“You Want Our Talent, But Not Our Humanity” – The Start of Another NFL Season

Athletics, Race

The start of the football season began with an embrace of unity. What followed? An outpouring of boos from the socially distant crowd at Arrowhead stadium.

American sports are at a crossroads. In times of fear and uncertainty, we often look to athletics to provide joy, inspiration, and clarity. But social justice will no longer afford our national pastimes the ability to obscure our collective lens. Indeed, only the past few months without sports—those empty fields, dark courts, and silent stadiums—have given us the opportunity to focus our national attention on something far more important: police brutality against Black men in America. 

Being a Black athlete has never been easy. There is far too much pressure to keep your head down and to, “just play.” Yet never have we needed more from our most prominent Black icons. Recently, professional athletes, recognizing their reach and the power of symbols, have raised awareness of long-burning issues. Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali are smiling down from above because they know all too well playing sports in a society that reveres you as an idol but does not embrace you as a human is not tenable.

As a Black boy growing up in Washington D.C., I was nine years old when I pleaded with my parents for season tickets to see my favorite football team. My home team, Washington Football, had at one time bucked the status quo by fielding Doug Williams, the first Black Superbowl-winning MVP quarterback. I marveled at what the players had achieved on the field, however, as a child I did not see beyond. 

As a Black man, I still marvel at the athletic achievement, but I know now the more important achievements are cultural. Fifty-two years ago, Black Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the Olympic Games in Mexico City as the “Star-Spangled Banner” began playing—a silent protest of the appalling treatment of Blacks back home in the United States. Many years later, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos once stood in protest, Colin Kaepernick and Lebron James have knelt, using their influence to start national conversations. From fists heard around the world to kneeling under the flag the debate continues as Americans are fiercely divided on whether kneeling is dishonorable or appropriate, muting the original reason for the public display—police violence towards Black men. 

Each game day, we applaud Black men for athletic achievement, but every day, we fail to protect them in society. Too often we take the violence as a given, requiring parents to continue having grim conversations with their Black sons on how to navigate themselves safely in our current America. But, at this given crossroads society must now adapt as we adjust the lens.

Seattle Seahawks Head Football Coach Pete Carroll, addressing the media, said, “We all are seeing the truth of how Black people are being treated in our streets and … law enforcement is a huge issue to our guys, because they’re frightened for their lives. They’re frightened for the lives of their loved ones and their children.” 

Coach Carroll is right. There is a Black man in your life who needs you to listen to his story, to understand the daily challenges he faces because of the color of his skin. To know that he fears for the safety of his son.

Coach Carroll continued, “Our players are screaming at us… Can you hear me? They just want to be respected, … [and] accepted just like all of our white children and families…”

As another National Football League season starts, we must use this as an opportunity for advancement. We must honor the work being done by so many to fight for justice in America. You want our talent but not our humanity and that will no longer go unnoticed. 

America is on fire and I am burning.

Life, Race

America is on fire and I, a Black man, am burning. The suffering is unbearable. There is no relief. 

I am not responsible for the blaze, but I get blamed for its destruction. I don’t know how to escape the searing heat. But what would escape even mean? This is my country, my home. When the pain drives me to beat back against the flames I am scorned, derision coming down like ash. I am told I am fighting my country, when I am fighting to save it. 

My heart breaks. I see those with the means to help me put out this fire, but they do nothing. I yell, I scream, I wave my arms and beg them to help. They look at my panic with confusion.

First there was George Floyd and now Jacob Blake. Peaceful protests and now violent riots flood American streets as the conversation on police brutality continues. 

After I published a recent editorial, a reader wrote me, explaining why a few Black men—no longer alive to be celebrated on Father’s Day, to watch a daughter earn her diploma, or to watch a son have a child of his own—should have expected the lethal violence they received.

“From all appearances, it seems that George Floyd’s death was the fault of at least one officer. But that wouldn’t have happened if Floyd hadn’t tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. How difficult is it not to pass counterfeit currency?”

“Eric Garner had been arrested 20 times for selling illegal cigarettes. He had to know he would be arrested again. And when he was, he resisted. He was a big guy, bigger than the officers who tried to arrest him. If he had not resisted, he would be alive today. How difficult is it not to resist arrest?”

“Laquan McDonald would not have been killed if he hadn’t been high, walking down a Chicago street waving a knife, slashing tires and stabbing windshields. The office who shot him had no business doing so, but all of that could have been avoided if McDonald had just obeyed police orders. Everyone has a legal duty to obey a police order.”

These responses and thoughts are the acrid smoke of the fire, poisoning the air we breathe. 

The smoke burns in our lungs, saps our strength, and obscures the way forward, making progress even harder. Anyone who blames a Jacob Blake or a George Floyd for his own death is blaming me for a fire I did not start and that alone I cannot extinguish. 

As fire burns hotter and the temperature rises, I am scared. I am desperate. I know I am burning because of the color of my skin. 

I feel like giving up but what would that mean? Would that mean that I would need to be open to accepting that shooting an unarmed man seven times in the back or kneeling on a man’s neck as he begs for his life is ever justified? What if others say the man is a “criminal”—what then? 

But I know I cannot give up. How could I when I see young Black and Brown boys in the flames around me, watching me, looking up at me? I see their terror and I know I need to show them that being afraid is nothing to be ashamed of, that courage is working for justice and peace in the face of your own fear. I need to show them that they deserve, as much as anyone, to tell themselves every morning, “I, too, am America.”

Commentary: Father’s Day and the moments stolen from too many black families

Fatherhood, medicine, Mentorship, Race

Originally published in Chicago Tribune, June 18th (online) & June 19th (in print), 2020

I once attended a funeral where the pastor asked the audience, “How do you continue to believe in God when your father has been taken from you?” I did not have an answer as I tried to pat my eyes dry with the few crumpled tissues I had.

For me, this Father’s Day will be another annual occasion where I will pick up the phone and on the other end will be the voice of a kindhearted, compassionate and articulate man. I will wish him a happy Father’s Day, and when I ask him for details of his plans for the day he will note that a day of relaxation awaits him. Next, he will inquire how things are for me with an unparalleled yearning, and once he has been informed of any new happenings an exchange of “I love you” and “See you soon” will conclude our conversation.

Yet for some, Father’s Day has become unrecognizable from the celebratory day it once was.

Ask Michael Brown’s father, Mike Brown Sr.

In America, black men are rarely seen as innocent and are sometimes even invisible.

Wearing my cloak of visibility — a doctor’s white coat — I kneeled on the ground recently with my head bent over in prayer and protest for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. The hardened and unforgiving cement left me wanting to change the position of my knee to lessen the discomfort, but I refused. Out of my periphery I saw other protesters switch their dependent leg. Some stood up, while some began to kneel on both knees to soften the unilateral pressure on just one.

But some pain cannot be lessened. The image of George Floyd with the knee of another man pressing into his neck — the man’s hands casually in his own pockets as he balanced himself on Floyd’s neck — is one. “Please, I cannot breathe,” he cried out prior to calling for his mother. Floyd’s words reverberate those of another black male, Eric Garner, who in 2014 was killed under police custody while uttering the very same last message. This is another example of a transformed Father’s Day that will never be what it once was.

Ask Ben Garner — Eric’s father.

Growing up, my family went to church almost every Sunday, but especially on Easter, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. I’d be the last one to get up but after a shower and dressing in my Sunday’s best I would rush into my parents’ room —tie in hand. I would pass the tie to my father, and he’d stand behind me slowly crossing one end over the other. Then he would come around in front of me prior to securing the tie and sending me to admire the wonderful job he had done.

When I played soccer, if I looked to the sidelines there he was sporting his vest and transitional lens eyeglasses — the one where the lens changes to dark when one steps outside into the sun. I am sure those eyeglasses earned him the nickname “Mr. Cool McCool” by my teammates.

And, as I walked across the stage to receive my medical degree, I distinctly remember hearing, “Go Dr. J” coming from his seat. The joy of watching his son become a physician, when his own father could neither read nor write, is a moment I am sure he will never forget.

These are key moments that fill picture books, but for some families, those books will be left empty: Rayshard Brooks will not be there when his daughter scrapes her knee while learning to ride a bike. Ahmaud Arbery’s father will not see his young man become a father himself one day; he will forever be frozen at the age of 25. George Floyd will not be there to screen his daughter’s potential boyfriends as a rite of passage that encompasses being a “girl dad.” Michael Brown — 18 years old — had an entire future lying ahead of him with countless Father’s Days, but his father will only have the memory to replay of that smile that used to walk in the door — Skittles in hand.

We cannot go on like this. It has taken a once-in-a-lifetime mix of events: a pandemic, economic fears, political polarization and an untimely murder to clear the opaque lens through which society views us to see that we are and deserve more. This is the time to see the exhaustion in the hearts of black families who have to watch as another Father’s Day is altered due to racism and police brutality. And, we are tired.

Ask George Floyd’s 6-year-old daughter, Gianna.

Jason L. Campbell, M.D., M.S., recently known as The Tik Tok Doc, is a physician resident in the Department of Anesthesiology at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon.

Visible Man: An Illumination of My Black Father

Fatherhood, Race

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” The subtle yet remarkable line from Ralph Ellison’s book Invisible Man published in 1952 continues to be a declarative voice in today’s society: Black men do not play a role in raising their children. There are so many, including my grandfather and my own father, who have proven this stigma to be incorrect.

Despite being considered invisible, black fathers have remained beautiful statues to emulate for their children. It was the year 1972 and a young black man, trunk packed and ticket in hand, boarded a bus headed towards Philadelphia with his parents’ directives echoing in his head’— “Work hard and good luck, son.” For the first time in his eighteen years of life Thomas Campbell was leaving home in pursuit of a college degree—the first of his siblings.

The opportunities many black fathers have generated are now profoundly evident in the accomplishments of their children. One of eight children, Thomas Campbell was born in 1953 in the Northeast corridor of Washington D.C. A year after his birth in 1954, the Supreme Court reversed Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Fifty-three years later, I was graduating as one of a few African-American students from a private high school in Washington D.C.—a vicarious atonement of what may have been for my father had his parents been able to afford the tuition when he was accepted to a similar school. “I wanted you and your sister to have more than I could have ever dreamed of as a kid. When I grew up my family never had a car and never went on family vacations,” he remarked.

There are a multitude of young black men changing the world owing the qualities that have made them successful—dedication, commitment, and perseverance—to their black fathers.

“Jason, remember you can be whatever you want when you grow up.” As he tightened my tie on that Easter morning looking his ten-year-old son in the eye. “If you put your mind to it, then it’s yours.” Nineteen years later as I climbed the six shallow stairs in the auditorium at my medical school graduation ceremony my father’s words reverberated. A story nothing short of recurrent and delivered dreams: receiving a private school education followed by three more degrees—the last one permanently attaching the initials MD to my last name. What even I struggle to fathom is what my father must have felt when I walked across that stage and was declared a ‘Doctor.’

The magnificence of my achievement truly belongs to my father. Despite having grown up in a home where his own father could neither read nor write he journeyed to earn his law degree. Subsequently, he cemented a path for me and my sister to earn five degrees between the two of us. My father’s example serves as a declaration for my sister and I that boundaries do not exist.

Grown J and dad

Like a multitude of black fathers, Thomas Campbell exemplifies a vision of the world where the finish line is not dictated by the starting line.

Once invisible men—now visible. They are black fathers.

From Beacon to Shadow: The African-American Community is Waiting…

adversity, medicine, politics, Race, Uncategorized

“‘More blood! Stat!’” I read. The first line in “Gifted Hands.” As a 15-year-old African-American student aspiring to one-day practice medicine I could barely put down the book my mother gave me. The story of Ben Carson MD—many believed to be the guiding light if you were poor or African-American or academically challenged—was the beacon illuminating a journey from adversity to achievement. The first words in “Gifted Hands” by Ben Carson, MD sets the scene within an operating room in 1987 at the Johns Hopkins Institution in which a medical milestone occurred. Two 7-month-old conjoined twins requiring copious amounts of blood, twenty-two hours of procedure time, a seventy-member team led by him and gifted hands resulted in a successful separation of two Siamese twins—Patrick and Benjamin.

 For Dr. Carson—one of the most academically impactful members of the African-American community—the fall from grace has been anything but subtle. When questioned on May 21st, 2019 by Congresswoman Porter he was asked to define a basic housing term—an REO (Real Estate Owned)—a term used to describe a class of property owned by a lender after an unsuccessful sale at a foreclosure auction. Seemingly unknowing of the term he responded with “Oreo?” at first to which he needed clarification—a surprising response in his position as Secretary of the United States Department of Urban Housing and Development (HUD). Dr. Carson once pillared his accomplishments on the power of knowledge. Now—dismissivae of a fundamental term a person in his position should use commonly this is in stark contrast to the image the black community grew up honoring. One contemporary of the once-esteemed surgeon noted he knew firsthand what Dr. Carson went through and it was nothing short of incredible. But watching his devolution has been a pitiful sight to see.

This playbook has not changed and still illuminates the story of a poor black kid from Detroit overcoming multiple barriers—poverty, academic strife, and a system constructed against him—to become director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and perform the successful separation of 7-month-old Siamese Twins when others said it could not be done. Few African-Americans, in any field, have come from very little to achieve such success. In the last chapter—entitled “THINK BIG”—Dr. Carson writes how each letter illustrates an important piece to success. The ‘K’ stands for ‘Knowledge’ which he defines as “‘… the key to all your dreams, hopes and aspirations. If you are knowledgeable, particularly more knowledgeable than anybody else in a field, you become invaluable and write your own ticket.’” Where have these words now gone? Once so important he wrote them in a book to inspire generations to come.

A man who once changed lives with words and saved lives with actions has now perished to an online trend seemingly devoid of the basic knowledge required in his current position. The surgeon who changed history in 1987 in that operating room in Baltimore, Maryland will forever be remembered by the African-American community, but the man we see today appears to be a shadow of his former self—at best.

This is a perpetual discussion intertwining history, race, culture, politics and medicine. Some of my colleagues may not agree but I desire a return from the former Ben Carson MD.

I declare to you Dr. Carson it is never too late to give a young woman of color, who once wrote to you because her mother like yours was a maid, hope and promise that she too can make something out of very little. I declare to you Dr. Carson that there is a young black male facing academic hardship who needs you now. I declare to you Dr. Carson that the African-American community is waiting…

 

I’m a Black Student-Athlete Turned Physician: What Colin Kaepernick and Nike Really Mean

Race, Uncategorized

Please see below for my Op Ed published on 9/14/18 in THE OREGONIAN.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I sat in a football stadium for the Ohio State Buckeyes vs the Nebraska Cornhuskers game on Nov. 5, 2016, three days before the presidential election. About 108,000 screaming fans surrounded me, but I only remember three.

To my right were two white gentlemen wearing “Make America Great Again” baseball caps. This was the first sporting event I attended since Colin Kaepernick, former San Francisco 49ers player began kneeling during the anthem in protest against police brutality against African-Americans.

I stood up. I removed my hat. These actions were done not because I didn’t vehemently stand against police brutality, but because I felt standing for the anthem was the ‘right thing to do’ for me.

Yet all the while, I could imagine all eyes on me.

As I stood, there came laughter from behind, a few seats to my left. An older white gentleman, likely in his 50s, yelled over at one of his buddies, “Hey, hey, look at me. I’m going to kneel,” mocking me and all of what Kaepernick represented. I suddenly felt alone and exposed, maybe even a little afraid. Being there, supporting a team and university that had given me so much, no longer felt like home. The sporting event took a new form as my attention turned from the football game to the underlying game.

The same man who mocked Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling cheered for each move the young black male athletes made. The same men, celebrating their support of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, clapped enthusiastically as the young black male athletes scored point after point for their beloved team.

Supporting and voting for President-elect Donald Trump is not supposed to be incompatible with supporting black athletes, but with recent events, one naturally must question the growing disconnection. The truth is, many of us black males cannot feel calm as we have to constantly look outside of ourselves in order to visualize how our present and future actions might be perceived by others. It’s part of growing up as a black male in America.

Growing up as a black male athlete in America adds more complexity — and becoming a black male physician even more.

As a black male I am unnerved by the stories I read about current or former athletes sustaining injuries leading to a fall from grace. That leads to a harsh realization that they are no longer “needed,” with little to account for all of their hours of dedication. Basketball courts, tracks, football fields and athletic arenas are bursting with black men excelling every day, rain or shine.

The time has come for us to redefine our own values and to focus our potential in different ways. With the right direction and guidance, that same excellence and discipline can easily transition into the libraries, research laboratories and clinical rooms where we are currently sparse.

The beauty lies not in the fact that we have to choose one over the other, but in what I believe and personally know to be true: Black men can excel in both realms. It is time that we stop letting others limit us as we move forward.

That’s what Nike and Colin Kaepernick mean.