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Hearing Robeson, Seeing Kaepernick: The Black Athlete Disappearance

 

By Shana L. Redmond | @ShanaRedmond | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile) 

 

Thursday, September 21, 2017. 

 

In his recent Bleacher Report Mag essay, “Colin Kaepernick Has a Job,”  Rembert Browne tells a story of the now former National Football League (NFL) quarterback from the other side of industry fame. Taking time with the people proximate to him, from family in northern California to current NFL players to his close advisors, Browne provocatively argues that Kaepernick “never existed” and wonders what it means “for a hero to disappear, after the opportunity of a lifetime…”

 

Kaepernick, as we know, was effectively banished from his profession because he was “inconvenient” for the NFL, for their revenue, for the smug entitlement of some League fans, for patriotism. He announced a political analysis that he has stood by with stoic fidelity in spite of the repercussions (social, professional, and financial) that have now rendered him, according to Browne, invisible.

 

I read this insightful article on the same day that I visited the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England where I sought out another one of the Black disappeared, Paul Robeson (1898-1976), the multihyphenate extraordinaire—scholar-musician-actor-activist—who was also an NFL player and, at one time, the most famous Black man in the world. The juxtaposition of the two men is telling.

 

My research on the giant Robeson similarly is concerned with vanishing acts but, even more than that, I’m interested in his triumphant return in different forms throughout the twentieth century. I visited Warwick to find one community who called him—namely, the National Paul Robeson Committee (NPRC) who in the late 1950s organized a series of campaigns, conferences, and concerts in the U.K. to raise awareness of Robeson’s passport revocation. Initiated at the request of the U.S. State Department in 1950, the cancellation of his passport confined him to the U.S. for nearly a decade, causing his annual income to drop by 98 percent within three years.

 

Inside of the organization’s files I found people’s liberation activists speaking of Robeson in terms that announced no division between their struggles in Africa and his; unions organizing for petition signatories and using their political clout to encourage British parliamentarians to work their connections in the U.S. government on Robeson’s behalf; and everyday citizens challenging their neighbors and families in support of a man who most did not know personally but to whom they felt deeply, unapologetically connected.

 

On May 26, 1957 the NPRC hosted a conference and concert at St. Pancras Hall in London. Their appeal was simple: “Let Paul Robeson Sing.” Attended by one thousand participants and delegates from across labor, anticolonial struggles, and political organizations the event was said to represent more than a million people in the metropolitan area. Speakers from the floor included Member of Parliament (MP) Dr. Barnett Stross who argued that the Robeson “witch hunt” had become “big business, a huge racket with great political careers founded on it and a lot of money in it.” Labour Party hopeful Dr. David Pitt and opera star Martin Lawrence argued that Robeson deserved not only the freedom to travel but also the right and “freedom to work.”

 

Newspaper accounts in the wake of the event, during which Robeson sang via trans-Atlantic link from New York City, revealed the rapt attention of the audience as well as the continuing uncertainty of Robeson’s case and legacy. Titled “The Man Who Never Was,” an article from the period noted the extent of his disappearance, which included his purge from the 1918 All-American Football roster. “[E]ven the Nazis never pretended that the people they liquidated had never existed,” the author notes, but when faced with a four letter athlete and Rutgers valedictorian the U.S. remained committed to their mission: refusal of the “dangerous idea that a coloured man can be as good as a white man at everything.”

 

What Robeson’s future would hold beyond 1957 was uncertain but it was clear that, from the perspective of the U.S. government, his travel restriction must be enforced, for “Robeson is a big man with a big voice, and to let him loose on Europe and Asia would make it hard to maintain the story that he doesn’t exist.” 

This too is the challenge for the NFL. Even as the 2017-2018 season starts without Colin Kaepernick, it’s hard to maintain the fiction of his invisibility when to speak of the televised football ratings dip is to speak his name; when one thousand people rally for him outside of the League’s New York headquarters; when his frat brothers march for him in Detroit. Just as Robeson’s elusive passport did not stop his voice from traveling, the absence of an NFL jersey does not keep Kaepernick from being an icon and leader. Browne’s story reveals that, like any good organizer, Kaepernick has a base, one that was never, really, composed of NFL fans—at least not exclusively. While important, they were a welcome addition to a project of building that Kaepernick slowly and quietly began before the stadium lights belonged to him.

 

That some NFL fans no longer scream his name with affection is inconsequential; Kaepernick has, like Robeson before him, found his calling. He has exercised the freedom to work in preparation and training for the team of a lifetime—a team more profound and illustrious than any the NFL can claim or imagine.

 

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Shana L. Redmond is a professor at UCLA and the author of Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora. She is currently writing a book about Paul Robeson titled Everything Man.

 

Hearing Robeson, Seeing Kaepernick: The Black Athlete Disappearance

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