While speaking last evening with a friend, I fell upon the realization that, besides hundreds of years of financial, emotional and political strife, slavery has also engendered in the African American community a difficulty watching the World Cup.
Before I encounter the faceless rage of The Internet, let me preface the rest of this post by saying that in no way is comfort while watching sports as important a subject as practically every other issue facing black Americans today. But minor annoyances, as anyone who’s tried to sleep in a room with one mosquito knows, can occasionally feel large—especially when talking about the biggest sporting event in the world.
Anyway, last night, my former college roommate, a Bostonian by way of Sicily, told me he roots for Italy when watching the World Cup. Despite having been to his ancestral homeland only once, he roots for the Italians with the same brio he uses to root for Landon Donovan et al. In fact, considering how much better it is at handling the soccer ball, it’s very possible he actually cheers harder for the Italian team. His sister does the same, as does a friend of mine in Los Angeles, though technically he’s only half Tuscan.
An Arizonan I know with the surname Rapier goes for France, while the striker on my own soccer team in high school was a diehard fan of England, where his grandparents still lived. I have Greek friends cheering on Greece this year, and Japanese friends cheering on Japan. I even have a Bosnian friend who cheers for Serbia, troubled history be damned.
Amongst most of my white friends interested in the World Cup is the consensus that you root for the US by default, as a holdover trait from when you were forced daily to recite The Pledge. Once the Americans lose, however, you then root in earnest for your country of origin, which is generally better and more exciting to watch. It’s a fun way to hedge your bets and double the pleasure of the World Cup. It also noticeably excludes practically every African American I know.
People very often say that slavery has “taken” things from blacks, which is correct in many ways but inaccurate in many others. Rather, in some cases what slavery has done is muddled small joys other American citizens take for granted. It’s not that blacks don’t often have the same things as whites, it’s that, occasionally, those things are rendered less effective by the lack of a certain history within the black community. Just as slavery is why we have Black History Month rather than something more specific, like Irish-American Heritage Month, slavery is why I don’t get the same pleasure from the World Cup as my friends.
Slavery hasn’t taken the World Cup from me; indeed, I still get to revel in the bulk of the happiness the tournament provides. But what I don’t get to do is celebrate it the way many of my friends celebrate it. I don’t get to cheer for my ancestral team the way they cheer for theirs, because I don’t know what my ancestral team is. Sure, it very well might be Nigeria or Cameroon or Ghana, but I can’t know that connection with the certainty of my Italian friend, whose last name is also a seaside town in Sicily.
The World Cup is an awe-inspiring, momentous thing in general, but this year’s carries a special significance: it’s the first Cup to take place in an African nation. I applaud South Africa for hosting, and I applaud all the African teams who are playing so valiantly so close to home. And it’s with some sense of loss that I say, “Go, USA!”
Cord Jefferson is a staff writer for The Root. Follow him on Twitter.