Football: My Black Experience and Journey towards Self-Discovery, Part I of III
Early on in my life I knew I was different, different to the extent I felt out of place, like I was some baby dropped off at the wrong address by a stork who had a little too much bubbly the night before my delivery. As a child, I typically kept to myself, completing my homework religiously before doing anything else after school. I didn’t roam the streets with any of the neighborhood kids. I found joy in my quiet alone time, creating imaginary scenes of carnage with my action figures. I created my own world with an imagination as vast and as endless as my childhood book collection. In short, I lived a fairly sheltered childhood.
Much of that didn’t change when I went to high school. See high school is that weird time when you start creating your identity. What you wear and how you wear it, hairstyles, music preferences, girls, girls, and more girls, athletics, and possibly, depending on where you went to school, your academics are all being assessed by the social economy that is teenagedom. And just like the rest of us, my identity was being shaped and distorted by the ebbs and flows of adolescence, an extremely volatile and fickle market to say the least. I will attest though that my greatest discovery while in HS was the introduction to my black maleness. See, I attended a private, all boys, predominately white, institution of learning. Every day I was reminded of my blackness — the excessive use of the n word by my Black peers and myself in daily conversation, the assumption I could play basketball or heard the latest Diplomats mixtape by white peers, the all too assuming white eyes’ fixation on me during the brief period we discussed slavery in American history classes, or my personal favorite, being suspended for rocking a substantially lengthy Afro to school because “it would be a distraction to the other students”. I was compelled to join and ascend to the position of president of the sole club devoted to Blackness — the Umoja Cultural Club. It’s funny because Umoja means unity but as an adult in reflection I question what actually united me to those brothers outside of melanin. I mean I didn’t use, let alone hear the word nigga used so freely in conversation until my HS days. Although I played ball, I was never really in love with the game or very skilled like some of my peers. I enjoyed the Dipset and G-Unit mix tapes, but I had no business rocking 5XL tees, two toned colored durags and fake bullet proof vests. Don’t get me wrong, Get Rich or Die Trying was the shyt! But this idea of Black maleness — mean mugs, prison muscles, braggadocio gangster pimp — espoused by the music and the culture felt more alien than familiar to my 16 year old self. And yet I felt like a robot, aimlessly embracing an aesthetic and appearance none my own. Operating in that white world, I was different by default. but in order to protect myself from the isolation of being an individual in a system dominated by groupthink and to avoid being ostracized from the bubble of black maleness existing on my campus, I chose to see myself as nothing more than a box to check on the SAT when queued to select one’s ethnicity. I always use to check that box with a sense of pride unknown to my mind but seamlessly relevant to my heart. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had tons of growing to do.
If HS introduced me to my Blackness then college certainly affirmed it. I went A.B.E. That’s All Black Everything for the uninitiated. We are talking black male empowerment groups, black student unions, black Muslim meetings and speeches, black residential buildings, black RA’s, black professors, black culture themed field trips, meeting black doctors, artists, dignitaries, black round table discussions and of course the black parties hosted by our black fraternities.
I even dated a girl whose nickname was Betty Shabazz. I was Blacked out. When I made the decision to undergo the intake process to join my Black frat I predetermined it to be one of the last stages in the confirmation of my Blackness. But as I write this now, I’m more inclined to believe that decision, and the majority of my decisions as a collegian, was made as a means of survival and acceptance into a Black world I wanted to call my own but truthfully was more foreign than domestic.
When I met football, it was the first time in my adult life I felt completely at peace with who I was. See as a child, I truly didn’t care about the outside world and its opinions. Football made me feel like that 8 year old boy who knew in his heart anything and everything is possible, one only has to imagine. Let me be very clear and direct though. This is not a vignette on my introduction to playing the beautiful game. My playing days came and went faster than your latest hashtag. I told you I was not blessed with God given athletic ability or skill. And you know for a while I wondered why? Like why wasn’t I 6'3" with a 37" vertical? As idiotic and particular as that sounds, such thoughts produced confusion and jealousy nestled under the blanket of insecurity. You fall asleep covered in your linens of envy long enough and eventually you wake up living and leading a lie.
Football has played a role in my rebirth as a man. Picasso said “All children are artists. The problem is remaining an artist once he grows up.” Football’s greatest were the Picasso’s of their time. And they honed that child like inspiration into some of the finest works of art any eye would be blessed to see. My spirit is filled with child like wonder and pure joy whenever I’m involved with the game — playing, watching, coaching, tweeting, reading.
The beautiful game has opened my eyes to a world and a space I can call my home. And that home is anywhere I go. The language of football is spoken by over 2 billion people (other estimates of total fans have exceeded 3 billion people). Ironic I’ve felt out of place when I was at home all this time. No matter where I land I can find some sign of home: a colleague’s Real Madrid hoody, a girl’s vintage AC Milan jersey drew my eyes while at the liquor store, the random conversation with a subway stranger because he saw my Barcelona case, volunteering with the International Rescue Committee and young refugees who dream of becoming football stars, watching Champions League football in Mexico with fans from Germany (Bayern Munich) and Spain (FC Barcelona), meeting a brother from Turkey in Brooklyn who shared some pointers on skill development.
And you know what else I found when I discovered football: more Black people and unfortunately, more racism.
This concludes Part I of this 3 part series. In Part II I will be discussing my thoughts on racism within the beautiful game and how the sport of football MUST relinquish the mighty grip racism has held onto the sport and the culture for far too long.