingly Homer Plessey, who brought the discrimination against the train company that yielded the decision that established legal segregation, was a New Orleans Creole who argued that the racial segregation laws should not apply to him because he was an octoroon, which means that he was only 1/8 black, and therefore much whiter than Colin! So was Walter White, the militant leader of the NAACP during the racially troubled years of the early 20th century when white supremacy was enshrined in the laws of the land.
And until the great Doug Williams won the Super Bowl in 1986, Colin would have been routinely converted to a defensive back or a wide receiver given his athletic skills and the prevailing belief that only white boys had the intelligence to make the kind of quick decisions a quarterback had to make on a routine basis under heavy pressure from the opposition. I am convinced that this kind of thinking is the reason that he only got one offer to play quarterback at a Division I college, and the coach at Nevada says he considered switching him to one of those positions.
I wonder how much of this history either Colin or his family knows. Given how surprised he was by it all I doubt that they understood much. That’s the major problem with Euro- Americans raising African American children, most do not have the kind of knowledge about the realities of “life behind the veil” to adequately prepare them for the slings and arrows the will suffer from whites once they leave their parent’s house…and even if they were accepted in their neighborhood it becomes a different world once they venture away from their safe harbor.
Colin’s College Girlfriend
Colin chillin with is Afro-American cutie
It is worth noting that he had a beautiful black girlfriend in college, but rumor has it that he has kicked her to the curb. Perhaps it was just a college romance, or maybe its part of the attempt to whiten him up that appears to be underway. However it seems that this whitening process may require him to remove the myriad tattoos that virtual cover his upper body and many people consider a symbol of the black “thug life” style promoted by the late Tupac Shekur…and he looks hip hop to the max in those caps that he wears at a rakish angle – if not a black thug certainly a Chicano thug!
Colin’s Thugged Out Look
This is the look offends some whites
Thus far it seems that the worst thing that has happened to young Colin thus far is that a ref stole a super bowl title from him with the whole world watching. Although he is too much of a sporting gentleman to say so: He was robbed! But older black men, who have seen just how down and dirty white Americans can be when asserting racial privilege – which I am convinced millions still feel is their birthright – see a racist conspiracy.
One of them told it to me this way: “Well we got a great President who is the product of a black man breeding a white woman, and this cracker referee decided the country don’t need another half bred nigger with a black daddy and white momma being idolized…why, his daughters might decide they want to make one of these magnificent mulattos! That’s what a lot of the white guys said when they complained about a sexy ad with Terrell Owens and Nicolette Sheridan that was aired on Monday Night Football.
As far-fetched as this sounds to me…far stranger things have happened in the history of race relations in the USA. So good luck to Colin on his journey through this strange new world where all the white folks claim to be color blind while millions continue to discriminate against people of color….particularly African Americans. And no matter what he considers himself to be racially, his approach to playing quarterback is part of the triumph of black style in the National Football League.
Real black Magic!
Doug Williams: Super Bowl Champion
The Most Valuable Player
A Rifle Man who rarely ran the Ball
He set 9 records in his Super Bowl Victory!
Warren Moon: The Best Passer Ever?
He Gets My Vote!
His Laser Arm took him into Hall of Fame!
Standing tall in Canton
Colin’s Got A Laser Passing Arm Too
He can pick you apart from the pocket Like Doug
Or he can bust a move…..
……and run around
Like Randall The Great!
I believed he could fly!
Randall was also a Great Passer!
The Pater-Familias of contemporary black quarterbacks
Graceful and deadly as an Eagle
Deadly with his Arms and Legs!
Going with the flow
The quintessential Double Threat
It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane!
An Overnight Sensation!
An elusive runner …..and a great passer!
R. G. III: Rookie of the Year!
He can do it all!
African American Quarterbacks are changing the Game
Their Speed and illusiveness is befuddling defenses!
(Double click to see documentary on black quaterbacks)
(Double Click for highlights of Mike Vick and Randall Cunningham)
(Double Click to see Highlights of Cam Newton)
(Click Here to see Highlights of Colin Laepernick)
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
February 6, 2013