Empty victory: young Black wrestler’s sacrifice

andrew johnson wrestler

Reading Frantz Fanon or writers like him can make you easily relate to a dictum that seems to describe unequal societies: when you’re on the losing side, a “W” is an welcomed “W” — until you realize it’s not.

I see this dictum in the angering story of Buena Regional High wrestler Andrew Johnson, a junior athlete who was forced into a Thursday night game-time decision to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit the match he was minutes away from competing in. The incident smells like a continuation of the war on dreads.

Johnson’s choice to have his hair cut out of a desire to win and not let his team down, his subsequent match victory, and his persistent pissed-off look about the whole experience is a diorama for — dare I say it — the struggle of race among many African Americans.

They become victims of someone’s not-so-random power trip, they make sacrifices for others in the name of helping the “team” through a challenge but then walk away from the experience with a disgusting taste of a hollow victory. No progress, no inner peace, but sometimes an ultimately meaningless symbol in the shape of a “W” lingers for an ephemeral celebration.

And then the pattern repeats. The dictum of chasing a “W” arrives again, its emptiness either ignored or loathed.

Or in some cases, the fruits of victory are not evenly shared.

Examples of this pattern are the sacrifices African-American soldiers made in World Wars I and II — during the Jim Crow era.

The Korean War. Vietnam.

Many federal, state and local elections. You get the idea.

We dig symbols. Even if they’re of the “W” kind.

And symbols — aside from the classic Richard Pryor joke reference that nestles just below our belt buckles — is all many marginalized people have.

But symbols cannot serve as proxies for real progress and equality.

Based on studies like this one from the St. Louis Fed, if everyone in Andew Johnson’s class pursued no education goals beyond graduating from Buena Regional, his net worth would likely be 11 percent of the average White classmate. And this is only one standout statistic of inequality among many others.

Johnson is too young to learn that lesson, though.

But the humiliating sight of his locks falling to the gym floor in response to a known racist referee’s demand — and the lack of willingness on the part of adults who were present and his own team to protect Johnson from this humiliation — serve as an introduction to that pattern of marginalization, sacrifice, and hollow victories.

The post-match sour expression on Johnson’s face while the referee raised the young athlete’s hand in victory tells me almost everything I need to know about this story.

The inactions of Johnson’s coaches and teammates told me even more.

And the people who held up Johnson’s actions of sacrifice and victory as heroic actions, but ignored the instigating acts, completes the diorama …

song currently stuck in my head: “the land of freedom” – quasimode

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