Book Bag: ‘Full Dissidence: Notes From an Uneven Playing Field’ by Howard Bryant

  • “Full Dissidence: Notes From An Uneven Playing Field” by Howard Bryant. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/23/2020 9:30:50 AM
Modified: 4/23/2020 9:30:40 AM

In the introduction to the essays in his new book, “Full Dissidence,” ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant recalls having a discussion on the sports network about Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who angered many fans and conservative politicians when he began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence against blacks.

It was suggested at the time, Bryant notes, that Kaepernick had undercut his criticism of U.S. society when he revealed he hadn’t voted in presidential elections. But, he writes, perhaps Kaepernick had simply gone “full dissident,” seeing a socio-political landscape defined by “institutional racism” and bought-and-sold politicians and deciding “there was no reason for him to trust in it and even less reason to expect him to participate in it.”

That opening salvo serves as a good example of the kind of no-holds-barred writing that Bryant, who lives in Northampton, offers in his new book, subtitled “Notes From an Uneven Playing Field.” It’s a deeply personal and urgent collection of essays in which the veteran sportswriter (he’s also a correspondent for NPR’s “Weekend Edition”) reflects on racism in sports and in American life in general, the militarization of sports and of U.S. society as a whole, and what the election of Donald Trump as president says about white America’s response to Barack Obama’s presidency and the state of race relations.

“To be black is to be a dissident,” he writes. “Democrat or Republican, protestor or appeaser, lover or fighter, black life in America is one of navigation, for the moment black people issue a grievance of any size, the white mainstream backlash is loud and swift … and we are told to go back to Africa.”

“Full Dissidence” is in some ways a follow-up to Bryant’s 2018 book, “The Heritage,” an examination of how black athletes must negotiate a society that he says accepts them for their physical skills but is not interested in hearing them speak out about racism, police brutality or other problems.

Bryant revisits some of those themes in his new book, pointing to the salute to military and law enforcement personnel that has become routine at so many sporting events ever since 9/11. It’s a coercive kind of ritual, he writes, that works hand in hand with what he calls “copaganda,” a celebration of law enforcement through endless TV cop shows and films in which the police always get the bad guys, always do things by the book, and in which suspects who have to be treated with force “deserve it,” most viewers believe.

The disconnect between how most whites view law enforcement and how blacks see it, Bryant notes, could be seen in the furious response to Colin Kaepernick by white fans, white politicians and NFL owners and officials (who are almost all white). “One must ask: If Colin Kaepernick had taken a knee for global warming or education reform, would his industry and his country have lashed out so ferociously, so permanently?”

Bryant also looks back at growing up in the deeply segregated Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, where crossing the line between the white and black sections posed a danger much like “Icarus flying too close to the sun.” He also grew up partly in Plymouth — the cradle of American history, so to speak — a nearly all-white community where he recalls white friends saying to him “I don’t mind black people, but I hate (racial epithet).”

As an African American who has moved between the black and white worlds and often felt apart from both, he likens the experience to being part of “The Lost Tribe of Integration,” in which young African Americans can be isolated among whites and also cut off from the black community, such that they can struggle being black among other blacks.

Elsewhere in “Full Dissidence,” Bryant looks at issues such as opposition in white communities to Supreme Court-mandated school desegregation, the creation of urban slums through white flight and the redlining of real estate districts, and the rise of white nationalism under Donald Trump. “Trump’s election felt like a repudiation of a half century of black assimilation and aspiration to integration, of lifetimes of friendships, and of strategies and choices to better navigate the maze of White America,” he writes. “It didn’t feel personal. It was personal.”

And in one of his most interesting essays, “Why Tonya?” Bryant compares the fury that was directed at Colin Kaepernick to the rehabilitation that Tonya Harding, the white iceskater who infamously arranged to kneecap her top rival, Nancy Kerrigan, before the 1994 Winter Olympics, enjoyed in the 2017 film “I, Tonya” and in some documentaries released around the same time. “I, Tonya” in particular, writes Bryant, presented Harding as a gritty, working-class victim of celebrity culture, something a non-white would never be accorded.

In the end, “Full Dissidence” is a rough ride, and Bryant makes no apologies for his tone. “The hoax of America lies in the fiction that it wants to be America without first being white,” he says in conclusion. “The nation trumpets its limitlessness even as so many of its white citizens believe ever more strongly in their right to decide who gets to stay and who must leave.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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