“The Politics Of Swag!”


Last week President Obama delivered the State of the Union Address to Congress. This was his first address to a Republican controlled House of Representatives and Senate. Early in his address the President said that he had no more campaigns to run and hence no political agenda to advance. As he completed his sentence about no more campaigns the Republican members began to applaud loudly as if to say, “good riddance.” Without missing a beat President Obama went off script and replied, “I know…I won both of them!” Then he looked away or as we like to say, “He gave them the side-eye and threw major shade!” That one aspect of the State of the Union became the singular discussion point on both sides of the political divide. The President’s detractors thought he was “disrespectful” while his supporters felt that he’d finally got his swag back.
President Obama has been hamstrung from the very start of his presidency. There is no handbook for how to be the first Black president and when as a Black man he attempted to be president of the entire nation he was sanctioned and criticized for everything he did. He started out “doing too much” and was roundly chided for “not doing enough.” His attempt to be a “good party leader” had him holding his tongue and taking a lot of disrespect and out right racism from his opponents. But now, he has no more elections to worry about. Although he won his own elections, the midterm elections have been disasters. However, no longer saddled by these races, he can now regain his swag.
This is a familiar position for many Black people. As Black professionals we often self-censor to make our White colleagues feel comfortable or better about themselves. When we are the best at some task or accomplish something special we are expected to politely say thank you and downplay our work. We are not supposed to exhibit any kind of bravado or “swag.” We are never to take credit for what we do or act as if we are anything other than team players. But every now and then we want to show our swag, our flair, our genuinely celebratory spirit.
I think the reason we like certain athletes is that displaying their swag is part of the stock and trade of their profession. I enjoyed Richard Sherman shouting, “Don’t you ever challenge me; I’m the best corner in the NFL!” And, I especially loved Sherman’s defense of himself when the media called him a thug. I loved the late sportscaster Stuart Scott’s insistence on doing sports reporting his way despite ESPN’s attempt to make him conform to a bland, white bread presentation style.
When I first went in to the academy I worried that I would not fit and consequently would not survive. I did not question my own intellect, skill, or ability to learn. I questioned my ability to fit in—to make small talk, pretend that mindless discussions were about anything, and to tolerate clueless (and intentional) racism. I expressed my concern to my older brother (who is not an academic) and he gave me the following advice: “All you have to do is be like Reggie Jackson…hit 3 homeruns in October. They don’t have to like you, they just have to need you.” I took his advice to heart and when it was time for me to go up for tenure one of my external reviewers was the late, great Derrick Bell. Professor Bell wrote a short but powerful letter on my behalf that included a line that said, “She’s kind of like the old Motown song—she may not be the one you want, but she sho’ nuf is the one you need!”
I think we need to be proud of our skills and abilities and not be inhibited from celebrating them. We need to encourage our children to stick out their chests and be proud without disparaging others. They don’t need to hide their lights under a bushel. If they’re the best they should be able to say they are the best. If they are clear winners they need to say they are winners. The larger society will talk about how uncouth and ill-mannered “trash talking” is, but as one of my friends told me, “It’s not trash talking if you actually follow through and produce!”
I love folks with swag…W. E. B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Muhammad Ali, Reggie Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Maya Angelou, Shirley Chisholm, Denzel Washington, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Marion Berry, Richard Sherman, and many more. I’ll let my White peers worry about the politics of my swag, but trust me, I’m going to maintain it…”Dueces!”

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