We've all been told that we're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but the cover of C. Richard King's "Redskins: Insult and Brand" is one of the many provocative and compelling features of this insightful, must-read book.
Based on a sticker designed by Gregg Deal, the cover consists of a vertical list of eight racially charged terms that are universally acknowledged as pejorative and unacceptable for common use, all of which are crossed out by what looks like Sharpie marker. At the bottom is a ninth term, equally offensive and insulting, left unaltered: redskins. The very act of listing these terms calls attention to what King points out in his author's note: "one must take great care in the interpretation and application of language."
In this comprehensive and lively analysis, King — a scholar who has written about the history and significance of Native American mascots for more than 20 years — looks at the continued use by the Washington, D.C., professional football team of a name that is roundly recognized as a highly problematic and denigrating racial slur against Native Americans. The cover invites the reader to imagine what it would be like if this team went instead by one of the crossed-out epithets — a course of action most people would consider unconscionable. By way of this thought experiment, King immediately engages his audience in wondering why, in 2016, this team insists on using this name, and why its current owner, Daniel Snyder, has declared repeatedly that the team will never change it, even in the face of growing calls to do so.
But King's book consists of much more than these specific questions. By its structure and logic — starting with a chapter called "Origins" in which he breaks down why assertions that the moniker is anything but a term of "indignity" and "intimidation" is "wishful thinking at best" — the book is designed to elicit a more complex response than mere agreement or disagreement. It's not an op-ed written to garner a simplistic pro or con reaction, but rather gives people on both sides of the fence, and even on the fence, a great deal to think about. For as the chapter called "Erasure" makes clear in stating that, "Americans likely cannot think about the team name and its significance because they have never been taught about American Indians," it is not just about a single team and its contemptuous name, or even just about sports and indigenous people. Really, it's about representation, etymology, cultural memory, history, language and power.
Many recent books have looked at other issues within the NFL that are much in need of examination, including "Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto" by Steve Almond, "The Game's Not Over: In Defense of Football" by Greg Easterbrook, "Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football" by Gilbert M. Gaul and "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth" by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. But King's book is unique and crucial in its focus on this particular and pressing issue and its long and convoluted context.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said during the run-up to Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014 that "this is the name of a football team, a football team that's had that name for 80 years and has presented the name in a way that is honored — that has honored Native Americans." Many fans try to assert the same. King points out, though, that, "Saying it is so does not make it so, for the Washington professional football team has offered numerous representations of Native Americans since its inception that work against this and similar declarations."
"R*dskin" (as King represents it to "underscore its unspeakable … nature") "is a slur: it denigrates and dehumanizes; it has a deep connection with organized killing and ethnic cleansing, including taking scalps and bounties; it may be one of the key words of conquest in the United States," the author contends. To argue otherwise is to continue a "pattern of erasure, lack of reflection, and active disengagement." But if that's still not convincing, read the entire 11-chapter book and see what you think at the end.
Kathleen Rooney is the co-editor of the forthcoming "Rene Magritte: Selected Writings."
"Redskins: Insult and Brand"
By C. Richard King, University of Nebraska, 227 pages, $24.95