I’ll be at the table When company comes. Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,” Then.
They’ll see how beautiful I am And be ashamed–
I, too, am America.”
The above poem is an excerpt taken from the Langston Hughes poem titled
“I, too sing America”
In this poem, Hughes navigates the unique experience of how it feels to live in a place that benefits from your presence while also being ashamed of it.
During the 20th century, many famous and not-so famous Black Americans chose to leave America in search of European cities where they could live unashamed and without being shamed.
Josephine Baker, Marian Anderson,Richard wright , James Baldwin
Angela Davis, Nina Simone and others all moved from America in pursuit of such a dream To be more accepted.
This feeling of not being welcome in your home country is a familiar one for Black people in America and it’s an idea that’s very real to me as I consider the 2016 Olympic athletes of color who are on their way back to America following the Rio games.
Gabby Douglas. Daryl Homer. Simone Manuel. Simone Biles. Michelle Carter. Justin Gatlin. Courtney Okolo.
They all leave Rio as champions and the envy of the sports world.
But they return to an America where they’re labeled ghetto thugs, “nappy headed hos” and other abusive stereotypes that are routinely accepted in this country.
If you’re Muslim like bronze medal fencer, Ibtihaj Muhammad, then you return to America viewed as a terrorist, and an untrustworthy spy.
If you’re Latino like Laurie Hernandez or Carlos Balderas, then home is a place where literal and political walls are being proposed in order to keep you out, even if you’re an American citizen. These walls are part of an agenda to scapegoat an entire ethnic group for the problems caused by American corporate greed.
Because of the celebrity and elevated financial status that a select few olympic athletes receive, there are some who will return to America and to no fault of their own, will enjoy American life largely unaffected by racist attitudes and systems.
As we’ve seen with tennis star James Blake and NBA player Thabo Sefolosha, being a celebrated athlete doesn’t necessarily shield African Americans from being harassed because of racist stereotypes.
But for most other American Olympians, especially Olympians of color-
and particularly those who don’t enjoy the recognizability of Carmelo Anthony or Michael Phelps, some of their greatest hurdles are still to come.
The greatest emotional challenge seems to be figuring out how to navigate the unique space of being celebrated but also feared and hated in your home country.
Gabby Douglas seems to be the epitome of such a struggle.
Here you have a world class athlete and one of the most successful in the history of her physical discipline. In addition to her athletic gifts, she is a young woman who is handles life in the public eye with incredible grace, kindness and humility. Ms. Douglas has represented her country with pride and honor on a world stage for the last 8 years.
Yet all it took was one image of her without her hand on her chest during America’s anthem, and now she’s being treated like as if she’s an An American traitor who invited Russia to spy on us..
oh. wait.. that was a rich, white guy..? My bad
Then there was the outrage that occurred because her hair had the audacity to not lay perfectly straight while she’s flying through the air on uneven bars.
To be held to illogical standards of uber- Americanism while also being judged by westernized, white-washed beauty ideals of acceptable Black beauty.
It’s beyond unfair.
It’s exhausting. It’s heartbreaking.
But this ignorance and outrage shouldn’t surprise you.
In a climate where a Presidential candidate is calling for Nazi-like nationalistic purity tests, it should come as no shock that athletes of color (and people of color in all walks of life) are expected to measure up to unreasonable standards of patriotism.
The likes of which Captain America himself would fail.
It is however interesting to see a country take such national pride and even OWNERSHIP of these athletes personal achievements while at the same time most of the country remains uninterested and unwilling to demand that minorities in America be allowed the same opportunities, justice and dignity as everyone else.
As demonstrated by their years of training, focus and overcoming incredible hardships, these olympians promised us that they would represent America with pride.
Where our African American athletes are concerned, why can’t we promise them that they will come back and be treated with that same level of pride and dignity?
We know that they return to a home country where despite their global achievements, Black Olympians many times as likely to be unfairly profiled and face many forms of racial discrimination and abuse.
But as long as Demarcus Cousins can dunk
As long as Simone Biles can stick that landing
As long as Michelle Carter can launch her shot further than anyone else-
then they are American. They are us and we are them.
But once all medals are awarded and once the closing parade has ended,
they are no longer deserving of our attention or protection.
Much like the segregated militias of the Civil War and both World Wars,
when there is no foreign enemy left to defeat, Black women and men aren’t useful to us anymore.
My question is simple.
America, are you capable of having the pride in your countrymen be extended to these athletes after the last Samba of Rio 2016 has been danced?
Are you willing to defend the dignity of not just of Olympians but that of everyday people of color who deserve the equal rights, protection and dignity?
Can your love for Simone Biles make room for Sandra Bland?
Can your infatuation with Simone Manuel find a space for those who are denied equal education, housing, employment etc. because of their skin color?
Or do Black lives only matter while they’re dunking, fencing, flipping or swimming for you?