As Black History Month comes to a close and ahead of the Portland Timbers 2018 MLS regular season, Timbers players Jeremy Ebobisse and Eryk Williamson sat down to discuss black history, African Americans in soccer culture, and the place of the black athlete in today’s society.
Ebobisse, the Timbers 2017 MLS SuperDraft first round selection, scored one goal and contributed three assists in 14 appearances during his rookie campaign. He was also a key member of the U.S. U-20 Men’s National Team at last summer’s 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
His teammate on that national team squad, Eryk Williamson, joined the Timbers in a January preseason trade for his Homegrown Rights from D.C. United following a glittering collegiate career at the University of Maryland that saw him score 14 goals and 13 assists in 58 career games.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length and is posted in two parts.
This is part one. Part two can be found here.
Richard Farley: February is obviously Black History Month, but for the first question, I wanted to broaden it out, a little bit. How do you feel about the way our society celebrates, honors, educates people about black history?
Jeremy Ebobisse: Different areas of the country are making strides, culturally, to celebrate Black History Month and the culture that comes from it. I do think people aren’t taking an honest look at the history of black culture and how black people were treated throughout the country’s past, and that prevents them from openly understanding the black experience in America, today.
Where I’m from (Ed. note: Jeremy went to high school in Bethesda, Maryland), it’s a really multi-cultural area. There are a lot of internationals, African Americans, Latin Americans, Europeans, Africans – everywhere. We have a good blend and understanding of each other’s’ cultures. My friend group back home is really diverse.
I think we can all learn something from going into each other’s’ cultures and trying to apply it to our own lives.
Eryk Williamson: We’re both from the same area. I feel like our area of the country, I wouldn’t say celebrates it, but people are educated more. I know in school, it was always, “This is Black History Month. These are the guys we are learning about.” I feel like now, in sports, we’re promoting more about black culture and how African Americans were brought up in this country.
JE: And piggybacking off that, in schools, how we celebrate Black History Month, I think some schools make a point out of forcing students to go into primary documents and understand different perspectives, but one thing that I’ve started to realize over the last couple of months is that it’s really male-centric on the African-American leaders.
We always talk about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and Booker T. [Washington] and W.E.B. Dubois, but outside of Rosa Parks, rarely do we hear about the women. Assata Shakur, there are a bunch, and I even can’t name more than three or four.
That’s the next progression in broadening our understanding of African American history in our country: empowering the female voices of the past. Because they were at the forefront of the civil rights movement, and they continue to be at the forefront of Black Lives Matter and all these movements that are promoting equality and bringing black people up.
With that, I’ve obviously had some troubling experiences in the past: some racial micro-aggressions, and some overt racial abuses. But, in general, I’ve been fortunate to be in such a multi-cultured area – very open, for the most part.
Everyone’s learning. We’re always learning. Everyday we’re learning. I’m not perfect about African American history and other cultures, and I appreciate that people around me are willing to have these discussions and try to understand more, catch themselves in the act of maybe doing something they shouldn’t be doing.
Q: One of the major themes of what you just said, and an actual word you used in your first response was honesty. When, this time of year, we take this time to focus on black history, where do you think we fall short of being truly honest?
JE: As a country, when we talk about education, we don’t really want to talk about a centralized education system, because everyone wants to teach what they want to teach. And one of the areas where that hurts our ability to look at African American culture is we don’t talk about reconstruction nearly enough.
We are so quick talk about the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Movement but gloss over the backlash that comes in between. Reconstruction was basically ended by a deal between the North and the South, where the South got to end reconstruction and go back to what would become Jim Crow.
It’s the same thing with the Civil Rights Movement. There was all this effort and pain and suffering for a great cause that eventually came, but then the backlash after that was mass incarceration, which people still don’t want to acknowledge as the truth; the war on drugs, and how that disproportionately affected African Americans.
Until we look at the history of repression in this country with honesty and willingness to learn, and not feel ashamed, we’re not going to make the strides that I know, as a country, we can make. That’s why I am really vocal on certain issues.
I feel as if I’ve been given this platform to talk about these issues. Sometimes I get backlash; other times, a lot of people are really supportive. I appreciate that. It just makes me want to keep talking about these issues.
EW: Jeremy kind of keeps me in with everything, and I know that, if you even look at in schools, things are just passed over. We talk about one thing, but let’s talk about what happened from that.
We focus on Black History Month, but instead of it being merged in, I feel like this month allows people to at least focus and honestly say, “These were African American leaders.” I think it’s good, because things are passed over.
JE: And off that, I like to refer to The Thirteen on Netflix. It’s a documentary about mass incarceration, and how, chronologically speaking, in history, each era of oppression is linked to the next. Whether it’s going from slavery to share croppers, and then moving into Jim Crow and Black Codes. It’s all inter-related as a way to keep African Americans down. That shapes the image of the African American male and female moving into the 60s, and to present day, today, and how we’re portrayed in the media.
Every time I talk to someone, they say, “Oh, my God. You can actually speak.” I’m like, what does that mean? Or “you talk a certain way.” Why can’t I talk this way without it being normal? Why are we so conditioned to think a certain way about that stuff?
That’s just another point that I feel is important to acknowledge about this month. Any time you see an African American vocal and talking, it’s never “oh, we expect that.” It’s always “you’re so different. You’re not one of them.” I take that really personally.
You [Eryk] can maybe allude to this, as well, but I’ve been called white by so many people growing up. When I was a kid, I didn’t know what it meant, but it hurt. It made me feel like I was ditching my culture. I was coming from a European background, and an African background.
It was very confusing. When I grew up, I finally understood what it meant. I just think it’s important that we continue to make progress.
EW: It’s the same thing with me. I feel like a main part of us playing soccer was “Oh, you’re not one of them. You dress different. You talk different.” It feels as if we weren’t a part of the culture. We were outsiders.
That’s one thing in our area. It’s diverse, but you also have the guys who think, “Well, you’re not truly black. You talk like a white person,” or “you don’t use the same slang.” That kind of thing.
JE: They would use that kind of phrase to justify their racist, implicit thoughts about black people, in general. I don’t like the way people just continue to reinforce these stereotypes by putting me and Eryk and plenty of other people as outcasts within the race. No. We embody black people in this country, and everything that black people can be and should be looked at as.
There’s no reason why they should look at us and think lesser and be surprised. They shouldn’t set the bar lower for us, by any means.
This is kind of a side point, but reading African American authors is the best way to understand the African American experience throughout the eras. And I go back to primary documents, a lot, because those aren’t edited. You get what you get out of it. If you analyze it, you’ll learn so much about voice, point of view, and all those things.
I think it’s important that we keep educating ourselves. All of us, not just non-black people. Black people should, as well, be in touch with our culture and how far we can continue to keep going.