Editor’s note: This article was originally published in September of 2020, but after the Wildcats took a knee during the national anthem before their win at Florida, we’re bumping it back up to remind everyone why they’re kneeling.
When the stories of 2020 are told five decades from now, most of the tales explained will more than likely bring a depressing, appalling, and downright dreadful vibe.
In the words of many people throughout social media platforms during the first half of this horrendous year, Black people are living through two deadly pandemics. It’s bad enough having to socially distance from loved ones and wear masks constantly to avoid spreading a deadly virus to one another, but it’s even worse when Black folks have to worry about those same loved ones being turned into a viral hashtag due to systemic racism and police brutality.
They weren’t the first, and they won’t be the last, but the Kentucky basketball program planted their flag firmly in the ground on the matter at hand. Throughout the offseason, John Calipari has been vocal about members of the Big Blue Nation wearing masks and protecting others and themselves from the spread of COVID-19.
This time on another important subject, it’s his players taking charge.
On Monday night, a few days after nationwide sporting strikes in basketball, football (including Kentucky’s program walking out of a practice session) and baseball following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the official Kentucky basketball program tweeted out a video from the team’s Twitter account with the caption, “We ask you to join us.”
We ask you to join us. pic.twitter.com/XYoFVnfHJX— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) September 1, 2020
In the 122-second video, the Cats, including star freshmen BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke, along with sophomore returner Keion Brooks Jr., who has taken on multiple leadership roles away from the hardwood this offseason, Devin Askew, Lance Ware, Davion Mintz, Cam’Ron Fletcher and the rest of the roster presented a message to show their support towards the Black Lives Matter movement that has swept across the entire planet during this calendar year.
The group also sent their condolences to the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Jacob Blake, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and every other family that’s been affected by police brutality, while coming together for a concluding shot to say Black lives matter as a team with a BLM banner hanging above them.
Before the video ended, there was a notable message sent in the final 30 seconds. The outro of the clip was the first verse of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” from 1939 that was recorded off the poem “Bitter Fruit” written by Abel Meeropol two years prior as a protest to lynchings, specifically the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in August 1930.
Meeropol’s wife, Laura Duncan, originally performed the song at Madison Square Garden before Holiday’s version became the most famous and widely-known rendition before countless versions followed in the decades to come.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Some messages can be stronger than others, and Kentucky sent as powerful of a message with that video as a team could in this particular way, especially with Calipari’s inclusion and the first verse from Holiday.
On top of the song, there’s a short sequence in the video where a few players say, “It’s happened to me,” in terms of encountering systemic racism and/or harassment from law enforcement.
Like the players said, it’s happened to me.
And it has.
The fear that LeBron James spoke about after a playoff game last week brought out a plethora of emotions during his post-game availability.
“I know people get tired of hearing me say it, but we are scared as Black people in America,” James said following the Los Angeles Lakers’ Game 4 win over the Trail Blazers last Monday night. “Black men, Black women, Black kids, we are terrified.
“You have no idea. You have no idea how that cop that day left the house. You don’t know if he woke up on the good side of the bed. You don’t know if he woke up on the bad side of the bed. You don’t know if he had an argument at home with his significant other. You don’t know if one of his kids said something crazy to him and he left the house steaming. Or maybe he just left the house saying, ‘Today is going to be the end for one of these Black people.’ That’s what it feels like.”
You also have no idea what’s like to be called ni**er by somebody on the internet you’ve never even met and don’t even know what they look like.
You also have no idea what it’s like to be the only Black player on your team or in a classroom that can relate to the traumas and tragedies of the Black communities across the globe.
You also have no idea what’s it like to have a state trooper pull you over while everybody in both lanes on the highway is driving slightly over the speed limit just because you had your hood up driving a car and then proceeded to put his hand on his gun before he even speaks to you.
You also have no idea what it’s like to have a cop stalk you for blocks while you’re enjoying a nice night out with your girlfriend, who is also a person of color, because you have a hood up with some nice shoes on, and then find you again in his car to follow your every move.
You also have no idea what it’s like to be called a “ni**er boy” by a parent as a 14-year-old kid after losing a heartbreaking little league game where you played your ass off and then look to see a cop laughing at said parent’s comments.
You also have no idea what it’s like for a family member to completely ignore your pain and heartache because of the world around him because it doesn’t affect them personally in any way.
You have no idea what it’s like to worry about other family members on a daily basis who enforcers of the law may think fit a description better than they actually do.
I do know what it feels like because those that last few paragraphs are my own experiences. I’m white enough to not be seen as a threat all the time and yet at the same time, too Black to be understood in the eyes of many. I stand firmly with these kids because as I said previously on this subject, they’re on the right side of history when the books are written someday a long time from now.
There’s absolutely nothing “political” about Black lives mattering. Black people are openly targeted, hunted down, hanged (to this day still), murdered, raped, stereotyped and have been held down by every stretch of the imagination since the ancestors arrived on boats in shackles.
“Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
That wasn’t just a quote from Marvel’s Black Panther (Rest in peace to the late great Chadwick Boseman). That’s real life. That’s the fear the ancestors lived with.
To echo Jamal Murray’s thoughts this week after another electric 50-point performance, Black people are tired. We’re tired of being tired.
The fear that LeBron described didn’t arrive in 2020 or in the few decades prior just because Black people have made it know they live with it in music, movies and sports. It’s woven into the fabric of this nation and it’s been long past due to restitch this country back together. These kids and their coach are in the process of helping do that.
As Tyler Ricky Tynes noted in his latest piece for The Ringer on the NBA’s strike that was last week, John Carlos’ words still ring true since his Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics.
“Tell the white people of America and all over the world that if they don’t seem to care for the things Black people do, they should not go see Black people perform,” Carlos said.
Those words hit home here, too.
If you don’t care about Kentucky’s contributions to liberating the people that have never felt free for over four centuries in this nation, then don’t pretend to care when they’re up five late in a Final Four game, because their lives truly don’t matter to you.