Howard Bryant, award-winning author, encouraged students to fight for what they think is right and lead by example during his MLK Day of Service keynote address.
At Rectory School, meaningful cultural and academic conversations happen daily in classrooms, on dorms, and throughout campus. Each year in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Head of School Fred Williams invites a new, outside voice to join the conversation and share unique perspectives from his or her life that will enrich the education of students, faculty, and staff.
On January 18, 2021, Howard Bryant, an award-winning author, most recently of Full Dissidence: Notes From an Uneven Playing Field, and senior writer for ESPN, shared his experiences as a sports writer, Black man, and historian as Rectory's annual MLK Day of Service keynote speaker.
Mr. Bryant reminded students that during King's lifetime, he was not revered as his legacy would lead one to believe today. According to a Gallup poll, two years before his assassination in 1968, King was disliked by 63 percent of the country. It took decades of protest and perseverance for the country to honor King's work, message, and achievement through a national holiday.
"It's always been fascinating to me and very sad, in a lot of ways. He must have known very early--especially when you're murdered at 39 years old--that your life was not going to be your own. Considering that he had really begun the movement in the early '60s, when he was in his early 20s, at that point, he had decided to give his life to this movement," Bryant said.
"Not many people would devote themselves to something that they knew could cost them their lives," he said. "Ask yourselves, as a person, not from history but as a person now, how do you get what you want?"
Bryant referenced the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings; the relationship between African Americans and the police forces; and, most recently, the storming of the U.S. Capitol building by people who believed the 2020 presidential election results are fraudulent as indicators that the country might be at a breaking point. He said this could be when people, regardless of race, say enough is enough.
"I tend to think this country is in a lot of trouble right now. I think we've lost ourselves," he said. "One of the ways to rediscover who we are is to look in the mirror and then look at where we are, what's actually happening, and what's actually being challenged," he said.
"In this moment, there are people in the country who have decided it can't go on like this anymore, especially when we're talking about fairness and equality. There is a major gap between practice and theory in terms of fairness, and we're seeing it being worked out in real-time," he added.
During an hour-long question and answer period with students, Bryant said he's hopeful with their generation because they tend to see fairness and equality differently than previous generations. He said this generation is not focused on the numbers or the need to win at all costs, but instead, they try to look at the different ways we can remember that we're on the same team. This generation is challenged more now as it's being fed an abundance of information from communication silos at warp speed in the middle of a pandemic when you cannot be together, he said.
After being asked by Steven Z. '22 whether he had experienced being judged based on his race, Bryant told of a time when an optometrist was surprised to learn he was a writer because he "didn't look like he was cut out for that." Bryant left before the exam was completed and with his eyes still dilated.
"We'd known each other for 12 minutes. How would he know what I'm cut out for?" he said.
Grade 9 student Prajna W. '21 wanted to know Bryant's opinion of political correctness. Bryant's answer was frank: it means that you're no longer able to be a jerk.
"What people are really saying when they're talking about political correctness is 'Why can't I say whatever I want to say, regardless of how you feel? Why am I not able to insult you? Why do I have to respect you?" he said. "How about just having some manners?"
Students Chloe W. '22, Ashanti A. '21, and Maxtin H. '21, explicitly asked about how much power and influence professional athletes have on the public; are influential people in sports being held accountable; and what is the next step for professional athletes who want to continue to protest racial injustice.
The answer to whether professional athletes have power and influence over public opinion, Bryant said, "enormous influence." Still, that often they are told to "stick to sports" instead of sharing their viewpoint. It's a double-standard, though. Most athletes are wealthy, and the wealthier you are, the more influence you have over public political opinion. However, professional athletes who are people of color fought for the right to be in their position during the Civil Rights movement, he said.
"They are not just there to entertain. They are part of the civil rights movement, whether we want them to be or not. And that's why we listen to them, and that's why some people don't want to hear them," Byant said.
Since the 2014 public airing of racist statements by Donald Sterling, former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers NBA team, professional athletes' response to not let themselves be used as a distraction and to bring attention to racial injustice has increased. From Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the National Anthem to Naomi Osaka refusing to play her semifinal tennis match at the Western & Southern Open to the NBA's multi-game boycott to the WNBA's influence over the Georgia senate election, the protest dominoes started to fall throughout professional sports.
"They can't necessarily solve the issues of the world, but they can bring attention to them," he said, adding that the athletes went back to work but continued their efforts to stay involved by hosting voter registrations, for example.
He encouraged students to do the same. When Gianna B. '21 and Kate R. '22 asked how students their age can be better allies to Black Americans and keep up the momentum of social reform, Bryant said they should stay involved, listen, demand action on things they think are right, remain sensitive to authenticity, and wary of people, corporations, and organizations trying to cash in on the moment.
In response to a question by student Jaceil B. '22 on how to keep the Black struggle from becoming a trend, Bryant said this, "the Black struggle is not about brand, it's about justice. It's about values. It's about fairness. I tell people all the time, 'I don't want anything from you. I just don't want you to try to hold me back.'"
There continues to be a class, gender, and race battle for control in the United States. Students need to ask themselves if they're willing to share that control.
When Clement W. '22 asked what Rectory students can do to stop white supremacy ideology from being passed on for generations, Bryant said it is up to their generation to determine how the world will look.
"Ending racism is not happening in my lifetime. Your generation will determine what the next movement looks like. The collective action of your generation and future generations will determine what the world looks like based on how much you care about this. People feel hopeless, but it's not hopeless," he said.
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