Colin Kaepernick’s Defense of Black Studies

Colin Kaepernick’s Defense of Black Studies

Colin Kaepernick’s Defense of Black Studies

The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback tells Dave Zirin why he’s raising the alarm about government attacks on Black history.


When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s knee hit the ground in 2016 during the national anthem, no one could have known what it would spark. His protest of racism and police violence had politicians, members of the media, and fans howling for blood. But Kaepernick kept kneeling, and athletes and activists around the country started to duplicate his gesture in increasing numbers. It grew into a political movement, and I believe it helped lay the groundwork for the mass demonstrations of 2020 that followed the police killing of George Floyd. But Kaepernick’s political life is more than quietly kneeling. Now, seven years after being exiled from the NFL, he is using his mind and cultural capital to raise the alarm about government attacks on Black studies and Black history. Kaepernick and the esteemed scholars Robin D.G. Kelley and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor have edited a compilation titled Our History Has Always Been Contraband: In Defense of Black Studies. Putting out such a text in this current climate of racist backlash is an audacious act. I asked him recently why he decided to take on this particular fight.

—Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin: You could have done any number of books on any number of topics. Why choose a defense of Black studies?

Colin Kaepernick: The study of Black life has been subject to uninterrupted attacks by white supremacist forces since day one. In recent years, however, those actively working to limit or erase the teaching of Black history from high school and college curricula have become louder, better organized, and more violent.

History teaches us that this will be a long and protracted fight, and so it means that we will all have a role to play.

When we first started talking about putting this book together, I thought that Kaepernick Publishing was uniquely positioned to amplify this type of title. Soon after, we approached our friends at Haymarket Books—a publisher that has proven its commitment time and again to leveraging literature for radical social transformation—with an invitation to work on the book together. We’re honored they accepted our call!

We’re also grateful to the Marguerite Casey Foundation whose generous support helped us to produce this book in just 11 weeks.

DZ: Could you explain the title, “Our history has always been contraband?

CK: The title of the book reflects the verifiable fact that throughout every historical era our ability to learn—to learn about ourselves and our history—has been targeted by white supremacists as a way to dehumanize, degrade, and erase us as a people. There is a direct through line from anti-literacy laws during the era of legal enslavement to widespread arson directed at freedmen’s schools during Reconstruction to segregated and under-resourced public schools disproportionately attended by Black youths today. The attack on Black studies is yet another spoke on a wheel that’s been in motion for centuries.

In a society that values whiteness, patriarchy, and capitalism above all, Black radical history is contraband. So, the title serves both as a political analysis and a description of the condition of Black life.

DZ: How did your intellectual journey into Black history begin? When and where did it begin?

CK: The simple answer is that it began in 2015 when my partner handed me a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. I found the book revelatory. But this was just the start of what I consider to be my ongoing journey to political consciousness. Over the last eight years, I’ve been fortunate to have been in conversation and in community with Black radical scholars and organizers who have provided mentorship, guidance, and inspiration.

DZ: The right wing is attacking you with the fact that the two esteemed scholars, Dr. Robin Kelley and Dr. Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor who edited these pages with you, are socialists. What do you have to say to these critics?

CK: White supremacists with fascist tendencies—or what most people politely refer to as the “right wing”—are quick to attack anyone whose political analysis publicly challenges the social, cultural, political, and economic status quo. The powerful body of work that Drs. Taylor and Kelley have produced over decades speaks for itself. Any thinking person acting in good faith already knows this. I’m proud to have collaborated with them on this book.

DZ: Do you have any words for the teachers and students resisting this assault on Black studies?

CK: To teachers and students resisting this most recent assault on Black studies, I see you, and I appreciate you. As you continue to organize for the freedom to learn, know that I and many others are with you in solidarity.

DZ: What’s next for Kaepernick publishing?

CK: We’ll be publishing a children’s picture book about freedom fighter Yuri Kochiyama in early 2024. The book is written by Kai Naima Williams, Yuri’s great-granddaughter. We’re really honored to be working with Kai on this project.

We have lots of other projects in the pipeline. One we’re all particularly excited about centers on the revolutionary power of art and culture. I won’t say much beyond this, but be on the lookout for it over the next year.

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