Every so often, because he is a Black man in a predominantly white sport, Canaan Smith-Njigba silences himself. He hears teammates in the Yankees’ organization, for whom he last year played left field for the Class A Charleston (S.C.) RiverDogs, make what he calls a “borderline” comment. It’s never a slur, more like “Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group” or “Well, why didn’t he listen to the police?”
“You think, I’m the only [Black person] here. There’s no one to back me up,” Smith-Njigba says. “Just like all the greats did, you gotta bite your tongue. But I’m not biting my tongue anymore." That’s why he, along with Chris Gittens, a Black first baseman who played last year at Double A Trenton (N.J.), tweeted at the organization this afternoon to ask for support.
NBA players declined to play on Wednesday or Thursday to draw attention to the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by police officers in Kenosha, Wis. WNBA players did the same. MLB players responded in more piecemeal fashion, with their sitting out the Reds-Brewers, Mariners-Padres and Dodgers-Giants games on Wednesday, along with A’s-Rangers, Nationals-Phillies, Twins-Tigers, Rockies-Diamondbacks and Red Sox-Blue Jays on Thursday. All of the teams whose games have been officially postponed have published statements supporting their players' decision. Other clubs are reportedly mulling whether to play on Thursday.
The Yankees played a doubleheader against the Braves on Wednesday and had a scheduled day off on Thursday. The organization has not made a statement regarding the protests around sports. (A spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.)
“Really need my team to make a statement,” Gittens, 25, wrote. “You have guys in your organization that needs to see that you are with us and not about the money!!! Don’t stay silent!!!!! #BLM” (Gittens said by text, "I hope the yankees will do what's right!!!!")
Smith-Njigba, 21, quote-tweeted him and added, “@Yankees be with us”
What would he like to hear?
“Something simple that you’re with us and you have our backs,” Smith-Njigba says. “You gotta remember, [right fielder Aaron] Judge is Black, you have [center fielder] Aaron Hicks, you had [lefty] CC Sabathia, you have [DH Giancarlo] Stanton.”
Smith-Njigba’s clubhouses have always been whiter. He estimates that there are seven or eight Black players in the Yankees' minor league levels. In recent weeks, he says, his white teammates have reached out to ask him about his experiences as a Black man in the U.S. He has tried to explain to them what it’s like to stare into your rearview mirror praying the cop drives past you, to wonder whether the parents of a white girl you like will allow you into her home. Many of them have never thought about what he endures, because they’ve never had to.
“A lot of my white teammates have had their eyes opened up,” he says.
Those conversations can be uncomfortable for anyone, but they are especially difficult at the minor league level. On Thursday, in a Zoom call with reporters, mixed-race Cardinals righthander Jack Flaherty explained why only now, in his fourth year in the majors, has he begun to feel comfortable using his voice.
“It's hard for the young guys,” he said. “It's hard because you just want to go about your business and get into the league and then you're like, O.K., now I can focus on what can I do in the community, and it's hit that point for me. And it's hard to look back and be like, Why haven't I done anything up to this point?”
“I’m glad Jack said that,” says Smith-Njigba. “It’s very tough, because you’re scared. You feel like if you speak out, something’s gonna happen. If I take a knee supporting Black Lives Matter, [maybe] I’m gonna get released. I haven’t made a name for myself. Sometimes I shy away from saying what I want to say, but now I can’t keep it inside. I gotta let it out somehow. I have a voice. I have to use it. I have to use my platform. We need to do more. We can’t just keep doing the minimum. We have to take a stand.”
He is still working through what that might look like. He’d like to be more involved in raising money for causes that support Black communities. He speaks highly of Black Yankees major league hitting coach Marcus Thames, whom he says he texts daily, and he adds that New York legend and Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, whom he calls Uncle Reg, is also very available to players. (“I call him the OG,” says Smith-Njigba, short for original gangster.) Still, Smith-Njigba notes that Thames is the only Black coach in the organization. He hopes the team can explore ways to bring in more Black authority figures.
In the meantime, he’d just like to hear the team say it supports him. He says he is not disappointed that the Yankees played on Wednesday—things were moving fast—but before they return to the field on Friday, he’d like to see some indication that the franchise cares about its Black players.
“It would be great for you to use the platform that you have, because you are the New York Yankees,” he says. “You are a global figure. You could change lives by supporting the movement and educating people on what’s going on in the world.”