Ted Lewis, Colin Kaepernick and the Closeting of Racial Identity
Updated: Jan 18
In 1975 I didn’t like coming home from school. I mean, like every other American kid, I looked forward to settling down to the Brady Bunch – Gilligan’s Island – I Love Lucy trio before tackling my homework. I knew practically every line of every episode and could sing their ballad jingles in my sleep. But I didn’t like hearing my dad talk on the phone.
Hello, this is Ted Lewis. May I speak to your manager?
Two things bothered me about this one-sided conversation. First, my dad was attempting self-employment again, trying to sell his latest idea; and second, his name wasn’t Ted Lewis. When making his pitch on the phone, he morphed from the dark, Harlem born Austin Leonard to the preppy, white Ted Lewis in hopes that this would mean more sales.
My father was raised with the mantra, If you want to succeed in life, you have to ditch any vestige of blackness and hang with white folks. In person, with his six foot two, two hundred and fifty pound frame, he could con no one; but on the phone he could be white and he made more sales. I hated this act. Most kids want their fathers to be powerful, and this charade made my dad seem servile.
There’s nothing new about closeting your ethnic identity. In the past, Jews changed their name from Greenberg to Green, and Germans from Braun to Brown. The Irish strove to lose their sing-song brogue and Italians chose to forgo parts of their culture to fit in with mainstream America.
These ethnic groups, no doubt proud of their heritage, could and did hide it if it meant getting a better job or living in a better neighborhood. You will do anything for your kids, even denying your motherland.
Black people, of course, could not and cannot hide our racial identity but we can try to assimilate in other ways. In a room full of white people, we may hold back our political opinions or distress over racial injustice. We hide our fears for our children and our disappointment over a white friend’s attitude towards racial issues. We sometimes champion a different cause and become impassioned by different things. Yet, we don’t want to always be the odd man out, the typical angry black person, the one who says, “I disagree.” And so we keep a lot in. Until we don’t.
Black NFL players, up until recently, just shut up and played ball. They made millions and entertained. And then one day, an “uppity” quarterback named Colin Kaepernick got tired of holding it in and decided to use his voice to protest something that was and is egregious to the black community: the spilling of black blood by white police officers and the obvious double standard in the criminal justice system.
He simply took a knee rather than standing for the National Anthem, an act reminiscent of the black-gloved salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics and Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. All of these athletes could have kept quiet and continued to revel in fame and money, but all, instead, used their influence to highlight injustice. And they all suffered tremendously for it. Smith and Carlos were stripped of their medals, Ali of his title, and Kaepernick of his career. They didn’t forget who they were or where they came from, and they sacrificed reputation and wealth to help bring change. To me, that is noble.
It is interesting that some black actors have been emboldened to use their voices in a similar fashion and now white and black actresses alike are speaking up against sexual harassment in Hollywood.
Why can’t they all just shut up and entertain me?
Because it’s not just about me – or you.
The right to a peaceful protest is critical to a democracy and lay at the core of the First Amendment. Our country began with it (tossing tea into Boston Harbor) and has progressed because of it (e.g. sitting at the front of the bus). Now NFL players hope to inspire more progress by kneeling during our Anthem, and I applaud them for it. We’re not done. A police officer fatally shot a 12 year old boy for holding a toy gun, and that officer walks the streets today - a free man. That’s unacceptable, and Colin Kaepernick was brave enough to say so.