Each of the synoptic gospels detail Jesus’ raising of Jairus’ daughter after she passes away while Jesus travels to Jairus’ home. On his way to Jairus’ house, a crowd of people swarmed around Jesus and his disciples, hoping to be close to him. In the crowd, a woman who “had had a flow of blood for twelve years” (Mark 5:25) and who had sought help from numerous physicians, exhausting her money, reached out and touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak and experienced immediate healing. Jesus felt “that power had gone forth from him” (Mark 5:30) and turned around to ask who touched the hem of his garment. The woman, trembling with fear, comes forward and says it that she touched Jesus. Jesus looks at her and says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mark 5:34).

Danté Stewart alludes to Jesus healing of the bleeding woman as he and his former teammate, TB, come back to Clemson University where they both played football and walk on the field at Memorial Stadium. That field, and other such fields around the nation, serve as a sanctuary, religious shrines even for ardent fans of whatever team occupies that grass. Every Saturday in the fall, at campuses all over the country, close to one hundred thousand fans pack into each major stadium to cheer on college athletes, mostly Black men, who engage in gladiatorial spectacle for the masses.

As Stewart and TB stand on the field, he thinks about that space and how, as he puts it, “our Black bodies heard the sound of thousands of people being American: yelling their hearts out for Black boys in South Carolina to win in ways that made these Americans feel like somebody, even if those who won were less that what these Americans wanted to acknowledge.” Rhetorically, Stewart does a few things in this sentence. He highlights the ways that those in the crowd, mostly white, view him and TB on the field, not as individuals but as “Black bodies” and as “Black boys,” both dehumanizing. As well, his use of “American” when he refers to those in the stands, points to the divide between those, mostly white, who cheer loudly and those, mostly Black, who perform on the field.

Standing on the field, Stewart and TB feel “fatigued” and exhausted. Stewart notes the “exhilarated feeling” following a game where he and his teammates would be “surrounded by Americans who just want to touch the hem of [their] jerseys and the feeling of being precious, that feeling of having a power so dear as to make Americans jump over concrete brick barriers” doesn’t exist. Instead, exhaustion rests in its place, an exhaustion from having to survive within a society that cheers on Saturdays in the fall and turns its back when the season concludes.

Stewart doesn’t directly reference the bleeding woman in this section, but the mention of “Americans” waiting to merely “touch the hem of our jerseys” reminds me of the woman who reaches out to Jesus so that she might be healed. In the case of the Memorial Stadium, though, the Americans in the stands seek absolution, in some form, from themselves and white supremacy. Stewart, James Baldwin, Lillian Smith, and countless others point out, white supremacy and race lie at the heart of the nation, from its very genesis. As Baldwin puts it in “The White Problem,” “This is the root of the present trouble.”

Jordan-Hare Stadium Clemson at Auburn 2016

The Americans in the stands want, whether consciously or subconsciously, to eradicate this root to make them feel better. The reaching for the player’s jerseys is a vicarious way to do this, a way for them to express some form of admiration without having to change anything about themselves, without having to follow a path towards a better world. The “power so dear” that Stewart holds and makes the Americans reach for the hem of the jerseys and jump the walls to run on the field, recalls the power that left Jesus when the woman touched his cloak. He felt it leave him, and Stewart feels it leave him when he walks off of the field and has the Americans reach out their hands towards him.

All of this makes me think about a letter I once read from a white lawyer who wrote to Ernest Gaines after he had read Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, a novel that centers around a wrongfully convicted Black man walking to execution as a man, not as a “hog” like his public defender called him during the trial. The white lawyer told Gaines that he enjoyed the novel and that Jefferson’s story really opened his eyes. Then, he goes on to say that at the mall one day, while his wife was in a store shopping, he sat down on a bench next to a Black man wearing a Jacksonville Jaguars hat. The white lawyer said that he felt “comfortable” talking to the man and connecting with him over sports. This was it. This was all he said about the impact of Jefferson’s story on him and his actions.

The white lawyer “bonded” with the Black man over sports, and nothing more. The white lawyer probably cheered on the Jaguars, screaming in the stands or at the television at the players on the field. They entertained him, nothing more. I think about players, specifically college players, in these moments. One minute a white officer can be cheering a Black player on the field. The next day that officer could pull the player over, as Stewart was once, for driving while Black. During the traffic stop, Stewart made sure that the officer could see his athletic jacket with the Clemson Tiger paw on it and his id so that the officer would know he was an athlete. However, if he wasn’t an athlete, performing on the field, what would have happened.

Stewart details incidents such as this throughout Shoutin’ in the Fire, not just in relation to his playing days at Clemson but also in his days as a pastor and small group leader at a white evangelical church. When he provided the Americans something they wanted, something that made them feel “good,” they accepted him. However, when he went against any of it, whether thinking about protesting following the murder of Trayvon Martin while at Clemson and how that would affect his playing chances or speaking out on social media following the murder or Alton Sterling, the Americans would drop him because he did not adhere to their positions.

To absolve themselves, the Americans allowed Stewart to perform for them and to have access to white spaces in the church, and they did this to try and cleanse themselves of the root of white supremacy. However, unlike the bleeding woman who approached Jesus with humility and acknowledgement of his power, they approach Stewart, TB, and others greedily, hoping that they will provide some solace for their tortured souls as they refuse to even acknowledge that Stewart has a “power so dear.”

This perpetual navigation of spaces leads to the exhaustion Stewart and TB feel on the field. Stewart reflects, at the end of Shoutin’ in the Fire, on how quickly the adulation can change to violence, how quickly one can go from laughing with friends to lying dead in the street. He writes, “I understand what white supremacy has done and will do to us: It will kill us. Slowly. Violently. Publicly. It is a sturdy American wall.” The wall, erected centuries ago, remains solid, with reinforcements all over it. It will remain that way until those who seek to touch the hem of the jerseys examine themselves in the mirror, confronting their role within the maintaining of that wall. When that reflection happens, hopefully, we can hear Jesus’ words directed at us, “your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

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