Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman

Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman

Near the end of Black History Month, I watched a Netflix documentary on Bill Russell, “Bill Russell Legend.” I’m lifelong fan of the game and the NBA, and I saw and remember everything in the documentary from the early 1960s on - I mean everything.

The documentary is not really about the extraordinary career of a uniquely talented basketball player. It is the story of how a uniquely positioned Black man responded to the America of the not-too-distant past. 

I kept thinking about growing up in a Black community. I realized that I heard, and by extension, was being taught things about being Black in white America that few Black children ever hear today.

As I reflected on that time, I also realized while present, I was never a part of those “barbershop conversations.” I’m talking about the conversations between grown Black men, fathers and grandfathers, about what it meant to be a Black man in white America. More importantly, how you can survive and prosper in spite of white America.

What I’ve come to realize is that while I (and other adolescent boys) were not participating in the conversation, we were the object of the conversation. Everything being discussed and debated they already knew, so why the redundancy?  Youths didn’t know any of it!

I was raised in a Black community where adults had collective responsibility to usher children from adolescence to adulthood. And that Black community intuitively knew and therefore organically operated in a manner that understood “the man you get is a function of how you raise the boy.”

This column is about that time, one of those conversations, and how Bill Russell and others were emblematic of that. And on further reflection, how it shaped what kind a Black man I aspired to be and how I understand what it means to be a Black man in public leadership.

“He’s a race man (or woman).” Unless you’re in my age cohort, this is a phrase you’ve probably never heard and don’t have any idea what it means. I’ll try to define what the phrase meant in the context of the times in which it was used.

A race man or woman is someone who is dedicated to directly contributing to the betterment of Black people, and who is consistently confrontational in opposition to ideas, people, or institutions that threaten the well-being of Black people.

They could be elected officials, but usually were private citizens of some public note. What made you a race man or woman, was choosing to use that success as capital to be put at risk to advance and protect the interest of Black people collectively.

To be recognized as a race man or woman you had to meet a high bar, and every name that got called didn’t get chosen.

Bill Russell was one of those people. So were Jim Brown, Ossie Davis, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, and Ruby Dee. They were preceded by A. Philip Randolph, Charles Hamilton Houston, Paul Roberson, Jackie Robinson, and Ida B. Wells.

And they were preceded by……… you get idea. Where do these special Black men and woman come from?

They have always been among us. I would argue they are the light that guides when America is darkest. For example, two people I refer to as Foundational Ancestors are the archetype of the race man or woman. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, as a function of their courage and ingenuity, liberated themselves from the most evil and oppressive system of slavery in the annals of human history.

So, with their freedom in hand and their whole life ahead of them, what did they choose to do with that freedom? They came back for us.

All those different men and women that Black folk identified as Race men and women, it’s what they all have in common. Like Douglass and Tubman they have escaped the limits White America puts on Black minds and bodies at birth.  They can pursue whatever personal dreams they have, and in that moment of clarity, they choose to come back and get us. They risked their careers, their freedom, and their lives.    

Do we still need race men and women today? Yes.

Do we have enough? No.

But we do have some. Here are two that meet the bar set by their ancestors and elders: Colin Kaepernick and the sisters of the WNBA. Kaepernick took a knee, stood his ground, and paid the price.

When the world watched George Floyd being murdered, the women of the WNBA, who don’t make big money and some have second jobs, were the first to respond.

In fact, they were the tip of the spear when it comes to social activism in professional sports. Before we give the Black celebrity class props for giving back, the question that should always be asked is, “What did you risk, what did it cost you?

If you didn’t risk anything, and it didn’t cost you anything, then you didn’t do anything. 

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