While the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation is creating a necessary conversation about bullying, a discussion about black manhood is also bubbling to the surface. Surprisingly, Incognito’s black teammates have come to his defense with one even calling him an “honorary black man.” The teammate clarified this awkward comment, adding “I don’t expect you to understand because you’re not black. But being a black guy, being a brother is more than just about skin color. It’s about how you carry yourself. How you play. Where you come from. What you’ve experienced. A lot of things.” Within the Dolphin locker room, it seems as if many teammates viewed the Stanford-educated Martin as Carlton Banks and thought because of his middle-class background he wasn’t a real black man and needed to be toughened up. This situation goes beyond petty classism, however; it also highlights a question about black masculinity and self-defense.
To be clear, I am not supporting his critics’ actions, but it is important to try and understand where black criticism of Martin is coming from. Incognito threatened to “s***” in Martin’s mouth, slap his mother, and kill Martin. [Note: some teammates say this was a joke.] In a number of black players’ summation, a real man would have stood up to the racist bully and confronted Incognito like a man. As Jackie Robinson once said, “The most luxurious possession, the richest treasure anybody has, is his personal dignity.” While players’ disdain of Incognito reeks of jock culture, it is also clear that Martin’s black critics are operating from a perspective that has historically linked self-defense to black manhood. We see this connection in the words of Frederick Douglass when he remembered his fight with the overseer Covey: “This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.” In the 1880s black newspaperman T. Thomas Fortune told his readers, “If it is necessary for colored men to turn themselves into outlaws to assert their manhood and their citizenship, let them do it.” Self-defense and black manhood are interlinked in Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die,” when he implores black men to fight back against their racist attackers. Malcolm X famously critiqued Martin Luther King’s nonviolence tactics, when he noted “Those days are over, they’re gone, that’s yesterday. The time for you and me to allow ourselves to be brutalized nonviolently is passé. Be nonviolent only with those who are nonviolent to you.” Instead of nonviolence, Malcolm X believed that blacks had a manly right and a duty to protect themselves.
The connection between self-defense and manhood is also part of the history of the black sporting experience. For example, civil rights legend Paul Robeson, an All-American football player at Rutgers and the quintessential example of black manhood during the 20th century, had to fight back against his bullying teammates. In his early days at Rutgers, Robeson’s teammates physically and verbally brutalized him. He wanted to quit, but he knew he had to prove his own manhood and protect young black boys “who wanted to play football, and wanted to go to college, and, as their representative,” Robeson had to prove he “could take whatever was handed out...” To demonstrate his manliness, Robeson, a defensive tackle, violently grabbed one of his teammates during a scrimmage and “was going to smash him so hard to the ground that I’d break him in two.” After that outburst of self-defense, his teammates never bothered him again. While Martin’s critics may not be familiar with any of the above stories, their remarks have tapped into the same line of thinking that manhood and self-defense are interlinked. But there are many layers to black manhood.
Martin’s critics miss the reality that it takes courage to avoid physical confrontation. Being nonviolent, as Martin Luther King often said, is not for cowards. As his weapon of protest Jonathan Martin boycotted the Miami Dolphins and their culture of bullying. “One must remember” King wrote about nonviolence, “that the cause of the demonstration is some exploitation or form of oppression that has made it necessary for men of courage and good will to demonstrate against evil.” The demonstrator, in this case Jonathan Martin, “agrees that it is better for him to suffer publically.” Black teammates and other NFL player’s tried to assassinate Jonathan Martin’s character by calling into question his manhood, but it was Jonathan Martin’s brave stance against racial hate, not a cowardly retreat, that has opened our eyes to the “evil” of bullying in the NFL.