On January 31st, at Virginia Tech University, the Black Cultural Center hosted a Keynote Address in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Moderated by Dr. Ellington Graves of the Department of Sociology and Director of the Africana Studies Program; featuring former track and field athletes, activist and educator Dr. Tommie Smith and sports journalist and activist Jemele Hill. The conversation that flowed was one that covered a myriad of topics but centered on a discussion around the intersection of race, sports, and politics. A difficult, yet important conversation to be sure. In a society in which individuals still would like to separate sports from politics (and even from race), talking about the ways in which they are, and have always been intertwined is indeed necessary. Of the themes that came up over the course of the evening, several things stood out to me, among them was Smith’s insistence on the importance of education and the power of young people’s voices. As a keynote address was given on a university campus, open to the campus community speaking to the young people in the room, in particular, mattered to them, as many reflected in my class the next day. Dr. Smith is from a generation in which students were fighting for programs like Black Studies across the nation, and where he himself a young man raised his fist one the grandest athletic stage (The Olympic Games) in an effort to raise awareness of the continued social inequalities that existed (and continue to exist) in the United States of America.
Dr. Smith’s words resonated with me, and I’m sure others in the room, as a reminder of the importance of speaking out “when there is reason to be heard” and of using the platform that you have to do so. Though not everyone will reach a platform like the Olympic Stage, our own individual platforms are where we must make the decision of how to act, and what to say. As a postdoctoral teaching fellow, my platform is my classrooms, and I do my best to be cognizant of the ways in which I express my views and deliver my lessons especially since I teach on issues such as race and racism and African American studies.
Jemele Hill too, spoke about the importance of an individual’s platform, as well as the ways in which one “can’t check the establishment when you become the establishment;” a comment reflective of the words of Audre Lorde: “The masters tools will never dismantle the masters house.” Both comments speak to the importance of challenging the status quo and pushing back against injustice in ways that remain faithful to the position of that challenge. Hill’s words remind me of the importance of open and honest discourse in a society in which counter opinions to the dominant refrain are often silenced or struck down as “anti-American” when in reality being critical of the world in which we live is actually a necessary and beautiful part of being an American (or at least, it should be regarded as such).
In thinking about Colin Kaepernick and his stance on police brutality and the continued inequality faced by black and brown bodies in the United States, his independent gesture which became a public sensation was an American gesture—one of protest and a push for accountability against those in power. Yet, the establishment calls for athletes to “shut up and dribble,” or “shut up and play” because they are seen as operating outside of the political arena. But to the extent that athletes are individual citizens and the agents of their own destinies, they too are political beings. Furthermore, the reality is that sports exist within the context of the politics of the day. In our society today, we are witnessing the continued presence of white supremacy and the damage that it causes to individuals (in the form of hate crimes, the loss of jobs, etc.) as well as it impacts on society at large (mass incarceration, the school to prison pipeline, etc.). As we stand at the beginning of black history month, in particular, it is critical that we examine the social space in which live and question, loudly, the direction in which we are headed and if that is really where we want to go.
I believe that both Dr. Smith and Hill reminded those of us in the auditorium of on January 31st, of the importance of speaking truth to power in the ways that we can consistently. Just as journalism has a responsibility to the truth (Hill) and athletes have a responsibility as well (Dr. Smith) we as individuals have a responsibility as well—one that should be driven by a fight for justice and equality, one that remains especially in a world that would seek to demand our silence.
Dr. Letisha Engracia Cardoso Brown is a Presidential Pathways Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Virginia Tech University. Her research touches broadly on the intersection of race, gender, and sport, as well as social relationships and food practices. Her work can be found in the South African Review of Sociology and the Palgrave Handbook of Feminism and Sport, Leisure and Physical Education.