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Black athletes were exhausted with bearing the dead on their shoulders

To only think of Black athletes as millionaires interested in their bank accounts would be to dismiss the complexity of being Black in America

They were exhausted, so they stopped working.

Exhausted by the pandemic and laboring inside the bubble that allowed the NBA to salvage its season and profits. Exhausted by the isolation. Exhausted by this latest summer of killings by the police and white supremacist vigilantes — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. They carried and carried and carried this exhaustion not only on their backs but in their mouths, carried the dead’s names into news conferences, interviews, conversations with other players inside the bubble.

Like most Black Americans, they carried the names of the dead with them like they carried their own names because they understood very little separated them — those killed and those yet alive. So they were exhausted with bearing the dead and the living on their shoulders, laboring and entertaining in what felt like a war, breaking their bodies night after night for team owners who could collectively, if they wanted to, disrupt the systems of inequality that badgered them.

They were exhausted by the fearmongering being whipped up at the Republican National Convention, a fear based in the myth and lie of monstrous Blackness that was coming to invade the suburbs. These King Kong narratives that only lead to more Black men and women being killed.

The exhaustion compounded, once again, when they heard Jacob Blake, an African American man, was shot in the back in Kenosha, Wisconsin, by the police after breaking up a fight. Blake was shot in front of his children, who waited inside his car.

And as an expression of their exhaustion, as an expression of their solidarity with activists in Kenosha, who were also being gunned down in the streets protesting Blake’s shooting, as laborers who understood their labor has value and was not merely circus and distraction, the NBA players, collectively, refused to work, refused to “shut up and dribble,” and began what is known as a wildcat strike. A wildcat strike is a sudden work stoppage by unionized workers who do not inform the union, in this case the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), of its desire to strike. They throw down the shovels and cleavers, walk off the factory, slaughterhouse, and casino floor, or basketball court (as the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic did on Aug. 26), and refuse to dig another ditch, make another widget, shoot another shot.

Players take a knee during the national anthem before the start of a game between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on Aug. 29.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In the case of the players in the NBA, the work stoppage was not about petitioning owners to meet a list of demands concerning wages like previous lockouts where contracts, cap space, free agency and profit-sharing from lucrative television contracts were being discussed and haggled over at the bargaining table. Instead, this work stoppage was due to the exhaustion of being Black in America, the exhaustion of watching Black folks’ bodies carried on gurneys into hospitals and morgues after an encounter with the police. When the Bucks — not the organization but the players — refused to walk on the court for a playoff game and the Magic followed suit, they invoked their exhaustion, inhabited the vulnerability of it, politicized it, which is at once unprecedented and simultaneously calls to Black and revolutionary political struggles throughout history.

This symbolic gesture of solidarity harkens back to the March on Washington, and the march’s original strategy — to lie down on airport runways, clog up the thoroughfares and streets of Washington and remain as long as possible in a complete shutdown, forcing “the government to recognize the urgency for justice.”

Tasked by organizers of the march, Harry Belafonte, the actor and singer, assembled a cadre of American celebrities that spanned the political spectrum to march, arm-in-arm, from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial on that hot, windless day in late August. Marlon Brando, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll and a host of others, including the writer James Baldwin, lent their fame to the cause, understanding that in order to successfully petition the federal government for jobs and human rights, solidarity across race, gender and class was absolutely necessary and paramount.

Civil rights leaders march along the National Mall during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. From left to right in the front row: National Urban League executive director Whitney Young, NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, labor leader Walter Reuther and civil rights leader Arnold Aronson.

Rowland Scherman/USIA/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

In other words, the revolution had to be irresistible, aesthetically appealing, seductive. The Black Panthers understood this and mobilized it through not only their sartorial dress — the black berets and leather jackets — but also manifested this nuanced understanding of the intertwining and necessity of political change linked to cultural change in the foregrounding of artwork by the revolutionary artist Emory Douglas in the Panthers’ weekly newspaper. Too often, culture in political movements for change is castoff as merely a rose, merely bunting or curtain on the house. Art, aesthetics are not mere decoration, but they are the bricks in the house being built around and on top of oppression. Art, too, is freedom. Justice.

To only think of Black athletes as millionaires only interested in what’s best for their bank accounts, brands and bottom lines would be to dismiss the complexity of being Black in America. Blackness is not only threatening in the banality of everyday activities like reading a book, or birdwatching, but it is especially monstrous when moving into the neighborhood. Remember, when LeBron James, newly signed to the Los Angeles Lakers and living in Los Angeles, had his home — in an upscale, gated community — vandalized, the word “NIGGER” spray-painted on the side of his house.

The vandalism of James’ house reminds something in the far past, something out of my grandmother’s history — sharecropping in South Carolina in the ’40s, clothing made out of potato sacks, her family being cheated at the scales by white folks, a drunken white man ripping up her corn silk doll, the only doll she would ever own, the white man saying to her that “a little nigger girl should never have a doll this nice.” And my grandmother crying in her late 40s telling me the story, telling me why she would never live in the South again. Only visit, only visit.

“NIGGER” spray-painted on a house, crosses burned on lawns were supposed to be back there, in my grandmother’s memory, tucked into history books of the South, brown not only from age but from the blood of the hanged, shot, trampled, maimed in the making of the myth of this country’s alleged greatness. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned about the riots and near-riots that sprung up anytime Black folks tried to move into a white neighborhood. From Portland, Oregon, to Los Angeles, from Chicago to Houston, anywhere Black folks sought to lay their heads, trouble came through the window in the form of a brick or a Molotov cocktail.

James and professional athletes like him are no exception. No one and nothing are excluded from racial terror, which makes the celebrity and privilege of Black athletes from Naomi Osaka to Kyrie Irving precarious. This cocktail of -isms — racism, capitalism — create the hour of deadly reckoning that we are in now, that we cannot turn away from. In striking, in protesting through donning “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on the back of their basketball jerseys or through Osaka wearing a black mask that bears the names of victims of police brutality, professional athletes are politicizing their work, their time in the arena. They understand that the arena is meant to be a distraction, a reifying of nationalism and patriotism that corroborates the myth of the country, of America. And they refuse.

These athletes understand that America must be freed (broken really) from the myth of itself. And, the only way to free America from the myth of itself is to shut it down, grind it to a halt. Refuse to work. Refuse to allow America to go in that business-as-usual fashion. A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, organizers of the March on Washington understood this, and for a moment sought to enact that strategy in the petitioning for human rights and jobs. But like these professional athletes, they diluted the plan in fear of alienating a broader base of white support.

Although professional athletes have taken back up the tools of their trade — racket and ball — they, for a moment, inhabited the possibility of freeing America from the myth of itself. And, I would argue, we must pick up where they left off. We must free America from the myth of itself. We must refuse to work in the arena. This, too, is justice. This, too, is freedom.

Roger Reeves is the author of King Me. He is the recipient of a Whiting Award and a Pushcart Prize, as well as fellowships from Cave Canem, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and Princeton University. His second collection of poetry is forthcoming from W. W. Norton.