Just Another Angry Black Man?
An open letter from Penn State faculty, staff and graduate students on Nolan Richardson’s firing
The only surprising thing about University of Arkansas head basketball coach Nolan Richardson’s so-called “eruption” at a press conference in February was that it took so long. While some attention has been paid to the ridiculously low numbers of African Americans in collegiate coaching positions, there has been absolutely no conversation about what that experience has been like for those who have been our modern-day Jackie Robinsons. Many Black athletes and coaches will attest to the facts of what Richardson said — that Black coaches are treated differently, that they are expected to win all of the time and held up to more criticism than others, fired more quickly when they don’t meet those higher expectations, given fewer opportunities to come back if fired, and watched more closely in every word and action in between.
But there is more at stake here than even the huge enterprise of collegiate athletics and the roles race plays within them. What Nolan Richardson had to say in that landmark press conference (and we are too glad that he refused to apologize for what he said) is crucial to any conversation about race because a Black man spoke the truth about his experience bluntly, giving less than a damn about whether others would agree, or even understand what he had to say. It’s more than a little ironic that Black men have been branded as angry for so long, since so very few people have ever had to confront that anger and be forced to respond.
News media couldn’t get enough of the stunning video, even though they had little idea how to present it. Video from the press conference was almost always presented with little or no framing context, and no analysis of what might have led Richardson to go off in the first place. Commentators on ESPN frequently called it a “meltdown” and argued that Richardson’s words would now be kept in a file, like that well-known basketball hothead Bobby Knight, pulled out to haunt him every time another incident occurred. Of course, viewers were supposed to take it as a given that Richardson, who has never been anything other than a class act on or off the court, now belonged in the same category as Knight. And of course there is the university’s response: Within four days of the press conference, Richardson was bought out of his contract. His mere words (as opposed to thrown vases or choked players or tossed chairs or hundreds of other “outbursts”) on one occasion were enough to wipe out 17 years of service and coaching genius.
The point is this: The branding of any individual African American man, (and by extension, all Black men), as angry has worked to absolve the rest of America of any responsibility to struggle with, respond to, or even consider any claim he — or they — might make. The same thing happened with Spike Lee, whose “Bamboozled” was brilliant polemic, and dismissed for that very reason. This, in spite of the fact that it opened up critical space for people to even discuss a follow-up movie like “Dancing in September.”
It happened to Dr. Raymond Winbush, who was brought in after an extensive search for a vice president for minority affairs at Cleveland State University in 1989 and fired 10 months later. The president of the university at the time informed Winbush that while he was highly regarded by the university’s and city’s Black communities, he received low ratings on an evaluation gauging his dealings with White faculty and staff. Oh yes — many of those faculty and staff called him angry, too. It happened to students protesting at Penn State University last year. And it happened to an entire element of Black freedom struggle, the Black Arts and Black Power movements, many times, with many other Black scholars and public figures holding the metaphorical erasers, quick to dismiss the very achievements that made room for us in the academy and workplace in a smug postmodern/poststructuralist/post-everything huff.
Now this phenomenon, as pervasive as it is, wouldn’t be as offensive if it were not for one thing — the one line of code that loads the whole program — One need not actually be angry to be dismissed as just another angry, “hostile” Black male. Eddie Murray, Barry Bonds, Sherman Lewis and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar come to mind in sports. Martin Luther King, regardless of his rigorous commitment to nonviolence and a humility that angered many during the 1950s and 1960s, was dismissed as angry and confrontational as well. And millions of people every day — on faculties, in classrooms, on streets, in workplaces — are either dismissed the same way, or required to demonstrate continuously that they are not angry, at the risk of losing whatever social, political or economic gains they might have earned. Nor does this phenomenon only pertain to men — ask any Black woman what happens when she is assertive in any of those same spaces, and she will tell you that the phenomenon is the same.
We’ve become so aware of the burden African Americans have always carried, of making Whites and others willing to hear any message we might bring before ever getting on with that message, that we’ve not only quieted our own spirits way too much, but demanded that other Black men — and women — do the same. Instead of rushing to brand Richardson the same way too many others will and dismissing his righteous disgust, we need to be calling and writing to thank him for being true to what he felt and for demanding that he be heard.
Coach, those of us signing this letter, Black graduate students, faculty and staff at Pennsylvania State University are grateful for your stand, and we know we write for millions more.
— Adam Banks, Vorris Nunley, Howard Rambsy, Keith Gilyard, Richard Stringer, Tera Hurt, Ronald L. Jackson, Michael Hannon, Matthew Broussard, Raquel Garrett, Mandla Sukati, Sean E. A. Daisley, Larry Young, Timothy Robinson, Earl Merritt, Karim Basse, Elaine Richardson, Wandia Njoya, Robyn C. Spencer, James Stewart
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