Blackness is not a monolith.
If you scroll through any of the comments sections beneath the articles written by me and other writers at The Root criticizing celebrities for tap-dancing on the knife edge that separates unapologetic blackness from fence straddlers who trade on their perceived black swagger while simultaneously stepping and fetching in their desperate attempt not to offend their white audiences, you are sure to find that quote. It is as ubiquitous as it is banal. They will tell you that there is no one way to be black.
They are correct. Blackness is not a one-dimensional template. It is nuanced and varied. But there is a way to be black without even trying. It is possible to exist as a black man in America without kowtowing to whiteness. Blackness is infinitely wide and all-encompassing, but it does not require compromise.
Blackness does not have to explain itself with the dumb-fuckery of “but I was praying” when it wants to kneel against injustice like the soft-shoe shuffler Ray Lewis. When talking about racism, blackness doesn’t need to regurgitate talking points from a Republican image consultant, like, “We’re beyond race as a nation,” à la Cam Newton. Blackness doesn’t condemn black NBA players for wearing hoodies because it worries that it might remind white people of Trayvon Martin, or inject “black-on-black crime” or “all lives” into the #BlackLivesMatter conversation, like Stephen A. Smith. Or Floyd Mayweather. Or Stacey Dash.
There are some people who believe it is impossible to be both uncompromisingly black and successful in a white man’s world. They fear that they will be ostracized, so they acquiesce to whiteness. Their existence is a constant exercise in contorting themselves into positions that won’t furrow the collective Caucasian brow. It’s not that they are cowards; they’d just rather not fight, so they muffle their blackness into a muted caricature of loud talking and disarming smiles. And they always dance. Always.
Kevin Durant is not one of those people.
The Golden State Warriors star recently gave an interview with the Mercury News that should forever serve as a road map for how to embrace one’s blackness without fear or compromise.
He is neither eloquent nor rhapsodic about how he views himself as an athlete and an African American. His is a matter-of-fact view that perfectly explains getting to know himself as a black man, his evolution, and why he is unwavering about his blackness and how it colors his view of the world. When asked how he came to this realization, Durant says:
“Just kind of seeing how rough it is for an average black man, you know what I’m saying? And on top of that, a black man makes one mistake…I see how far we get pushed down. For me, I kind of grew up in this basketball world, whereas my talent kind of overrides what I look like.
I didn’t have it as rough when it comes to that, as far as social or systematic oppression or any social issues. They didn’t really apply to me because I could put a ball in a basket. Just me saying that kind of woke me up a little bit, like “Damn, that’s all I’m good for?” Like, if I wasn’t a basketball player, what kind of man would they look at me as, you know what I’m saying?
In terms of what value can I bring to you outside of playing basketball. I bring a lot of value to people as far as how I treat them, how I encourage them, how I just try to be a good person to them. I feel there’s like a lot of black men that have those traits, but they often just get stereotyped or judged off of one incident or not given a second chance.
So if I find something that’s empowering to people that look like me, I just try to send a subtle message that I got your back and I hear you and I try to inspire you as much as I can from just being in this world as a black man coming up, even though I was looked at and viewed a little differently for it. But I’m still a black man. I understand where you’re coming from.”
That. Is. Perfect.
So often we see athletes and celebrities exclude themselves from the context of every other black man. They worked hard, so they believe that the key to escaping the traps of the system is hard work and education, like Charles Barkley, who echoed the sentiments of dunderheaded conservatives when he responded to a question about racism by explaining: “What we as black people need to do, we need to worry about getting our education.”
Such athletes talk about hard work and education as if they were nose-to-the-grindstone academic geniuses instead of genetic freaks who used the privilege of their genetic freakdom to outrun and outjump the reality that faces most black men in America. Durant knows and understands that he is a black man who was gifted with a transformative talent. He explains:
“You see what’s going on with Meek Mill right now, which is f-ing ridiculous, and he’s actually doing something great with himself. He’s helping people, he’s building a better life, he’s putting on a better life for him and his family, and you see how people do him. I started to pay attention to more and more things like that.
Then I hear my friends talk about what it’s like in the corporate world for black folks. You automatically just get viewed as something that you’re not or something that somebody else may have been, may have done. A lot of feelings get projected on you because of what you look like or how you present yourself. It’s like, so much sh-t that goes on that I see now that I didn’t see before.”
Durant explains that, growing up during the crack epidemic, he was lucky enough to avoid many of the downfalls most black men face because “I was either always walking to the gym or I was always in the gym.” But he beautifully explains that he understands the plight, and doesn’t even consider himself separate from it.
“It’s not necessarily a fact that we’re so in love with the bad shit, or the stuff that’s illegal; it’s just like, our people are taught to survive,” he said. “So if you put us in a neighborhood, no resources, no help, nobody to just be there for us … what else can we do but make us some easy shit to make us some money?”
Durant talked about his respect for Colin Kaepernick’s protest, which started in his newfound home in the Bay Area:
I just love how he just did it. It was really out of nowhere. For the casual person, casual fan … I’m sure people that he was close to kind of seen it coming but for us, it was just like, “Whoa.” He shocked everybody by doing that ...
He brought something out of people that they’d been hiding for a long, long time that needed to be revealed. I’d rather you tell me that you don’t like me because of my skin than hide that sh-t. So he kind of touched a nerve and the outrage from it made me a fan of him just because he decided to take all that on, but also tell a message of, “Yo man. Just treat us fair, treat us equal, we’re people too. We’re not less than you because we don’t look like you.”
What Durant said was not revolutionary. It was neither defiant nor beautifully worded. But it was unwavering in how he views himself and black people in the context of the American society. He did not portray himself as an elevated sage who escaped poverty by pulling himself up by his bootstraps and refusing to wear jeans that don’t sag. It seems as if Durant understands that it is not necessary for him to contort himself into a half-apologetic pretzel to conform for the masses.
All that is required of him is to follow the phrase that prompted the entire conversation. When he walked into the building before his first game in the NBA’s 2017 Western Conference finals, Durant was his usual focused self. But he wore a T-shirt with a two-word quote that became his unflinching personal manifesto:
Read more at the Mercury News.