For sports writer Howard Bryant, the current political tension between black athletes protesting police violence and a white president quick to label them unpatriotic for doing so is nothing new. For the past century, black athletes from Paul Robeson and Jackie Robinson to Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James have shared an often difficult duty to represent their race in a culture that values black bodies over black brains. It’s a history Bryant traces in his new book, “The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism.”
“What hasn’t changed is that the black athlete is still where he or she was back in the 1920s,” Bryant said. “You’re still the most important black employee, the most influential, the most well-compensated in the country. And your community is expecting to hear from you.”
But whenever an athlete speaks truth to power, as when Robeson voiced opposition to McCarthyism in testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee, there’s a price to pay. “It’s a lot of pressure,” Bryant said, “and it’s one of the reasons why I say the heritage is not a club you want to join. It’s not something that you want to be part of; it’s something you’re obligated to be part of because of where we are as a people and as a country.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, black athletes from Michael Jordan to Tiger Woods avoided talking about race or politics. But then, Bryant said, “Trayvon Martin happened. And all of a sudden, you’re seeing these great players take an interest.” At the same time, he added, team owners and networks began promoting military and law enforcement as a shorthand for patriotism. “They’re selling Americanism and questioning citizenship,” he said. “This is not what it’s supposed to be, that we’re questioning each other’s patriotism.”
Bryant will read at 7 p.m. Monday at Harvard Book Store.Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.