Controlling Black Bodies

People of color are systematically mistreated in the U.S. both by individuals and by the organizations charged with protecting the people. People of color in the U.S. can’t go to a park, drive a car, play in their own neighborhoods, walk to the homes of their grandparents, hold a bag of candy, go to their prom, wait for a friend at a restaurant, or any number of other pretty routine activities without having to worry that they’ll be singled out and harassed (in the more benign case) or in far too many cases physically abused or even murdered by citizens and government enforcers alike.

White people can do just about anything they like. For example, I routinely exceed the speed limit, sometimes by quite an unsafe margin. I know that if I get caught, the worst that’s likely to happen to me is that I’ll get a brief talking to and a speeding ticket. I feel a little nervous or annoyed if I get pulled over, but it has never occurred to me to fear for my safety at a traffic stop. It’s never occurred to me that I might be removed from the car and restrained or that my car would be searched or that I would be hit or choked, possibly to death. Heck, I might even feel like I can joke around with the officer a little to win them over and see if they’ll reduce my penalty. I don’t imagine that people of color in the U.S. have the privilege of adopting the same pretty casual stance. I imagine they feel pretty vulnerable.

I think that most white people are probably largely blind to this privilege. I know that I was for much of my life to date. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily willful or malicious blindness. You are to some degree a product of your environment. I am a white man who grew up in a racist backwater town in the South. I went to school with black kids and was friends with black kids, but I also fell into the sorts of default attitudes and behaviors my environment taught me were appropriate. I didn’t know any better at the time, but it makes me feel ashamed now anyway. I was a product of my environment, and until I had enough experience and knowledge to begin to see my way out of those default perspectives, I don’t believe I was morally culpable.

But once you are mentally capable of moral culpability and once any blinders have been removed, failing to adjust your perspective and take reasonable actions to correct your behavior is immoral. Acting to keep blinders in place for yourself or for others is also immoral.

In 2016, NFL player Colin Kaepernick started kneeling for the national anthem played before his team’s football games. It was a powerful peaceful protest of police brutality against people of color — the more powerful because players traditionally take a knee when a player is injured on the field of play. Kaepernick’s action eventually led to many other players making the same silent protest, and this collective, public, high-profile protest has been (or should have been) a removal of blinders for any who have observed it. No one familiar with the protest can truly have failed to understand the message now that there has been a lot of public dialogue about the context for his kneeling: People of color are being brutalized disproportionately by our government, and Kaepernick, et al, would prefer to kneel in protest of that injury than to salute the flag of a country that fails to acknowledge or abolish institutionalized racism that causes that injury.

You can disagree with Kaepernick’s position, but you can’t at this point say that you don’t understand it. You can claim to be a patriot who reveres the flag and the anthem, but to do so in a case such as this is to revere the veneer of patriotism rather than the substance of patriotism, such as the precept that all people should be treated equally and are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Suggesting that Kaepernick should stop his protest is like suggesting that a rape victim not call for help. To willfully prevent Kaepernick from protesting (whether by force or implicitly by collusion or penalty) is to gag the rape victim yourself.

This week, the overwhelmingly white NFL owners instituted a policy that any players or staffers on the field must stand for the national anthem, out of respect for the anthem. Failure to do so will result in penalties for teams and/or players. Players are of course welcome (the owners allow) to stage their protests out of sight without penalty. The owners are not preventing the rape victim from calling for help, but they’re making sure the call cannot be heard. It’s a difference without a distinction. I suppose this felt to the owners like a clever concession, but I believe it is morally bankrupt. It is of course their right to conduct the business of the organization as they see fit, but they are morally culpable here and should feel ashamed, as should anybody who supports them.

When I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me a couple of years ago, I didn’t fully understand his emphasis on the black body, but the more I’ve read and the more black people I’ve seen treated as bodies to be manipulated rather than as people, the more I’ve begun to understand his emphasis.

The NFL is led by wealthy, mostly white, owners whose enterprises rely for their profit on the physical use and abuse of what are effectively owned bodies, many of them black. It’s easy to think of these millionaire football players as autonomous, empowered human beings who could do more or less what they like, but this move by the NFL really underscores that these men are still black bodies to be manipulated by the white people who own them.

The owners have here said: You may protest if you wish, but your body must be hidden from view while you do so. This to me seems not so very distant from pushing black bodies to the back of the bus or to their own restrooms or away from the lunch counter. These behaviors in turn were driven by racism that led to brutality (mob and police) against people of color, which continues today in the form of disproportionate police brutality against people of color. What we see today isn’t so terribly different from the use of dogs and fire hoses to control black bodies in the 60s. Some of what we see today — some of what Kaepernick and company have protested to the chagrin of the owners — isn’t so terribly different from hanging black bodies from trees, and a failure on the part of those of us with white privilege to acknowledge this and to push back against it renders us complicit and morally culpable.

The Greenville Cup

This weekend, I attended and played in my first hurling tournament. Because teams are few and far between in the U.S., regional teams come together a few times a year to play one another, and Greenville, South Carolina, hosted this weekend’s tournament. It was to be a stormy, nasty weekend, but weather turned out to be much better than expected (mostly overcast or sunny, with one 10-minute downpour late in our second game). Only three teams were able to make it to this one — the host team, the Atlanta team, and Knoxville. The plan was to have each team play each other team and to finish with a championship game between either any teams who won twice or the two overall point leaders in the event of a tie.

There was a tournament in Charleston a couple of months ago, but I didn’t go to that one, mostly because I was still nursing an injured ankle. The ankle is mostly ok now — it remains a little tender and swollen, and I remain afraid I’ll re-injure it, but I’m able to get around on it about as well as before. So this was my first tournament experience. It was, mostly, good.

I’ve been practicing the sport for a few months now with our small team. We typically have 6 – 10 people come out for bi-weekly practices, and we occasionally play matches we optimistically call “city league” games in which we get as many to show up as we can and play tiny-team scrimmages with 20-minute halves. We were unable to field a full team in Charleston and had to borrow players from other teams. This means of course that we tend to be light on substitute players, which in turn means that with two matches back-to-back and the prospect of a championship match, we got pretty tired. We did start with three subs in Greenville, but one guy had to leave early in the second game and another took a stick across the thumb and had to stop playing (the thumb would later turn out to be crushed — fractured in multiple places). Because I’m fairly new and honestly not very good yet, I was (thankfully) a sub, which meant that I played probably about half the time.

We played thirty-minute halves and played two games, so I stood around and occasionally jogged and more occasionally sprinted or jumped for balls for probably an hour or so total spread out over the two games. It was more exertion than I’m used to, and though I thankfully sustained no injuries, I’m a little sore from a greater diversity and intensity of movement than I get even at our more exerting practices.

I did nothing to distinguish myself, really. The game is fairly physical, and I never played any physical sports as a kid; learning to do so in my 40s is a bit of an adjustment, not least of all because I’m the sort by nature who does the whole “oh, after you” routine when another person and I seem to be moving toward the same space. I did get a little physical and shoulder check some players, and one of these efforts led to my winning and scooping the ball out to a teammate who scored, which was neat. I had maybe one other play that was ok, but otherwise, I felt mostly like I was running around without a clue.

My son is playing baseball this year for the first time since a year of tee-ball and a year of coach-pitch several years back. He hasn’t watched a whole lot of baseball, much less played competitively, so he mostly doesn’t know what he’s doing beyond the very basics. His coach will try him out in a new position without warning (there hasn’t been much practice time for instruction), and I have to sort of post mortem his games to help him understand things he didn’t understand about how to play that particular position (e.g. if you’re in left field and a runner is on second with third base open, passed balls are so common in this league that you have to be prepared to back up a botched throw to third to catch a steal). My experience in this tournament was much the same. I’ve watched a handful of pro hurling matches, but it’s so fast-paced and I’m so little familiar with field sport strategy in general and hurling in particular that it’s been hard for me to grok the nuances of how to play the various positions. Add to that the fact that the camera tends to follow the ball, and I had no idea how to play positions that are frequently off camera — a couple of which I played this weekend. So there was an awful lot of time during which I felt like a clueless kid sort of wandering around and expending energy but not actually contributing much. This will get better with experience, of course.

We won our first game, against Greenville, and we ran out of gas against a fit and rested Atlanta team in our second game. Losing two players so that we had less of a bench to sub from didn’t help us any.  Atlanta and Greenville played next, and there was an injury and some unsporting behavior that resulted in the match being called off, with Atlanta retaining possession of the prized Greenville Cup, which they had won last year. To end the day on a better note than a called game, the teams agreed to play a final inter-squad game (teams picked by tossing participating players’ hurls into a pile and then randomly dividing them up to form two teams), and this was pretty fun to watch (having escaped injury so far and wanting to keep that record, and being pretty tired, I merely spectated).

I left the match a little sore but grateful that I hadn’t been injured. Skinned knees and bruises and wrenched joints abound even when there aren’t more serious injuries. While leaping for a ball, I took one really solid hit that grounded me and knocked the wind out of me, but walked away from that unhurt. I also walked away feeling like I want to do some conditioning to get myself in better shape so that I can be a better support to my team members in future matches. I’ve always hated running and sprinting and plyometrics and such, but being a member of a team makes me (for now, while sitting comfortably and not quite ready yet to tie on the shoes and go for a sprint) want to do these bizarre things.

It was a good experience on the whole, and I’m keen to learn more about how to be a better player in games. Doing drills at practice, and even scrimmaging my teammates, is a much different, less intense sort of play.

 

Here I am watching from the sidelines in the game we won.

Between games, I asked for some instruction about how to play a couple of the positions I had subbed in for that had been unfamiliar to me, and a couple of our more experienced players kindly helped me out.

Here I’m getting more instruction. I had been playing a full forward position (or maybe it was full back — I played both) but coming way too far off the goal as play went beyond midfield.

A rare shot of me “in action” — which for a fair bit of my playing time meant standing around waiting for the ball to come to my end of the field and then running in the general direction of the ball only to have somebody else do something useful with it. It’s almost surprising that I’m sore given that so much of my play was me just standing there waiting.

Seven Years

On May 2 of 2011, I started work full time at a little company called Automattic that didn’t seem so little at the time. The company worked and still works remotely, meaning that many of us work in our pajamas from home or from wherever in the world our wanderlust takes us. I had worked for a company called Flock for about six years before, and that was a remote job too. The oldest of my two children will be 14 this summer, and I’ve worked from home for all but a few months of her entire life. It’s been such a privilege.

Every year, Automattic hosts what we call the Grand Meetup (“GM” for short), in which all who are able come together in one place. My first GM was in Budapest in 2011, and this was my first travel ever outside of the U.S. and Canada. We were about 80 people, and that gathering is pictured at top left in the photo below. Each year at the GM, we do a photo like this, and mine from this past September just arrived in the mail (see bottom right). We’re a little over 700 people now.

I don’t think of myself as a sentimental person in general, but I do have a very soft spot for these annual photos. I keep them grouped together on top of a filing cabinet in my office. I’ve worked one job or another, full- or part-time, since I was in my early teens (when I worked on farms and was paid in cash under the table), and I’ve been working as a grown-up with real grown-up jobs for very nearly half my life now. Although I’ve had any number of coworkers I liked, I’ve never worked with so many whom I liked so very much and with whom I’ve connected with as sincere a fondness as I do with many of the colleagues I’ve met through Automattic.

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Slaw blogging

At dinner with the family the other night, I turned conversation, as one does, to Bob Loblaw, the character from the television program Arrested Development. If you don’t know the show, Loblaw is a lawyer. At some point during the show’s events, he decides to take up blogging, and his blog is called The Bob Loblaw Law Blog.

As I encouraged my son to take a portion of slaw, I thought “what if Bob Loblaw had a slaw blog?” Who wouldn’t be riveted to The Bob Loblaw Slaw Blog? Further, I thought, what if there were some sort of tort law pertaining to food preparation and there were fascinating legal codes pertaining to slaw? Would we then have the opportunity to read The Bob Loblaw Slaw Law Blog? Or, further yet, what if there were a whole industry around slaw blogging and eventually, due to fierce competition and similar other factors in the slaw blogging market, a niche that an expert like Bob Loblaw might fill for blogging about the laws applicable to this very specialized slaw blogging industry? Might we then have the opportunity to read The Bob Loblaw Slaw Blog Law Blog? And, further still, what if The Bob Loblaw Slaw Blog Law Blog really took off and demand arose for a behind-the-scenes peek at how the blog gets made? Might we then know the pleasure of reading The Bob Loblaw “Bob Loblaw Slaw Blog Law Blog” Blog?

As I outlined the thrilling possibilities my son’s slaw had opened my eyes to, the family quietly rolled their eyes and carried on with their meal, desensitized by now to these outbursts on my part, the philistines.

New Hurling Equipment

hurley-unwrappedI do this thing where I develop an interest, pursue it for a little while, and then abandon it. I have an electric guitar in my office, for example. I spent a few months learning some basics but then got tired of being lousy at it and put it aside. A year or two later, I decided maybe the ukulele would be easier, as I’m not very dexterous and there are fewer strings. So now I’ve got a ukulele that I pick up every once in a while and plunk out a few chords on.

Every once in a while, I go on some kind of sporting jag. Several years ago, I played for a short season in a community tennis league, and a year or so after that, I joined a softball league (not a great experience, that). My current semi-obsessive interest is hurling, and today I took delivery of a new hurling stick and some balls.

These shipped over from Ireland. Apparently you can’t really get hurling equipment here in the U.S., which I suppose makes sense given that the reach of the sport in the U.S. is pretty short. I like the old hurley I’ve got, but I wanted to try one with a bigger striking surface, and I wanted to have a spare, as these things do break from time to time. So a little over a week ago, I placed an order for a new hurley and some balls. I was eager to see this stuff come in, and I had checked last night to see if enough time had passed that I should send in an inquiry, but I didn’t contact the company yet. Then, lo and behold, the mail carrier today brought me this bundle via registered mail.

It was very securely wrapped in plastic that it took me a knife and 5 – 10 minutes of focused time to rip away. The hurley is beautiful, a lovely pale plank of ash carved into the standard hurley shape but with a slightly enlarged head (or “bás”). It’s a fair bit lighter weight than my old one even with the bigger head, though whether that’s because the older one just has more moisture in it or something I’m not sure. I can hardly wait to get out there and hit around with this thing. Surely better equipment will make me a better player, right?

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The new hurley on the left and the old on the right, for comparison.

Easters Past

Easter was a fairly big deal when I was growing up. My family was a church-going family, and at least when I was very young, we had corsages and boutonnieres for Easter Sunday. The church usually did a Palm Sunday thing for which kids got to carry around palm (or I guess probably faux-palm) leaves. I think I recall that my sister and I usually got a new set of church clothes for Easter. And then of course there was the morning reveal of an Easter basket with chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, peeps, and assorted other candies that I would gorge myself on for a few days — plus the plastic grass that we’d find strands of for months to come. My parents would hide eggs overnight, so we’d start the morning with a little egg hunt, and I particularly remember that there was this one spot between the upper cushions of one of our love seats that they always hid an egg in. It was the perfect size and shape to hide an egg in. Usually we’d have a little stuffed animal or something to go along with our Easter basket.

My early Easters are fairly well documented in photographs, but the pictures taper off after my first few years. I don’t think we stopped doing the usual Easter routine after my very early years. Maybe the camera broke or we just lost photos at some point. At any rate, here are a few of my early Easter photos, presumably of interest only to any of my family who may run across this.

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1977 – my first Easter.

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Here I am in 1978. This is in the house I don’t remember — we built a new house when I was very young, some time after this year. I don’t remember the couch either, though I do remember the scuff-style slipper, which my mom wore many pairs of throughout her life. This is not the cutest or most flattering photo, but it’s surely the best of the batch of monstrous photos of me from this year.

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This is me in 1979, rocking a sweet gut and a Lou-Ferrigno-as-The-Incredible-Hulk mop of hair. I’m in casual attire (rather than church formal wear) here and the pampas grass at bottom right tells me that this was my grandmother’s yard.

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Here I am at four years old in 1981 with my grandfather, who must have died in the year or two after this, as my memories of him are few and fleeting.

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I’m pretty dapper and maybe not a knock-out but also not entirely un-cute at five years old (if you discount the creepy teeth). This little stuffed bunny was a long-time favorite.

Hurling

A few years ago, a friend invited me to try a sport called hurling, a millennia-old Irish sport wherein you work with a bunch of stick-wielding teammates to get a little ball into a net or over a bar. It’s known as the fastest game on grass (not to be confused with a weed-smoking antelope). My friend grew up near Milwaukee, where there’s a pretty active hurling community. At the time, he seemed to be the only person around Knoxville who knew much about the game. I bought the pictured stick (called a hurley) off of him and we hit around a few times, and that was the end of it.

Some time in the last year or two, he mentioned that there was a group who he’d been playing with locally, composed largely of some Army reserve guys who were using the sport to help keep in shape. I wasn’t really interested at the time and wasn’t in the best of shape myself. Now, it turns out, there’s a Knoxville Gaelic Athletic Club (hurling being but one of several old Irish sports promoted by GACs around the world), and a couple of months ago, I decided to give hurling another try. I had put some effort into getting myself into better shape again but was tired of the same old exercise regimen. I thought playing a sport might be fun. I had had a not great experience with a community softball league a few years ago, so I wasn’t terribly optimistic, but when I contacted the group via Facebook to ask if an old out of shape guy with basically no experience would be way out of place, they were very nice, and I decided to risk leaving my bubble and going out into public to interact with human beings anyway.

And it’s great! The group is very welcoming, and I now very much look forward to training sessions. I’m a little skittish about actually playing in upcoming matches. For one, I’m not that good, and nobody wants to drag a team down. I also simply lack experience — I’ve watched a couple of televised hurling matches by now, but I haven’t absorbed a lot about strategy or game play beyond the basics, I’m bad with game strategy anyway, watching and playing are very different things, and I’m sure to make lots of stupid mistakes on my first few outings. It’s also a fairly physical team sport. You swing sticks around and body check one another, and this is a very different sort of play than I’m accustomed to from sports like softball or tennis in which you’re fundamentally playing the game either solo or as a somewhat isolated cog in a machine. I’m a little afraid of getting hurt, or of hurting somebody. I’m also… middle-aged and increasingly aware of it.

So the jury’s still out for me on playing confidently in any real matches, but I sure enjoy hitting around, and a little scrimmaging is fun, if, for me, also a bit nerve-wracking. I’m also not that in shape, so I wind up out of breath pretty quickly at scrimmage time.

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Here I am lining up a shot that I likely swung and missed at. Photo by Vika Claytor via this post.

A few weeks ago, I injured myself, and not in one of the ways I had sort of expected to (broken collar bone or busted finger were on my short list, and I haven’t ruled these out yet after a few weeks of play). We were training in the rain, on a very muddy field. I had bought some cleats a week or two before, the first cleats I had worn since probably middle school. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I was running with somebody and jockeying to get the ball, or about to be jockeying for it, and then my ankle rolled over really hard. Whether I hit a divot in the turf or whether my cleats dug in while my body kept its sideways momentum I don’t know, but my ankle sort of popped, and it hurt, and I went down and expected to lift my leg and find my foot dangling loosely from the end of it.

Thankfully, nothing was broken, but I had what the doctor classified vaguely as a severe sprain that has had me hobbling around ever since. I’m back to maybe 95% on the ankle for day-to-day use. I can still feel that something’s a little off about it, and it still looks a little funny and swells up if I do much with it, but I’m back to some light training with the team. I did a little scrimmaging yesterday, and it felt good to be back out there. (If you’re not squeamish about injury photos, you can click to see photos of the ankle at one hour after the injury and a few days later.)

If you live near Knoxville (you probably don’t — most of my friends and colleagues live on the internet alongside most of my drive-by readers) and are looking for a fun if not wholly safe sport, consider giving hurling a try. It’s been great fun for me, and I can vouch for the local group as a fun bunch to poc around with.