There’s a never-ending debate in the African American community about what it means to be black. The discussion occurs daily around dinner tables, in barber shops, on basketball courts — wherever black folks gather and share thoughts on our race.
African American athletes, because of the important position they’ve had in black society, are often held up as examples of high-profile blacks who have either remained true to the community or turned their backs on it. Are they “keeping it real?” Or are they “sellouts?” Problem is, there isn’t only one black experience. It’s just wrong to try to fit every African American into the same box. We’re pulled apart each time some African Americans are accused of being “less black” than others because of their personal relationships, political views, where they chose to live or how they raise their children.
Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III has said he won’t be defined by his race. Why aspire to be better than Hall of Famer Warren Moon when Joe Montana and John Elway are also on the list of all-time greats? Griffin wants to be the best ever. I like his thinking. Unfortunately, some African Americans become uneasy when the most successful among us make any mention of shedding “blackness.” Regardless of the context, those words stir questions about whether the speaker actually identifies with African Americans.
There was a time — such as during the civil rights movements of the 1960s and ’70s — when it would have been unthinkable for any African American athlete to speak openly about not being defined by race. And many black athletes, as the leading figures in the community, felt a responsibility to fight on behalf of civil rights. That’s exactly what pioneers such as heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and Olympic track star Wilma Rudolph, among others, did. Times, however, have changed.
Griffin is the savviest 22-year-old athlete I’ve ever met. He comments little about race and won’t touch questions regarding religion and politics. Griffin figures nothing good could come from sharing his thoughts on those subjects. He’s right.
But as a sensational African American quarterback playing in Washington, Griffin will face enormous race-based scrutiny throughout his career, as he did from ESPN personality Rob Parker earlier this week. Griffin’s parents told my colleague Dave Sheinin that they raised their three children — Robert has two older sisters — to be largely color-blind. And Griffin grew up in Copperas Cove, Tex., which definitely isn’t anything like the South Side of Chicago.
Some would say Griffin did not have a “real” black upbringing because he isn’t from the inner city. But Griffin’s blackness is no more diminished because he was reared in Copperas Cove than someone else’s is enhanced by having lived in South Central Los Angeles. Those who would disagree believe in the importance of “street cred” above all else.
In college basketball and the NBA, black players from affluent backgrounds face the stigma of not being considered as legitimate as players who come from the ’hood. Kobe Bryant and Grant Hill quickly come to mind.
Bryant has helped the Los Angeles Lakers win five NBA titles. He recently became just the fifth player in league history to score 30,000 points. The others are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. In NBA history, the company doesn’t get any better.
Despite all of Bryant’s accomplishments, though, the future Hall of Famer wasn’t embraced as much by the black community as other NBA stars, at least earlier in his career, because of his background. While covering the NBA, I had several players tell me they respected Bryant, whose father played seven seasons in the league, but couldn’t relate to him because he didn’t struggle like they did.
I’ve heard similar stuff about Hill. At Duke, Hill was a two-time NCAA champion. He’s a seven-time NBA all-star. Hill’s father, Calvin, graduated from Yale and was a standout running back with the Dallas Cowboys. His mother, Janet, is a Wellesley graduate and a successful businesswoman.
Nothing negative there, right?
But Hill was labeled as some sort of goody two-shoes at the outset of his career because he came from a prominent black family. As if being from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, would have enabled Hill to dunk any harder on Alonzo Mourning. The whole thought process is just so wrongheaded.
To understand how African Americans got here, you have to remember where we’ve been. When most doors were shut to us, success in athletics provided blacks with a sense of self-worth.
The nation cheered in 1938 when boxer Joe Louis quickly pummeled German Max Schmeling, and struck a symbolic blow against Nazism. But the Brown Bomber’s accomplishment resonated more with blacks, I recall older family members telling me, because his becoming the best meant we all were in a sense.
Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. He proved blacks belonged in the game. Has there ever been a finer football player of any kind than Jim Brown?
Even today, as we prepare for the second inauguration of the first black U.S. president, sports remain a huge part of the black community’s identity — probably too much so, especially considering that all Griffin truly owes the entire public is his best on the football field each week.
In the African American community, it’s way past time to stop using the things that define us as individuals to measure who’s black enough. We’ll never all be the same, but we don’t have to attack each other for what makes us different.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.