By Kate Aguilar
On October 29, Netflix released the drama series “Colin in Black & White,” from Colin Kaepernick and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay. The six-episode limited series explores how Kaepernick’s high school years laid the foundation for his future activism. Kaepernick serves as the narrator of his own life, walking the audience through the microaggressions that shaped him, the Black culture that has sustained him, and the sport that inspired him to put it all on the line.
In Dave Zirin’s new groundbreaking book The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World (2021), the sportswriter argues that the effect of Kaepernick’s actions – his choice to kneel during the national anthem as quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers in 2016 – was not only to raise attention to police brutality. As shown through the hundreds of athletes who have since taken a knee from 2016 to the present, it also illustrates the power of Black collective action to effect change. Kaepernick’s actions inspired a new generation of activists to fight for Black lives around the world.
Their revolt exists within the longer history of the raising of the Black Power fist by African American Olympian sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith during the national anthem at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. It was a gesture that rippled throughout and beyond the sporting world. That moment, orchestrated in part by the Olympic Project for Human Rights and scholar-athletes like Dr. Harry Edwards, ushered in a new era in Sports History: the revolt of the Black athlete. In his work, The Revolt of the Black Athlete (1968), Edwards explains, “In essence then, the black revolution in America has not been carried into the locker room, as one sportswriter has stated. What has happened is that the black athlete has left the façade of locker room equality and justice to take his long vacant place as a primary participant in the black revolution.” Historians of race and sport continue to analyze this moment, alongside Kaepernick’s, as a window onto larger questions about race, gender, class, sexuality, and nation formation. In this regard, the series’ focus on Kaepernick as both a student of popular culture and sport should not be ignored.
“Colin in Black & White,” consequently, is much more than a story about football. The power of this series is that it recognizes and celebrates the relationship between Sports History and African American History. In the fall 2021 special issue “New Directions in African American Sports History” in the Journal of African American History, historian Amira Rose Davis challenges scholars of race and sport to contextualize the Black athlete within the larger framework of African American History. DuVernay and Kaepernick rise to this challenge, as each episode focuses on microaggressions, racial privilege, colorism, access, identity, sexuality, culture, and class, utilizing personal narrative and providing historical context to highlight the centrality of Black history to the American experiment. Blackness and Whiteness were created in conversation to maintain the system of slavery. To change the nature of the game, all Americans must be aware of how race still operates to shape power and privilege on and off the field.
In The Kaepernick Effect, Zirin talks to Dr. John Carlos about the contemporary decision to kneel. Carlos notes, “It takes a tremendous amount of courage to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ I commend them. But I’d also like to make them understand: they’ve been saying my name all over the country, all over the world, and that’s fantastic, but I want them to study and realize that I wasn’t in the moment; I was in the movement. They have to realize that they are not in the moment, in this instance; they are in the movement, whether they like it or not.” “Colin in Black & White” is a must-see because it appreciates its own role, as a piece of visual culture and primary source, within the larger movement of Black history. Each episode shows Black music as a movement. Black hair as a movement. Self-love and Black joy as an act of resistance. All the while, Kaepernick moves through the screen as both an individual and a symbol, a Black man empowered by the hairstyle and garb of the Black Panther Party. The series demonstrates how Whiteness is imagined through American sports, above all by employing historical stereotypes on Blackness. Kaepernick’s ability to weaponize both sport and his own history to flip the script shows Black oral history, itself, as a revolutionary act.
For historians of race and sport, this show is a rich source to include in their teaching of the #ColinKaepernickSyllabus and Black History. It engages the larger issues that have shaped the long history of Black athletic and collective revolt. By exploring Colin’s decision to choose football over baseball, the show reveals how race operates differently across time and region, and across playing fields. Some White Americans may shy away from the show because they believe “it is too political.” Ironically, these same White Americans continue to flock to the sporting venues that rely heavily on exploiting and silencing Black labor. The centrality of the Black athlete to a country that seeks to ban the teaching of their history is a not-so-subtle undertone of this work. “Colin in Black & White” – told by him for future players and activists like him – is an important reminder that neither, however, can ever be ignored.
“And you will learn to find beauty in places where the world tells you there is none.” ~ Colin Kaepernick