S.11 E.4: “The Black Athlete, Ronald Reagan, and the New Right”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus podcast host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus history professor and race scholar Dr. Kate Aguilar.
Posted on November 23rd, 2021 by

Dr. Katelyn Aguilar, the newest member of the Gustavus Department of History, on growing up in an inclusive household as the daughter of a high-school basketball coach in Indiana, her path to African American and Sport History, her research on what the University of Miami’s football team of the mid-1980s had to do with the rise of the New Right embodied by Ronald Reagan, protest by Black athletes and the new Netflix series on Colin Kaepernick, early impressions of Gustavus, and why history matters.

Season 11, Episode 4: “The Black Athlete, Ronald Reagan, and the New Right”

Greg Kaster:

Hello, and welcome to Learning for Life @ Gustavus. The podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College and the myriad ways a Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host, Greg Kaster, faculty member in the Department of History. Say the words black athlete in America and certain figures come immediately to mind, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, Simone Biles, Colin Kaepernick to name just a few. But what do most of us really know about the history of black athletes in this country and its intersection with an impact on the history of sports, society, politics, and nation?

One person who in fact knows a great deal about all of this is my colleague and guest today, Dr. [Kaitlin 00:00:54] Kate Aguilar of our Department of History, who this spring semester will be offering an exciting and already filled new course titled The Black Athlete in America. Dr. Aguilar, I’m happy to say became the newest member of the History Department this fall 2021. A specialist in African-American history in Africana Study. She earned her doctorate in history from the University of Connecticut, work that was supported in part by competitive fellowships from the Western Association of Women Historians and the coordinating council for Women in History.

Her extensive teaching and research experience prior to cast Gustavus includes courses in African-American history, race and ethnic relations and race crime and justice. Her professional writings include the essay To Win One for the Gipper, Football and the Fashioning of a Cold Warrior, and in edited to collection on sport, culture, and the Cold War, as well as various papers for scholarly conferences. She also blogs for sport in American history.

In addition to her teaching in scholarship, Dr. Aguilar brings to Gustavus training and experience as a diversity and inclusion practitioner having served several years as coordinator of student life and campus diversity at her previous institution, Indiana University Kokomo. Her work at the intersection of African-American and sport history is fresh, revelatory, timely, and important. And with the recent release of Colin in Black and White, the six part Netflix drama about Colin Kaepernick’s life. It seemed like a particularly opportune time to speak with her about the black athlete in US history and her own biography as well.

So welcome, Kate. It’s so great to have you on the podcast and on the faculty at Gustavus.

Kate Aguilar:

Thank you so much, Dr. Kaster. I am so honored to be here, honored to be a part of the faculty, excited to be living in Minnesota. It’s just a really wonderful time.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Well, that’s all music to my ears. And yeah, you’re a Midwestern like me. I’m trying to remember, in fact, you have a Chicago connection, right?

Kate Aguilar:

I do. Yes. I was raised outside of Chicago. The part of Indiana that thinks it’s Chicago in the region.

Greg Kaster:

Oh that’s great.

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. So right outside of Gary, Indiana. And really very much am used to the cold and the lake effect and the wind. So that part doesn’t [crosstalk 00:02:59]

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. You’ll be fine. Yeah. No. We know what real cold is like and I grew up in [crosstalk 00:03:05]-

Kate Aguilar:

Yes, we do.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I grew up in the south suburbs and we used to go to Gary. I think, oh, in Hammond, Indiana. It’s coming back to me. My dad was a hairdresser and he would… There was some kind of beauty supply store in Hammond, Indiana. We always went there.

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. Right down the road from me.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Okay. That’s where we used to go along. Yeah. Anyway, it’s great to have you on the podcast. And again, as a member of the department. So you were teaching last semester as well at Kokomo and were you all online?

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. We were online.

Greg Kaster:

How did that go?

Kate Aguilar:

It was quite a pivot, as I know it was for everyone at first. But it really, teaching race and ethnic studies in different forms. So I was teaching in a Sociology Department at the time doing some intersectional work based on my background in Africana Studies, and really because of tools like we’re doing today, right? The podcast and film and all these different mediums, I felt like students didn’t miss too much of a beat.

I mean we could transfer it right on online. They could listen, they could watch, and then we could have discussions, but it definitely, it took a little adjustment at first, but once we got rolling a lot of the tools we were already using in class to think about race and ethnicity and to talk about race and ethnicity, they found them still pretty accessible online.

The biggest difference, of course, is just in-person. I feel like there is an emotionality to this work that is missing, right? When you have an online discussion format, it’s just not the same. And so, I really did try to encourage that, obviously, around my work with diversity and inclusion. I have lots of thoughts about Zoom cameras being off instead of on, and being able to see each other and relate to each other and the role, obviously, as I said of emotion and facial expression and tone and all that kind of stuff.

And so, I really pushed for that with my students. We had a lot of conversations around, because I know there were a lot of people who said, “Well, I don’t think it’s fair for students to have to turn the camera on.” And I said, “Well, I don’t think it’s fair for us as just human beings interacting in an academic space to have the camera off. I think we lose so much that’s really important to the nuance of discussing identity.” And so, I really pushed for that. So that part was probably the hardest pivot.

Greg Kaster:

Well, I love that. I don’t know if it was official policy, we were certainly encouraged not to demand or instruct students to have it. I ignored those instructions, because how do I have a discussion if I’m just looking at letters or whatever they are. So you’re the expert. I mean diversity and inclusion and it’s great to hear you say that, because, yeah, it made a huge difference when I had the students-

Kate Aguilar:

It does.

Greg Kaster:

I mean, obviously, if there was legitimate reason or the camera wasn’t working, but I couldn’t agree more with you. And that’s really, I wish I had thought to say it the way you just did that. Well, it’s not fair in an academic setting to have your cameras off.

Kate Aguilar:

No. And I think I do a lot of work around probably the biggest thing in my previous role was just conversations around equity and equality. I think we don’t have a very deep understanding of that in US culture, in general. And so obviously, that spills over into academic spaces, but people would often say, “Well, it’s unfair.”

Well, equality and equity isn’t the same thing, right? So I think a lot of people when they are talking about, “Well, I don’t think you should demand certain things for students when they go online.” That was an equality issue. But the equity issue for me is that once we solved a lot of those equality issues, so ensuring spaces that students had access to technology, I know for a lot of people, it was a question around, well, people don’t, may not want to show their homes or their spaces because of privacy. Well, then Zoom backgrounds were created.

So once a lot of those things were remedied, then it was not a conversation for me of equality anymore. It was a conversation of equity and to truly be equitable, it’s the cameras on, not the cameras off, because that means that everyone then is going to get a similar experience to what they had in the classroom. It’s more relational and that was what we were missing with trying to keep everything off.

And like I said, especially when you’re talking around identity, there’s a lot of nuance around facial expression and tone that you just can’t have if you’re just screens off, as you said, typing, not talking. And so, once the equality issues were solved, I was like, actually, it’s more equitable to have the Zoom on that it is [crosstalk 00:07:20]-

Greg Kaster:

Wow. I love that distinction, equity, the difference between equality and equity. And also just as you’re speaking, I’m thinking it would… Yeah. It would’ve been ironic because now that we’re in-person, I mean there’s a mask mandate at Gustavus, and I’m in-person but I’m missing a lot of those facial nuances. So it would’ve been funny when I think about it, we’re online, you don’t have to wear a mask, but your camera’s off.

Kate Aguilar:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

What’s the point?

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. Right.

Greg Kaster:

Anyway.

Kate Aguilar:

Right. We’ve solved a lot of those issues to be able to do that so [crosstalk 00:07:55]-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. No. That’s an excellent distinction. What about, and so now you’re teaching, let’s see, you’re teaching two courses of African-American, two sections of African-American History, is that right?

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. The first part of the survey.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. And so, you’re doing, what are you doing, like two days in-person and one hybrid or one online?

Kate Aguilar:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

How’s that going? In general, what are your first impressions of Gustavus amid the pandemic?

Kate Aguilar:

It has been wonderful. I have love the students. I’ve loved being in back in the classroom. I have to admit, I’m not loving the hybrid format. I feel like it’s kind of throwing off our rhythm, because we do have really great in-person connection and discussions that have started. And then, that Monday piece. So that’s actually something that when they did midterm reflections, we talked a lot about was how would you like to see the Mondays go for the rest of the semester, because it is a different format.

And for them, it was like, “Well, maybe that should be the point where we watch video clips or we do things that don’t utilize the same kind of energy we’re using in-person,” which I thought was a great feedback from them. But it’s been really great overall. I mean there is a I will say as a Midwesterner and as someone who’s really fascinated in identity, I do notice a difference in the upper Midwest versus Indiana.

There are cultural differences that I’m seeing in the way that’s students relate. And it’s kind of funny, because when I take off my academic hat and even my mom hat, when I went into parent-teacher conferences, they were like, “Oh, your kids, they’re so outgoing and they’re so talkative.” And I do notice that there, that students here tend to be a bit more reserved, which seems to be, I’m really fascinated by there’s a lot of, obviously, we know the Scandinavian influences. We know that they’re transplants from Canada, we know just upper Midwest versus central, and then lower Midwest.

So that part has been really fun to see. I am someone who, obviously, since I study black culture, nothing is a monolith, right? There is no one black community and I love knowing that there’s no just one Midwest.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. I couldn’t agree more. I mean I’ve always thought of myself as a Midwesterner, I guess. First, maybe a Chicago, and even though I didn’t grow up in the city proper, but a Chicago, and then a Midwesterner. And certainly when I came to Gustavus in Minnesota, I went through the same exact same experience in realization. There isn’t a Midwest, right?

Kate Aguilar:

Right.

Greg Kaster:

There are different Midwest, even Iowa, right? And Minnesotans talk about how different Iowans are from Minnesotans. And it’s funny. It’s so interesting. And you mentioned the quiet part, and you and I have talked about this. We both have two sections of the same course, and it’s always funny how one section, not always, but whenever it happens it’s always funny.

One section can be quieter than the other. And I never know, is it me? Is it, what’s going on? But I’ll tell you what I did yesterday, just as an FYI. And it worked. I’ve been really reluctant to tell the second hour about the first hour, which is very talkative. And yesterday, literally, almost everybody spoke at least once in the first hour at 10:30. So I did tell that to the 11:30 class, and it worked.

Kate Aguilar:

[inaudible 00:11:04]

Greg Kaster:

It worked. There were suddenly hands shot up. I mean, “Is this is all it takes? I mean I just need to tell you, you’re not competing with the, you’re not up to speed with your peers?” I mean so I don’t know, but it was funny.

Kate Aguilar:

Don’t underestimate the competitive spirit, right?

Greg Kaster:

Seriously. Yeah. I guess that really sort of our discussion of athletes. Anyway, but, yeah, it’s just great to have you, and hopefully, hopefully, we’ll all be able to get rid of the masks at some point.

Kate Aguilar:

I know. I know.

Greg Kaster:

So talk to me a little bit about, you started talk about where you grew up. What was that like? Where did you grow up? Were your parents educators? Where did you go to school for your undergraduate?

Kate Aguilar:

Yeah. So my parents were educators and my mom actually very different spectrums of educators, because my mom was a kindergarten teacher, and first and second a little bit, but most of her career was a kindergarten teacher. And my dad started out as a math teacher in high school, and then became a high school counselor. And then, he is ending his career as a vice principal and dean of students.

And so, one worked with the really little and one worked with the much older. And my dad, a few years into his career in teaching, became a high school basketball coach. And so, he was a high school basketball coach in all of my time growing up, pretty much that’s all I remember. And so, I spent most of my life at a gym. We were very much involved.

My dad, we ran around while he conducted practices. We were at all the games. I always remember athletes coming in and out of my home. It was something that my parents, I was one of three kids, they always wanted more and couldn’t have more. And my mom always said, “I think that the bigger picture was that, was because we were always destined to have an athlete coming in and out of the house, eating at the dinner table, staying the night.”

We had a few who lived with us off and on when they had other things going on in their family. So my house was really full and really full with basketball players. And so-

Greg Kaster:

That’s interesting.

Kate Aguilar:

Yeah. It was a really great experience growing up and just, I always remember being very aware of what it meant to be a part of a team and just a very much communal aspect of that. I was raised German Catholic too, big families, everybody chipped in. And so, that was kind of the one constant of my life that I was always thinking about, always aware of my brother was a basketball player as well, and a college basketball player, and so that was that one piece.

And then, the other really was, I mean as you know with the diversity of that region, so the region itself, that part of Indiana has incredible ethnic diversity. So people coming from all over the world, settling in Chicago, and then moving out into the suburbs either to the West or to the East, and that, of course, trickled into Indiana. So there was amazing ethnic diversity. And then, there was racial diversity, but what was fascinating is that I lived in the town right next to… So I was raised in Hobart, Indiana right next to Gary.

And I remember Gary being a predominantly black community and Hobart was a predominantly white community. And in the sense of being a sun downtown, so it policed people coming in and out of the border. It was known for being very racist. And there was a lot of, really a lot of competition for jobs and space. A lot of the community was steelworkers. So they would move into East Chicago, they would move through the steel mills, but a real embrace of ethnic, diversity, but fear of racial diversity.

Greg Kaster:

That is extraordinary-

Kate Aguilar:

So I remember that… It was very interesting. And I remember that growing up that it was something that my parents were really aware of. And so, my dad being a basketball coach would move through all the communities and we would go into Gary west side, and we would go into the Chicago area. And I remember people around my family having a lot of comments about it.

And my dad saying, “I don’t want you to think about that. I don’t want you to internalize those comments. These are all athletes. We’re going to play basketball. We’re going to have an experience and I don’t want you to internalize that.” And so, it was really fascinating the way in which my parents didn’t say a ton about it, but they didn’t embrace it. And so, we had just a really racially and ethnically diverse group of people always moving in and out of our home, even though Hobart itself was not.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. That’s a gift.

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. It was a gift.

Greg Kaster:

That’s your gift to you.

Kate Aguilar:

It was a gift. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Definitely. Go ahead.

Kate Aguilar:

Well, and it was really fascinating, because my mom was, her mom was from the south. Her mom was from North Carolina and had moved to Indiana to marry my grandpa who was in the military and there… I didn’t know much about it until I was older, but my mom would always say things like my grandpa, and then my great grandpa owned tobacco fields and there’s a history there and I was not allowed to, when I would talk to them, I was not allowed to talk about anything besides white people, white communities, white experiences, but her mother was really different.

She’d left North Carolina. She’d rejected that racism of her personal background in the area. And so, my parents had done the same thing, and yet what was so fascinating is that my best friend growing up was only one of two black kids that lived in Hobart in the area that went to Hobart Middle School and she was adopted. And so, the way in which the community embraced her was they said, “Well, she’s pretty much white so she’s okay.”

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Kate Aguilar:

I had such a knowledge of that, of being what does that mean for someone to be pretty much white who is black? And what kind of rejection does that have to take? And it’s fascinating the conversations we’ve had, we’re still best friends. And as she’s gotten older and I’ve gotten older about just the racial politics of the area and what it meant for people to move among the different regions and the way in which Gary and Hobart would coincide, but yet you couldn’t, obviously, freedom of movement, freedom of space, so it wasn’t there.

And that rich history, I was always very aware of people loving Michael Jackson and pilgrimaging to Gary for those kinds of spaces. And yet then, oh, well, you have to be out of Gary by a certain time because it’s not safe or nobody can come into Hobart at a certain time, because it has to be kept safe. And so, all of that was in my upbringing at the same time that my home was just an open door for anyone, of course, but especially athletes. I had athletes coming in and out all the time of different racial backgrounds and ethnic backgrounds.

And my parents, the door was always open, and yet in a town where if they moved after a certain time. And in fact, my brother, when he played college ball, by that time we had moved to Southern Indiana and he brought buddies home from his college team and they pulled them over when they got across the city line. And my brother said, “Why are you pulling us over, you know who I am?” And they said, “Oh, we didn’t see you in the car.” All black guys, except for him.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Kate Aguilar:

They said, “We didn’t see you in the car.”

Greg Kaster:

It’s so amazing.

Kate Aguilar:

It’s amazing.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I mean we stress this in our courses. Of course, students really, I mean students tend to… Well, first of all, they forget that slavery was in every one of the 13 colonies and every one of the 13 original states. But that Jim Crow is not by any means of Southern phenomenon.

Kate Aguilar:

No.

Greg Kaster:

And that it hasn’t ended. I mean it’s still with us in so many ways. I had a similar experience growing up. My dad, I like to think he leaped in the sort of the exposure method of education, but he would drive us into so-called bad neighborhoods. I mean just drive us around and I remember him even kind of scolding my mother once… She grew up on a farm in downstate Illinois, sort of Southern Illinois, and she locked, pressed the lock button or something. My father, “What are you doing?”

He just treated, everyone he met, my dad, I’ll never forget, just treated everyone as just an equal, a human being no matter what they were, what color, but that’s how… I mean we would drive around Gary. He would take my brother and me and sort of these were field trips in a way, I guess. I mean but trying to get us to understand, not everyone lived in a white suburb as we did and not to be afraid, to embrace as your dad did and your mom to embrace difference or whatever words we want to use.

I have a vivid image now of your household wasn’t there. And it seems like you were destined to work on athletics and black athletes. So were you playing sports yourself in school, high school?

Kate Aguilar:

So I’d actually played basketball growing up. And then, when I was in high school I decided to do theater which I loved.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. Really? Wow.

Kate Aguilar:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:20:06]

Kate Aguilar:

And took on a different route. But it’s interesting when I originally was going to go to college, I thought I was going to go to Indiana University and I wanted to go into sports journalism. That was my great dream. And I got a scholarship to DePauw University and I told my dad. I said… My dad being a high school counselor was the one that did all the trips with me, because he counseled students on how to get into college. And my parents were both first generations so they talked to us a lot about how to, what we should weigh in.

And I went on a trip to DePauw and I told my dad. I said, “I think this is where I’m meant to go.” And he said, “That’s great.” And I said, “But they don’t have sports journalism.” And I really think I want to be a journalist and cover sports. And he said, “Well, just go and see what happens. Maybe you’ll take a course that will take you in a different direction.”

And my very first semester, I took intro to Black Studies. At the time it was called Black Studies at DePauw. And I just knew that was what I wanted to do. And I went home and again, to my parents’ credit, they were very adventurous people. And I told my dad. I said, “I think I want to get a degree in Black Studies, but they don’t offer it.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you ask if you could create a major?” And I said, “Okay. I think I will.”

And he said, “Well, what are you going to do with that?” I said, “I don’t know. I’m not 100% sure.” And he said, “Well, I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Just start asking questions, just start mentoring, get a mentor and just start following people around and do it and see what they do.” And I said, “Okay.”

So I went back to my intro to Black Studies teacher and I said, “I really think I’d like to be a Black Studies major.” And he said, “Okay. Well, this is how we’re going to do it.” And so, I was the first Black Studies major at DePauw.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Kate Aguilar:

At the end of my four years, I, at first, I thought what I really thought I was going to do, which is interesting, because it deviated from sports. But having two parents who are educators, I said, “Maybe I’ll go into curriculum design. Maybe that’s something that I’m being drawn to just think about the way in which we teach and talk about race in the US.” And so I had a person who was mentoring me who was really involved with Teach For America.

And I thought, “I’m going to go do that.” And so, I applied for Teach For America and I went off and I taught in Compton for a little bit. And then, I taught in St. Louis, Missouri, and I was in all black schools. So I was the only… There were no white students. And there were only two white teachers in the school, myself and another person. And so, I just lived and worked among black communities for a few years and I loved it.

And I loved K through 12. I was in a middle school and a high school and I thought it was wonderful, but I just kept thinking, “You know, as much as I love curriculum design and thinking about these questions, I really need to go back to college and I really need to get my master’s degree and maybe a PhD and I really need to be more immersed in the history.” And the more immersed I got, I wanted to go higher. I wanted to teach higher. I wanted to… I really realized that the big calling was to teach students who would then go in and be teachers in the schools, who would go in and work in the business community.

I love to teach, even though Teach For America has issues, and it does. I love the Teach For America model of exposure. Exactly like you said. I mean the whole purpose was we know we may not create the best teachers, we may not create people who teach for life, but by being among communities that they may have never interacted with, engaged with before, maybe they will go back to whatever career or field they were originally thinking of, law, business, whatever that may be and they won’t forget these stories.

And that part I really fundamentally agreed with and admired. And I tell that to my students all the time. Do I think that you’re going to major in African-American History or do something with African-American History for the rest of your life? Probably not, but you will, no matter what career you do, you will interact with people who think differently, live differently, have different upbringings, have different needs, have different issues and I hope this course gets you to think about that. And so-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. That’s exactly right. I mean that’s our role precisely.

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. That’s right.

Greg Kaster:

That’s what education is at this… Was that for a year or more that you did Teach For America?

Kate Aguilar:

I did Teach For America for two years.

Greg Kaster:

Two years. And was it East St. Louis or where were you-

Kate Aguilar:

Yeah. It was in East St. Louis, and then it was on the north side of St. Louis.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. Yeah. And let’s see. So from DePauw, I want to ask you too about that. Was that where John Dittmer, right? The historian John Dittmer?

Kate Aguilar:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Did you know him or work with him at all?

Kate Aguilar:

I did work with him. Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Kate Aguilar:

Yeah. So he was incredible.

Greg Kaster:

He’s an amazing historian.

Kate Aguilar:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

He did the book, was it local people, civil rights movement, and I can’t remember the name of the book, but his big book. And yeah, the other thing is about that. Of course, it’s Indiana. And I want to go back to basketball for a second. So I mean the stereotype, were you obsessed with Indiana University basketball?

Kate Aguilar:

I was. Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Who’s your [crosstalk 00:24:57]. Okay.

Kate Aguilar:

I was obsessed [crosstalk 00:24:59]

Greg Kaster:

You saw the movie, what was it called, Breaking Away? You probably seen that older movie [inaudible 00:25:02]

Kate Aguilar:

I did. Yeah. And actually, so my dad, when he first decided he wanted to be a high school coach, and this is so emblematic of the kind of personality that I have as well. My dad decided, “Well, I want to be a high school coach, so I’m going to move out and I’m going to try to get an assistant job under the winningest high school basketball coach in the country, because if I’m going to learn, I want to learn from the one who’s doing it the best.” So he quits his job, moves his entire family out to Maryland to work under Morgan Wootten.

Greg Kaster:

Oh my god.

Kate Aguilar:

Yeah. And to my mom’s credit, she said, “Yeah. Let’s try it out. Let’s see how it goes.” Moves out there, at the time has no job, walks into the local high school. Says, “I’m a counselor. Can you hire me at [inaudible 00:25:40] High School?” And then, watches the movie Hoosiers and tells my mom, “It’s time to go back to Indiana. I’ve learned on under Morgan Wooten. I love loved it. And now I want to go back to Indiana.”

And all these sports movies and sports moments and what Indiana means and Indiana University, they’re all in the backdrop of my life of how I think about sport. Right? Which is fascinating, because largely these are movies around white guys.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Yes.

Kate Aguilar:

And so, there’s also that whole tenant to it that as I older, I think, “Oh yeah. That’s fascinating.”

Greg Kaster:

It is fascinating. So did you continue basketball or any kind of athletics in college as an undergraduate or not?

Kate Aguilar:

No. No. Just enjoyed.

Greg Kaster:

All right. Well, I’m not good at basketball or I would challenge you to a pickup game or something.

Kate Aguilar:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

So you did go on for a master’s and was that… Remind me, where was that at? Where did you-

Kate Aguilar:

So I did go to IU at that point. I was between DePauw and IU. And so, the funny thing is I thought, “Well, I’m going to do…” IU had a wonderful Africana Studies Department and-

Greg Kaster:

Indiana University. Yeah.

Kate Aguilar:

Indiana University. Yes. And so, I said, “I’m going to go to Indiana University and I’m going to do Africana Studies.” And so, I went down there, did my master’s in Africana Studies. And at that point, I knew I wanted to become a historian, go on to a PhD in History. And so, then I’d moved from Indiana University. I worked under a great historian by the name of Matt Guterl, who’s now at Brown University. He does American Studies for them.

And so, he then recommended that I work under someone out at the University of Connecticut. And so, then I moved out to Connecticut for my PhD.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, I’m a fan of his work. I didn’t know you worked with him.

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. Yeah. He was my master’s-

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Kate Aguilar:

… my thesis advisor and just a really… He’s just-

Greg Kaster:

I don’t know him, but I’m a fan of his work and I’m a fan of his… He has some wonderful stuff about how to do reading, which I’ve used in our methods course here [crosstalk 00:27:32]-

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. He’s great.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Then, let’s pause a little bit at Africana Studies. Tell us a little bit about what that field involves.

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. So it’s incredible, because it is a truly intersectional yield. So you’re learning methods and research from sociologists and historians and anthropologists. And so, it was just this really incredible look at largely I walked in knowing I was going to focus on the African-American experience, but it’s a really great Africana Studies is really looking at the full diaspora it, right?

And so, this really pushed me to think about obviously the role of Africa dispersal movement, the transatlantic slave trade. So a much longer history and this really has transformed even the way that I think about and teach African-American History. Typically, we used to start much closer to the start of the country and now know we go much farther back. Obviously, the 1619 Project is released today. That’s been very influential in thinking about 1619 as an origin story, but even farther back.

And so, Africana Studies is really doing that work, thinking about the diaspora, the way in which the diaspora, the linkages and the connections and how it forms an African-American community, to black community, but obviously that community not being a monolith and what that means and how race and class and gender and sexuality, how those all inform different black public spheres. And then, looking at that through the lens of, as I mentioned, really different disciplines and having these rich conversations around, I mean the late great Manning Marable, who I’m a huge fan of. Really talked about that at the center of Africana Studies is theory, and then practice.

And so, as scholars, we’re coming in and theoretically, we’re getting an understanding of he called it description, correction and prescription. So we’re looking at the ways in which communities have been categorized. We’re correcting, obviously, stereotypical categorizations. And then, we’re giving these great prescriptions for the future. And so, that was something I really my admired about Africana Studies when I did it in undergrad and in my masters is that you have all these scholars coming together and saying, “Theoretically, here’s where we’re coming from. And then, here’s how we affect change. Here’s how we put it into practice.”

So there’s this great social justice component and you have many people who are using their scholarly background to then go out and work within communities, serve communities. So it felt very, also, it felt like a great and note to Teach For America, because I knew there was always going to be an element of I want to do, I want to put this work into practice.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Practice. Exactly. Boy, Manning Marable, I mean I love his biography of Malcolm X, which I’ve taught here and-

Kate Aguilar:

Yeah. It’s incredible.

Greg Kaster:

… a major figure. I agree. So were you already, at that point, were you thinking about doing work on the black athlete?

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. I was. So I actually did, so my master’s thesis was actually on black celebrity. So it included athletes, it included musicians. And I looked at this interesting intersection with black celebrity and kind of what they were saying about a particular moment. And so, I already knew in some ways that’s where I was headed. And then, when I got to the University of Connecticut, it was interesting, as a sports fan and kid of a coach, there were two things that were always on in my house or always around in my house.

ESPN was always on. It was constant. I mean we were watching sports center constantly. In fact, my dad would never let change the channel, right? Until he’d seen it. He would never… And so, there was kind of a running joke about how much sports trivia my mom knew, even though she wasn’t a coach and she never played sports, because she always heard it.

And so, someone would ask a random question at a dinner conversation and my mom would be like, “Oh no, so and so athlete from 19 something with this stat.” And people were like, “How do you know that?” She’s like, “Because it’s constantly on in my house.”

And so, we had ESPN, and then my dad always had Sports Illustrated and we always had magazines around. And so, when I got to Connecticut, I was telling my new advisor, Mickey [inaudible 00:31:38]. I was saying, “I really want to do something around black celebrity, around a political moment, but I’m not quite sure what.” And at the time, ESPN had just released, it was the seventh video of their 30 for 30 series.

And it was these great little, not really documentaries, but I mean they were shows that told you about a cultural moment around a team or around a franchise. And there was a documentary on the U. And it was a 30 for 30 on the U. And I watched it and I was talking about it with my husband, who is a huge University of Miami football fan. And I said, “Wow. This is a really fascinating 30 for 30, because it’s talking out the racial politics of the team in south Florida under Reagan, and yet it’s not really going there.”

And he said, “Well, maybe that’s your project.” And I went back to her and I said, “I really… I don’t want to just do black celebrity. I want to do the black athlete. I want to talk about the way in which athletes are framed in a certain political moment, the way they engage with different political moments, how they shape it, how they push back, especially blackness in a global south.” Because it was so fascinating to me because you had African-American, you had black Cuban. So really blackness meant something more. And there was this transnational approach to it that other teams where it was largely just African-American athletes. And she said, “Yeah. You should absolutely do it.” And so I did.

Greg Kaster:

Well, that is interesting at a number of levels. First of all, your husband, Hector says, “Well, maybe that’s your project.” I mean that’s always interesting to me how we sometimes a PhD advisor will sort of say, “Well, why don’t you try this?” Other times we stumble on it in the archives, this is great. Your husband’s-

Kate Aguilar:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

I’m sure you duly credit Hector in your-

Kate Aguilar:

I do. I do. Yes. I did.

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:33:34]. I mean other thing about it that’s so interesting to me, and never about any of this, is the focus on, as you say the global south. And the ways in which, this is what I’d like you to talk more about, just really your dissertation. The ways in which you connect that to not only Ronald Reagan, but the sort of post, let’s say post-68, rise of the new right. So talk to us a little bit about the specific connections between your looking at the University of Miami team, right? And then, Reagan, and then the rise of the new right.

Kate Aguilar:

Absolutely. So it’s interesting when you’re talking about what draws us to a project, because Hector was definitely the first inspiration. And then, when I went down to the archives, I thought, “Well, I knew there was something there with Reagan.” And again, it’s not exactly a documentary, but the film, it shows this picture of Reagan with the 1988 Miami championship team.

So the 1987, ’88 team, and they go and visit Reagan. It’s the end of January. And he’s holding up this Jersey that has his number on it with the Miami colors. And I was just fascinated by the fact that surrounding him are white men, the coach, the athletic director, and then behind him are largely black players. And I thought, “Something kind of interesting with what we know about Reagan and the new right and race, and really the rise of the new right and the rise of the Sunbelt South was really the politics of racial and spatial exclusion.”

I mean it was the control of political space by white, largely white men. And so, I’m thinking about this at that moment. And then, I go into the archives and I find this image of JFK in 1962. And JFK is at the Orange Bowl. He’s there with Jackie Kennedy. He’s welcoming these Cuban refugees who have been a part of the… So they’ve welcomed members of the 2506 Cuban invasion brigade. And so, they’re a part of the Cold War politics, right? They’re a part of trying to take down Fidel Castro.

And I start thinking about these two, what I call Miami moments. And I start thinking about them in conversation. And I wonder, how does this work move from when Miami and the Orange Bowl was predominantly used to welcome white tourists and white Cuban men? Because here’s what’s fascinating is most of the people in the picture around JFK and Jackie Kennedy, they are white presenting. So they appear to be white. And there’s this really fascinating history in Miami of the movement of white Cubans versus black Cubans, to what I saw as a space of containment in the 1980s for black men and black culture expressions.

So really moving from celebrating using football to celebrate white masculinity, to as more black men come to play and dominate the sports. So now over half of division one players are black men, and in the SCC especially, and then down in the ACC in places like that. So I start to think about, what changes, what role did football play in shaping racial and political discourse on whiteness and masculinity and militarism and American leadership in the Cold War? And how does President Kennedy and President Reagan employ it differently?

What is the relationship between the welcoming of white Hispanics and the celebration of white masculinity to looking at sport and to looking at especially football in the global south is something that needs to be contained as a threat? And so, it’s really fascinating when Reagan welcomes the team, at this time, the University of Miami is the dominant team of the 1980s. They have a predominantly black players.

And even though they’re the dominant team of the 1980s, they are seen as a national problem. And Reagan, when he welcomes the team, actually, it’s an example of white paternalism. He gives them a patronizing talk about how it’s good of you guys to win, but really you need to win with grace and you need to show a bit more humility as you win.

And so, you have this juxtaposition in this moment of the Penn States and the University of Notre Dame, and these largely white teams versus these largely black teams that are seen as, well, yeah, they may be athletically excellent, but they are really positioned as an image of abject blackness and that’s through an image of an abject south. And so-

Greg Kaster:

Can you say more about the ways in which the team was seen as a problem? Say a little bit more about that.

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. So the team as it became more of a dominant force. So the team wins its first national championship in 1984. By the end of the 1980s really into 1990, they have three national championships. And as they grow, there’s more awareness around problems on the team. Now these are not problems that are distinct to just one team, right?

Anyone who watches sports knows that there are athletes who break the rules. There are athletes that break the law. But the University of Miami team was known for being wild. And in fact, this is what at the time when Miami Vice was out and you have this really fascinating juxtaposition of the white and black character on Miami vice. The white character being one that kind of has to keep the black character in line, because he’s lied. And he’s left New York and he’s trying to avenge his brother.

And so, he’s too emotional and he’s too reckless. And so, you have Don Johnson in that space of having to contain and control the black character. And what was fascinating is that as Miami Vice is the number one show in television, they kept referring. They, being sports writers of the period like Rick Riley for Sports Illustrated for example, started to compare the team to Miami Vice twice. It was a team with a lot of problems that really needed a white coach or a white leader that could keep them in line.

And one of the complaints was that Jimmy Johnson, who was a coach at the time, wasn’t strong enough to do it. And the commentary was around, because there were a number of players who they were involved in credit card scams. They were involved in petty theft. There was involved in drinking and going to the clubs. There was a prominent rap group at the time called 2 Live Crew. And 2 Live Crew was paying them for play.

And so, there were all these different issues that, of course, is not unique to a sports program, but was really demonized as this is everything that’s wrong with athletics at this time, and yet completely not divorced from the racial politics of the period, right? So it wasn’t just this is everything that’s wrong with athletics. It’s this is everything that’s wrong with athletics and race as more black men are becoming a part of the sport, as more black men are becoming predominant in college football. As college football is becoming the national pastime in the United States, which is happening in the ’80s.

There’s this real commentary around we need more Penn States. We need more Joe Paternos. And in fact, at the same time, these articles are coming out about the University of Miami, you have Joe Paterno from Penn State being known as St. Joe. There’s an article in the Sports Illustrated that talks about St. Joe and he’s coaching this year and his players are everything that Miami is not.

And of course, at that time it’s not explicitly saying white versus black, but it’s that overlay of all the racial politics around Northern whiteness and white middle class respectability and culture versus blackness positioned as a threat to the social fabric, to the south. This black people from the south moving up to the north and the concerns around the great migration. So it’s all built into this language around the team.

Greg Kaster:

It’s so fascinating. It’s absolutely fascinating. It’s a great moment. I’ve completely forgot about Miami Vice that that’s simultaneous with all of this. And then, these tropes. I mean these are all, you know more than I know about this, but these tropes about black, especially a black male, right?

Kate Aguilar:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Black man who lacks self-control, who needs to be governed. So it’s almost as though, yeah, these are boys from the hood, right?

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. That’s it.

Greg Kaster:

And now they’re on this team, and oh my God. And now, help us understand the connection to the new right. Is the connection around race? Obviously, but just explain a little bit more about what this has to do with the rise of the new right. By the way, the other thing I like about this work, your work is the way it takes Reagan out of California, right?

Kate Aguilar:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

I mean situates him in a place we don’t think much about, at least, I have. Reagan in the global south or Miami specifically, but anyway, continue. What’s the connection to the new right?

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. So the rise of the new right, which as historians we know is happening before Reagan, but it really, we come to see it as this fruition with Reagan’s win, is this larger conversation too around the movement from Rustbelt to Sunbelt politics, right? And so, you have a new south influence on modern conservatism, which as you mentioned is really anything south of the 37th parallel.

So you have Southern California. And then, you have this connection all the way through Texas and Florida. And so, all of these spaces where you see people starting to move and flock for business, right? For a new type of consumerism. And obviously, for a service oriented sector. And so, the rise of the new right at this time is a political sensibility around, it’s looking at this state in a different way, the family in a different way. It’s this pro-defense, it’s this pro-family, it’s this anti-communist, it’s this the focus on masculinity and militarism, which is not unique.

We know this with Roosevelt and all of that, but it’s this resurgence of it that’s moving not only around because of the Cold War and this Cold War mentality, but it’s also around space. This movement of space. People leaving the north into parts of the south. And at this time you have the rise of the evangelical and the rise of traditional family values. And you have this modern conservative state that is celebrating white, masculine, militaristic, pro-family, pro-defense at a time when it is re-imagining the south as instead of it being the abject south, as we know from the end of the Civil War and have to move north and the south is a place where it needs to be reformed.

The south is now the center. It’s the revitalization, the new south. And like I said, including California. It’s the revitalization of new national sentiment that is really focusing, again on… I mean these are not new in US society, but re-imagining this focus on a white, hard bodied masculine leadership that is prepared to go to war, that is putting reestablishing the men is the head of the household of the state, the head of the household of the family, the role of the Christian right as a part of that.

So that’s all coming together under Reagan. And what’s fascinating is that the black athlete is at the center of it.

Greg Kaster:

yeah. That’s what’s so interesting.

Kate Aguilar:

Yeah. Well, when Reagan is the governor of California, he actually… So the Olympic Human Rights Project, which is the think tank behind the raising of the black power fists at the Mexico City Olympics. The architect behind that is Harry Edwards. Harry Edwards is a faculty member at San Jose State. He is an organizer that is really at the center of the revolt of the black athlete.

So you kind have Muhammad Ali and the Ali Summit. And then, you have Harry Edwards out in Florida-

Greg Kaster:

Is Edwards white or black?

Kate Aguilar:

Black. He’s black. And he was a black athlete at San Jose State, goes out, becomes the first black sociologist to graduate with a PhD from Cornell. Goes back to San Jose State to each. And he knows all of the issues that are happening with black athletes and these are really pretty well-known by this period. In 1968, you have the publication of Jack Olson’s really damning series, the shame on the black athlete.

And so, you have Jack Olson who is talking about the role of the black athlete in 1968 at colleges who’s brought in, but he can only play certain positions. He is demonized by the coaches. He’s hyper sexualized by the other players. And so, there’s this series on the shame bestowed on the black athlete. And then, at the same times, you have Harry Edwards who is leading the Olympic Human Rights Project, and he’s encouraging the raising of the black fist

He was an amazing track star who experienced some of this when he went to college at San Jose State. Then, comes back as a faculty member and starts to plan revolts. And he actually plans a revolt on a college football game. He says, “If this college football game goes on and you don’t answer some of the demands of the black athlete, which were really universally understood across the United States, which were the right to eat and at the time they couldn’t eat in the dining halls.

The right to take whatever classes they want. The right to not be called names. The use of the N-word by coaches. The use of the N-word, the ability to move among white spaces. So to join white fraternities, to live in white dorms. All of this were the demands of the black athlete at that time. So Harry Edward says, “If you don’t meet these demands, we’re going to boycott this football game.”

And Reagan is the governor at the time and says, “If you boycott it, I will shut it down.” It’s the first NCAA football game that was ever canceled because of political protests. So Reagan is using, and there’s this really incredible political cartoon where Reagan is shown, bring a football uniform, tackling the issues of the day. And so, they’re positioning Reagan as going toe to toe with the other athletes of the period. And he really starts to build his is… I guess you could say political cache to be the head of the new right, to be the next president by these two pieces going after the black athlete and going after the student protests. So the students protests-

Greg Kaster:

Well, that’s so interesting because that part, one, I mean when I teach the ’60s, I think about Reagan and Berkeley, right?

Kate Aguilar:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

And his response there. But forget about San Jose State. That’s really important. Really critical.

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. Incredibly important. Yeah. He builds his career off of really disciplining black athletes. And that it’s something, so when Miami comes to the White House, and he’s saying to them, “You guys really need to be behave better.” It seems like such a harmless comment, but in positioning his life within the rise of the new right and the influence of a certain type of hard bodied, white masculine leadership that is anti-protest, that is anti-hippy. That is using the athlete as a really American symbol against dissent and going toe-to-toe and following the law, and all that.

When you put it into that larger context, what he says to the team isn’t really that harmless at all. I mean it’s this larger image of white paternalism that you need a coach like me. And in fact, he goes and gives a speech at Notre Dame during the 1980s, where he says, “I was a former football player and there’s a reason that I’m the president, because you need a coach like me.”

And so, he is constantly putting himself up as not only the rightful leader, but the rightful coach. And he is making a commentary about white masculine leadership, white conservative leadership, white men policing black bodies, whether it be on the field, whether it be in the country. And as scholars of Reagan know that becomes a trademark of not only the new right, but of his leadership is the rise of mass incarceration, the policing of black bodies, the disinvestment.

So part of the real framework of the new right, isn’t just all the things that they were for, pro-defense, pro-family, but it was all the things that they were against. And a part of what they were against was, I mean it was racial and spatial exclusion of public space. So it was control the government, it was support for really racial segregation. You had suburban flight during this period, and you had suburban warriors who worked for Gold Water. And then, for Reagan, who said, “It is an American right to be able to say, ‘I don’t want to go to school with that person. I don’t want to live in the neighborhood with that person.'”

And so, you had the disinvestment in black communities and black urban centers and re-investment in white suburban spaces that said, “It is okay to police black bodies, to separate from black bodies.” So you had a resegregation happening in the United States, all around this political idea, that to be pro-family, and pro-defense, and pro the Sunbelt meant that you could say, “I don’t want to live and work and hear and listen to all of that.”

And so, the University of Miami is really at the center of that. And the black athlete is really at the center saying, “But I have rights too. And I have rights to disagree with how my body is being commodified and how my voice is being used and what spaces I can move.” And so, you had that real coming together of the new right, and the new south fighting against the black athlete. And then, what role the stadium takes as a part of that.

So what’s really fascinating is a lot of the people who were trademarks of the new right and the new south, saw the stadium as a battleground. And you had these really fascinating moments where major white preachers would say, “I’m not going to go to a city if it doesn’t have a big enough stadium, if it doesn’t have a state-of-the-art stadium in which to hold my rally and to showcase my work.”

And so, the stadium becomes this space and place where if it’s used correctly, it can become a beacon of the new south. And it can [crosstalk 00:52:06]-

Greg Kaster:

That is fascinating.

Kate Aguilar:

… beacon of the new right.

Greg Kaster:

That is really fascinating. The whole spatial dimension of your work is important and fascinating, but that in particular, I never really thought of. The role the stadium plays is symbolic I mean as a site. Yeah.

Kate Aguilar:

And that’s what’s fascinating about JFK is one of the running jokes in the Miami Herald around JFK taking the Cuban Brigade to the Orange Bowl, it wasn’t even half full. They said, “Why on Earth is he the Orange Bowl? He doesn’t need that big of a space.” But he knew why he was in the Orange Bowl, because of what it represented.

Greg Kaster:

That’s awesome.

Kate Aguilar:

And so, that was also just, the preachers would say, “I want to go and I want to have a great stadium.” But they might not even fill it. But they recognized like Reagan did, that sport was such a great battleground for being able to say, “I have strength and I have fortitude and I’m in control and I’m in control of a Cold War. I’m in control of a nation state.”

And so, you see these really fascinating larger conversations that sport shows us around nation formation, and the ways in which sport is used to shape the way we think about race and gender and sexuality and place and all of those things.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. That part of sport history is absolutely fascinating, how rich it is, how intersecting it is with… I mean virtually all aspects of our history, our contemporary moment, but also in the past politics, society, society, gender, sexuality, and all your talk about hard bodies reminds me of when I was in high… Well, yeah, it was high school, I guess. The JFK [inaudible 00:53:35] maybe earlier, I guess. But anyway, it was the leftover JFK presidential fitness program. And by the time of my… So this would’ve been ’70, ’71.

By the time of my senior year, I was part of a group of senior high school guys who were failing miserably at the hard body project. Some of us, I remember, not me, but I remember some literally just sort of acts of civil disobedience. No. This is just getting us ready for Vietnam.

And long story short, maybe I said this in another episode of the podcast. We wound up being put in a kind of special group. We got to go off campus to go bowling, and then they threw some sex at us as well. They didn’t know what to do with us. In other words, we were not into the Cold War hard body project. But it’s also interesting. And just shows you how complicated the “black athlete” is in our country’s past and present.

The other things I want to ask you about or just mention is you mentioned that cartoon of Reagan… What did you say? Tackling the [crosstalk 00:54:41]

Kate Aguilar:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Who’s he tackling? Is he tackling the team or who is he tackling?

Kate Aguilar:

Yeah. He’s tackling a protestor in a football uniform.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. So that just as a reminder, I remember this from your presentation, the job presentation you did that you’re interested in visual culture as am I, and clearly that’s a part of this, right?

Kate Aguilar:

Absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

I mean how the black athlete is being presented, visually how whiteness is being presented, that cartoon is an aspect of that, I think super important. And then, you kind of alluded to this just a second ago, but I wanted to ask you too, about what… Before we get to Colin Kaepernick, which we will, but what is your position if you have one on not just black athletes, but college, collegiate athletes being paid, being professionals?

Kate Aguilar:

Oh, yes. Yeah. I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s wonderful. Yeah. I think it’s really important. They already live in the space, right? I mean they were considered amateurs, and yet not, right? Because of the way in which they’re making money for the school, they have to go and do certain things for the school. And so, I think it’s a wonderful and important shift. And I think them having some ownership over their name and their identities, especially because they become celebrities so young now.

The [inaudible 00:55:52] shows great middle school athletes. I mean you can start tracking these gentlemen and ladies too, but you can start tracking athletes very young. And so, I think as they build up their own celebrity and identity personally, but also as the culture puts it on them to be able to benefit from that financially, I think is really important.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. It seems like that’s… I mean we have a ways to go along on that front, but that there’s definitely movement, right?

Kate Aguilar:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

In that direction. I agree with you. I just was curious what you thought. Colin Kaepernick, so find this so also fascinating. I know you could do a whole, well, maybe you will. You certainly do a whole course on Colin Kaepernick. But tell us a little bit about just your… What is his significance do you think? And then, I’d like to hear you talk a little bit about the current series, which I have not seen. It’s a six-parter, as I mentioned in the intro. I know you’ve reviewed it, but first, what you think of Colin Kaepernick? And especially in the context of your work, what is his importance? What is his significance?

Kate Aguilar:

Well, I’m actually going to quote here Harry Edwards, because I think he says it really brilliantly. And I think what’s really fascinating, so as I said, you can tie the revolt of the black athlete in many ways to the raising of the black power fist in the Mexico City, the Olympics. Many people see that as the catalyst that moment, right?

Greg Kaster:

And that’s 1968. Yeah.

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. 1968. And that is not to say that things aren’t happening with Muhammad Ali. Before that, we have the Muhammad Ali Summit in 1967, but that’s kind of what the catalyst were it comes together and you see the movement start to crystallize. And so, Harry Edwards is the architect by that. And I think what’s really fascinating for people to know is that when Colin Kaepernick started thinking about sitting and the kneeling and knowing… He understood the implications of what that meant.

He actually went and consulted with Harry Edwards. So Harry Edwards has been a part of this scene now for-

Greg Kaster:

Wow. That’s interesting.

Kate Aguilar:

Yeah. So Harry Edwards has worked with teams and worked with athletes and all of that. And what Harry Edwards identifies from when we think about the Jack Johnsons, to the Muhammad Alis, to the Mexico City Olympics, to now with Colin Kaepernick is obviously one of the major differences is the platform, right?

Colin Kaepernick because of national television, because of the shift in the National Football League and football becoming the national pastime and overtaking baseball, because of the role and the power of the black athlete with sponsors and different types of monetary support outside of the sport, you’re looking at an athlete who is in a completely different space from Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson and the 1960s.

John Carlos and Tommy Smith when they were banned, they didn’t have the outlets that Colin Kaepernick had. So that is not to say his risk is not great as we know, but it’s different. Right? And so, I think that is what’s really important and fascinating about Colin Kaepernick’s decision is I think, well, I don’t think. I mean they have said. When they stood on that platform and raised the black power fist, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, they didn’t quite know what was coming. The death threats and the stripping of the metals, they couldn’t foresee that.

Where Colin Kaepernick has the benefit of the history of the revolt of the black athlete, talking with Harry Edwards, of the work of Muhammad Ali. He knows Muhammad Ali got stripped of his boxing, right? That he couldn’t box for so many years when he was protesting the Vietnam War. He knows what’s happened.

And so, when Colin sits, and then kneels, he is aware of what is at stake and what is most likely going to happen. So I think he had the benefit of that black history and that knowledge in a way that past athletes did not as they were the trailblazers. And so, he’s standing on the shoulders of those giants and saying, “I think I know what’s about to come.” But at the same time, because he’s in a social media world, and because there is a different space and a platform and a power associated with it, all that he loses, he also gains, right?

I mean he gains a tremendous following of young people and that are really already attached to the Black Lives Matter movement, because he’s doing this a year after the flourishing of that is happening. And so, he knows that he’s going to lose a lot, but there’s also such to gain. I mean he starts to intersect with that movement and with those politics and those people who were tweeting out Black Lives Matter are now tweeting out in favor of Kaepernick.

So yes, it is a travesty that he loses being able to play and he’s still trying to be a quarterback. So I mean I don’t want to downplay that the loss is profound, but I think he also knew that this is what I can gain. This is how I can shape that conversation in a different way and he did. I mean he really revitalizes the revolt of the black athlete that intersects with the Black Lives Matter movement that shows a whole new generation of young people, the power of an athlete’s voice. That when they speak up, because, yeah, he’s vilified, but now you have people kneeling all over the world.

You have the largest mass protests for black lives globally in 2020, around George Floyd. And this interesting moment of thinking of George Floyd as a former athlete. So I think there’s that, which Colin Kaepernick could tap into that is unlike anything else, because of the hyper connected social media centered world that Black Lives Matter had started to harvest and that he is really participating in as well. And that’s what’s fascinating.

Greg Kaster:

That’s an excellent point. Yeah. That’s an excellent point, which I, again, I hadn’t thought of. I focused so much on, I mean not surprising, but so much on what he lost and talk about disciplining the black athlete. Right? Wow. Holy cow. There it is. And again, it’s not the 1960s or the 1980s. It’s right now. But that’s a very good point you’re making, and you’re right. He’s aware of that, right? He’s quite conscious of that.

So tell us a little bit about the Netflix series, which I know you reviewed. You seem to have a favorable view of it.

Kate Aguilar:

I did. I thought it… Well, first of all, I thought it was such a smart. So it’s created by Colin Kaepernick and Ava Duvernay, who is a wonderful black female director who’s-

Greg Kaster:

Right. Oscar nominated.

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. Groundbreaking. She’s groundbreaking in her work anyway. And so, they’re both groundbreaking in their own fields. They’ve both received a lot of backlash in their fields. Ava Duvernay created the 13th, a documentary called 13th and it’s-

Greg Kaster:

And Selma, the movie Selma.

Kate Aguilar:

Yeah. Critically acclaimed, but also received commentaries. So they have that interesting moment anyway. And then, they come together to create the social commentary. And what I love is that I don’t know whose choice it was, but I assume it was Ava Duvernay as the director, is that Colin Kaepernick is the narrator.

And so, he is in this studio, you see him walking around in this studio as the film is being shown and he is giving you commentary. And what I think is so beautiful and so powerful about that is that it really centers black oral history. And that is what is so profound about the black athlete is that we have their stories, right? There are so many people in black histories stories have been denied, destroyed, archival evidence is difficult, and because of black athletes being black celebrities in the true sense of the word and being a fascination for white and black culture, you have the stories of Jack Johnson. You have the stories of Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali was very willing to speak for himself and on behalf of himself.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. He sure was.

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. And so, you have Colin narrating his own experience and his own thought and telling you just how much, even as a… The backdrop of the story in black and white is that Colin is a biracial man growing up in a white adopted family in California, which I think is very fascinating, right? For the Reagan and even with post-Reagan. I mean he’s growing up in this post-Reagan moment in California, in the Sunbelt, in a white family, as a biracial athlete.

And so, he is really narrating all the ways in which as a black and white man, he is racialized constantly. He’s never seen as a white man. He’s seen as a black man. He identifies as a black man, and he is talking about how all these different moments of black history are constantly coming into contact with him. So the role of black politics, the role of athletics, the role of black aesthetics.

So there’s so much fascination around his hair. The very first episode, he wants to get cornrows like Allen Iverson, who was another black athlete who was vilified. And because of Allen Iverson’s dress, the NBA created a dress code, which fascinating. One of the proponents of it was Phil Jackson who led Michael Jordan and the Bulls and says, “I can’t stand the way…” And he says, and I quote, “These guys dress like thugs. They look like drug dealers. We need change the dress code.”

And so, the racial politics of the dress code are very clear. It bans anything that’s attributed to what they call hip-hop culture. You can’t wear chains. You can’t wear baggy clothes. You can’t wear… And the black player’s like, “Wait a second. Wait a second. Why are you suggesting just because someone wears this they have to be a gangster or something of this nature?”

And so, Colin reveres Allen Iverson. And one of the very first episodes is around that he wants to get his hair in cornrows like Allen and his mom is very concerned about it, but she takes him into a black barber shop and they do it. And yet, interestingly, as soon as he changes his hair, especially in the sport of baseball, he is a three sport athlete and it’s really fascinating the way in which the football team embraces him more than the baseball team, and the racial politics of the… Right? The African-American baseball player.

And so, the coach is furious about his hair. Furious about his hair. It draws more attention from the umpires. It draws more attention from the other players. And his dad at one point says, “There was a reason that Michael Jordan was bald so there wasn’t so much commentary on his hair.” And so, each episode is really this mini history lesson around-

Greg Kaster:

Oh, it sounds incredible.

Kate Aguilar:

… the different ways in which Colin is a biracial man in a white household, but constantly being reminded of his blackness in a way in which blackness, as we know, is seen as a cultural deficiency. And he’s pushing back against this over and over and over again. And there’s this really important book out right now called Playing While White, that talks about that.

The way in which black athletes are lumped together with a black culture, which is seen as deficient where white athletes, if they make a mistake it’s just, well, that was just that one guy. That was just [crosstalk 01:06:44]-

Greg Kaster:

I was going to ask you about, ask you to recommend a book. And what is it called, Playing While White?

Kate Aguilar:

Playing While White. Fabulous by David Leonard. And he is really evaluating white sporting culture and the ways in which black athletes are shaped by white sporting culture. And he looks at cases like Kobe Bryant versus Ben Roethlisberger and cases like the way in which these athletes are portrayed.

And so, all of that is at the heart of Colin’s work, is that he’s taking the ways in which black history has lived out in his life, around the politics of hair, around the politics of colorism, around race and space and et cetera. And each these moments, each time he’s trying to figure out himself, as a man, but also as an athlete, because each of these things as they play out, are always playing out on a field, in a baseball stadium, in a space.

And so, it’s this moment where he’s revered because he is just a phenom baseball player, even better than a football player. He’s revered as the best athlete in his school and yet, and yet, and yet, and yet is always, but racially, you need to do this. And culturally, you need to behave in this way. And so, each episode is looking at these little snapshot moments as he moves between the two cultures. And it’s just fabulous. [inaudible 01:08:00] all the while with him, which I think is beautiful. He is dressed and it’s fascinating how many reviews miss this, that I read, his dressed.

So Colin is wearing an Afro and he is dressed in the black Panther garb.

Greg Kaster:

Oh wow.

Kate Aguilar:

And most did not catch it. Many were like, “Well, it’s kind of awkward. Colin’s narrating his own life in this fancy suit.” And it’s like, “No. No. He’s not in a fancy suit. He is in…” I mean he is, but it is a specific, he is dressed as a black Panther, which shows you how much he’s connected to that type of black [crosstalk 01:08:33]

Greg Kaster:

Well, yeah, it shows you his historical consciousness.

Kate Aguilar:

That’s right.

Greg Kaster:

And you get it because you’re a historian, context is everything.

Kate Aguilar:

It is.

Greg Kaster:

It sounds fantastic. I can’t wait to watch it. I did read your review, which, gosh, I have to figure out how to post things for each podcast. We’re winding down here. And at the end, I want to ask you, you’re a fellow historian and I want to ask you a question that we, I know we all feel this question one way or another, but why does history matter?

Kate Aguilar:

Oh, yes.

Greg Kaster:

And I know that’s a whole podcast.

Kate Aguilar:

Yeah. And as you said, I mean I think the answer is really what you just said about without historical context, look at all that we miss, right? Look at all the nuance and the… I mean there is such a relationship between the past and the present and obviously the present and the future. And there’s so much that is going on in our world right now, and obviously if we look just at athletics, that without that historical context, it is so easy for us to miss the rich history and the ways in which the past has influenced the way we think about and engage with and understand the present. Without it, we cannot properly interrogate it.

And just as simple as that example of people watching Colin Kaepernick and be like, “Oh, that’s a nice suit, or, oh, his hair is interesting.” And not understanding that is an historical consciousness and choice that he is making that is connecting himself with this long black history and this long black freedom movement and this revolt of the black athlete that is much larger than just Colin. And so, history matters because when we understand that much longer history, we not only can engage with the present more fully and have such a better understanding of what’s going on around us. But we also engage, I think, much more responsibly.

And that allows us to create a much better future, because we have a real understanding of where we’re going.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly, what you just said. For me, that’s exactly right. It’s the possibility then of change, right?

Kate Aguilar:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

And I know we fight over what one person’s or one group’s better future may not be another person’s or groups, but still that possibility of change. All well said my fellow historian and now colleague. This has been so much fun and so interesting. Congrats on the course and it filling. It should be… Actually, I could sit in on that a little bit.

Kate Aguilar:

Yes. Come. We’d love to have you.

Greg Kaster:

I’m on sabbatical. I may do that, because it’s so interesting. Take good care. I will see you, like you’re at home now, I’m in my office, but we’ll cross paths here in the department I’m sure [crosstalk 01:11:17]

Kate Aguilar:

That sounds wonderful. Thank you for having me on.

Greg Kaster:

Kate, my pleasure. Take good care. Bye-bye.

Kate Aguilar:

All right. Thanks. Bye.

Greg Kaster:

Bye. Learning for life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing. Gustavus graduate, Will Clark, Class of ’20, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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