“By utilizing their seismic platform as well as the medium of mass communication, the performative act of kneeling during the anthem unsettles the naturalized mythos of the racial state.”
On September 1, 2016, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid took a knee during the national anthem before an exhibition game against the San Diego Chargers. One can only imagine if either athlete realized the extent to which their silent demonstration would inspire a generation and forever change the visual economy of the National Football League.
In the aftermath of Kaepernick and Reid’s public protest against police brutality and racial inequality, dozens of NFL players, WNBA players, college cheerleaders, and high school athletes have picked up Kaepernick’s mantle by either taking a knee or raising a fist during the anthem. In turn, their collective performance has been viscerally met with criticism from NFL Owners, fellow players, pastors, sports analysts, politicians, and even the 45th president of the United States. Despite the different professional orientations of the detractors, they all profess a unified message, namely, that the protests are inappropriate, tasteless, and un-American. Central to this corporate censure is the conviction that there is both an appropriate time -- within, of course, the appropriate space -- to protest as well as a formal manner in which the body of the dissenter must be comported during any act of public remonstration. While the articles and hot-takes around this movement are legion, there remains a great need for a semiotic account of this historical moment that explains how a silent gesture made off-the-field could bring a nation to its knees.
“Central to this corporate censure is the conviction that there is both an appropriate time to protest as well as a formal manner in which the body of the dissenter must be comported during any act of public remonstration.”
Key to analyzing the dichotomization of athletics from the realm of “formal politics” is the role political theorist Richard Iton believed “informal politics” played in engaging the apparently dominant order. In his magisterial opus In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era, Iton claimed Blacks in the United States and elsewhere have always had to negotiate the outside/inside dynamic of representation that has often been experienced asymmetrically: as political disfranchisement on the one hand and overemployment in the arenas of popular culture on the other. Essential to this claim is the farcical lengths the White dominant majority will go to tell a community criminally underrepresented in spaces of formal political power that the few cultural spaces where they occupy the majority are somehow foreclosed from the possibilities of political mobilization. Moreover, the suggestion that professional sports and politics should be divorced depend on a normative assumption that sports should not be implicated with the political.
For Iton, a key stratagem that is always already available for Black dissenters seeking to transgress the boundaries between formal and informal politics is what he terms the Black fantastic. Partly inspired by Toni Morrison’s claim that the work she does “frequently falls, in the minds of most people, into that realm of fiction called fantastic, or mythic, or magical, or unbelievable," Iton conceptualizes the Black fantastic as a generic category of underdeveloped possibilities and the particular "always there" interpretations of these Briarean vectors of Black alterity generated by subaltern populations. Iton’s theorization of the Black fantastic is critical for deepening an analysis of the current actions of NFL players insofar as the idea of the Black fantastic affords us the opportunity to, in the words of Iton,
“Blacks have always had to negotiate the outside/inside dynamic of representation that has often been experienced asymmetrically: as political disfranchisement on the one hand and overemployment in the arenas of popular culture on the other.”
“identify the ways these sensibilities and activities in and around the joints of the politics/popular culture matrix, derived from a particular understanding of the relationship between Blackness and modernity, might transcend the prevailing notions of the aesthetic and the predominance of the state as the sole frame for the subject formation and progressive and transformative discourse and mobilization.”
By summoning the Black fantastic, professional athletes -- and those who follow their lead -- demonstrate the degree to which their collective, emancipatory performance can engender a radical public sociality that unfetters Black subjectivity from the catachetical demands of race performativity. This unfettered sociality, bordering on magical realism, unsettles the governmentalities and the orthodox notions of the political, the public sphere, and civil society that depend on the sequestering of Blacks and other nonwhites from meaningful participation and their ongoing reassemblage as raw material for the naturalization of modern arrangements (Iton, 2008). By utilizing their seismic platform as well as the medium of mass communication, the performative act of kneeling during the anthem unsettles the naturalized mythos of the racial state, a gesture that temporarily supplants the imperial aesthetics of U.S. empire and, in the process, pushes to the surface exactly those tensions and possibilities that are necessarily suppressed and denied in the standard respectability discourses associated with the sustentation of the modern. Such demonstrations fit squarely into what Iton defined as the poetics of the political.
“Iton conceptualizes the Black fantastic as a generic category of underdeveloped possibilities.”
Perhaps, one of the most salient examples of the poetics of the political and the generative potential of NFL player embracing the Black fantastic exists in a narrative provided by French philosopher Jacques Rancière. Rancière elucidates his rationality for the necessity of a countervailing politics by providing an account of an ancient Roman schism retold by French writer and counterrevolutionary Pierre-Simon Ballanche. According to Ballanche, the ancient Roman tale links up the end of the war with the Volscians, the retreat of the plebs over Aventine Hill, the ambassadorship of Menius Agrippa, and his famous fable. By centering his story-apologia on the discussions of the senators and the speech acts of the plebs, Ballanche performs a restaging of the conflict in which the entire issue at stake involves finding out whether there exists a common stage where plebians and patricians can debate anything. The position of the intransigent patricians is straight-forward: there is no place for discussion with the plebs for the simple reason that plebs do not speak. They do not speak because they are beings without a name, deprived of logos -- meaning, of symbolic enrollment in the city. Whoever is nameless cannot speak.
However, what do the plebs gathered on Aventine Hill do once they realize that Appius Claudius and the patricians will not engage in dialogue or discuss rules or codes? They do not set up a fortified camp in the manner of the Scythian slaves. According to Rancière, “They do what would have been unthinkable for the latter: they establish another order, another partition of the perceptible, by constituting themselves not as warriors equal to other warriors but as speaking beings sharing the same properties as those who deny them these.” They thereby execute a series of speech acts that mimic those of the patricians: they pronounce imprecations and apotheoses: they delegate one of their number to go and consult their oracles; they give themselves representatives by rebaptizing them (Rancière, 1999). In a word, they conducted themselves like beings with names. Through contravention, they find that they too, just like speaking beings, are endowed with speech that does not simply express want, suffering, or rage, but intelligence. They write, Bellanche tells us, "a name in the sky”; a place in the symbolic order of the community of speaking beings, in a community that does not yet have any effective power in the city of Rome. However, unmoved by the mass mobilization of the plebs, a wealthy patrician offered this brusque retort to the plebian cause, "Your misfortune is not to be and this misfortune is inescapable."
“These players have poetically allowed their bodies to perform a politics that resignifies the meaning of the athlete in the 21st century as well as the meaning of the symbols of American (necro)power.”
Much like the plebeians on Aventine Hill, NFL players have decided to mobilize on behalf of millions of minoritized peoples who, from the deepest catacombs of their racialized being, know what it feels like to live in a nation that dismisses them as nothing more than beings with no names devoid of true speech. Inspired by the actions of Colin Kaepernick, these players have poetically allowed their bodies to perform a politics that resignifies the meaning of the athlete in the 21st century as well as the meaning of the symbols of American (necro)power. Every week, these players dramatize religious historian Charles Long’s contention that the United States is, inherently, a hermeneutical situation. Central to this problem of interpretation is the issue of signifying. According to Long, signifying "obscures and obfuscates a discourse without taking responsibility for so doing." He goes on to say it could be explained as a "verbal misdirection that parallels the real argument but gains its power of meaning from the structure of the discourse itself without the signification being subjected to the rules of the discourse.” Consequently, Long contends that signifying is a very clever language game and one has to be adept in the verbal arts either to signify or to keep from being signified upon; it is precisely the arbitrariness of signification that makes it so frustrating. For Black folks living in the United States, one of the important meanings about us is the fact that we know that we are a community signified by another community.
“Colin Kaepernick is unemployed because he conducted himself like a being with a name and had the audacity to kneel upon the altar of the Black fantastic and advocate for the establishment of an alternative order founded upon accountability and racial equity.”
Ultimately, the anthem protests has little to do with discerning the appropriate time to exercise one’s constitutional rights and everything to do with preserving the significations of empire; it has everything to do with keeping Blacks from asserting themselves as beings with names endowed with the capacity for speech. Colin Kaepernick is not unemployed because he failed to properly understand the laws of respectable dissidence; Colin Kaepernick is unemployed because he conducted himself like a being with a name and had the audacity to kneel upon the altar of the Black fantastic and advocate for the establishment of an alternative order founded upon accountability and racial equity. Devoted fathers and honorable sons were called “sons of bitches” and “inmates,” not because they are inherently pathological but, rather, because they dare to perform heterodoxical freedom-acts that resignify the symbols of empire in stadiums that double as temples devoted to Anodyne, the jingoistic god of American docility. NFL owners rushed out of their plush suites to lock arms with their players, not out of a pneumatological call to be transformed by the renewing of their minds but, rather, because the voice of one of their fathers haunts them subcutaneously to this day saying, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.” By choosing to kneel unto the Black fantastic, these athletes acknowledge that calls for “unity” without a prior acknowledgment of the pluriform interpretations of America’s symbols, histories, and deities, are little more than placebos hocked by counterfeit physicians who lack the power to heal themselves, let alone the people they have harmed. Frankly, the continual demonstration -- and the acerbic critiques -- of NFL players require us all to recognize the anathematization of Colin Kaepernick and any athlete who publicly stands with him as the souvenir bequeathed to any subaltern laborer who -- after overcoming the toils and significations of invisibility -- discovers their name and their speech.
James Howard Hill, Jr. is a doctoral student in American Religions at Northwestern University. His research explores the intersection of religion, necropolitics, race, and colonialism in the Americas and throughout Atlantic geographies (Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas).