Samuel Alicea, 20, and Samuel Habib, 21, met when they were both at the summer program at Shaker Road School when they were about 5 years old, but they haven’t been in touch since they were young. Alicea is a junior at Morehouse College in Atlanta studying cinema, television and emerging media studies. While he was playing football for Merrimack Valley High School, Alicea followed Colin Kaepernick’s lead and took a knee before a 2016 game to protest police brutality.
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Alicea: Hey, long time no speak, right?
Habib: Hey Samuel, it’s good to see you, and thanks for taking time for this interview.
Alicea: Of course, it’s good to see you too, been a long time!
Habib: Where did you grow up and go to school?
Alicea: I grew up – man, you know this! I grew up in Boscawen, New Hampshire, and then I started at St. John’s, and then moved to the Merrimack Valley school district, Boscawen Elementary and then Merrimack Valley Middle School and High School. And then junior year I switched to Tilton School.
Habib: Before the kneeling controversy did you ever feel singled out as a person of color, and if so can you give an example or two?
Alicea: Oh, most definitely. I had an older cousin who was great at basketball and track and football. He kind of excelled at all the sports that he did naturally. It didn’t come to me as easily, so part of it was just having him as a relative who also came through the school district and having like my mom and my uncles who were, like, major athletes back when they were younger, too. ... I didn’t excel at basketball the same way that all of them did. When you have these family members and, more specifically, when you’re the only Black athlete on a certain team, you’re kind of expected to overachieve or do much better. You can’t be like a regular athlete; you have to go above and beyond. Otherwise, to them, you’re not good.
Habib: What was the driving force for your decision to kneel during the national anthem at a Merrimack Valley football game?
Alicea: It really was just all the police brutality that was going on around me. I felt like I had been seeing a lot and I had heard a lot since I was a kid. I’ve heard so many stories from my mom and my grandmother. I see it on the news, so I know it’s real, but when you hear it from your family you get a different feeling. And my grandmother grew up during the segregation era, for real. She watched Brown vs. Board of Education; she was alive for that.
So I guess I would say a combination of those two things made me want to bring awareness to what was going on around the country. 2015 was one of the worst years for police killing unarmed Black men and women. I was mad, and it made me emotional.
When I was 12, the world heard about Trayvon Martin’s name and I connected to him, and I grew up with that. In a lot of ways, it was like Emmett Till for my grandmother; like children that grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, it was sort of the same idea. So of course Trayvon Martin was sort of the beginning. And then once I saw Colin Kaepernick do it, it made me feel like, “OK, this is something; I can do this,” you know what I mean? He’s raising awareness; I can do this, the exact same thing. I wanted to just make people aware. I guess that would be the driving force if anything.
Habib: After you knelt during the national anthem, what did you experience from the school and community in response?
Alicea: I mean, typical backlash. I got some threats and I remember somebody shot a BB gun at my grandmother’s windshield, and that was when we decided to switch schools. Most of it was just people calling me names or people telling me that I’m wrong and this, this and that, or I should find a new way to do it and blah blah blah blah blah. Once you speak up and out, people like to try and micromanage you or just manage you and tell you how you should do it if they don’t like it, or if it challenges them or contests their daily way of life and interrupts their, you know, blissful ignorance. Someone’s gonna try and tell you how to do it, and thankfully myself and my family kind of ignored that.
Habib: Were you supported by your teammates and friends after the backlash?
Alicea: Actually, yeah, for the most part my teammates and all of my friends. I was actually proud of them and was proud of myself, as well, because growing up I was told you have to surround yourself around the right company. Because when push comes to shove, if push comes shove, you know you’re gonna need it. And in this case, I’ve made myself familiar with really cool people. I was just reflecting on this the other day how intelligent most of my friends are. From when I was 11 or 12, like at middle school and in high school is when I got that friend group together, and I’m still in contact with a lot of them. And a lot of the people that I would hang out with were extremely supportive of me after I had done this, and more recently they’ve been more vocal about their support. But back then, there was no doubt that my friends had my back and my teammates, um, maybe not as much as I would have liked for them to, but they also had a good amount of support for me. They had my back if something were to go down.
Habib: Were you supported by your teachers or administrators?
Alicea: That’s a difficult question because a lot of them aren’t really allowed to be vocal with that, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. The teachers that were vocal, you know; it was noted. I haven’t really been back to Merrimack Valley since, so I never got too many opportunities to thank some of the people that let me know that what I was doing was right or had my back one way or another. I’m sure they were told they couldn’t say anything about it in class, but you know I could tell the teachers that were really for me and the teachers that weren’t. There were some supportive teachers.
Habib: What was the last straw that led you to leave MV and where did you go?
Alicea: The catalyst was definitely when the BB was shot through my grandmother’s car, because leading up to that point my family had kind of been pushing me to move schools and I wanted to wait it out for the year. I definitely planned on leaving by the end of that year, but I wanted to wait it out because I didn’t want to come off as, I don’t know, maybe weak. I was 16 when this happened, so I had a lot of pride, and then once that happened, I realized, OK, clearly there’s a message; there’s something being said to me that’s making me not feel welcome, and more importantly it’s making my family not feel safe along with myself. Not that we ever had felt safe from the get-go, but this definitely felt like the catalyst. So I left and I moved to Tilton School, which was 15 minutes in the other direction, and they embraced me with open arms.
Habib: How did you choose where to go to college, and what has college been like for you?
Alicea: Morehouse is a HBCU – it’s a historically black college or university – and it’s also all-male. I’m going to school with like three to five thousand other Black men. We have a sister school right next door and it’s Spelman College, and it’s all-women, and then we have a university right next door, Clark Atlanta University, and they have men and women. We call ourselves the Atlanta University Center. I chose Morehouse because that felt like the community that I’d been longing for. I grew up in rural New Hampshire, little Boscawen, and there’s not much diversity here. I never really got to see anybody else Black until I was like 11 or something like that. Interacting with someone else Black and outside of family, it just felt overdue.
Now that I’m at Morehouse, I know students that were going to predominantly Black high schools and that just sounds insane to me, because I never even pictured that. That was a driving force in my decision, (it) was to be around someone else who got it.
I will say the difference between Morehouse and in any other predominantly white university or institution is that when you’re the only Black student or just a Black student at these white institutions, what happens is when you meet someone who’s white – step one is ignoring the fact that I’m Black, which is the sad truth. So if I went to UNH or if I went to NHTI or any predominantly white institution, that would kind of be a barrier in some ways, because there’s a lot to navigate. I wish it wasn’t the case, but it’s the truth. But at Morehouse we’re all Black, so, you know, step one’s gone.
There’s still diversity because it’s different lives. I grew up in New Hampshire and I think I’m the first one (from New Hampshire) to go to Morehouse. I was born and raised in New Hampshire, and that’s a conversation in itself, because you have students from Chicago, you have students from Atlanta, you have students from Boston, students from California, students from all over the place. I get the opportunity to meet them and hear their stories and and share mine.
Habib: What do you think about the Black Lives Matter movement and its impact on sports today?
Alicea: I think it’s great. I’m familiar with some of the members in different New Hampshire chapters, like Black Lives Matter Manchester, Nashua. And I know them personally, and I know that they’re doing very hard and dignifying work. It’s not easy what they’re doing. And it takes a lot because they get a plethora of threats and backlash just for fighting for their own rights and the rights of other people. I think it’s a great movement. And I love the impact that it has on sports, and I love hearing people say, “Leave politics out of it,” because that’s how I know we’re headed in the right direction.
And I think it’s great that someone like LeBron James was so impacted by Black Lives Matter and everything else that was going on in the country in the world that had been brought to his attention by Black Lives Matter and it inspired him so much that he picked up The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He picked up his book and I don’t know if he’s finished, but he’s been reading it; he’s educating himself. And it was really nice seeing him in post-game interviews with the book in his hand, and you could see his progress as he went along; the bookmark kept moving and moving and moving and that’s real. That’s like you’re watching somebody educate themselves.
LeBron’s almost 40 and he’s the greatest NBA player, what does he need to know? Clearly some more, you know what I mean? He’s humble as he is, he’s willing to admit that he doesn’t know everything and more importantly there’s more to learn, to help our cause, help our movement. He won the championship so that helps a lot. Of course it doesn’t impact everyone the same, so not every NBA player and every NFL player, MLB player, they’re not all gonna go pick up Malcolm X’s book, and some of them have already read it. But it was it was nice to see walk-offs or postponing a game because they wanted to bring awareness of what was going on around the country. It was nice that they were contributing.
Habib: What do you think about professional and college athletes speaking out against police brutality and how will that impact sports moving forward?
Alicea: I’m glad that this is the direction we’re heading in. At the same time, I have to be honest: I don’t think we should confuse athletes as politicians, as scholars, every single time. There’s a couple that I’m aware of that say what they need to say and say it very well. I think Chris Paul, he’s a good example of someone who stands up and speaks out. At the same time, I feel like there is a designated lane and it’s not that they can’t step out of their lane with sports, but it gets a little difficult once we start idolizing celebrities and letting them speak for us when we’re the ones who should be out front. I do appreciate the athletes getting up and doing what they’re doing.
Habib: What are you doing to help promote awareness around racial justice? Have you gone to protests surrounding police brutality and racial justice?
Alicea: I have. I will say it’s much less about what I’ve been doing over the past, like, four months. Because I’m not built the same way that someone like Jordan Thompson is, who’s a very prominent voice around New Hampshire and part of the Black Lives Matter movement. He’s doing great work, and everyone around him is doing great work. So I did attend, and I hosted, one or two protests this past summer. I did what I could to get the word out and since then I haven’t been as active on social media, I haven’t been as active in the public with stuff like this. I’ve really been focused on school, and it’s mainly because I look and see the work that they’re doing and I feel a lot more comfortable knowing that there’s people who, in some ways, are meant to do this. I don’t see myself as that person, as much as I’d like to help. I’ll lend a hand whenever, wherever I can, but that is them. I’m just trying to pass these classes right now.
Habib: Thanks so much for taking time for the interview Samuel.
Alicea: Thank you, I appreciate you having me and I’m happy to speak with you. Good luck in future endeavors and please keep me posted on your filmmaking and let me know when you put something together!