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.