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Juneteenth, the Black athlete and the pursuit of freedom

The holiday should be a reminder to keep the same energy when we salute and scrutinize, and beyond that, to organize

There’s a common thread between two of my favorite paradoxes – Juneteenth and the Black athlete. That thread is the pursuit of freedom.

Their contradictions might be why we over-analyze both instead of giving them their proper due. Juneteenth, or more specifically, the pursuit of freedom from chattel slavery, was the life’s work of ancestors such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. The celebration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, as of this writing, is the life’s work of Opal Lee.

From the time of their youth, Black athletes hone their craft to the umpteenth percentile, a years-long pursuit of professional excellence, even if they aren’t always paid as such. The pursuit – or rather, perpetuity of freedom, can be described in one word: emancipation. That ideal has been denied to the freedmen of Texas and abroad.

Six months after General Order No. 3 was stated to the people of Texas, the proclamation of the 13th Amendment provided a loophole for slavery, or as Ava Duvernay’s 13th put it, “from slave to criminal with one amendment”:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Even at the height of athletic excellence, the Black athlete has not eluded scrutiny. This has inspired defiance and dilemmas alike, notably in two works: The Revolt of The Black Athlete by Harry Edwards, and Forty Million Dollar Slaves by William Rhoden.

The revolt had come to life before the book was even published. Dr. Edwards founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights in 1967 alongside athletes such as John Carlos and Tommie Smith. While their proposal for a full boycott of the Games was unsuccessful, the individual protests of select athletes shook up the world. While a 50th anniversary edition of the book has since been published, the text of the original book was prescient, with important criticisms of how Black athletes are commodified within the realm of college athletics and how the Black athlete is covered in mass media.

Rhoden’s book, published in 2006, grabbed me with its provocative title. It was a gift from my father and, along with Why Black People Tend To Shout by the late Ralph Wiley, my personal introduction to the sociological intersection of race, sports and culture. The book is historically incisive and also aged well. Its epilogue offers another common thread between the celebration of Juneteenth and the celebration of the Black athlete – optimism:

In fact the element that links black athletes through time is the legacy of hope. This has been the black athlete’s primary contribution to the journey of African Americans: providing a source of hope, a beacon of light.

Rhoden cited Jack Johnson’s defiance, Joe Louis’ knockouts, Jackie Robinson as the “metaphor of access and opportunity,” Muhammad Ali’s conviction and Venus and Serena Williams’ self-determination.

I am similarly inspired to cite an athlete turned historian – the late Arthur Ashe. It’s hard to imagine that Ashe’s trailblazing tennis career wouldn’t be the defining aspect of his life. However, his passion as a civil rights activist and journalist trumped his wins at Wimbledon, the US and Australian Opens.

In a column that rings particularly loud amidst the current conversation of morality in golf, Arthur Ashe spoke with Calvin Peete about “Green Jackets, Black Ironies” at Augusta National. Peete was arguably the greatest Black golfer of all time before Tiger Woods stormed Augusta in 1997. Ashe’s greatest contribution to the arts was an anthology of the Black athlete with a poignant name – A Hard Road to Glory.

Ashe’s personal assessment of his work in the well-researched volumes was ironic:

Those who believe in fate would say there could have been no other occupation for me than professional athlete. I grew up literally surrounded by sports. My father was the caretaker of Brookfield, the largest public park for blacks in Richmond, Virginia, offering swimming, tennis, basketball, baseball, and football facilities. Our house was actually on the grounds of the park.

Emancipation is a park.

Arthur Ashe with the Wimbledon trophy after he beat the defending champion Jimmy Connors in four sets, 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 on July 6, 1975.

Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

In 1872, six years after the first commemoration of Juneteenth, four freedmen – Richard Allen, Richard Brock, Jack Yates and Elias Dibble – bought 10 acres of parkland with $800. Adjusting for inflation, that would be more than $20,000 today. The park was a fixture, even as the promise of emancipation reverted into white supremacist violence and then became Jim Crow. From 1922 to 1940, Emancipation Park was Houston’s sole park for African Americans, since Houston’s city official issued a segregation order in 1922.

Juneteenth and the Black athlete remain paradoxes – a source of celebration and commemoration, calamity and contradiction. Whether they become more has always been up to us as the caretakers of Black culture. Ashe’s role as historian remains important today because the past provides an understanding, and hopefully an appreciation, of what our ancestors overcame.

“Today’s African-American athletes continue to inspire their brethren, as evidenced by the fact that millions of young blacks continue to dream of athletic stardom,” Ashe wrote about his research. “They will no doubt find the stories in this calendar particularly compelling and, I hope, somewhat sobering. Hopefully, they will come away with an appreciation of what a hard road it really is.”

The role of economics as an engine to freedom is also important, evidenced by the roles of icons such as Robinson, Jim Brown, and through a modern-day lens, LeBron James. Without Brown’s Black economic union, what is the fate of Ali? Perhaps “the Greatest” would have still persevered, but not with the profundity that came through the cooperation displayed at the Cleveland Summit.

Juneteenth should be a reminder to keep the same energy when we salute and scrutinize, and beyond that, to organize. At the height of the summer of discontent in 2020, Mrs. Lee offered a statement which applied to those of us in the struggle.

“I have persistence in my DNA. There’s absolutely nothing I start that I don’t wanna finish. I gotta finish this,” she said.

WE gotta finish this.

Ken J. Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast. Before and after commentating, he’s thinking about his wife and his sons.