Altogether Black

A note on Cam and Bey at the Super Bowl.

Being a black person in America has always meant that you are not entirely your own. I do not here refer just to our country’s sordid history of whips and shackles, of the brutality of Jim Crow and the misery of mass incarceration. I refer to the fact that to be black means not only to be a self, but to be a symbol and a stand-in for all black people, to carry the connotations and expectations of blackness on the surface of your skin. To be black and in public is to have your self politicized, to become something both more than and less than an individual. It is to become an abstraction, whether you wish it or not.

In this context, black self-love is a political act. To be black and to love yourself, not in spite of your blackness but rather because of it — to revel in it, to draw strength and being from it — is an act of rebellion. Because to intentionally force people to remember that you are black when it is more comfortable for them to forget will always read as a provocation to those invested in a society that prefers to consume black culture and discard the bodies that carry it like the rind of a fruit.

This is why I, along with so many other black people, was rooting for Cam Newton on Sunday, not just because of his blackness, but because of the way he refuses to minimize or dilute that blackness. I am neither Southern nor country, but I love that Cam’s black is, and I love how it gently insists that you remember this about him. Simply by being himself and being a quarterback at the same time, and refusing to compromise either of these roles, he defies the racially fraught notions about what a quarterback should be. He forces a league whose fans are disproportionately white but whose players are disproportionately black to accept his whole self, refuses to let his blackness be excised from his greatness.

And this is why, for me, it was so powerful to see Beyonce take over the Super Bowl halftime show with her opulent, untrammeled blackness, her backup dancers dressed as Black Panthers, singing a song about loving her black self, and her black child, and her black husband, loving them because of their blackness, not in spite of it. She boldly claimed a blackness that refuses to be either exoticized or diluted to suit the tastes of white palates, an ordinary, regular, Negro blackness. She was her whole self, and for a black person, for a black woman, being whole is an act of defiance.

Cam Newton was his whole self on Sunday, too, whole even in his frustration and failure. Cam fell short on the field, though he was not alone among his teammates in that regard. He was gracious to Peyton Manning, the opposing quarterback, after the game, and considerably less gracious to the press. I can admit that he acted petulantly with the media without either obsessing over it or minimizing it, because he can, in the end, only be himself, great and yet flawed, beautiful and imperfect. That’s all I want to aspire to, all any of us can aspire to.