“I do not expect the white media to create positive black male images.” –Huey Newton
It is the Friday before the Super Bowl and for the last two weeks there has been much ado about the anticipated performance of frontrunner for the league MVP, and star quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, Cam Newton. And by performance I don’t only mean whether or not he will rely on his arm or his feet to put points on the board, or whether or not it will be a stat staggering game like many others this season, or whether or not he will lead his team to their first Super Bowl victory–the focus has been on what he will do after a first down, or after a touchdown. Folk are all in their feelings over how Cam Newton performs black cool masculinity on the football field–how he performs as a star quarterback, not so much.
He has been equally criticized and celebrated for showing out when he gets his way, taunting the opposing team when he pushes, runs, throws or jumps his way to(wards) the end zone. Cam “dabs” on ‘em, pushes his upper body up exposing an invisible “S” on his chest, gives the referee signal for first down, and jumps around with his teammates in jubilation. Then he gives the pigskin to an eager and anxious child up in the stands. He is braggadocious, cocky, proud and free, only half of how we are used to seeing black men behave in public. (Full Disclosure: I am a Carolina girl, so without a doubt a die hard Carolina fan, and by default a Cam Newton fan. I am not, however, over here or anywhere caping for the NFL all like that…) Anyway…
I’ve been thinking through, for much of the season, the visceral contempt that a lot of folk (who are not die hard Carolina fans) have of Cam. He’s a rich, big, black man who has style (did you peep those Versace pants he wore on the flight to the Bay?), swagger, cool and confidence. He is also charming, attractive, loves the kids, and ain’t above a good clapback. As one of my homegirls stated, “With the exception of not marrying his baby momma, which shouldn’t even be a thing, the guy is damn near perfect and it still isn’t enough for some busters.” It’s attribution bias, the same folk who have so much to say about what Cam does in the end zone, would find no fault in it if he were the quarterback of their team, and/or perhaps if he was not black (no shade, but shade).
One of the most delicious aspects of how Cam performs cool masculinity is his unapologetic blackness, his disinterest in re-packaging himself to be tolerable to folk who don’t give a damn about black men who are not running up and down a football field and taking hits, or who would be terrified of him if he was just big and black (and not big, black, famous and rich).
And then I saw where there have been comparisons (and conspiracy theories) of Cam Newton with Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers. Some folk find it ironic, even kismet that Cam is playing in Super Bowl 50, 50 years after Huey co-founded the Black Panther party, pointing out that Cam was born the same year Huey died, saying there is something to the fact that Huey was a Black Panther, and Cam is a Black (Carolina) Panther, and… (Side eye). It’s all bullshit on one hand but compelling on another. I’m not here for folk claiming Cam Newton is the reincarnation of Huey Newton, but I do think there are some things the two men share in common, like all black men, and it is all about the perception of being black and male, and how that is supposed to be performed. Black men are cool, but that cool is often misunderstood. Their confidence is read as disrespect. Their stoicism is interpreted as a threat. Their cool pose is seen as something to appropriate but not appreciate. Cool pose masculinity is a self-defense mechanism, a habitual and learned response to injustice and racism. Black boys become black men who have been conditioned to “keep their cool,” and “be cool” no matter what. That means if you strip a black man of everything but his dignity, he will be the coolest cat in the room. And if a black man is able to live his dream on a stage of millions, he will be the coolest cat in the room.
Cam Newton stands out not because he is a 6’5”, 245 pound towering athlete. He stands out because he is black. And in a country and culture that fears black men, black masculinity, and black genius, folk misconstrue the black male body. There is not a failure to recognize its magnificence. Black male bodies have always been utilized in patriarchal and racist contexts for profit (the NFL is no different). And as a black man who possesses his body, on and off the field, Cam takes up a lot of space, literally and figuratively. He has the audacity to be exceptional, unapologetic, unrelenting, brave and cocky. Haters gone be on they job and hate the hell out of that.
So, as I situate myself to get caught up in the rigmarole that is Super Bowl weekend, I am over here low key celebrating carefree black masculinity, and this moment and opportunity where black boys (cis and trans) can be cool, black, educated and free. And imperfect.
Last year this time I was discussing What Marshawn Lynch and Richard Sherman Can Teach Us About Black Masculinity and respectability, and I find myself having similar reflections as it relates to Cam Newton, but differently. I don’t think Cam Newton is redefining black masculinity, but he embodies an alternative to the thug masculinity that was attached to Lynch and Sherman because he is in some ways the antithesis of them, both on the field and in his presentation. Cam is the clean-cut pretty boy to their dred-headed dark skin, but as college educated black athletes they all share in common notions of cool and the limitations of stereotypes. They all get hype, get buck, celebrate on the field, and find themselves subject to sanctions and judgments (from Lynch’s refusal to engage reporters to Cam’s insistence on gifting footballs). They are over-analyzed, hypermasculinized, and intentionally scrutinized. They resist boxed in assumptions of who they should be and rebel against how people say they should act because they are too rich to not be free, and too free to not be themselves. And they all use cool posing to re-inscribe what black masculinity (even in football) can look like. All of what we already know, some of what we had not yet considered, and more.
The last time the Panthers were in the Super Bowl Janet had her wardrobe malfunction and we lost by a field goal. No bueno. The dynamics are much different this year. The team is led by a black quarterback and a Hispanic coach. The team has had a damn near perfect record and a damn near perfect season. Come Sunday night, all eyes will be on Cam Newton, and what he will do. I hope he dab, dab, dab, dab, dab on ‘em.