Personal #STATEMENT: Black History Month A conversation on race with Airius Moore & James Smith-Williams

But we can never go nowhere unless we share with each other.

We gotta start making changes.

Learn to see me as a brother instead of two distant strangers.

And that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Tupac Shakur, “Changes”

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Senior linebacker Airius Moore and redshirt sophomore defensive end James Smith-Williams sat down recently to discuss race and racism in America, their roles as young black men and what Black History month means to them.

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Not “Instead of” but “In addition to”

AM: My dad used to make us sit down and watch the history channel to learn about our past. He made a point to make sure we understood where we came from and what our ancestors had to go through for us to be where we are. I respect him a lot for that. Now I’m definitely interested in my history.

I don’t think people are really educated on how many important black figures there were that helped us get us where we are today. I wish more of our teammates and more black men in general understood that, because it’s not always taught, so stereotypes are perpetuated. The reason I know my history is because I have decided that I want to learn.

Moore

JSW: I grew up in an area that was majority white and my school was majority white. But it wasn’t a divisive thing, where black people were friends with black people and white people were friends with white people. I assimilated into the AMERICAN culture.

I didn’t truly identify as being a black male until I got to college. I’m making those steps now as a black male to truly realize where I come from. It’s all about discovering who I am, what it means and how important it is. Not taking away from any other aspects of me as an American, but just discovering my culture. I want to know about that past.

It’s not ‘instead of,’ it’s ‘in addition to.’ It’s not a subtraction from anything; it’s an addition. Being an American, but also being a black male. We all play more than one role.

SMITH-WILLIAMS

A CULTURAL SHIFT

AM: I think there is racial division in this country, but I think the division comes from not understanding and not WANTING to understand. Nobody is willing to understand the other person’s side.

When you look back at the long history of our country, segregation really just ended. I was at a conference this past week and talked to a lady who was the first black woman to get a doctorate at the University of Texas … and that was in 1999! I think people don’t always put things into perspective. Segregation just ended in the 1960s.

And the law didn’t change attitudes. It didn’t immediately change peoples' moral stance. Once you’ve believed in something for so long it’s hard to change and I think that our country, and just people in general, are so scared of changes.

JSW: I know we have the same opportunities a white male would have, but the starting line was different, so we’re miles apart until we catch up. That’s another thing we’ve got to combat. We’re just now getting admission to these opportunities. If someone asked me, ‘What have you been denied?’ I’d have a hard time really pointing and saying ‘I was discriminated against here or there.’

AM: I think it’s still a choice. I heard Martin Luther King say that time is not going to change anything, but that the choices that we make will change over time. Until equality is not just a ‘cause’ but a cultural shift, things won’t get better.

SPORTS: THE GREAT EQUALIZER

JSW: In sports, you have to coexist with someone who might not look like you. It would be impossible, at least right now in 2017, for someone to come in prejudiced or racist and by the end of their college experience still be that way. You’re around too many different people. When you’re not around people of different races, you think they are a certain way. But on the team, you can look around and say my best friends are black and white.

It’s an eye- opening experience. I believe that some of us, black and white, if we didn’t play football, would be totally different guys because we wouldn’t have the experience of being around other races.

AM: We have no issues on our team. We can discuss race, even argue about it, and at the end we’re still friends. You have to talk about it or we’ll never resolve the issue. People would rather not talk about it and think ‘this is racist’ or ‘that is racist’ instead of actually talking about it and hearing each other’s side and experiences and coming to a conclusion together.

CULTURAL ICONS

AM: Of course Martin Luther King. His message wasn’t exclusively about black people but for everyone who was being oppressed. He included more than just blacks. So many people in America are oppressed and the reason it doesn’t change is because we’re all divided - immigrants, blacks and others. We don't all support each other.

JSW: Yeah, he was about disenfranchised people. The way he did things was just so intelligent and savvy. You watch documentaries and you hear about Selma and the decisions that he made that were so impactful and resounding. The people who were there were people who considered themselves good Americans and who just wanted the best for everybody. He wasn’t just speaking to black males, but to white people who had status and wealth and weren’t disenfranchised but just knew in their hearts that what was happening was wrong. Good Americans. That’s the reason that he’s such a big deal – he did so much for so many people.

AM: Yeah, they did a good job of teaching people to support each other.

I also really like Tupac. People might think that’s bad, but I think he told the hard truth about what happened in lower economic communities. He also wasn’t just talking about black people in his lyrics. He talked about women’s rights. He talked about Colombine. Just anybody that was oppressed.

BURDEN OF RESPONSIBILITY

JSW: As young black males who have led a privileged life so far, our duty is to represent and excel for our race. Not in a racist way, but to show that we can be accomplished. Also, it would be squandering a lot if we get this opportunity to come here and get an education, stay for free, play football and have all these social networks and we just don’t accomplish anything.

If you ask one of my white teammates who he represented, he would probably say ‘my family,’ not the white race, because the white race has achieved everything you can achieve in America. It’s our duty to start putting black people in that same position. Not for the simple fact that we want power, but so that the people who come after us will have more opportunities.

AM: It’s also our duty to pour into young black kids. My dad is someone I really look up to, but he also put other really strong African-American figures in my life. There have been so many people in my life who looked like me teaching me things that are important.

I think it’s our duty to also do that - to give people role models that look like them ... for us to BE those role models. And not just to black kids – we have a responsibility as black men but not just to black kids.

HONORING ROLE MODELS

JSW: I have a wonderful mother who played the role of both mother and father to me. She’s extremely strong. I have a problem with people using not having a dad as an excuse for underachieving. But that said, I had both parents in one. She took that role. She sacrificed everything to get where I am. It will be extremely important to me when I have a family to be a good father. I understand the importance of having a strong male figure in your life because there are some things your mom just can’t teach you. That’s just the way it is.

Smith-Williams and his mother: Wendy Williams

That’s why I volunteer. I want to give someone a male role model.

AM: I have a real strong dad. The things he couldn’t teach me, he would put real strong people around me who could teach me. I agree with James, I wouldn’t say that not having a father is an excuse, but not having a great role model is an excuse.

Moore and his brother, Adonté, and dad, Damon.

JSW: That’s a huge issue with young African Americans – there are a lack of role models. If someone is growing up in a poor neighborhood – and this goes for all kids, honestly - and they have nothing to look up to, what kid is going to motivate themselves to go achieve something if they have no one motivating them ?

“MORE THAN A DUDE IN A HELMET”

AM: Statistically, if you don’t have a lot of resources, you could end up in jail. I feel like it’s our duty to make sure kids don’t go on that path. They don’t just have to play in the NBA or the NFL. We need to give them something to look up to that has nothing to do with sports. At the end of the day, your mind is the most important thing in this world.

Moore at East Garner Middle School

There’s not enough emphasis on that in disadvantaged communities. These kids have to see that playing sports is not the only way out. There are other ways.

JSW: We can use our platform as student-athletes. There was an incident on campus that I was very bothered by a while back. I talked to Coach Doeren and the next day I was sitting down with [Athletics Director] Debbie Yow.

That’s a platform that I don’t think every student would have – at least not so easily. So if I have that advantage, I need to use it to help others.

JSW at East MiLLbrook Middle School

AM: I specifically tried to be an Academic All-ACC performer. I want to show that I’m more than a dude in a helmet who just hits another dude. My AAU coach made it a requirement that if you didn’t have good grades, you didn’t play. It was zero tolerance for not getting good grades. That’s something that needs to be done so many other places.

One way you can learn that there are other ways to rise above your situation is by learning your history. There have been so many intelligent African-Americans out there. You don’t have to accept the stereotype.

JSW: When we talk to kids, we get their interest because we play football, but then we can use that to push the message that grades are important. I volunteer at an after-school place and I work with kids who sometimes only have the one meal they get there each day. Kids that stay in trouble in school. When you talk to them they’re not bad, they’re just lashing out because there is no one in their life telling them the right things … pushing them to succeed.

THE PINNACLE

JSW: Barack Obama being president? That was the pinnacle. And everybody thought that once we reached that, everything would be ok. But it wasn’t. At all. Yes, we had a black president, but America and its power distribution are still not diverse. That’s the big difference.

That’s the highest position you can hold in America and he reached it. But there are other things that haven’t been done by black males that we can accomplish, just to show that it can be done. Then when every race has held that position, then you really can believe that ANYONE can do it. Then it will be not ‘we’re black accomplishing this,’ or ‘we’re white accomplishing this.’ It will be ‘we’re Americans accomplishing this.”

AM: President Obama’s presidency was hard. When he talked about the Black Lives Matter movement, people didn’t like it.. But he had to talk about it.

JSW: I felt like people in the black community were disappointed in him too because he wasn’t preaching messages about blackness, but he couldn’t.. He wasn’t the BLACK president, he was the AMERICAN president.

AM: The president represents everyone.

NOT THE INDIVIDUALS, BUT THE JOURNEY

JSW: So many people played a role. So many people paid a price. Black History Month is a month to celebrate those people – not just the famous ones.

White people had a lot to do with it. I'm learning more about my black history, but I think people get lost thinking that it’s just about black people, but there were many others who helped along the way.

AM: That’s why it’s not exclusive. We understand that it took help to get where we are.

Black History Month is about honoring where we’ve come from ... where we are ... where we’re going. Not just honoring the individuals, but the journey. Horrible things have happened, yes, and we will never forget that. But 50 years ago we were segregated and now we’ve have a black president.

JSW: So much progress HAS been made.

THE MINDSET OF AN ATHLETE

AM: But I have the mindset of an athlete. You have a short time to celebrate your successes and then you’ve got to improve on it. You can’t get complacent. You’ve got to keep going.

JSW: Black History is an important month to celebrate and to honor those who came before us, but I’m very much against exclusivity.

AM: White people had to help black people all through history. It’s about people coming together for something greater than themselves to create equality.

JSW: This month is a reflection. Honor those who came before you …

AM: … but there’s so much more work to be done.

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