In the words of the legendary composers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, “You can’t hide from yourself. Everywhere you go, there you are.” In other words, our past comes with us, welcomed or unwelcome … whether we see it coming or not.
On Monday night, when the Auburn Tigers – led by Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Cam Newton – beat the Oregon Ducks, I was happy for him. You know the story. His dad was accused of asking schools interested in recruiting his son for money.
For a while, all that this young man had achieved on the field was tainted and overshadowed by questions regarding his eligibility and whether his Heisman Trophy should be returned. He stood firm throughout, always declaring that he had done nothing wrong. You’ve got to love him for his charisma and respect him for handling the situation with dignity as he took his team as far as they could go.
But deep inside I was hoping that Auburn would lose that game. Not because of Cam’s past, but because of mine – and Auburn’s.
I grew up 20 miles down the road from Auburn, and I could never go to a game; in fact, I couldn’t set foot on the campus, even just to look around, because it was against the law. Not a law of the college or even of Auburn, but a law handed down by the Supreme Court.
People who were born after the civil rights movement take for granted the freedoms that we enjoy today. Some think that segregation was something from ancient history and can’t believe someone as young and cool as I am remembers it like it was yesterday.
My driver, who’s 30ish and Latin, thought I was kidding when I told him how it was. Oh, he’d heard the stories in school and during Black History Month, but didn’t really believe it.
A lot of us find that unbelievable, but it’s true. And it’s our fault if we don’t share the stories of the way it was, even though those painful memories bring up emotions we’d really rather not deal with. But the alternative is not good either. If we don’t deal with the segregation, discrimination and just plain evil that we were subjected to in this country, it doesn’t just hurt us; it is a slap in the face to the people who fought and died to force change.
So, as we approach the King holiday and later, Black History Month, I don’t have a speech or a poem or a song to share with you. Instead, I want to remind some of you and reveal to others that there was a time that Cam Newton could not have played football at Auburn University. There was nothing but white guys on the team, nothing but white folks in the stands and nothing but white students on the campus – not just at Auburn, but most colleges and universities that weren’t HBCUs. If you wanted to sit in the stands and see a black quarterback when I was growing up (Remember, there was no DirecTV back then), you had to go to Tuskegee or ‘Bama State in Montgomery.
Separate but equal is more than a chapter in our history books. It was alive and well. Things were separate, alright, but EQUAL? No.
I’m a little hazy on the facts, but I can remember seeing Bear Bryant, the coach for the University of Alabama, on TV talking about how they went out West to play USC or UCLA and got their asses handed to them. He had taken his bad, all-white team out West and got beat to death by a team with black players. I seem to remember on his TV show highlighting that past weekend’s game him saying, “we’ve got to get some ‘niggras'” – ‘niggras’ was a proper way not to say the n-word – “on this team. They’re right in our backyard.”
I don’t want to misquote Bear Bryant, so I tried to go back and find out what he said exactly. Instead of finding what I was looking for, I found all these motivational quotes he made about winning with dignity and not giving up. He may have said those things too, but he also said that some of the black players for USC, who beat them, came from Birmingham high schools.
“And by golly, just as sure as I wear this hat, we’re going to get us some ‘niggras’, too.” We’ve come a very long way since the days when a coach could say something like this publicly and keep his job. But not long enough for me to be able to forget how it made me feel to hear them. The same with my feelings about Auburn.
Now, of course, all you see on the field are black guys. And even though the laws have changed, I can’t forget.
It’s different for me. I didn’t hear about it or read about it; I lived it. For me, Auburn will always be that place where I was never allowed to go. Just as we are followed by our past, Auburn can’t hide its ugly history of racism, no matter how many Cam Newtons grace its field.