Blurbs, Russians, and Rhymes: A Protesting on Bended Knee Update with Eric Burin

It’s been about three months since The Digital Press published NDQ editorial board member’s Eric Burin’s edited volume, Protesting on Bended Knee: Race, Dissent, and Patriotism in 21st Century America. For most books three months is barely out of the gate, but in the rapidly changing political landscape surrounding the Colin Kaepernick protests and criminal justice reform, three months is a long time! 

Since this week is both the start of the annual Super Bowl hype cycle and dedicated to life and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr., we thought it was a good time to reach out to Eric Burin and asked him a few questions about Kaepernick’s evolving place in the history of race and protest, the reception of his book, and the changing political situation. 

Here’s what Eric had to say:

The book is available as a free download from The Digital Press and for $15 on Amazon

In the popular mind, the nature of Colin Kaepernick’s protest often overshadowed the causes he wanted to advance. How did you balance these two issues in your extensive introductory essay?

From the start, the principal figures in this saga—and especially the athlete-activists—have struggled to control the narrative, to keep others from hijacking their message and distorting their goals. The most obvious and incessant example of this phenomenon is the breathless criticism of Kaepernick’s and others’ protest tactics. This shouldn’t be surprising. When scanning the vista of American history, one would be hard-pressed to spot any instance of black protest that most white people approved at the time. Railing against how African Americans protest has long allowed their detractors to sidestep why they protest.

So in Protesting on Bended Knee’s Introduction, which runs over eighty pages, the demonstrations and the debates about them constitute just one storyline in a far-ranging saga that follows black Americans’ quest for freedom, particularly in the modern era of mass incarceration. As a result, there’s a lot of material in the Introduction about the prison-industrial complex, law enforcement practices, and officer-involved shootings, with a substantial dose of politics, as well. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the tale includes a cast of thousands; I did my best to portray the world as each one saw it.

One of things that I always discover when working on edited volumes is that I’m forced to engage with other people’s work at a deeper level than is usually required. This book has almost 30 contributors and I know you’ve done some physical media and been active on social media. What did you learn from other people through bringing this book together?

The contributors were wonderfully insightful and generous—thanks to them, we’ve produced an open-access volume that provides panoramic view of a subject of national importance. And I’ve been delighted with how the public has responded to the book: when I’ve given interviews, visited classrooms, and sat on panels, even people who might be expected to grouse about the volume have been gratifyingly receptive to it.

But we did encounter one obstacle, an impediment that illustrated one of the central issues addressed in the book: the extent to which employers can limit their workers’ expressions while enjoying nearly unfettered speech themselves. Let me explain. We had hoped that the reporters who had covered the Kaepernick story would provide “blurbs” for the volume. But it turned out that the corporations for which they work bar them from offering such endorsements. The very forces that shaped the history told in the book were now shaping the history of the book. In other words, in the Introduction, I discussed how NFL players are contractually obligated to speak to the press but can be punished for saying anything that brings their team or the league into disrepute; after the book came out, I was dialoguing with reporters who profited from the players’ compulsory interviews but who also had bosses that restricted their expressions, including prohibiting them—experts in their fields—from writing blurbs; and all the while the billionaires who owned the football franchises and media companies used their wealth and power to freely broadcast their opinions. We ended up getting some outstanding blurbs, but they weren’t penned by journalists who had covered the protests and who liked the book, but rather by academics who specialize in sports history and African-American history.

This week we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 51 years after Dr. King’s assassination. Last fall, we recognized the 50th anniversary of the Mexico City Olympic protests by Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Fifty years ago, Muhammed Ali was enduring a forced almost-4-year layoff from boxing, while in his prime, because he refused to be drafted into the U.S. military. It seems hard to deny that this is a weighty historical context for both Kaepernick’s protests and this book. How does Kaepernick fit into this tradition of protest? Is there something about his manner of protest – other than their goals – that is distinctly African-American?

Protesters’ opponents have countless counter-tactics at their disposal. We’ve already mentioned two: insisting that demonstrators aren’t protesting “in the right way” and using contract law and economic power to stifle dissent. Another is to appropriate historical role models, divesting them of their radicalism and underplaying how despised they were in their own day. They’re remembered as wholesome do-gooders whose triumphs helped the nation achieve its founding ideals. Thus framed, their stories imply that the causes for which they fought and the opposition that they faced are no longer problems today. The protests of Kaepernick and others shattered this smoothing, self-congratulatory reverie.

Perhaps Kaepernick was so successful in this regard because his activism is deeply informed by certain African-American traditions. Kneeling has deep roots in black history as does protesting silently. Likewise, his Know Your Rights camps are modeled on programs developed by the Black Panther Party. In other words, the quest for racial justice stretches back centuries and Kaepernick is drawing on the lessons that have been revealed along the way—as are those who oppose him.

In your dedication, you call this book a “first draft of history.” One way to interpret that phrase is to acknowledge that the story you told continues, effectively revising itself even as the book is being read. The book was released on October 16, 2018—the 50th anniversary of Carlos and Smith’s protest at the Mexico City Olympics. What has happened or what have you learned that might have changed your first draft?

The passage of just a few months can greatly alter one’s perspective. The way the Introduction came together provides an illustrative example. I finished it in late spring 2018, whereupon I turned my attention to other matters. When I returned the Introduction in late summer, it was as if the piece had been warped by large-scale cosmic forces—some parts were too long; others too short; storylines were missing; it lacked vibrancy. When I began to revise the Introduction, the Hamilton soundtrack happened to be overtaking my house, furnishing literary and emotional fuel as I wrote, according to my spouse and children, “non-stop.” The final product constituted an extensive, nearly “real time” account of a subject that continued to roil the nation (though readers may differ on the virtue of its many Lin-Manuel Miranda-inspired “Easter eggs”—its double entendres, puns, reprises, and just-for-the-fun-of-it rhymes, including “this tale, with its vast cast and varied scenes, with its knotty conundrums that could not be undone perhaps by any means…”)

In the three months since the book was released a lot has happened in the world of politics and protest. These episodes, I think, have tended to reinforce the Introduction’s themes. But if I could revise the piece with the benefit of additional hindsight, I would flesh out several things. For starters, I would take advantage of the superlative exposes that have recently come out on Kenny Stills, Michael Bennett, and other players and examine more closely the perspectives of different coaches, owners, and journalists. I would explore in more detail how the NFL regulates players’ off-field behavior, such as the manner in which it administers off-season drug tests. Additionally, I would survey what one might call league-approved advocacy, analyzing, for example, the organizations that players select for the My Cause, My Cleats program. Finally, I would incorporate what we now know about the Russians’ efforts to exploit Americans’ divisions over the Kaepernick-inspired protests. The Introduction gets many things right, but time often shows that we initially see subjects, as the saying goes, “through a glass, darkly.”

Finally, in the 21st century media landscape, it feels like athletes have incredible reach for their personal and political messages. In fact, the NFL actively encourages athletes to wear their cause on the cleats. How do you think that Kaepernick’s protests will impact other athletes considering speaking out for what they believe? Did he change the landscape?

It seems likely that an increasing number of athletes will use their platforms to champion an array of non-sports issues. In fact, one wonders if sports figures are now expected to do advocacy work in a way that others are not. Is excellence in the arena insufficient? Must one also crusade on off-days? Still, woe will come to the amateur who runs afoul of his or her coach or athletic director, to say nothing of professionals who displease team owners and league officials. In other words, this future activity, like that which preceded it, will be filtered through racial, gender, and other lenses, advantaging some athletes and disadvantaging others.

That brings us to the role of religion (particularly Christianity), which is arguably the least-scrutinized aspect of athlete activism. Attentive observers will notice that some evangelical sports figures are trumpeting their faith in interviews, photo shoots, and social media posts and many are engaging in what they deem to be “good works.” This begs interesting questions about the intersection of faith and advocacy. What happens, for example, when a Christian athlete jets off to do philanthropic work overseas, leaving behind an equally devout teammate to combat racism, poverty, and injustice at home? The answer has ramifications that reverberate beyond the locker room.

Nevertheless, thanks in part to demonstrators who were once disparaged, there are now some topics, previously taboo in certain circles, that are gaining more adherents across the religious and political spectrum, most notably criminal justice reform.

And where does Kaepernick fit into all of this, what will his legacy be, especially if he never again plays in the NFL? That second draft of history has yet to be written…but I’m working on it!

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