For Howard Bryant, to Be Black Is to Be a Dissident
January 29, 2020
Two years ago, award-winning sportswriter and culture critic Howard Bryant explored the rise, fall, and resurgence of Black activism in the sports arena in The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism. He’s back with a new book, and this time, he gets deeply personal. Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field, a collection of ten essays, is an impassioned reflection on how Black citizens must always navigate the sharp edges of whiteness in America—as citizens who are often at risk of being told, especially during times of increasing authoritarianism, to go back where they came from. And in each essay, Bryant does not hold back.
The idea of writing Full Dissidence came to Bryant while he was writing The Heritage. As he tells Tiziana Dearing on Radio Boston, he asked himself:
“How much power do these athletes actually have when you risk everything, when you lose your career simply by opening your mouth and advocating for a Black position? I started to think about the different way that sports may have been a piece of that book. But it was time to go outside of it and think much more broadly about the different ways that you could see the culture changing, combining what was taking place both with the election and what was happening with policing, militarization, wealth inequality. It was something I couldn’t ignore anymore.”
It can never be ignored when the political is personal. Bryant draws directly from his life to reflect on the casual betrayal in his white friendships, uncovered by the results of an election that was actually about race rather than economic anxiety. “Trump’s election ended relationships and friendships, with family and romantic,” he writes, “and the referendum was not on him but on the dozens of millions people who voted for him, people whose lives, whether directly or indirectly, would become part of mine.”
For Bryant, Trump’s election as president signaled a reclaiming by white America, sending a clear and unmistakable message about whom this country really belongs to. Certainly not to the former Black president. That’s because, as Bryant writes, “Black success . . . has always led to white retribution, whether that success was something as revolutionary as Barack Obama addressing the crowd at Grant Park that night in 2008 or the unremarkable victory of an average black person scoring a decent job. What died was the belief that a day without white retribution was ever possible.”
White retribution—or backlash—also flies in the face of Black grievance. Just look at the fight for effective labor unions, in which celebrity NFL players, fearful of their owners and the white fan base, were more timid than last year’s striking teachers. We’ve seen what happened when Colin Kaepernick took a knee and to any Black athlete pigeonholed into an apolitical stance far from any hint of Black advocacy. “If you embrace a Black position,” he tells Dearing on Radio Boston, “your very presence, by caring about your community, puts your career in jeopardy.” This is how white supremacy negates full citizenship of Black Americans.
Just as the very presence of a Black athlete on the field is a political act, so it goes for the presence of a Black citizen in America. As he explains to Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition, “The minute you say something, anything that questions anything about this country, whether it’s policing or beyond, people say, ‘Well, maybe you don't belong here.’ And that's the reason why the first sentence of the book is ‘To be black is to be a dissident,’ because whenever you speak, one of the reactions is invariably, ‘Go back where you came from.’”
And we’ve come full circle.
If it wasn’t already evident that a postracial America is an illusion, Full Dissidence lays bare the systemic injustice and anti-Blackness in our country and confronts the dangerous narratives that are shaping the current dialogue in sports and mainstream culture.
To find out more about Full Dissidence, check out Bryant’s podcast interview on Why Is This Happening? with Chris Hayes. Read another excerpt on Literary Hub.
About Howard Bryant
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN the Magazine and is a correspondent for NPR’s Weekend Edition. He has won several awards for his commentary writing. His books include The Heritage, Juicing the Game, and The Last Hero. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. Connect with him at howardbryantbooks.com and on Twitter (@hbryant42).