Critical Thinking

The other day I visited the home of a relative with whom, I have learned, the safest subject of conversation is sports. I asked him, in all innocence and naïveté, if he had been watching the Olympics. “You mean the woke Olympics?” he asked, an edge to his voice. Since I do not monitor Fox or its even more extreme brethren, I was startled to hear those words joined. But since I do have a general awareness that those outlets tend to use the word woke as a mantra, alongside defund and critical race theory, I knew what was coming—a patronizing lecture on patriotism. In today’s topsy-turvy world, then, it has become unpatriotic to root for American athletes in international competition and to feel a bit misty, perhaps, when the winners drape themselves in our flag or the national anthem plays as they stand on the medals podium.

But there is the heart of it. What an affront if an athlete doesn’t stand on a podium, or stands back turned, or if a whole team chooses to kneel before a match begins. Never mind that there was seemingly a corporate decision at NBC to show as little of this as possible. For some avowed patriots, the point is that it might hap- pen, and then an element of dissent, of discordance, even of doubt might trouble the placid native waters. I bring up this possibly tired scenario because our cover story does a very wide-awake thing: it brilliantly explores the history and many meanings of the act of kneeling, specifically in the lives of Black Americans. The writer, Farah Peterson, whose last story for us, “The Patriot Slave,” was a finalist for a National Magazine Award, does here what she did in the previous essay—work out her thesis in part by looking at depictions of Black people in paintings from earlier times.

Although “On Our Knees” shows the creative ways in which contemporary African Americans have responded to the always-complex act of kneeling, which can convey devotion, supplication, resistance, or protest, she had, in “The Patriot Slave” and an earlier essay about the Boston Massacre, focused on specific ways in which history has misrepresented the Black experience. Peterson’s devotion to historical truth is mirrored in another essay in this issue, by the distinguished historian David Levering Lewis. His piece, “A Prophet and a President,” looks thoughtfully at the Obama presidency in part through the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, about whom Lewis wrote a two-part biography, each of which won a Pulitzer Prize.

A third essay here, “Dark White,” examines race from the perspective of an American of Syrian descent. Growing up in the United States, Rosalie Metro was considered white. But several periods of living in Germany introduced her to the awful sting of discrimination. Was it the hue of her skin, or something else?

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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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