His Afro is perfectly coifed. His black turtleneck is from the house of Waraire Boswell. His black leather sport coat is a well-tailored update of those favored in the '60s by Bay Area Black Panthers Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. It is designed by Harlem Haberdashery on Malcolm X Boulevard in the famous black New York neighborhood of the same name where GQ Magazine noted its model, Colin Kaepernick, its 2017 Citizen of the Year, walked tall during its photo shoot for its December cover.
But the imagery reminded me of words of caution by my favorite poet, Third World Press publisher Haki Madhubuti, when he was writer-in-residence at Howard University in the early '70s. They are found on his album Nation in a rap called We Walk the Way of the New World . It's about the stylization of black resistance through a metaphorical black man named Joe Joe.
"You ain't no tourist," Madhubuti says of Joe Joe over the rhythms of his Afrikan Liberation Art Ensemble, "and Harlem ain't for sightseeing, brotha."
But there is Kaepernick, the unemployed NFL quarterback, in the pages of GQ, looking less like so many more people came to know him over the past 15 months. Instead, he's also portrayed as playful. He's smiling sometimes. Fashionable throughout.
He's more digestible. Mainstreamed. Acceptable rather than acidic.
It is yet another gamble Kaepernick has taken with his protest against unchecked police lethality in this country upon black men, so many of who were unarmed.
He chose first to walk from his professional football platform by rescinding his contract with the San Francisco 49ers to become free to play for any team, but none has offered him a deal. Then, he opted for silence to promote his political stance, which GQ stated he acknowledged ". . . creates a vacuum, and that if it doesn't get filled somehow, someone else will fill it for him."
And now, he has traded the iconography of his protest — kneeling with a stern, stoic gaze during the playing of the national anthem — for playing with broods of kids of color, or as Madhubuti observed of Joe Joe, ". . . [skipping] through grassy fields in living color and in slow motion."
"There may be something to that, that the commercialization of Kaepernick will take the edge off the politics he espouses," Jeff Larson, a sociologist from Towson now at Willamette University, emailed me Thursday.
Larson came to sociology as an activist, which is his concentration of research and study. A few years ago, with Omar Lizardo, now at Notre Dame, he authored a study on whether the commodification of Che Guevara — all that clothing and those accessories festooned with Che's profile that can be had anywhere — disfigured the revolutionary politico that was Che and diluted his politics.
This isn't to say Kaepernick, who appears to have left football for a social justice campaign, and Che, who traded a medical career to help liberate Cubans from the Batista regime and South Americans from similarly repressive governments, are one in the same. They aren't.
We need not employ any more misunderstandings of history in finding a rung for Kaepernick on the ladder of politicized athletes like GQ did in mentioning Kaepernick as a latter-day Muhammad Ali (so trite) or Jackie Robinson (so wrong). It is far too early, after all, to tell if Kaepernick is as impactful as Ali. And to be Robinson, he'd have to accept emasculation, turn against a Paul Robeson of his time and embrace reactionary politics, which seems unlikely for someone who just demonstrated such distrust in electoral politics that he refused to vote last year.
Instead, the comparison is in the tug-o-war over what they mean.
"Like Kaepernick, Che quickly became a contested symbol of something bigger than and only loosely connected to the man himself," Larson explained. "Was he a ruthless communist demon or golden-hearted revolutionary martyr? Stylized as our collective memories of such figures may be, they are shaped by ongoing struggles to define them and what they represent."
The difference for Kaepernick is that he is here to shape the frame of his own image. Indeed, GQ's editors noted he informed them: "When we began discussing this GQ cover with Colin earlier this fall, he told us the reason he wanted to participate is that he wants to reclaim the narrative of his protest, which has been hijacked by a president eager to make this moment about himself."
The question is whether colluding with a magazine like GQ — which fits Norman Mailer's 50-year-old definition of the wannabe white ally (the white hipster) — offers the effect someone so woke would want.
"It's certainly plausible that this would increase his palatability for a broader range of people," Larson thought.
Larson and Lizardo found, however, that Che's image hasn't completely devolved into a mere fashion statement like an America flag bandanna. Despite the marketing and commercialization of the symbol, it's retained the political leanings of the man just like, say, a Mao's "Serve the People" slogan has that has been printed on ubiquitous side bags. Cameron Diaz discovered as much a few years ago when she was chastised for sporting such a bag in Peru, where the Maoist Shining Path fought the government for over a decade in a war that left upward of 70,000 dead.
"Instead, we find a very distinctive pattern among the kinds of people who recall [Che]," Larson said. "They tend to be young, highly educated, hold leftist political views and 'post-material,' 'post-traditional' values, and identify more with local ethno-regional groups than with their nation. We interpret this as evidence that, while the T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters, key chains and other pop culture commodities may have popularized him for new generations, Che still represents a set of political ideas that are, if not the same as his, similar to those radicals of 1968 who first revered him. So every time Che's image is raised at a demonstration for Catalonian independence or by peace activists in Italy, someone is making a claim to how he could or should be remembered.
"Kaepernick has tapped an artery close to the heart of this country's racial politics, so it's little surprise that so many groups would want to tell us all how we should think of him," Larson continued. "I think it's unlikely that our collective memory of him will ever be depoliticized to the extent that we no longer recognize his politics, but how we remember him will be shaped by who recalls him and how they wield his memory."
I'd like to buy that.