Why Black People Tend to Dance: An Apology for Cam Newton

 

12240038_10208400423587504_2136578022119085585_nMuch of the criticism not just of this angry mother, but of those less offended by his behavior, but wishing he conducted himself differently, has centered around the opinion that Cam’s behavior, amongst other things, was lacking in class. I hear this criticism of him and other athletes, typically black athletes (not because they are black and the critic dislikes black people, but because usually black athletes are the ones celebrating by dancing and other demonstrative behavior) all the time. They would prefer, he would just hug and high five his teammates quickly, in an understated fashion, and then unassumingly jog off the field to the sidelines.

Allow me to offer this critique of the “it lacked class” criticism. This criticism often highlights the cultural differences between black and white Americans. I can hear the retort now, “Yet again! Why do you have to make it about race?” Well if you bear with me I will explain to you why it is about race but not in a “anyone who criticizes Cam is a racist” explanation. This explanation doesn’t require or ask white people to apologize for the past or recognize their “privilege”. It simply asks that people who are criticizing him for a touchdown dance, whether they be white and hearing this reasoning for the first time or black and have forgotten to consider without hearing it as an attack.

It’s not about race in a way that makes her and others racist and hate black people. It’s about race in that so many white people either don’t and in some cases refuse to understand, and some black people have forgotten, that dancing and being loud is a part of our culture as Black Americans. Culture is simply what we make of the world, both in a literal sense of making (building and creating) things, and in how we make sense of the world around us. And for black Americans dancing and celebrating is an integral part of our culture. Dancing is how we sought to make sense of the world around us. What did our ancestors make of slavery? Singing, shouting, and dancing. You need look no further than predominantly black churches the world round to see all three of those things remain embedded in our culture. We wouldn’t have survived the horrors of slavery and injustice without dancing. It’s in our blood to dance, when we’re suffering and when we celebrate, to the point that now we the sons and daughters of those people who cultivated that kind of life do it sometimes instinctively without thinking about it, or remembering why we have an urge to respond that way. Dancing and singing and shouting kept many of our ancestors from losing hope that things could get better. And praise God things have gotten better. And still we don’t or at least try not to forget where we come from, even as we try to accommodate the majority culture, thus we keep on dancing.

The late Ralph Wiley, an author, journalist and writer who was a Sports Illustrated staff writer for nine years, described this culture and reasoning better than I in his book Why Black People Tend to Shout (all this discussion about Cam inspired me to go dig the book up).

First of all, black people are too happy just being able to shout not to take advantage of the luxury. When you have to read that bits were put in some of your ancestors’ mouths, you tend to shout. When a sweet grandmotherly sort has to tell you how black people once were chained in iron make in the canebrake, to keep them from eating the cane while they harvested it, and that these masks were like little ovens that cooked the skin off their faces–when you hear that grandmotherly voice and realize she once was a girl who might have been your girl, and someone caused this pain on her lips and nobody did anything about it but keep living–this gives you a tendency to shout,

Black American culture is a byproduct of the great grandchildren of the tribal African culture. A culture that danced to celebrate life, danced boys into manhood, danced the betrothed into matrimony, and danced the fallen into the afterlife.
So now when someone like Cam gets criticized and told “show a little class”, it’s like being told to assimilate. When someone like Cam is told they find his dancing in that moment offensive (all the while half naked cheerleaders are shaking what they mama gave em) it’s like being told, “we find your culture offensive”. And we find it slightly ironic that so much of our shouting singing and dancing, in the form of folk, blues, rhythm and blues, hip hop and rap music, has been copied had a white face slapped on it and sold to the masses for a profit, but it’s somehow offensive when we do it.

When someone like Cam is told to “grow up” in response to him pointing after a first down, it’s like being told to forget where you came from, or to get over it. If you’ve heard a word of what I’ve just said then you’ll know, maybe for the first time, that dancing is how we got over.

When we hear someone say “I miss the old days when guys just played the game the right way without all the theatrics”, we hear you want things to be the way they were before the color barrier, or more accurately put the unwritten “gentlemen’s agreement” policy, in sports being broken and required a subdued and suppressed black man to break it. Jackie Robinson is an American hero and is the most courageous man that ever competed in modern sports, but he was chosen over the likes of Josh Gibson and Satchel Page because Branch Rickey believed Jackie he could subdue his need to dance and shout. Muhammad Ali is considered the greatest athlete ever by most Black Americans because he dared to dance shout and rap inspiring Black Americans who had despite their assimilating efforts been kept separate and unequal to start dancing again.

When someone like Cam is told “act like you’ve been here before” we know he is doing it because we have been there.

Removing the Flag Is Good But Does Little to Create Real Community

“Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community” Georges Erasmus

 

I first heard the above quote during a presentation done by Mark Charles at Q Conference in Boston this past April. Mark was making the case that Americans will continue to have racial tension as long as we all continue to operate from a different a memory and different pasts. It’s really sad to think that it required 9 people being murdered by a racist white supremacist for us to finally reach a point where are beginning to take the steps necessary to have a common memory of our history as Americans, black, white, and everything in between.

 

While I fully support the removal of the Confederate/Rebel Flag from the grounds of state capitals, I fear this will cause us to prematurely think our work is done. Those flags will be removed from our public places, but our real problem is not that flag although the debate surrounding it is indicative of our true problem. One symbol stirs feelings of pride from a shared heritage for one group of people stirs feelings of trauma from a shared suffrage for another.

 

We do not have a common memory and we do not share in the same past. For White Americans their collective memory and past is one of conquest, colonization, freedom, and “God’s blessing”. For ethnic minorities, particularly Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, collective memory and past is one filled with trauma from the struggle to be recognized as human and treated with dignity and equality. Our collective memory is filled with dehumanization, enslavement, mass genocide, demonization and marginalization. For white peoples in this country it has truly been a dream. For black and brown peoples in this country that dream has almost always been a nightmare over the 400 plus years since the early colonies. “Manifest Destiny” destined those deemed savages and beasts to destruction and to the margins of our country.

 

 

As difficult as it might be, white people need to start listening to the memories and the past of the ethnic minorities in America. It won’t be easy. It will be hard to believe for no other reason than so much of it is omitted from the majority of our history books. History has always been written by and representative of those who are one of the majority and elite. If we want real healing then the parallel narrative of the marginalized must be heard. It must be written. It must be taught. It will expose the blind-spots you didn’t know were there in our past as a nation. Black people, Hispanics, and Native-Americans need to remember that white people are hearing these stories, memories and past for the first time. They are being asked to look at parts of our history through our eyes, and if they really see it it will strike at their heart. Hearing about it for the first time will be traumatic for them and we need to extend them grace. We need to assure them of our sincerity in informing them is not to guilt or shame them, not to demand an apology, not to seek reparations. We need to show them the compassion we’ve so desperately needed to heal. In this way we can all heal together, and truly have community without losing ethnic and cultural identities.

 

The debate raging on social media over the Confederate/Rebel Flag and its possible removal caused one of my white friends to do some research into the history of the flag.  She described having a traumatic experience. She grew up in the south with that flag being flown everywhere, and was told the same as so many others of it being a symbol of their heritage as southerners. What she found was a gapping blind spot into the history of how that flag quickly became a symbol of white supremacy and hate as its re-designer William T Thompson intended. Her words to me over the phone illustrate what so many are experiencing, “I have been grieved to my heart since finding out the history around that flag.” If I had responded with a flippant “well duh, where have you been” attitude it wouldn’t have been helpful. No more or less helpful than when I’ve shared more stories and memories of what it’s like to be black in America and it is met with accusations of playing the race card, or attempts to explain it away.

 

The flag should be removed from the grounds of state capitals, and states who integrated it into their state flag need to get it out.  However, if that is all we do then we will fall desperately short of what is necessary for real community to happen that transcends race and ethnicity. We need to teach both narratives in our history books in our schools and places of higher learning. The history of our nation needs to be taught through the eyes of both the elite and the marginalized. I am not suggesting that we throw out one narrative and replace it with the other. Rather they should be part of one comprehensive telling of our history, of our past, and shape a shared memory, so we can move forward into the future not separate but together.