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  • Nicole Doyley

The Tears of Vinícius

I’m not particularly tuned into sports, but my husband follows football (aka soccer), track and field and boxing, so I pick up things here and there and have learned to cheer when Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce wins a race. A couple of weeks ago, Marvin came into our room troubled by an interview he saw of Brazilian footballer, Vinícius Júnior, “He’s such a young, talented athlete but he actually cried during a press conference because of racism.” When I watched it, I nearly broke down myself.

Vinícius rose from a disadvantaged childhood in Rio de Janeiro to become one of Real Madrid’s most impressive players: a story of overcoming against overwhelming odds. At eighteen he signed a £38million contract and has been key to Madrid’s success ever since. Yet at twenty-three he cried in front of millions of people.  He endures monkey sounds from the stands, children in the streets calling him chimpanzee, and effigies of him hanging from bridges. He’s considered giving up, but he realizes that then the racists would win. “It's something very sad that happens in every match of mine,” he said. “It's not just me and it's not just in Spain; it's all over the world.”[1] 

He's rich, he’s talented, he’s young, he’s handsome, but it’s not enough. It’s never enough.

Vinícius’s story sounds eerily familiar. In 1945, Jackie Robinson tried out for the Boston Red Sox amidst N***er and Monkey being shouted at him from the stands. Branch Ricky, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, knew this kind of treatment awaited the person who crossed the color line in baseball, so as he scouted Negro League athletes, he looked for not just talent, but nerves of steel and superhuman self-control. He found it all in Jackie.

Over the course of his career, Robinson was insulted and reviled, but Rickey warned that he could not speak out; he just had to endure it. Some players intentionally slid into his legs with their cleats, and he had metal plates sewn into his cap to protect him from pitches intentionally aimed at his head. 

Like Vinícius, Robinson considered giving up and he also teared up during interviews. This psychological strain was not without consequence; Jackie died of a heart attack at fifty-three. Medical researchers now believe racial trauma was at least partly to blame.

Then there’s Hank Aaron, who received over 3000 hate letters every day, many containing death threats, all because he threatened to break Babe Ruth’s home run record - and when he actually did break Ruth’s record, people lost their minds. They were so committed to the belief in white superiority that when a Black person proved to be a superior athlete, they couldn't handle it; their social order was disrupted and they'd rather commit murder than be bested.

Jamaican born Johnny Barns became one of Liverpool’s greatest soccer heroes. Yet when he took a breathtaking goal against Brazil in 1984, he did so amidst monkey noises and bananas falling like rain from the sky. 

Comparing Black people to monkeys has a long, dark history. For hundreds of years, Black men were depicted as apes carrying off white women.  In the mid-19th century, many Western whites embraced polygenesis (the separate origins for the races), and scientists compared Black people to chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans.[2] The message was clear, You’re a lower order of man. Actually, you’re not even a man (or woman) at all.

This racist trope just won’t die. Barack, Michelle and Malia Obama, Serena Williams, Leslie Jones, Normani Kordei, and scores more: no matter how talented, how wealthy, how famous, this five-hundred-year-old slur gets hurled at Black people when we succeed and when we fail.

I had to explain all of this to an administrator at my son’s school after yet another child called my son a monkey; clearly these kids are hearing it at home and feel free to use it at school. This administrator responded with tepid, patronizing reassurance, “We take this very seriously, Mrs. Doyley.” Not seriously enough as nothing has changed.

Why do Black people not only have to be good, but superhuman good, when others can get away with mediocrity and still be treated with human dignity?

It’s time for the monkey trope to die. Black people are part of the imago Dei. Whether we do well or we do badly, the stamp of God is on us, just like it's on every other soul.



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