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ESPN's Howard Bryant On 'Full Dissidence'


To be black is to be a dissident - the first words of a powerful new book by Howard Bryant, one of our sports commentators on WEEKEND EDITION and a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He's written a deeply personal book of urgent and eloquent essays about racism in American life on and off the field. His book is "Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field."

Howard Bryant joins us from the studios of New England Public Radio in Amherst. Howard, thanks so much for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT: It's good to be here, Scott.

SIMON: Much of the book is not about sports, but I do want to draw at your expertise in sports. One of your first essays, you contrast how the NFL has regarded Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the national anthem - imagine - as opposed to Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl MVP, who just have - a few months after that Super Bowl pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in connection with the stabbing deaths of two men in 2000.

BRYANT: Yeah, and that's the interesting thing for me. I looked at this in sports, and I think we look at sports as the aspirational place. It's one of the more integrated places. It's one of the places where athletes have the most power. I really wanted to bring Colin Kaepernick into this because I thought about him in my last book, "The Heritage," and we talked about athlete power.

But then in this essay in this book, I begin to think about it in another way. Do you really have power if you risk everything by simply advocating a position? And then by extension, I just began to think about the other areas, and I just sort of refer to it as that sort of full dissidence moment.

SIMON: You talk about African American athletes, and I'm not going to compare anyone else to O.J. Simpson, but there's...

BRYANT: (Laughter) Good.

SIMON: You know, but he famously said, I'm not black; I'm O.J. And at one time or another, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and a lot of Americans thought their success and their popular adulation indicated America was over this race problem.

BRYANT: That's right. And that's the deal. If you do these things, you'll be accepted. Or if you have enough money, you'll be accepted. And I try to examine in that essay the price of that. What are we really asking for? Well, we're asking for your blackness. What we see in the corporate world all the time, whether you're an athlete or not, do you want diversity of color and diversity of thought, or simply diversity of color? And it's an interesting thing when you look at today's athletes, what they are navigating.

I remember being in the clubhouse and locker rooms throughout the 30 years of doing this. You ask a black player a question that had anything to do with race, and they would look at you as if you were trying to set them up and get them released and get them traded. They knew the risk that came. It made me wonder once again, if you don't have advocacy in this industry where you have the control and you have the power and you have the the public influence, what's it like if you're an African American working at Lawrence Livermore, and you're the only black person in the room?

SIMON: Yeah. May I venture a small defense of Tiger Woods?

BRYANT: You can say whatever you want, Scott. Of course (laughter).

SIMON: I guess he has referred to himself as - I'm not sure how to pronounce it...

BRYANT: Cablinasian.

SIMON: ...Cablinasian because he is African American, he's Native American, he's Asian American, he's - what am I forgetting?

BRYANT: And Caucasian.

SIMON: All right, yeah. It didn't strike me that he's trying to step away from identifying himself as African American, but he understandably also wants to note his mother is Asian.

BRYANT: Well, no question, Scott. This is the world that we live in. But what we're really talking about is blackness and anti-blackness because nobody had ever questioned Tiger Woods's Asianness (ph). What was at stake is his blackness.

And that's the same case with a lot of the athletes - whether it's O.J. Simpson or Madison Keys or Tiger Woods - the minute they begin to embrace a political element of blackness that we know what is going to happen to them. We saw what happened to Tommie Smith and John Carlos and Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick. What we're really talking about is the price you pay for a certain type of advocacy, not politics, but a certain politics.

SIMON: You say (ph) even today, or especially today, African Americans are renters, not owners, in America.

BRYANT: Yeah, that was one of the areas where I began to think with the election of Donald Trump, and it sent me into a little bit of a darker place, began to think about the number of times he had said to black athletes, especially, maybe you don't belong here.

During one of the debates, I listened to Kamala Harris talk about our country. And I kept asking myself, is it our country? You want it to be our country. We fought for it, and we bled for it. And then the minute you say something, anything that questions anything about this country, whether it's policing or beyond, people say, well, maybe you don't belong here. And that's the reason why the first sentence of the book is to be black is to be a dissident because whenever you speak, one of the reactions is invariably, go back where you came from.

SIMON: I'm glad you're part of us, Howard. Thank you.

BRYANT: (Laughter).

SIMON: I meant our show.

BRYANT: Same here. It's been funny, Scott, because someone asked the other day, do you feel depressed that your book feels more relevant during these times? And I said, well, I don't think any writer feels upset that their book kind of resonates with the culture. But at the same time, I understood the point. And I - it's one of the reasons why I did feel that it was important to say where we are today. And also, I don't feel depressed about the future. I actually feel more liberated now because I think that it is a privilege to be able to write and to be able to say things.

SIMON: Howard Bryant, his book, "Full Dissidence: Notes From An Uneven Playing Field." Howard, thanks so much for being with us.

BRYANT: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.