Thinker's Notebook

The Weight of the Black Word

By Marlon Rice

In a 1965 Playboy article, Heavyweight Champion Muhammed Ali was asked about his brashness and the idea that his words and actions might be rubbing the public the wrong way. For context, this interview came right on the heels of Ali changing his name from Cassius Clay, and demanding in the media that reporters and the public called him by his new Muslim name. Ali’s response to the question posed was, “I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”


One year after that interview, on March 9, 1966, Ali’s draft status was revised to make him eligible to be drafted to fight the war in Vietnam, a move unheard of for someone of Ali’s celebrity. One year after that, on April 28, 1967, Ali appeared at the Military Induction Center in Houston, Texas. He stood along other young draftees that were called to the Center to be drafted into service. The instructor called Ali by his former name when addressing him, and when Ali refused to step forward into service he was immediately charged with Draft Evasion, and stripped of his titles and boxing license.


The words spoken by Black people in America have always held the weight of exposure and consequences. America has always seen itself as this luxurious restaurant where patrons receive the best dining and impeccable service, while Blacks have long since known the disgusting mess in the back of the house – the filth that goes into making your meal an enjoyable one. In America, Black people are to be attractive, entertaining, comedic and strapping. They are to be athletic and engaging, beautiful and accommodating. But, they are never to freely speak the truths of oppression. They are never to be so bold as to question aloud the paradigm of subjugation. And, if one who has reached the heights of popularity ever decides to begin speaking in such tropes, that Black person will be publicly criticized and slandered.

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We have recently watched the issues that Kanye West and Kyrie Irving have had in the public forum. Let’s be clear, neither Kanye nor Kyrie speak with the eloquence and tact of Muhammed Ali. Kanye is erratic and jaded. Kyrie is surly and often quick to take positions that he hasn’t done the research on. Comparing either of their struggles or ideologies to names like Ali, Russell, Jabbar, Jim Brown, or Belafonte would be a significant reach. Still, it seems as if there is this over-policing of their words; this need for the establishment to over-correct the actions of these Black Men in such a way as to ensure that it never happens again.


Kanye West is obviously dealing with some mental woes. He needs support and counsel to guide him through what is seemingly a difficult period in an otherwise highly successful career. He doesn’t need to be constantly invited into interviews and podcasts that take advantage of his weakness for ratings.


Kyrie Irving’s only mistake was not researching what he posted. We live in a social media era where misinformation is posted by unsuspecting people every day. Kyrie, though an NBA star, is obviously no different in his ability to be caught by clickbait. And, whereas Kanye has indeed said things that should raise a brow of concern, Kyrie has been caught in the crossfire because he just has refused to duck.
Where there is proof that compassion would be of nourishment to both of these men, instead we look to cancel them.


Last Saturday, on an episode of SNL, Comedian Dave Chapelle, a man who indeed does have the eloquence and tact of our elder leaders, performed a monologue that was as precise and surgical as it was poignant. In 15 minutes and 22 seconds he gave a dissertation that supported Kanye and Kyrie without letting them off of the hook, while elucidating some of the concepts and protocols that Black people experience from the back of the house that could easily feed into the kinds of comments and assertions that others feel are offensive. He was careful. He was clear. And, by Monday he was accused of the same insensitivities as Kanye and Kyrie.
Henry David Thoreau once said, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” For Black folk, it seems like seeking truth will most certainly sacrifice all of those.

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