I was trying to play tennis the first time I saw an officer put his hand on his gun in front of me. I was in middle school and had just taken up the sport so I walked across the street from the apartment complex where I lived to one that had a tennis court. I don’t know if someone called the cop or how long I was there before he showed up but I remember it felt like he just appeared out of thin air. He asked me if I lived there and when he did he just softly laid his hand on his gun, not putting any real weight on it. He didn’t point the gun at me or even really grab it. He just lay his hand on it casually while he asked me questions as if he was just letting me know it was there. I didn’t think much of it at the time because I’d just assumed police always touched their guns when they talked to people. They never taught me any different. He never really had to do anything with his gun. He’d served his purpose. I was too terrified to ever go to that tennis court again.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what Black people could be doing instead of dealing with racism. I often wonder how much mental and physical space we’d have left in our souls if we didn’t have to think about, survive, fight, wish, mourn, overcome, justify, hurt, harm, argue, march, bury or cry our way through the omnipresence of white supremacy. I’ve just been so weary. So tired of being in spite of something. Tired of my existing against an entire country’s best efforts.
Maybe that’s why I’ve felt the burn in the back of my throat ever since I saw that the NBA and WNBA players in their respective bubbles decided to strike or boycott or whatever you call it, opting not to play in light of police shooting Jacob Blake seven times in his back in front of his three-year-old, five-year-old, and eight-year-old children. There’s just something about these elite athletes at the peak of their professions full of excellence and potential having to stop doing the thing they love to do because they are burdened by the existence of racism.
Just try to wrap your brain around the weight of it all. The weight of 400 years. The weight of shackles refusing to let our feet step too high above the earth. The weight of pounds of dirt covering our bodies while we try to claw to air, white mobs laughing at our struggle. The weight Medgar must have felt trying to breathe as he clawed his way to his own children for one final hug after an assassin gunned him down in front of his house. The weight of police on Eric Garner’s back. The weight of a cop’s knee on a neck.
Imagine carrying all that weight and still being able to jump high enough to dunk.
Then imagine having to decide that you have to put that God-given gift to the side because the barrage of death is too heavy to carry on.
The NBA and WNBA did everything imaginable to fight a once in a lifetime pandemic. They quarantined, tested, isolated and put together an epidemiological miracle to keep their seasons intact and their players healthy. The league defeated COVID-19. But there is no bubble from white supremacy. There aren’t any cotton swabs or social distancing from white people’s hunger for Black death. The NBA could keep an airborne virus out of its protected space but couldn’t stop the trauma of anti-Black violence from infecting every single Black person they vowed to keep safe.
There were plenty of hopeful or naive or willfully ignorant pundits who wanted us to believe that COVID-19 would be some great equalizer, uniting the country behind the fear of a virus that kills without discriminating. We know better. The actual equalizer is the way racial terror impacts Black millionaires and poor Black people alike. After all, just two years ago Sterling Brown, who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks team that was the first to refuse to play, was brutalized by police officers who put their knees on his neck and could have killed him. Wednesday morning, Vince Carter, one of the most recognizable athletes of the 21st century, talked about how he carries his keys and ID when he walks to the end of his own driveway. The players are feeling the same fears and anger that the rest of us feel.
And yet all of us still have to somehow be. They can’t play basketball without the hatred. We can’t play tennis. We can’t drive. We can’t sell CDs or go to the corner store or be with our kids. I don’t know what the NBA players are going to decide going forward — if they’ll cancel the season or keep playing. I don’t think there’s a right answer. I just hate that this is a decision they even have to make. I hate that they don’t even have a choice to shut up and dribble if they wanted to.
I hate the things that try to ground us when we want to fly unburdened.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and professor of Journalism and Social Justice at Morehouse College. His forthcoming book, The Movement Made Us, is about his father’s time in the Civil Rights Movement. Read more of his work on NewsOne here.