Cam Newton might say that the controversy that surrounds him is not about race, and he might very well not want it to be about race. There are many of us who want race to not be a factor, and a few for whom race isn’t a factor at all- his teammates and coaches first.
But the evolution of the controversy around Cam Newton speaks highly toward a culture in the United States of everyday racism and a denial- or ignorance- of the white privilege whose history is parallel with the construction of the United States, a privilege that was carried on the backs of the slaves who built the country that manufactured it.
I’ve watched the evolution of Cam Newton over the past years and I’ve watched, primarily, the evolution of Cam Newton as an NFL superstar this year, the year that the Panthers surprised everyone by leaping to 19-2 on the season. I’ve sat quietly as many have criticized Cam for being too “exuberant” and too “cocky” when he’s excited, and acting “childish” and “petulant” when he’s down.
But now that the season is over, it’s time to recognize the underlying factors of the entity Cam Newton.
This piece is not for everyone- certainly not the hundreds of fans that welcomed the Panthers home yesterday, or the thousands that support them in the Carolinas or the Carolina diaspora. But it is for those who have unduly criticized Cam all year long without reprieve.
It must also be said that this is not an entire defense of Cam. Cam wears his emotions on his sleeve and will not concede to changing that for anyone- and has very blatantly said so on multiple occasions. Could he have handled the press conference better? Certainly. Could he “lose better”? Certainly. But there’s more to the issue of “Cam hatred” than what Cam should do or should be.
Cam’s Black Body
“Here is what I would like you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body- it is heritage.” (Between the World and Me, pg. 103)
Not only is there a long history of race in the NFL, particularly at the quarterback position, but there is a long history in the USA of the commodification and expropriation of the black body.
Almost anything you read about race discusses the construct of race as a means of control and conditioning. Malcolm X famously said “If you’re black, you were born in jail.”
Cam Newton is beautiful. He is 6 feet 5 inches of beautiful black, unblemished skin with the body of a Khal Drogo. His smile is the smile to end all smiles.
But when he smiles, he is not lauded as confident, as a Luke Kuechly might be- he’s criticized as conceited.
Pro Football Weekly’s Nolan Nawrocki said in March 2011 that Cam was:
This sounds oddly familiar to a Maryland county report during slavery, in which the reporter notes that “The insolence of Negroes in this county is come to such a height…We cannot therefore be too vigilant nor too rigorous with those who promote and encourage this disposition in our [slaves].” (A People’s History of the United States, pg. 82).
In a recent book written after the slew of black killings by white police, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a letter to his fifteen-year-old son in which he says, “…because I felt – even if I did not completely know- that the larger culture’s erasure of black beauty was intimately connected to the destruction of black bodies” (Between the World and Me, pg. 45).
If he’s smart, he’s untrustworthy and sly. If he’s excited and proud, he’s arrogant. If he’s sad, he’s petulant and a bad role model. During his post-Bowl press conference, he was dejected. The New York Times described him acting as a “13-year-old.” Others, namely Bill Romanowski, ex-NFL linebacker, called him out on Twitter derogatorily, saying: “The world doesn’t revolve around you, boy!”
This comment sparked multiple Twitter rebukes, my favorite being:
The media continued to use the image of Cam after the Superbowl sitting angrily in a hoodie rather than the smiling picture of Cam congratulating Peyton Manning after the loss – much like mainstream media uses “thug” pictures of black victims versus smiling photos or graduation shots.
And then there is the phenomenon of “dabbing,” a dance that originated in Atlanta and was made famous by Cam. Quite popular in Charlotte, it has become a symbol around the country of Cam’s supposedly unacceptable overinflated ego. In short, it does not matter how Cam celebrates – but if you’re uncomfortable with it, then you should also acknowledge that at some psychological level you’re uncomfortable with Cam having control of his own body rather than you.
“But I would watch how black people moved, how in these clubs they danced as though their bodies could do anything, and their bodies seemed as free as Malcolm’s voice. On the outside black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies, which could be commandeered by the police; which could be erased by guns, which were so profligate; which could be raped, beaten, jailed. But in the clubs, under the spell of the low lights, in thrall of hip-hop music, I felt them to be in total control of every step, every nod, every pivot.” (Between the World and Me, pg. 62)
But how is the dab any different from the pelvic thrusting or cherry-bombing or Lambo-leaps of other NFL players- most of who happen to be white?
Fortunately for the reader, and the reader’s highly likely centuries-long imbedded conditioning, Cam’s body is not yours to define. Cam’s character is not yours to mold to look more like what you want it to. It is uniquely his.
Cam’s Love of Football and His Leadership
Aside from the criticism of his celebrations and demeanor, Cam Newton is also criticized for his exuberance and his leadership.
Cam loves everything about football and always has. But in our culture, he faces a double discrimination in showing this love without criticism. First, boys are often not allowed to openly love and show emotion, and to do so is to break centuries of etiquette ingrained in both the black and the white social codes. To love is to show emotion, and to show emotion is to be vulnerable. (Look at Emma Watson’s “He for She” campaign, in which she’s working for emotional equality for all).
Te-Nehisi Coates tells his son: “I was from a place- America- where cruelty toward humans who loved as their deepest instincts instructed was a kind of law… soft or hard, love was an act of heroism. (Between the World and Me, pg. 58…61)
I’m a believer that when Machiavelli asks of a leader, “Is it better to be feared or to be loved” that the answer is “to love.”
One of the most hurtful comments came when many people criticized Cam for being a bad leader for the Carolina Panthers. In the Super Bowl, it was because he handled the post-Bowl presser badly, and because he didn’t leap on the fumbled ball. Since then, multiple people have touted the belief that these two mistakes somehow make Cam a bad leader, when for other quarterbacks, this behavior has indicated a strong will to win (in the case of the presser behavior) and an eye for safety (in the case of the dropped fumble).
As Thomas Fortune pointed out years ago, however, “The white man who shoots a negro always goes free, while the negro who steals a hog is sent to the chaingang for ten years.”
Having been a leader, I can tell you that neither of these two incidents makes a leader good or bad. Cam’s leadership has been evident throughout his career and most particularly this year. His leadership should be based on the extra hours he puts in, the camaraderie he creates within his team, and the countless hours that the public does not see. Leadership is more than a few mistakes, and a good leader will have cultivated that feeling of camaraderie enough that the team will not want to vilify him first in his moment of failure, but will want to support him as he has supported them for so long.
Any team that first wishes to vilify its leader in fact does not have a successful leader.
The team that surrounded the media today on “garbage day” in the Panthers’ locker room to shout support of Cam, the team that defended him, the team that eats dinner at his Aunty Gail’s, is not a team that sees him as a bad leader.
Everyone who criticizes Cam for being a bad leader is not, in fact, someone whom he is leading or has led, and frankly, does not have the right to criticize so harshly.
Twice as Good Means Accepting Half as Much
“And hell upon those who tell us to be twice as good and shoot us no matter.”
In his letter to his son, Te-Nehisi Coates tells his son that: “…you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you.”
Johnny Manziel doesn’t get nearly the amount of fire Cam does, but has done much worse this season than dancing and celebrating. Tom Brady had an illegitimate child out of wedlock while dating his new girlfriend, but is not criticized (Cam faced a firestorm earlier this year when his son, Chosen, was born to his long-time girlfriend).
Coates continues on to tell his son that “All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and girls to be ‘twice as good,’ which is to say ‘accept half as much.’” Cam must be twice as good as any other player in every aspect, while accepting half as much respect and understanding from those who criticize his every move.
I attended the Panthers’ pep rally yesterday and had a conversation with a mother who was telling me about her son’s reaction to the Panthers’ Super Bowl loss. She told me that her son, quite young, had been crying, but looked up at her with his teary eyes and had said, “We just Keep Pounding, right, mom? Like Cam?”
No matter that this “thug” is a force in the community, hosting the families of the Charleston shooting, visiting schools, giving Thanksgiving Dinner to the underprivileged, ensuring every touchdown ball is given to a child, and serving as a hero to thousands of Charlotte-area children.
In other words, the world is asking Cam Newton to be the Superman he claims to be on the field- except they’re asking that he be a human Superman every minute of every day of his life, an impossible task even for the hero that had to be Clark Kent at least part of the time.
Margaret Wright, a black community activist and feminist in the early 1970s and a leading member of Women Against Oppression, a black women’s liberation group, famously said, “I want the right to be black and me.”
Cam’s body and Cam’s life are not yours to commodify or to appropriate. Cam is not yours to label “thug” because it’s convenient to your racist conditioning.
Contrary to seemingly popular belief, Cam Newton has the right to be black and to be Cam. His team knows that, and Ron Rivera knows that. It’s time that America gives him that.
“The world should not pass judgement upon the Negro, and especially the Negro youth, too quickly or too harshly. The Negro boy has obstacles, discouragements, and temptations to battle with that are little known to those not situated as he is. When a white boy undertakes a task, it is taken for granted that he will succeed. On the other hand, people are usually surprised if the Negro boy does not fail. In a word, the Negro youth starts out with the presumption against him.” -Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery