It isn’t the beat or the hook that makes “This Is America” by Childish Gambino so compelling, so memorable. It’s the ingenious allusion in lyrics and, most notably, imagery in its video — for example, a biblical image from Revelation 6:8 symbolizing police killings of black citizens — to the struggle of being black and marginalized in America. This year it became the first rap song awarded a Grammy for song of the year and record of the year.
Turned out, it was a primer for the theater Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback the NFL exiled three years ago for using its stage for political protest, unveiled this past weekend that cleverly alluded to the fight he has waged against the NFL for another opportunity at employment.
Indeed, after Kaepernick and his camp rejected a take-it-or-leave-it offer from the league last week to audition at its Atlanta franchise’s headquarters Saturday, the quarterback and his crew moved the planned workout to another location, slyly named, later the same day. It was Charles R. Drew High in Riverdale, Ga. The choice was as symbolic for Kaepernick as Childish Gambino’s Jim Crow pose was in “This Is America.”
Like Kaepernick, Drew was of one profession before he walked away to protest racial injustice. Drew, a Washington, D.C.-born, Dunbar High sports star who studied at Amherst and earned two medical degrees from McGill University in Montreal in the 1930s, revolutionized the collection and storage of blood for transfusions. It was first deployed on a large scale in World War II, saving lives and giving birth to what we know as blood banks.
But when the U.S. military requested Drew segregate black blood, he protested. When the military relented by saying black blood would be used only for black soldiers, Drew resigned.
Drew was his own man.
Three years ago, Kaepernick became his own man, too.
Kaepernick at first protested on his own, sitting alone on the San Francisco 49ers’ bench in August 2016 as “The Star-Spangled Banner” blared. He did so, he explained afterward, in disgust at a judicial system that wasn’t being applied to police summarily executing unarmed black men.
Kaepernick severed his contract with the 49ers on his own.
He has spent most of the past three years delivering support via social media for social justice causes, such as campaigns against police lethality, on his own.
But what Kaepernick is fighting ultimately is this Faustian deal that black athletes, in particular, have long made with sports. They so often have traded their physical talent for little of critical importance in return. Jackie Robinson surrendered the right to defend himself. College athletes relinquished the ability to be treated as employees. NFL players agreed to be penalized for how they want to wear their pants.
Imagine if more players than not took a collective cue from Kaepernick’s defiance rather than looked on from afar. The league couldn’t exist without all of them.
But Kaepernick didn’t flinch. He didn’t appear this past weekend to be any more willing to conform to the NFL, which demands conformity and penalizes the smallest transgression against it.
Kaepernick dared to out-NFL the NFL. It created a publicity stunt disguised as a tryout. He crafted his own rebuttal.
There were, apparently, no negotiations of the terms. A waiver was presented to Kaepernick and his representatives, and they claimed his signature would indemnify the league from future legal action by Kaepernick against the NFL. He already won an out-of-court settlement on his initial lawsuit alleging the league colluded to keep him out.
There was no short-term insurance provided for the high-value participant, which a lawyer told me would be prudent in that singular situation. And the information to be disseminated from the event appeared to be all but controlled by the league.
Kaepernick balked at the arrangement. He suggested it was a sham.
“Our biggest thing with everything today was to make sure we had transparency in what went on,” Kaepernick told reporters Saturday. “We weren’t getting that elsewhere, so we came out here.”
It reminded me of what Robinson and two other Negro League players went through in 1945 at Boston’s Fenway Park after being invited there ostensibly to try out for the Red Sox. Only one Red Sox player showed up to work out with the Negro Leaguers. Manager Joe Cronin was said to have watched disinterestedly for 90 minutes. Robinson dismissed it as charade. He and the two other black players departed and never heard from the Red Sox.
Kaepernick hasn’t said he has heard from any of the teams that were represented at his Saturday workout or from any of the others that showed up at the Falcons’ facility but didn’t, for whatever reason, make the drive to Charles R. Drew High.
“I’ve been ready for three years,” he said. “I’ve been denied for three years. We all know why. I came out here today and showed it in front of everybody. We have nothing to hide. We’re waiting for the 32 owners, the 32 teams, [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell, all of them to stop running, stop running from the truth, stop running from the people.”
Kaepernick made that declaration after his workout, one that he started, by the way, with another image that underscored his point. It was a warmup shirt emblazoned with the name Kunta Kinte.
Kinte was the protagonist in Alex Haley’s 1976 award-winning novel and made-for-TV miniseries tracing a black American family’s origin from Africa, “Roots.” Kinte was captured in Gambia as a teenager and sold as a slave in the Americas. One of the most indelible scenes from the story is a white master having to whip Kinte to a pulp until Kinte finally rejects his African name for the name the master gave him as a slave.
Kaepernick’s T-shirt was a reminder, maybe to himself but certainly to others, that he is refusing to be broken.