As the Civil Rights movement reached a crescendo in 1963, James Baldwin published a masterful collection of essays and a litany of thoughts examining a continued euphemism called “The Negro Problem.”
The Fire Next Time is a multi-point dissection of the plight the black body undergoes while being American, partly dictated to his teenage nephew. Across the book, the reader can see Baldwin’s eloquence as well as feel his anger.
Given his book was intended as a piece for mentorship, it would be improbable if Baldwin ever advised someone like Colin Kaepernick to alter his image for acceptance.
Yes, it’s painful to be black and American, Baldwin noted. Integration isn’t a sustainable goal, he thought. But adopting white standards was misguided, it was a misplacement of the “value” black people had to give this country, it was an attempt to presume that black people had become equal to their white counterparts.
By 1970, The Fire Next Time was a relic of Baldwin’s mind. He had radicalized in those years and his points grew bolder. In an interview with the late Nabile Farès, an Algerian-born novelist, one of Baldwin’s many immortal passages was set in stone.
“What is the definition of a black man, and his power?” Farès asked.
“I am a black man, if you will,” Baldwin said. “I was darkened long ago by the sun; but that’s not what makes me ‘black.’ It’s the role I play in the world.”
The role Baldwin describes is a point he discussed in The Fire Next Time. He argues that black people shouldn’t be, and don’t need to be, accepted by white people. That respectability politics is a vicious disease others posit with the assumption that the marginalized will receive better treatment from those in power, if they act in accordance to the principles the majority have laid out.
It’s what Michael Vick sought to do when he lectured Kaepernick this week and insisted that his hair, his afro, was one of the reasons the NFL was keeping him out of its ranks. Though Vick explained later that what he said “was not in malice,” it doesn’t matter. Whether he did so consciously or unconsciously, the nature of his comments is what becomes bothersome.
“The first thing we got to get Colin to do is cut his hair,” Vick said on FS1 to Jason Whitlock. “I don’t think he should represent himself in that way in terms of the hairstyle. Just go clean cut.
“Everything takes precedent in terms of image and perception. You gotta clean it up, you gotta make sure you do it all right,” Vick continued before saying, “That’s what I would tell Colin if we were sitting face to face.”
Outside of the respectability in Vick’s words, you have to understand who is setting the precedent that Vick defends himself with. White consumers, owners, coaches, and more are the gatekeepers of this ideology. Black hair has often made the majority uncomfortable, whether publicly or professionally. It’s been seen since the ’60s and ’70s as a political statement, especially an afro. But, it’s naive to think Kaepernick would be closer to game day if he had a fade instead of a fro.
“If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed,” Paul Mooney, a popular comedian, said in a documentary titled Good Hair, created by Chris Rock. “If your hair is nappy, they’re not happy.”
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a lauded author and Harvard professor, was one of the first modern voices to articulate the fallacy of respectability in her 1993 book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920.
In it, Higginbotham addressed the “politics of respectability” in black Baptist communities — namely, how black women contested the notion and demanded equal civil, voting, employment, and educational rights.
“[Higginbotham] argues that the embrace of the standards of white middle-class respectability by Black women and, indeed, their attempts to impose these standards on less affluent members of their own communities represents not colonization, but a strategic initiative,” Margaret M.R. Kellow, a history professor at the University of Western Ontario, said reviewing this book.
“By creating institutions of this kind,” Kellow continued, referencing groups like the Women's Convention and the National Baptist Convention, “they laid the foundation for resistance to and rejection of white domination.”
This is the concept of respectability and its inherent problem. It was, initially, thought as a construct that would protect the marginalized and hopefully propel that group to a higher sphere. It’s an idea that if you talk “right” or act “right” that white people will treat you “better.”
So, it’s not far-flung that Vick could not only believe this but offer it as a resource to other black athletes. Vick is a convicted felon who was sentenced to 23 months behind bars for fighting and killing dogs. He still receives backlash over his crime. But he found a way not only to play football after that, but to succeed in the sport. It’s not hard so see how he’d conclude that with a haircut, Kaepernick could do the same.
The misguidedness of the attempt isn’t just something Vick conjured. It’s had a home in American rhetoric as long as black people have been in America. In an infamous 2004 NAACP speech meant to honor those who fought for the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Bill Cosby lambasted poor black folk for failing to live up to the dreams of the Civil Rights Movement.
America’s most famous black father transformed from sitcom comedian to social critic, attempting to mix a message of the essentials of black empowerment with his disgust of black America’s perceived bottom rung. The “Pound Cake Speech” was heralded as a manifesto. But it was the same respectability that Vick offered, just in a different format.
“These people, the ones up here in the balcony fought so hard,” Cosby said. “Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! Then we all run out and are outraged, ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?”
It’s this bombast, the type from Cosby, of Vick, of more, that pushes forward the fallacy of respectability. The assumption that better actions can equal better treatment is foolish. It shifts responsibility from the oppressor to the oppressed, meaning institutions profiting from racism are never to blame.
It also offers a bridge of hope for those who believe in it, which only doubles racism’s blow when it is encountered en masse. When racist graffiti was spray painted on the gates of LeBron James’ home this summer, it proved it doesn’t matter how rich or important or extolled a black athlete is to the white world because racism’s grasp is inescapable.
In the current context of Kaepernick, of being pro football’s most passionate protester, Patrisse Cullors, one of the original leaders of Black Lives Matter, pushed back on the need for modern activism to look “respectable.” In a 2016 documentary titled How A Hashtag Defined A Movement, Cullors decried the idea that black people and activists have to portray a sense of respectability.
“The old civil rights [movement] really upheld the narrative around ‘respectability,’ around what we’re supposed to look like and be like,” she said. “Folks in Ferguson said, ‘No, we’re not your respectable Negro, we are going to sag our pants, we are going to be ratchet, and we’re OK with that.’ We believe that we have to show up in our full selves, without closeting parts of ourselves, marginalizing parts of ourselves, and build together.”
Cullors’ deconstruction of the “proper” way to protest attacks what Vick and others like him have said about Kaepernick for nearly a year. At first, people said he was a distraction for kneeling during the anthem, then no one thought he could play, and now he’s chastised about his image.
That’s the absurdity of respectability politics. Kaepernick doesn’t need to and isn’t better served to abide by fictitious rules about himself or his hair. The manifestation of his protest and of his moment is exactly what Baldwin envisioned writing The Fire Next Time.
One of the many questions Baldwin asked in his book was “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” As the NFL currently turns its nose up at the idea of keeping Kaepernick in the game, one has to ask why a man demonized for protest would want to be a part of the NFL’s noticeable blaze.