On Monday I read some reactions to Cam Newton’s GQ article where the reigning NFL MVP said that in regards to racism the United States “[are] beyond that.” As you can imagine, the feedback was not all favorable. Richard Sherman and his father also doubled down on the assertion that “All Lives Matter.” T.D. Williams wrote a great article for The Root expressing his disappointment with Sherman’s stance and the scarcity of social justice gladiators in sports. Which led me to having a few thoughts about Sleepwalking. Sleepwalkers “perform activities that are usually performed during a state of full consciousness.” What I mean by sleepwalking, however, is seeing individuals occasionally acting as if they’re awake but oftentimes are not as “woke” or conscious as they appear or are expected to be.
Many black people are taught to be sleepwalkers by our parents, elder members of our community, and generally society. Sleepwalking is one of the pillars of white privilege. While sleepwalking black people travel through life with some semblance of being woke but just like when parents hear kids jumping around in their room at bedtime, at those moments when they throw open the door, “your ass better be sleep!” That is how we are taught to be when in at-large company.
During his BET Awards acceptance speech Jesse Williams made a statement where he said, ““you’re free” they keep telling us. But she would have been alive is she hadn’t acted so…free.” The she Williams was referring to was likely Sandra Bland although it can apply to any number of people mentioned throughout his speech. Acting free can also be “acting woke.” After Korryn Gaines was killed during her standoff with police, I visited her instagram account. Prior to that and as I scrolled through her Instagram I had some of the same questions as others wondering if mental illness played any part in what happened? I would not be surprised if mental illness was at play, whether it was caused by lead poisoning or not. But I had one consistent thought the entire time I looked through her instagram and that was how woke she was. How much conviction she had. It was so damn impressive…at least to me. It was courageous. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with any or everything she said but I was moved by her commitment to awareness. I dare not say I’m woke. Korryn Gaines was woke! We can debate her capacity, whether she was misguided, the legalities or soundness of her actions or whatever but you cannot debate her conviction or her love for the members of her family, community and culture. It’s examples like that which remind me that I’m sleepwalking.
Which brings me back to Sherman, Newton, and any other successful black person in this country. Regardless of our levels of success can we ever truly shake off those lessons we received growing up? Those survival lessons where we are taught to be as non-threatening as possible so that we may live and make it home every evening? Do we think being a multi-millionaire MVP renders those lessons moot? Does being successful all of a sudden mean we no longer have to be the non-threatening person we were taught to be? Quite the contrary.
Consider the biblical story (Matthew 19:16-24) of the wealthy young man who asks Jesus Christ what he could do to secure his place in heaven. Towards the end of their exchange Christ told the young man to sell his belongings and follow Him. The young man would have probably done almost anything Christ asked…except that. The young man could not bear to part with the affluent lifestyle in which he had become accustomed. Now here’s Cam Newton, being interviewed by Gentleman’s Quarterly which is a sign of success in itself. Surely Cam likes this level of success and knowing where his next check is coming from. In a nutshell, I’m confident that Cam likes being liked and wants to make sure things stay that way if for no other reason than to maintain his success. Despite Cam being the face of the Carolina Panthers, he is all too aware that the real face(s) of the franchise are printed on bank notes and Jerry Richardson, the franchise owner who provides Cam with his “allowance” of notes, has way more of them.
Were we beyond race, chances are it wouldn’t come up so often. However it is sleepwalker approved to denounce signs of racism. If Cam wants to continue this life, he may harbor that fear that comes with being woke when you’re supposed to be asleep. That fear we had when we saw that picture in Jet magazine. I can’t recall exactly when or what she said but I do know that my mother told me to stay low key. So we sleepwalk. Sherman and Newton aren’t any better than the rest of us. Every day I put on my proverbial tap shoes, keep my Sambo smile ready to go and head out into the world. Why? It’s simple, I have bills. And a family. And responsibilities. I half-jokingly tell people that life has a way of symbolically chopping off your foot. When the powers that be grew tired of Kunta’s rousing “attempts to be woke,” (i.e. running away) his constant desire for freedom, independence, and dignity, those powers amputated a part of Toby’s spirit. Even when I am irate and having the shittiest of days, I know depending on who is in my presence, I better act right and talk right, lest I lose my other foot. Which might be the best I could hope for. We sleepwalk in hopes of avoiding being put to sleep, in whatever relative way that may look.