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Between MLK and Richard Sherman

3 June 2020 at 20:24 | 1230 views

By Fayia Sellu, first published in Berkeley Graduate, January 2014

By the time you read this, Richard Sherman could own a Super Bowl XLVII ring. Maybe not. That is quite beside the point. That Martin Luther King Jr. weekend could be spent discussing this dude or “thug” from Seattle Seahawks, and his post-game ‘over-jubilation,’ says volumes about “how far, or near” we have come in what is loudly touted a post-racial America. I’ll try to explain.

One thing that you hear regularly from different strata of society is this: America needs to have a serious discussion about race. To that, you will even sometimes hear the notion that a first Black president epitomizes post-raciality and progress. In the same breath, you still would hear that the Obama presidency is opportune time to discuss race. What irony! Unless I am very stupid, we seem to be acknowledging the problem at the same time discounting it, in equal measure. That folks, is the makings of denial in the national consciousness.

In what I am constrained to call “selective memory,” Americans choose to remember the legacy of Civil Rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. that is often collapsed into one speech: “I Have A Dream.” Rather, a specific part of it. There is something unsettling about the fact that Ronald Reagan, the champion of the Conservative agenda, could roll out the War On Drugs, mass incarceration of particularly Black males, generally, the reversal of Civil Rights gains, and at the same time give King’s widow Coretta Scott-King a national holiday to memorialize the husband’s legacy and struggles for civil rights, all at the same time. Some would say, too early for the victory song. That ‘song’ is what choruses and drowns voices that actually want to have a serious debate on fixing America’s racial injustice and inequity conundrum.

In the absence of such direly-needed discourse, what we have are spells of revulsion and flashpoints, ‘barking’ at each other every time we get an explosive racial ‘event.’ Whether it is the other King (Rodney?), of “Can We All Just Get Along” fame (or notoriety, depending on who you talk to), O.J Simpson or Treyvon Martin, the seething, festering, racial angst bursts to the surface. Pundits, race hustlers, genuine activists alike, all get to life, or in business, even if for a brief moment. Then America finds a way to repress the traumatic event and it is business as usual.

Enter Richard Sherman. The nearly 26-year-old NFL, All-Pro, cornerback is a Stanford graduate and a mentor to Black kids in, of all places, Compton, California. What else can you ask of a young Black man in the order of lifting themselves by their bootstraps? Sherman’s is the case of the American Dream at work, yeah? Just not enough to break the frame into which the Black man is cast in this country. A country where even though members of his race constitute only about 13% of the population, account for some 40% of its 2.1 million prison inmates…Where Sherman still managed to do all America asks of him: never been booked for anything!

Now, is it a giant leap to think of lynching or see the characterization “thug” as replacing the “N” word in reference to Sherman’s post-game shenanigan? There is not the old-fashion stringing of black males from a tree, in this era of what Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow.” To borrow another of Alexander’s terms, one sees how this ‘Thug” (check the dictionary meaning) cannot escape the ‘frame’ of “criminalblackman.”

In all this, I see the poetics of the sad reality that is America’s racial past and present, and hopefully not, future. There is the metaphor of the ideal America, subsumed in the “Dream” of MLK. There is the irony personified by the Shermans of this world. Then there are people like me, who perennially quest to find similes between the two in the Black male, and can’t.