What soccer can teach us about freedom | Marc Bamuthi Joseph


The two places where I feel most free aren’t actually places. They’re moments. The first is inside of dance. Somewhere between
rising up against gravity and the feeling that the air beneath me is falling in love with my body’s weight. I’m dancing and the air is carrying me like I might never come down. The second place that I feel free is after scoring a goal
on the soccer pitch. My body floods with the chemical that they put inside of EpiPens
to revive the dead, and I am weightless, raceless. My story is this: I’m a curator
at a contemporary arts center, but I don’t really believe in art
that doesn’t bleed or sweat or cry. I imagine that my kids
are going to live in a time when the most valuable commodities
are fresh water and empathy. I love pretty dances
and majestic sculpture as much as the next guy, but give me something else to go with it. Lift me up with the aesthetic sublime and give me a practice or some tools
to turn that inspiration into understanding and action. For instance, I’m a theater maker
who loves sports. When I was making
my latest piece /peh-LO-tah/ I thought a lot about how soccer
was a means for my own immigrant family to foster a sense of continuity
and normality and community within the new context of the US. In this heightened moment of xenophobia
and assault on immigrant identity, I wanted to think through how the game could serve
as an affirmational tool for first-generation Americans
and immigrant kids, to ask them to consider
movement patterns on the field as kin to migratory patterns
across social and political borders. Whether footballers or not, immigrants in the US
play on endangered ground. I wanted to help the kids understand that the same muscle
that they use to plan the next goal can also be used
to navigate the next block. For me, freedom exists in the body. We talk about it abstractly
and even divisively, like “protect our freedom,”
“build this wall,” “they hate us because of our freedom.” We have all these systems
that are beautifully designed to incarcerate us or deport us, but how do we design freedom? For these kids, I wanted to track the idea
back to something that exists inside that no one could take away, so I developed this curriculum that’s part poli-sci class,
part soccer tournament, inside of an arts festival. It accesses /peh-LO-tah/’s
field of inquiry to create a sports-based
political action for young people. The project is called
“Moving and Passing.” It intersects curriculum development,
site-specific performance and the politics of joy, while using soccer as a metaphor
for the urgent question of enfranchisement among immigrant youth. Imagine that you are
a 15-year-old kid from Honduras now living in Harlem, or you’re a 13-year-old girl born in DC
to two Nigerian immigrants. You love the game. You’re on the field with your folks. You’ve just been practicing
dribbling through cones for, like, 15 minutes, and then, all of a sudden,
a marching band comes down the field. I want to associate the joy of the game
with the exuberance of culture, to locate the site of joy in the game at the same physical coordinate as being politically informed by art, a grass-laden theater for liberation. We spend a week looking at how the midfielder
would explain Black Lives Matter, or how the goalkeeper
would explain gun control, or how a defender’s style
is the perfect metaphor for the limits of American exceptionalism. As we study positions on the field, we also name and imagine our own freedoms. I don’t know, man, soccer is, like, the only thing on this planet
that we can all agree to do together. You know? It’s like the official sport
of this spinning ball. I want to be able
to connect the joy of the game to the ever-moving footballer, to connect that moving footballer to immigrants who also moved
in sight of a better position. Among these kids, I want
to connect their families’ histories to the bliss of a goal-scorer’s run, family like that feeling
after the ball beats the goalie, the closest thing going to freedom. Thank you. (Applause)

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