Despite starting 57 games, throwing 72 touchdowns, and rushing for an additional thirteen TDs, it is likely that Colin Kaepernick will not play in the NFL this upcoming season. The quarterback, who opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers this past spring in the hopes of signing with another team, has been blackballed from the league, a side effect of kneeling during the national anthem last year. Kaepernick became a polarizing figure in the resurgence of athlete activism, and as such, he might have taken his last snap in the NFL.
But after eight years and nearly 9,000 points, he was gone. Abdul-Rauf converted to Islam just after he became a pro, and midway through the 1996 season he began a campaign of sitting during the national anthem. As he explained to the New York Times, “I just hope that this can be something that will cause people to look into issues more…It has made me realize more how, whether you want to use the word hypocritical or backwards, sometimes we are.”
Following a one-game suspension by the NBA which cost him $32,000, Abdul-Rauf and the league reached a compromise—the guard was allowed to stand and pray with his head bowed during the anthem. But he was soon traded after the season, and would spend just two more years in the NBA before bouncing around several teams overseas. Perhaps Abdul-Rauf was just ahead of his time; the NBA was still dominated by hulking frontcourts that slogged through an offensive possessions, it wasn’t a league styled for Abdul-Rauf’s talents. Combined with his outspoken beliefs, and what seemed to many to be a radical and dangerous worldview, Abdul-Rauf couldn’t even get a try-out with another team once his contract with the Sacramento Kings expired in 1998.
It’s been two decades since Abdul-Rauf faded from the public eye, but with the arrival of the Big3, a three-on-three basketball league launched this summer for aging ex-NBA superstars (e.g. Allen Iverson, Rashadd Lewis), Abdul-Rauf, who suits up for the 3-Headed Monsters, has been rewarded with another platform to speak his mind. “To try to influence people to be socially, racially and politically conscious opposite of what the mainstream wants us to think is unacceptable,” he told the Undefeated. “Athletes are looked at and viewed with much more importance than teachers and professors by far by the youth.”
When a person like Kaepernick or anybody else comes and stands out against anything that is contrary to what image they want you to have as an athlete, then they will make an example of you because they want to discourage other athletes from doing the same thing.
At the start of the summer I turned down an invitation from a friend to see a play in Manhattan called 3/Fifths. Written and produced by James Scruggs, a black man, featuring a mostly black cast, 3/Fifths is a work of interactive theater that immerses its audience in a dystopian theme park called SupremacyLand. The actors mill about the stage wearing mammy costumes or blackface. They tie ropes into nooses and stand behind prison bars while encouraging the audience to join in on race-themed carnival games. The goal is, to me, straightforward satire, and 3/Fifths seems earnest enough. Theater-goers can experience what it feels like to walk around in a heightened, racially-charged world with the hope they can connect the dots between past and present horrors of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration.
I didn’t really feel like spending an evening like that. Living as a black woman in the aftermath of the presidential election, unable to block out the news cycle of police shootings, acquittals, and assaults, my nervous system is frayed enough by new and old wounds. I’m in my thirties with a job, student debt, dreams still on the horizon, aging parents, family spread out all over the country, and a niece about to go to college. I don’t need a simulacrum of my experiences to understand what’s at stake.
The use of satire and comedy to have difficult conversations about race has a long history and isn’t problematic in and of itself. Kara Walker does it in silhouette and sculpture; playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins did it in his play An Octoroon; Ishmael Reed has done it in his novels; Dave Chappelle became a household name doing it. It’s just that on the day of the invitation I was feeling exhausted, more in need of fun and laughter than anything else. When I declined, I said something to my friend like, “Take me to the show the playwright makes about black joy.”
Just a couple of months before, I learned of the visual artist Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, then on display at the Whitney Biennial, from the writer and artist Hannah Black’s widely-circulated open letter to the curators, which was co-signed by 47 artists, curators, and critics. I knew of Black’s work from an essay she wrote in the White Review that touched on Brandy’s 2002 album Full Moon. Brandy is probably one of the most important American pop vocalists of the past thirty years, and is underappreciated in the mainstream. Black’s piece treated Brandy’s work with the care I felt she deserved, so I felt a sense of trust in Black’s approach to black aesthetics. In her letter, Black demands the removal of Schutz’s painting, an abstraction of a 1955 photograph of 14-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till in his coffin at his funeral. His bludgeoned, disfigured face is rendered in impressionistic brush strokes.
Schutz — a white woman born in 1976 in a suburb of Detroit, and educated at the Cleveland Institute of Art and Columbia University — does not own the subject matter, Black argues.
Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist — those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.
Black goes on to explain the reverence that black Americans have for Till.
Emmett Till’s name has circulated widely since his death. It has come to stand not only for Till himself but also for the mournability (to each other, if not to everyone) of people marked as disposable, for the weight so often given to a white woman’s word above a Black child’s comfort or survival, and for the injustice of anti-Black legal systems. Through his mother’s courage, Till was made available to Black people as an inspiration and warning.
It was, after all, Till’s grieving mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who insisted her son’s remains be returned to Chicago after his lynching in Money, Mississippi and drowning in the Tallahatchie River. It was his mother who demanded his remains be displayed in an open casket during a funeral that was widely photographed. She wanted the world to “see what she had seen,” to bear witness to the horror, to grieve for her boy. Only the black publications Jet and the Chicago Defender published the photos. The image enraged and emboldened black folks, and it is considered among a long list of catalysts for the Civil Rights activism of the mid-twentieth century.
In “Getting In and Out,” Zadie Smith writes about the consumption of black pain for Harper’s by looking at Schutz’s painting and Jordan Peele’s film Get Out. Smith doesn’t mention Emmett Till much, and she doesn’t mention his mother, without whom we would have nothing to discuss. Smith never writes the words “Tallahatchie River,” nor does the word “Mississippi” appear. She says that Schutz’s painting didn’t provoke any profound feeling in her when she went to see it at the Biennial, and that doesn’t surprise me; it’s a mediocre painting, technically fine but emotionally removed. What surprises me about Smith’s essay is that she questions the “logic” and sentiment of Black’s letter, and writes it off as absurd. I found Black’s letter heartfelt. Its request that the “painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum” felt less important to me than her care for Emmett Till’s story, and the ongoing, present-day brutality against black bodies.
I think the conversation about race in America is a shared one, with multiple points of entry. In my mind pretty much anyone can talk about it, or make art about it, because everyone is somehow a part of it — impacted, implicated, or some combination therein. Race doesn’t really matter here in a straightforward sense. It’s too arbitrary a construction, as Smith painstakingly points out, and complicated by too many factors.
I was born in Memphis in the 1980s, so I am both a black American and southern. I remember the story of Till told to me as a child by adults who still used hushed voices. I went to integrated public schools, and then university on the east coast, and have a middle class life. I have always moved among blacks and whites, Latinx and Asians, and everybody else freely. My mother was also born in Memphis, but she remembers colored water fountains, trips to the zoo only on feeding days when there were no animals to see, swimming pools that were drained instead of integrated. Her sense of racial terror is at once more at the surface and deeper than mine—there are things she fears that I never will. She remembers Till’s lynching. My grandmother was born in the Mississippi Delta, picked cotton, and had a male cousin who was lynched. So the story of racial suffering is my grandmother’s even more than my mother’s or mine. We could go on like this, parsing out generational differences and class dynamics forever.
About Zadie Smith: I love her. I have considered her one of my favorite contemporary writers for at least a decade. In her third novel, On Beauty, she talks about American blackness in a way that doesn’t feel offensive or removed as if she thought us boorish. Her 2009 essay “Speaking in Tongues,” where she lets herself gush over Obama’s ability to code switch, and “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?” are two of my favorite pieces of writing of all time. Writing about her first encounter with Zora Neale Hurston’s book, I love how Smith is able to be her critical, writerly self, and still engage with her blackness, bringing all parts to the page to create this beautiful cohesive whole.
Fact is, I am a black woman, and a slither of this book goes straight into my soul, I suspect, for that reason. And though it is, to me, a mistake to say, “Unless you are a black woman, you will never fully comprehend this novel,” it is also disingenuous to claim that many black women do not respond to this book in a particularly powerful manner that would seem “extraliterary.” Those aspects of Their Eyes Were Watching God that plumb so profoundly the ancient buildup of culture reside that is (for convience’s sake) called “Blackness” are the parts that my own “Blackness,” as far as it foes, cannot help but respond to personally. At fourteen I couldn’t find words (or words I liked) for the marvelous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of the speech…She is my sister and I love her.
But in the Harper’s essay, except in the places where she talks about the genius of Jordan Peele and the black artists at the Biennial whose work was overshadowed by the Schutz controversy, it doesn’t really feel like Smith is engaging in the subject matter with much care or heart. It disappointed me. I do not think it is because she is British-born and I am African American. She said in the piece that she assumed a transnational black identity when questioning herself about whether she was black enough to commemorate Till in a piece of art. I agree with parts of this. Blackness has long been a transnational project, a conversation that transverses and troubles national boundaries.
It is just that the question is wrong. All human beings have rights, in my mind, to the vast array of human experiences. But why does it seem like everyone wants to mine black pain? When I think about work like Open Casket and 3/Fifths, what I wonder is whether there any rules, or any sense of decorum around our experiences. Does anyone pause before making this type of work, or have reverence for it? Do they consider who may be hurt or exhausted by it if it is rendered incompletely? What are the goals of the work? The work that the 1955 photographs of Emmet Till did in Jet is clearly different from the work Open Casket could do at the Whitney. I wonder, what is the point? I also wonder, what is sacred?
I don’t know why Smith seems so removed in her Harper’s piece. When she talks about the paranoia of blacks, an “indulgence” that Get Out exploits, or says that white people revile black bodies less in 2017 than they did a half century ago, I honestly don’t know what to think. I do not know what white folks in America think of me now — some times it feels like nothing and sometimes it feels like utter disdain. When I hear of a young black woman from my university waking up to bananas strung up on her campus with nooses, when I hear Diamond Reynolds crying “You just killed my boyfriend,” despite all of my attempts to avoid that footage, I know it isn’t as simple as love and happiness and friendship and being the “same people.” So when Hannah Black got together with a bunch of other art world folks to stage their intervention, I listened because it felt like care.
Zadie Smith is entitled to her experiences; her writerly exploration of race can be rendered how she feels it must and I will still think of her as my sister. But I wished she had engaged this subject matter with her heart. I needed her to think of the logic of Black’s letter from a place of shared pain, shared experiences, and shared anger. I needed her to really listen to it, before dismantling it.
The crowd is its own character in Julius Caesar; they are there to be angered, to forgive, to protest, and most importantly, to be persuaded. In Oskar Eustis’s controversial production, the ensemble sat among the audience for most of the play, standing up to protest only midway through the show. This became confusing during one of the final performances, when a 24-year-old, right-wing activist named Laura Loomer rushed the stage after the assassination scene in the Senate, shouting “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right!” (“We’re not promoting it,” an actress onstage said to Loomer in the moment. “This is Julius Caesar.”)
What if we have all died and 2017 is actually purgatory? Instead of Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill over and over, it’s just conservative and liberals engaging in back-and-forth, grab-your-wallet boycotts for eternity?
If you were paying attention to social media on Sunday night, you may have noticed Bank of America and Delta Airlines announcing on Twitter that they were backing out as sponsors for the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar. Earlier that day, Fox News ran a story with the headline “NYC Play Appears to Depict Assassination of Trump,” in which a grainy iPhone video showed the climax of the play, notable for the fact that “women and minorities” appear to stab a Trump-like figure to death on a stage that resembles the U.S. Senate.
As Bank of America noted in their public statement, they’ve been sponsoring Shakespeare in the Park for 11 years. And yet, on the eve of the Tony awards, Bank of America was shocked — shocked, they tell you — to learn the Public “chose to present Julius Caesar in such a way that was intended to provoke and offend.” (The production has been in the works since the fall of 2016—November 9, to be exact.)
Delta explained they were withdrawing their sponsorship because “no matter what your political stance may be,” the Public’s “artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste.”
Daniel Radosh, a senior writer for the Daily Show, recalled on Twitter that another New York City theater company once portrayed Caesar as Obama, and the American Conservative found the production “riveting.”
throwback to that time a NYC theater did Julius Caesar as Obama and the American Conservative called it "riveting" https://t.co/2Gasa4iicm
Broadway World noted that Delta had no issue sponsoring an Obama-inspired Julius Caesar in Minneapolis in 2012. And many — many, many, many — people noted that Julius Caesar is actually a lesson in how assassination doesn’t always work out in the end.
Shakespeare in the Park's Trump Julius Caesar is an unambiguous warning to the left about the dangers of going too far to oppose a "tyrant."
For what it’s worth, the New York Times review of the Public’s Trump-ified Caesar maintains that the comparison actually doesn’t track very well:
[W]e are faced with the ways that Trump and Caesar never properly scanned, and an aftermath in which that confusion breeds more confusion. For one thing, Shakespeare’s Caesar is a war hero and, as smartly played by Gregg Henry, a deeply charismatic one. When offered the chance, three times, to become emperor, he chooses three times to remain a senator. This is more like George Washington than Mr. Trump.
“We stand completely behind our production of ‘Julius Caesar.’ We recognize that our interpretation of the play has provoked heated discussion; audiences, sponsors and supporters have expressed varying viewpoints and opinions. Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy. Our production of ‘Julius Caesar’ in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save. For over 400 years, Shakespeare’s play has told this story and we are proud to be telling it again in Central Park.”
The Russian presidential election is a year away, but protests have already begun. Last week, images of Russians being carried and even dragged from Moscow’s Red Square spread throughout the Western media. Then came the crackdown—blocked access to web pages and social media showing the photos, and a criminal case against the protesters. Earlier this week, the square was nearly empty despite another planned action.
The protests demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and objected to widespread corruption, but they also served as a rare moment of rebellion in a country that rarely dares defy its leader, President Vladimir Putin.
Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March 2017 | 9 minutes (2,170 words)
On March 18, 1845, the Hutchinson Family Singers were huddled in a Manhattan boarding house, afraid for their lives. As 19th Century rock stars, they didn’t fear the next night’s sellout crowd, but rather the threat of a mob. For the first time, the group had decided to include their most fierce anti-slavery song into a public program, and the response was swift. Local Democratic and Whig papers issued dire warnings and suggested possible violence. It was rumored that dozens of demonstrators had bought tickets and were coming armed with “brickbats and other missiles.”
“Even our most warm and enthusiastic friends among the abolitionists took alarm,” remembered Abby Hutchinson, and “begged that we might omit the song, as they did not wish to see us get killed.”
It wasn’t that most people didn’t know the Hutchinsons were abolitionists. The problem was that slavery (as well as its parent, racism) was an American tradition, and performers who wished to be popular did not bring their opposition onto the stage. Five of our first seven presidents, after all, were slaveholders. Read more…
Yet this was no mere matter of poor design: It was always in airports’ very nature to welcome, shepherd, and display such collective action — passengers routinely clump up and board together, linger around baggage carousels in masses, and cluster and fume together when there’s a hiccup in the system. The protests were like a major wave of airline delays or cancellations, but instead of domestic flights in question, people were responding to entire ontological trajectories suddenly put on hold.
If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.
The largest and most audacious direct action in US history is also among the least remembered, a protest that has slipped into deep historical obscurity. It was a protest against the Vietnam War, but it wasn’t part of the storied sixties, having taken place in 1971, a year of nationwide but largely unchronicled ferment. To many, infighting, violence, and police repression had effectively destroyed “the movement” two years earlier in 1969.
That year, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the totemic organization of the white New Left, had disintegrated into dogmatic and squabbling factions; the Black Panther Party, meanwhile, had been so thoroughly infiltrated and targeted by law enforcement that factionalism and paranoia had come to eclipse its expansive program of revolutionary nationalism. But the war had certainly not ended, and neither had the underlying economic and racial injustices that organizers had sought to address across a long decade of protest politics. If anything, the recent flourishing of heterodox new radicalisms—from the women’s and gay liberation movements to radical ecology to militant Native American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Asian-American movements—had given those who dreamed of a world free of war and oppression a sobering new awareness of the range and scale of the challenges they faced.
On May 3, 1971, after nearly two weeks of intense antiwar protest in Washington, DC, ranging from a half-million-person march to large-scale sit-ins outside the Selective Service, Justice Department, and other government agencies, some 25,000 young people set out to do something brash and extraordinary: disrupt the basic functioning of the federal government through nonviolent action. They called themselves the Mayday Tribe, and their slogan was as succinct as it was ambitious: “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” The slogan was of course hyperbolic— even if Washington, DC were completely paralyzed by protest for a day or week or a month, that would not halt the collection of taxes, the delivery of mail, the dropping of bombs, or countless other government functions—but that made it no less electrifying as a rallying cry, and no less alarming to the Nixon administration (Nixon’s White House chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, called it “potentially a real threat”). An elaborate tactical manual distributed in advance detailed twenty-one key bridges and traffic circles for protesters to block nonviolently, with stalled vehicles, improvised barricades, or their bodies. The immediate goal was to snarl traffic so completely that government employees could not get to their jobs. The larger objective was “to create the spectre of social chaos while maintaining the support or at least toleration of the broad masses of American people.”
The protest certainly interfered with business as usual in Washington: traffic was snarled, and many government employees stayed home. Others commuted to their offices before dawn, and three members of Congress even resorted to canoeing across the Potomac to get themselves to Capitol Hill. But most of the planned blockades held only briefly, if at all, because most of the protesters were arrested before they even got into position. Thanks to the detailed tactical manual, the authorities knew exactly where protesters would be deployed. To stop them from paralyzing the city, the Nixon Administration had made the unprecedented decision to sweep them all up, using not just police but actual military forces.
Under direct presidential orders, Attorney General John Mitchell mobilized the National Guard and thousands of troops from the Army and the Marines to join the Washington, DC police in rounding up everyone suspected of participating in the protest. As one protester noted, “Anyone and everyone who looked at all freaky was scooped up off the street.” A staggering number of people— more than 7,000—were locked up before the day was over, in what remain the largest mass arrests in US history. Read more…