“My purpose as an artist is to communicate through movement.” Raianna Brown, a 22-year old Industrial Engineering major at Georgia Tech, writes to me in an email about what dancing means to her. She wants her work to show “genuineness and vulnerability,” she tells me, qualities that were also displayed in a photo of her protest that went viral last weekend.
The image, taken on October 1, 2016, showed Brown, then a member of the Georgia Tech dance team Goldrush, taking a knee during the national anthem. The photograph is an iconic addition to the intersection of sports and protests, while also transcending it: we are reminded that speaking for what's right can be lonely, while it also shines a light on voices in the struggle that can be overlooked. "One of my least favorite stereotypes that sports dancers and cheerleaders face [is] we are seen as mindless eye candy somehow oblivious to the social and political zeitgeist," Brown writes.
Her protest, which continued for the rest of the season, predates the dozens of NFL players and team owners who either knelt or locked arms in solidarity on Sunday, a response to President Donald Trump who had two days earlier urged the owners to fire any “son of a bitch” who kneels during the national anthem. The meaning of these new protests is nebulous, but for Brown, it was always linked to the same urgent issues of police brutality and racial injustice that drove Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who started the movement.
Brown left the dance squad in May for a hip surgery, but she says she hopes to rejoin the Goldrush in November for her final semester. On November 17, her dance company RAINN Dance Theater will premiere its first full production in Human. She cites “the recent killings of unarmed POC by police, the inhumane treatment of POC, and the resulting protests” as inspiration for the show, as well as the works of Toni Morrison and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Over email, Raianna recounted the day of her kneeling, the aftermath, and her feelings on last Sunday’s wave of similar protests.
Tell me about the day you decided to kneel, and your reasons for doing so.
On September 16, 2016, Terrance Crutcher — a Black father, brother, son, and student — was shot fatally by a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The impact of Mr. Crutcher’s death, along with many others of its kind that year, was palpable in the Black community. I kneeled in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick as a statement about the unjust killings of people of color in our country. I did not kneel to disrespect the flag; instead, I sought to question the morals of the nation it represents. When I protested, I joined countless other athletes and artists who have used their platforms to encourage America to become its best self. The American flag is a symbol of my right to peacefully protest. My kneeling was one of my most patriotic moments.
[On the day I kneeled] I was incredibly nervous. The team does some dancing before the anthem happens, and I’m pretty sure I messed up four times...and I usually don’t mess up. I had to center myself on the purpose of what I was about to do. When I took the knee during the anthem, I thought of the names of the people of color who were victims of racial injustice in the United States, names that I knew like Emmett Till, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, at the time Terence Crutcher. All these names coursed through my mind. That gave me the strength to make it through the anthem. I’m pretty sure I was crying a little bit too. It’s important to put yourself on the line, even if you’re nervous, and take a stand for something you believe in.
How did you feel watching the protests over the weekend?
I am glad that this important issue is gaining so much attention. I’m glad women like Megan Rapinoe, Mistie Bass, and Kelsey Bone are also being recognized for their protests. Women of color are also victims of police brutality. It is important to make sure our voices are part of the protest narrative. I am hopeful that this influx of attention and popularity of this protest will be a catalyst for a much-needed change.
What kind of reactions were you getting when your photo went viral this weekend?
I have a lot more negative comments than I did last year, but they’re greatly outweighed by the positive support I’ve received. The most important thing is that people are beginning to have these conversations and engage in meaningful civil discourse on the subject of police brutality and racial injustice in the United States.
How did the school and football team react?
I didn’t feel anything but support from my peers at school aside from a few negative comments when I first posted the picture. However, my kneeling received a flood of backlash from alumni, but none of that directly went to me. I’m grateful that Georgia Tech did a good job filtering that out and keeping it away from me.
I got wonderful support from the football team. The Georgia Tech football team is never out for the anthem, as per typical pregame procedure. After I knelt, many of the players reached out to me in support.
Did your fellow dance team members know about your decision?
Before I kneeled, I reached out to my coach and the Georgia Tech Athletic Association to make sure they were okay with my decision. Prior to the game, I told some of my teammates what I was doing and why. I also invited them to kneel with me if they wanted. For the most part my teammates were supportive. I don’t feel any ill will toward my them for choosing not to kneel. I’m a strong believer that every social justice movement needs people on all sides of the spectrum. You need people like me who are more visible, and people who feel more comfortable being active behind closed doors.