All pictures from Joshua Rashaad McFadden/Ceiba except one
I still remember the days when it was ok to boo the national anthem at British football matches. In many quarters, that kind of God Save The Queen nationalism was seen as questionable, as alien, as reactionary, as a little bit fascist (not everywhere of course, because a lot of football supporters were and are a little bit fascist as well).
That suspicion of knee-jerk nationalism would extend to its other manifestations, such as the presence of the army at football games. Sometimes you'd get military bands performing before games and they would be laughed at. They were not people who everybody would stand up and applaud for being at the sharp end of somebody's corrupt, brain-shrivelled decision to destroy a county because they imagined it would make them look tough.
Not any more. British sport as a whole is part of the militarisation of the UK, something has crept into schools, sport and popular culture. There are even recruitment advertisements that question the right of others to question the military.
No, the US is ahead of the UK in terms of questioning national values, as the actions of Colin Kaepernick show. He's the American football player who kneels during the Star Spangled Banner to protest police murders of black men on the streets of America.
I read this article on the Colin Kaepernick protest and found it really interesting that the protest was linked by some to the death of Muhammad Ali, and an awareness of the protests that he undertook against the US, the military, the war in Vietnam, and the hypocrisy of the language of nationalism.
'But he ( Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall ) also thinks Muhammad Ali’s death this summer awakened an awareness in many athletes. Until he died a lot of them did not know he refused to fight in the Vietnam War and was squeezed out of boxing for more than three years in the prime of his career because of it. Hearing of how he stood up to racial oppression opened their eyes. “Many of them have started to ask, how will I be judged years from now?” Neal said.
Things were different in the years after Ali first spoke about race. Black athletes were emboldened to protest in those days and often did. The former NBA star Marques Johnson, who now commentates on Milwaukee Bucks games on television, remembers that his college coach at UCLA, John Wooden, had the team stay in the locker room for the national anthem because he knew most of the players would not stand for the song.'
It revealed how quickly genuine protesters like Ali can be sanitised for general consumption. It's easy to forget that Ali was absolutely hated both for his political protests, but also for his embracing of Islam, and for being a Grade A asshole on many occasions. Not everyone loved him in other words.
Ali's legacy looms large in other words, especially if you are a black American male and you suddenly become aware of the incredibly brave personal and professional sacrifices Ali made for his beliefs. And the fact that they are beliefs that turn how to be 'right' makes that legacy even larger.
A couple of days before reading this piece on Kaepernick, I went to Gazebook Sicily where I was given Ceiba's latest book Come to Selfhood by Joshua Rashaad McFadden. This is a book which looks at black masculinity, at fatherhood, at how you can be a black male in America.
The idea for the work began with the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012, and gathered pace with the slew of police murders of black Americans. The question then is what does it mean to be black in a country where people are allowed to kill you. If you can't look to the law, or the nation, or abstract ideas of justice to create a grounding for you, where do you look?
The parents of Trayvon Martin: Picture by Evan Vucci
And the answer in this book, is to your father (or your mother, or your family, or yourself). So the book consists of a series of portraits of young black men on the left, with family album/snapshot pictures of their fathers on the right. The contemporary portraits are studio shot, nicely lit and feature a very direct gaze to the camera.
They fill the whole page so your eyes go to them first and they are nice enough. But then you look to the right hand page and see the pictures of the father. These pictures are of a time. There are fathers in uniforms, in suits, at the disco, on the sea. There are pictures of grandfathers and great-grandfathers.
The pictures are dated (in a good way). They reach back to the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, and with that reaching a small history of America springs up, from Vietnam, to the rise of disco and the white suit, to the Reaganomics of the 1980s.
But where the book really kicks in is with the little pieces of text that are inserted between the pages (this, in true Ceiba tradition, is a handmade book). Here, the subjects of the pictures talk about what it is to be black, what is to have a father, about what kind of life a man should lead.
Read these and the pictures start coming to life. Jeremiah Thompson talks about the difficulties of being a gay black man and needing to '...be fearless and fight for true unity amongst the black community. Not talking about something doesn't erase its existence.'
Kamal Browne talks about the assumptions people make of black people and the beauty of his father:
- 'only speak ebonics (slang)
- all grew up in poverty
- all have baby mothers
- all have violent backgrounds
'I watch people's first assuption of me disappear the second I speak. Perceptions make people look at me like I'm dumb or illiterate...'
'My father is the ideal figure for black male masculitinity. He works his ass off just to provide for his family. He's been married for almost 25 years and never cheated on my mother. He's the most passionate person I know.'
Not that all fathers are great. One man has a '6-7' father with a weakness for women. Other men skip over their fathers completely. One man was adopted into a Christian family and was almost killed by his biological mother.
Many struggle with the being black in America and feeling the weight of historical and contemporary injustice on their shoulders. Others are more equanaminous and look to lead as good a life as possible. There are superhero-loving nerds, men who look to their mother as a source of strength and masculinity, and men who place the flaws and imperfections of being human at the heart of their male identity. There's peace and quiet and tenderness in there, there's flamboyance, there's machismo, there's struggle, there's dignity, there's sorrow, there's poverty, there's everything.
The beauty of the text (which is handwritten on tracing paper, the name of the writer printed on the back) is that it invites you into the pictures. These are short, engaging pieces that link to both the pictures of the writers and the fathers who are pictured beside them. So you read and you start looking into their eyes, and into those of their fathers and you wonder who they are, what struggles they have been through, what lives they have led and what lives they will lead.
The messages aren't all the same. There is that Family of Man sentiment; what is it like to be a black man? Well, what is it like to be anybody? Everybody's different but we're all the same. That's what it's like (except that you're more likely shot by the police among other things, and that does make a difference).
Maybe that sentiment is the message of hope of the book. These are people who feel, who love, who have passion and desire and belief and who want to do good. I don't know why that should be a surprise to anybody, but it is the kind of truism that it seems increasingly necessary to say and to show. And McFadden and Ceiba have done a beautiful job saying it.