Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Editor’s Note: This op-ed complements the statement by Emma Morgan-Bennett ‘20 and Lelosa Aimufua ‘20 regarding their protest during a volleyball game on Wednesday. The statement can be found here.
I thought back to my ancestors yesterday morning.
I thought back to how hard they worked, how hard they fought for my liberation, and that reminder was what powered me through the day.
I had woken up yesterday in steaming anger, having read the Daily Gazette’s only article for the day by Siddharth Srivatsan ‘20. That moment between recognition and shock always catches me off guard, that moment between anticipation and pain, that moment between surprise and disappointment, when marginalized Swarthmore students are attacked; Is this really happening? Again? After last year’s fiasco with the article about low-income students? It doesn’t seem like things could get worse after that, but then, they do. And we’re reminded as black and brown people every day that we are living in a world where we so often feel like we could wake up, or not, to anything, after fighting injustice.
Yesterday’s article was ill-timed and uninformed. Emma Morgan-Bennett ‘20 and Lelosa Aimufua ’20 kneeled during the women’s volleyball game’s National Anthem just Wednesday night while their teammates joined hands, some kneeling, in solidarity. The scene was a memorable one, with an air of tension and solemnity, yet also of courageous spirit and powerful conviction.
Aimufua described the article, like many black students I spoke to, as “a slap in the face”. It was such a powerful action; I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like to be them, the actual people who organized and led the protest, or the team members who supported them.
“I woke up to that article after having gone to bed feeling so good and confident about our protest and supported and loved by our environment,” Aimufua said in an interview. “It’s almost like there’s this huge disconnect. [Srivatsan] was talking about athletics, but he couldn’t even see it on our own campus, how this movement had come to his own campus. To me that was a huge oversight; it was very disrespectful, I thought.”
I thought so too. I found their actions admirable. I was inspired by them and by Kaepernick as well, knowing that they had taken a stand against systemic racism in our country.
“This wasn’t something that we actually wanted to be loud. The purpose of this action wasn’t for everyone on campus to hear about. Rather, this was like a personal conviction that Le and I both believe in,” Morgan-Bennett said. “We both are following our ethical compasses, and this is something that we almost don’t have a choice on whether to do or not to do. There was no question: Le and I will be kneeling.”
“Last year was the first time Em and I kneeled at a volleyball game. It wasn’t a home game; it was during our East Coast Athletics Conference Playoffs,” chimed in Aimufua. “It was post-election—it might have been the game right after the election. The first kneel was definitely more impromptu than this one; I think this one we thought about it a lot more, we talked about it a lot more, we shared what we were doing in advance, we wrote a statement. It wasn’t something that we did in the spur of the moment, and I don’t think what we did in the first time was spur of the moment either, but after the election and after seeing, basically, white supremacy win according to America. We were kind of at a loss of what to do and where we see ourselves in the country.”
Indeed, the controversy has been a national one. Former NFL player Colin Kaepernick has put his career on the line by protesting against police brutality, and players around the world are joining in to support him. Donald Trump has taken to Twitter in an angry rampage against athletes and their supporters who kneel during the National Anthem, and many have responded with both positive and negative feedback. Many responses, like yesterday’s ill-researched op-ed, have labeled Kaepernick and others’ actions as ineffective and attacks on the flag’s meaning. Yet, those in our own community are showing support for an action that, for many, is between life or death.
“SASS in its nature is both a social organization, meant to support the wellbeing of the black students in the community, but it is also a political organization in its protecting the wellbeing of the students,”said AynNichelle Slappy ‘20, President of Swarthmore African American Student Society (SASS), on behalf of the organization. “Protecting the rights of our students, protecting the rights of people who look like our students around the world, protecting the rights of people who came before us, protecting the rights of those who came after us, makes our job, in itself, political.”
“I support the protests against racial injustice; I support our athletes who were brave enough to take a stand in an environment that is overwhelmingly white,” wrote Niyah Dantzler ‘18, a protester of the anthem and SASS member.
Dressed in all black, a number of Swarthmore students from the SASS community showed their solidarity with the two sophomore students as well, kneeling in the stands with them, and helped pass out their statements. Coleman Powell ‘20, Civic Action and Political Coordinator, released Morgan-Bennett and Aimufua’s statement to the community, encouraging them all to show their support of their peers, writing in an email to SASS a compelling question: We cannot ignore the injustices that are perpetrated against us, so why should sports be a fantasy escape for those who would do us harm?
“Right before the game started, I was helping out Lelosa and Emma by passing out flyers,” Julius Miller ‘19 said, chronicling his experience at the game as a SASS member. “I was really angry when a man read the first few lines of their statement and then said no, and refused to take it. For me, that pretty much says you’re comfortable spectating a sport in which athletes often times risk their physical bodies, but you’re not actually comfortable with them when they have a serious issue on their mind. They’re basically there for you, not for themselves.”
Sobering and meaningful, the moment passed as the team went on to win their game during only the third set, but its message lingered: the disproportionate number of black and brown people being killed and exploited in America is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
For fear of being the Angry Black Woman, I told myself to calm down, to be “rational” in wake of yesterday’s op-ed. If not, I feared being discounted, as I and so many other black people, especially women, had been in the past, for standing up for what we felt was right in a way discounted to white society. But then I remembered: the black body cannot, and will no longer, be policed. I could not let the implications of the article win: that black people should perform the way that white society wants them to, not in the way they see fit. That black people should control how white society steers the conversation on racism, not those who the protest is addressing.
After considering how the Angry Black Woman trope is meant to dehumanize black women and invalidates their sentiments and experiences, I remembered something else that is dehumanized: the black athletic body. I am the Angry Black Woman, and many are, even synonymously, the College Black Athlete. All throughout the world, black people are told to excel in sports, but when they have something to say about their lives being protected, they are entirely disregarded. The research is incredible: as Northern Illinois University professor Billy Hawkins argues, there is an astounding relation between colonial enslavement and commodification of black bodies in athletic history. This parallel is clear throughout the histories of professional sports teams, and is in, for example, the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s views and handlings of young black athletes, ignoring their livelihoods and unpaid labor for the sake of profit. A key issue, among many, is a presumed intellectual inferiority of these athletes as a result of their race. Hawkins references Al Campanis and Jimmy “the Geek” Snyder’s comments on national television: “insisting that blacks dominate sports because they are physically superior, but that they do not have the intellectual capabilities to manage professional teams.” Black bodies have been used in college sports for decades without any consideration for their communities, given scholarships, yet “they come with onerous restrictions and no promise of an education,” Donald H. Yee wrote in a Washington Post article. The NCAA and colleges wield disproportionate power over what individual athletes can do, and they threaten pay and scholarships to the universities that so many of these young athletes have worked their lives to be at. They pull on the chains of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Black bodies are literally being policed.
When I asked Brandon ‘Frames’ Ekweonu ‘20, a SASS member who also kneeled during the volleyball protest, about his feelings on black bodies in sports, he described their work, often, as “slave labour.”
“I’m referring to athletes playing for these teams, but also just to the idea of black and brown bodies that this country profits off of and does not look out for, mass incarceration of black people that go to prison and are forced into labour because of that imprisonment,” Ekweonu said. “I’ve witnessed it: they scout people from primary school and follow them, reminding them that they believe that those young people’s only prospects are in sports not much else, right. You’re probably going to end up in jail or you’re probably gonna end up broke— end up a young, unsuccessful parent. This country tailors black and brown youth to prospects of ‘well, the only way I can make it is as an athlete,’ and this country profits off of them.”
When we literally police black bodies and tell them exactly how they should protest, we are adding to systemic racism in a society that has for so long continued to let these voices remain unheard. The truth is, people who are protesting against the flag do know that it is supposedly, as Srivatsan put it, “illustrative of America’s founding principles of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, and those who have fought to preserve those principles.” Of course, we can safely assume Kaepernick and the thousands of people supporting him know that the flag is not just a piece of cloth. If the flag was just a piece of cloth, or the anthem just another song, though controversial in its referencing to slaves, Kaepernick and other athletes wouldn’t be kneeling in the first place. Instead, this protest is a call to let those ideals extend to black Americans—and a reminder that right now, they do not.
“I kneel in solidarity with veterans as well. I think that we need to have an understanding that the military is also composed of a huge proportion of brown and black men and women whose only options to rise in American society is through the military,” Morgan-Bennett said.
Emma’s words hit home. My own father being a veteran (and currently boycotting the NFL) pulled out of Morehouse College for Desert Storm, and my great-grandfather, still thankfully alive to tell stories about the Korean War, know that when I support Emma and Lelosa, though I was unable to be a part of the protest Wednesday, I am honoring the values our country are supposed to stand for. Nate Boyer, a United States veteran, actually inspired Colin Kaepernick to take a knee rather than sitting. When Kaepernick kneels, he is actually honoring veterans, and our flag, while protesting. Colin Kaepernick is a smart, respectable man who deserves to be supported. Emma and Lelosa are brilliant, courageous women who are making a statement that our country can be more than proud of, and the Swarthmore community who support them are supporting an action that is important, especially when our country has never actually lived up to its values.
From the founding of this country to now, from the moment enslaved Africans were brought over to America in 1619, our conception of citizenship has been predicated on notions of exclusion. Visiting Cape Coast Castle in Cape Coast, Ghana this summer, wondering if my own ancestors set foot inside those dungeons, reminded me of this painful fact. Since its beginning, the American definition of human was limited to white, anglo-saxon, protestant, property-owning colonizers. The promises of ‘life, liberty, and happiness’ were for them, not for Native Americans, not for enslaved Africans, not for people of color, and not for many of our ancestors. As cited in Morgan-Bennett’s and Aimufua’s statement, “Our country’s history suffers from the remnants of massacred Native Americans, enslaved Africans, discriminated against Latinx Americans, persecuted Muslims, economically marginalized Whites, and others disenfranchised by American society. Our own grandparents—some of whom are proud American military veterans—recollect stories of lynchings, church bombings, and police brutality.”
When we speak about the value of the flag, and about the ideals of the anthem, we must recognize that these ideals have always been an aspiration, never a reality. By including the flag, we are demanding that the U.S. live up to its ideals. It hasn’t lived up to its ideals, in reality, since its founding, and it was built on the labor of the black body— including in athleticism. The legacy of slavery lives on in the way that black bodies are treated in athletics. Protests about police brutality and examining the history of our flag and our anthem are not just “morally permissible”, they are absolutely essential.
The #TakeAKnee movement has been effective at raising the issue of racial discrimination in everyday life. Some, like the Srivatsan’s op-ed, mention that a majority of Americans disagree with Kaepernick’s actions, making them “ineffective”. Srivatsan cites a Reuters poll that found that 61% of respondents disagreed with Kaepernick, and 72% said his kneeling during the anthem was unpatriotic (a more recent poll reflecting changes in percent-disagreement can be found here). The assumption, though, which is not one of the article he cited at all, is that in order for a protest to be effective, it needs to be widely supported by society.
This assumption is blatantly ahistorical. This observation lacks an analysis of the way that social movements have operated for decades. Millions of Americans supported slavery, and that fact did not make abolition ineffective or invalid. Millions of Americans supported Jim Crow laws, and that certainly did not make the Civil Rights Movement ineffective or invalid. Americans were asked “Do you think mass demonstrations by Negroes are more likely to help or more likely to hurt the Negro’s cause for racial equality?” in June 1963, 60% said ‘hurt’. Only a year later in 1964, 74% said ‘hurt’— the longer the protests lasted, the more Americans disapproved.
Moreover, observations like Srivatsan’s fail to recognize the voices of those who matter: those being disenfranchised.
“This is not their narrative, so why are they trying to control it? I think often times we, as black people, try to host and have these protests, and it gets swallowed up by the media, and really distracts from what the issue is,” said Jasmine Charles ‘20, another SASS member who protested during the volleyball game. “This is not what about what the majority feels. To say that it matters that this dominating, white majority isn’t a fan, is just another product of the continuing force that tries to reframe what black people are saying.”
In the 1960s, it was mainly white Americans who said that mass demonstrations would hurt the cause for racial equality. The same dynamic exists today; as the Reuter’s article that Srivatsan cited explains, “While some 70 percent of respondents who identified as white said they disagreed with Kaepernick, that number dropped to 40 percent of respondents who identified as a racial minority.” This data has now been updated, and not only has percent-disagreement dropped in every demographic, but also when we look at percentages for black respondents only, that number drops to 15%. I am asking for this community to uplift our black voices, not those who do not know what it means to be a black person walking the streets, in fear of their lives and their families’, every single day. I ask those voices to uplift ours.
And for many of us, it is a fear. I have asked myself just recently how I could live with myself bringing another black child into the world, and asking myself if it is a good idea, considering Trump’s presidency, police brutality, and honestly, all of history. I can’t imagine how it might feel to explain to a black child that they are at a huge disadvantage in our society, and their livelihood could be taken. To have them walk home from school and suddenly have them shot down on the street. To know that being black is in itself an arduous task, and that they will have to live with that job, of simply living, every day of their life.
“The protest came from genuine passion and genuine… fear?” Morgan-Bennett asked herself this powerful question during our interview. “I would also say of what growing up in this political climate means as young women of color who, as we keep on discussing, will be giving birth to brown babies in the future. Brown or black babies. And Kaepernick’s original kneeling was a matter of life or death. And Trump has extended this into a matter of free speech, and that’s something we have to be very aware of as these protests are continuing because now this is centering around free speech. But the original protest was about police brutality and whether brown and black people have a right to live according to police biases. And that’s something I think weighs hugely on our consciousness as women who will probably be having children—who knows.”
“Even now, I have two black younger sisters, and every day I just think about them and what they’re doing and how they’re interacting with their environment. If one of my sisters is driving a car, will she get pulled over and what will happen if she gets pulled over? I’m constantly thinking about them, and I can’t imagine having children in America,” said Aimufua.
This issue is dire. At the end of the op-ed, Srivatsan asks how we can reconcile America’s unfulfilled ideals and shortcomings with patriotism and love of country. It is essential to recognize that “America” is not just a country. It is also a concept, and when people speak of loving their country, it is their vision of the country that they love. Often times this vision glosses over a tarnished history. Their blind patriotism is the love of a country that has never existed except in the minds of those who have never experienced what it’s like to be a marginalized person of color in America.
Our love can also be aspirational. We can love a country that does not yet exist, but that we can unite for. We can love a country where indigenous sovereignty is respected, and where black Americans don’t walk the streets in fear of getting shot down. But I refuse to love a distorted dream. I will love this country and its flag in totality when my life is treated as if it is that: a life. Before this country’s idealistic visions of itself, I love my fellow sisters and brothers who are fighting to finally realize this perpetually deferred vision of equality for all. If this goal is what we commit to, then protesting the anthem and the flag to remind society of police brutality is essential because it is a reminder that we have a long ways to go. I have faith that we as a society can make this world a better place.
“I want to start these dialogues. I want to talk about the oppression black people are suffering in this country. I want to talk about police brutality, I want to talk about my perspective as a black woman. And I feel that is a way we can combat this oppression— we can start the discourse ourselves,” said Belle Andrews, a women’s volleyball player who stood in solidarity with her teammates Wednesday night.
These issues are important, and what yesterday’s op-ed failed to do was actually address any solutions to police brutality, to systemic racism, and instead policed black bodies. Police brutality is real and alive. We need to have these conversations, and that is exactly what kneeling during protests sparks.
When asked what we can do to support SASS and the marginalized students on campus, Slappy offered some powerful advice.
“Black Studies being an actual department would be so simple. Fifty years ago, SASS asked for one. They got the BCC, and we still haven’t gotten a Black Studies department. The more black people that are here is really helpful, and having a Black Studies department is essential to attracting Black students. Black students, if they know they want to study Black Studies […] why would they consider Swarthmore? Having that infrastructure will attract a Black student body. We know that the more of us are here, the more of us feel supported, and we are stronger in numbers. The more black people that are here, the more informed our entire community will be on our issues.”
The issue raised is extremely important. With a centralized Black Studies department with more course offerings, we will support Black Studies as an academic discipline across this country. As someone who will be a graduating senior this Spring, I can absolutely say that more black students on this campus will allow the Swarthmore community to flourish. 6% of us isn’t enough, and never will be.
Slappy did not only want to critique our administration.
“I wish more students would take an interest in Black life in general, aside from knowing the basics. Many black students have a feeling that other students are generally disinterested in black life. Outside of listening to hip-hop, outside of having a couple of black friends, outside of listening to our music at parties, outside of copying our fashion trends, but rather seeking an understanding into our history, into our experiences. Because when black people suffer, they do so in silence. And us, as an entire community, we need to be vocal, all the time. All the time, I know that I’m black. There is no single day in a class I can say I’m no longer black and won’t be a black perspective. Just because you are not black, that blackness isn’t something you shouldn’t be considering in everyday life. The entire community— the administration and the students— could do a much better job at making our voices heard on campus.”
Taking some Black Studies courses would help students conceptualize the experiences of black students. A sheer lack of knowledge of black issues leads to dangerously misinformed views such as those in Srivatsan’s article, and self-education, in a society where black people are constantly being drained of energy, is integral to being an ally.
“It wasn’t the author’s intention to invalidate the black students, but nevertheless, the sentiment is shared by so many people here. And I knew that this would be something that so many people agreed with. And even if it isn’t in direct response to [Emma and Lelosa’s protest], it is definitely something that is prevalent on Swarthmore’s campus, that people think they should have a say in how black people conduct themselves. Black people are either not doing enough, or they need to stop what they’re doing entirely,” said Slappy.
The respectability politics are utterly inadmissible, and I’m never going to accept them. Not when they’re being targeted at me, not when they’re being targeted at my peers, and not when they’re being targeted at those around us. I will be angry, I will be alert, and I will begin to support my fellow Swarthmore sisters at their athletic games and other people of color in their pursuits to a more inclusive community. We will not be silenced anymore.
“The kneeling protest is about forcing people to reckon with an America that systematically kills and imprisons brown and black bodies. This is something that is uncomfortable for many people in America to come to grips with; it is quite clear that we never truly grappled with what it means to be a nation with a legacy of slavery. To critique the methods of a movement with no investment in the actual cause is lazy, and frankly, I’m tired of it,” Powell wrote.
So many of us echoed these sentiments yesterday. Tired. “Exhausted,” as Slappy put it. Frustrated. But just because we are tired and reveling in frustration does not mean we are going to stop fighting. It only makes athletes like Emma and Lelosa more vocal.
“Something we want to be very clear about is that our coach, the sports staffing team and our teammates were entirely supportive of this decision. I really give them a lot of credit because I think that it’s very uncomfortable for people to combine issues of politics and sports together, and they realize that we’ve come to a point in our political climate where that separation isn’t necessarily and a valid possibility anymore,” Morgan-Bennett said. “Do I wonder what it would have looked like if our coach had also kneeled down? Yes. Do I wonder what it would have looked like if our entire team had kneeled with us? Yes. But I also completely and fundamentally respect the first amendment of free speech and respect that each of my teammates and coaches made an individual choice of whether to kneel or to stand and I think that’s the beauty and the reason why we’re fighting for this country.”
Emma Morgan-Bennett, Lelosa Aimufua, and other protestors will also be kneeling at the women’s volleyball game on Saturday, 10AM at Tarble Pavilion, and encourage everyone who wants to show their solidarity to dress in all black. Kaepernick described it as a protest against police brutality. Ekweonu describes it as a “reclamation of black bodies”. Slappy describes it as the need for a “fundamental understanding” of black students’ experiences on campus. Many of us, especially Emma and Lelosa, describe it as an action against injustice that we don’t think about, but rather, we just take. We have no choice but to fight systemic racism.
Yesterday, I thought back to my ancestors, and tomorrow, I’ll wake up peacefully thinking about my fellow Swarthmore sisters and their supporters. In reality, these two groups will be one and the same: people who care about my life as a black woman having value. I’ll be at their protest. I hope you are, too. Many of these black and brown voices and their allies surely agree on one thing: Kaepernick, other athletes, and those in the Swarthmore community who have courageously kneeled at their games are not in the least bit ineffectual.
[EDIT] 9/29/17: The article in its original form claimed that President Valerie Smith was in attendance at the volleyball match. President Smith was merely invited and did not attend, as she was attending an alumni event in Washington, D.C.. The article has been updated to reflect these changes.
While Lindsey Norward is the assistant arts and features editor of The Daily Gazette, her views may not necessarily represent those of the editorial board.
Featured image courtesy of fineartamerica.com