Colin Kaepernick talks with students at Kenwood Academy

Colin Kaepernick talks with students following his book launch event with coauthor Eve L. Ewing, AB’08, at Kenwood Academy. (Photography by Tarji Michelle)

Picture this

My Very Own Library brings an author and icon to a neighborhood school.

“During this event we are not allowing any pictures,” Karen Calloway, principal of Hyde Park’s Kenwood Academy, announces to the middle schoolers gathered in the auditorium. “I know. I’m sorry.” Calloway, who’s wearing a Kenwood Broncos sweatshirt, manages to sound firm, warm, and enthusiastic at the same time. “We expect that you-all will listen with your ears and your eyes,” she says, and be respectful, “as you have been already this morning.”

This is no ordinary assembly. It’s a book launch event with activist and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his coauthor Eve L. Ewing, AB’08, associate professor in the Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity. Colin Kaepernick: Change the Game (Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic, 2023), their graphic novel with art by Orlando Caicedo, is aimed at readers 12 and up. It focuses on Kaepernick’s senior year in high school, when he felt pressured to play baseball—and to fit in with his adoptive White family.

Change the Game is Kaepernick’s second autobiographical children’s book. Last year he published a picture book, I Color Myself Different (Scholastic, 2022), which became a New York Times bestseller. Ewing’s many publishing credits—setting aside her academic work—include a middle-grade novel and the Ironheart and Champions series for Marvel Comics.

As well as students from Kenwood Academy’s middle school, the audience includes groups from Chicago’s Kozminski Elementary, Shoesmith Elementary, and the UChicago Charter Woodlawn Campus, with other students watching via Zoom from around the country. The in-person attendees all received a copy of Change the Game courtesy of Scholastic and My Very Own Library, UChicago’s literacy initiative, which provides books to students in public elementary schools.

UChicago assumed leadership of My Very Own Library in 2019. Since the program’s 2011 founding, it has given more than two million books to students in Chicago and other American cities as well as in the Dominican Republic. My Very Own Library also has a YouTube channel with authors, including Ewing, reading their work.

Calloway introduces the two emcees: ninth grader Josie Singleton and senior Isaac Saffold—a football player and future presidential scholar at Drake University, Calloway notes with pride.

Singleton’s first question, directed at both Kaepernick and Ewing, is about “your hair journey from when you were younger.”

In the book, hair is an important signifier of culture and belonging. The cover illustration, for example, shows a short-haired teenage Kaepernick holding a baseball and a catcher’s mitt. But the shadow he casts is of a grown man in bulky shoulder pads, holding a football and a helmet, with natural hair: “the magnificent ’fro,” Ewing describes it, as Kaepernick laughs.

The first chapter centers on Kaepernick’s desire to grow his hair, to his parents’ frustration. “And I’m getting cornrows,” 15-year-old Kaepernick asserts as he storms out of the kitchen. His mother turns to his father: “He’s getting what rolls?”

Wearing his hair the way he wanted “was part of embracing my culture,” Kaepernick tells his young listeners. “Embracing our culture.” In Change the Game, he and Ewing wanted to underscore that “we don’t have to subscribe to Eurocentric or White beauty standards,” he says. “How your hair grows out of your head is beautiful.”

Saffold has a few sports questions. How did it feel to get your first Division I offer? he asks. “I don’t remember,” Kaepernick answers, smiling. He was heavily recruited for baseball but had no interest.

Two weeks before final signing day, he was called out of class. It was the University of Nevada’s head football coach on the school phone: “We want you to come play football, … but you have to commit to not playing baseball,” Kaepernick recalls. “And I was like, ‘Done.’” Ewing has heard this story before—it’s how the final chapter ends—but breaks into laughter anyway.

After Singleton and Saffold have asked all their questions, a screen at the back of the stage lights up: students attending remotely have questions too. What was your first experience with racial inequality? a young man from Newark, New Jersey, wants to know.

“This is me putting my professor hat on,” Ewing says, gesturing as if she is putting on an invisible hat. “Our first experiences with racial inequality happen before we’re born.” The design of cities, the availability of jobs and transportation, the quality of schools and health care—all are defined by inequality. “When we say ‘systemic racism,’ that’s what that means.

“But in terms of what I actually remember,” she continues, “I was called the N-word for the first time when I was maybe 6.” She was riding her bike; a White woman “who was struggling with mental illness” yelled at her. Ewing didn’t know what the word meant. Decades later, as a doctoral student, she had a near-identical experience in Harvard Square. A woman “called me the N-word, and she called me a cockroach,” Ewing says matter-of-factly. “It’s not fair that we should have to deal with that.”

Perhaps because of his upbringing as a transracial adoptee—Change the Game chronicles numerous painful moments of unintended parental cluelessness—Kaepernick can’t remember a first moment. “Oftentimes when we’re younger, we might not even know,” he says. “But we know it feels wrong.”

“How many of y’all have faced racism?” he asks the audience. Around the auditorium, children raise their hands. “And to Eve’s point,” he says, “those of you who don’t have your hands up, you’ve faced racism. You just may not exactly know how it’s affected you yet.”

What inspires you to create books that empower Black people? a young man from UChicago Charter Woodlawn asks. “Because I love us,” Kaepernick says, to thunderous applause.

“In education we say a book can be a mirror or a window,” Ewing says: it can reflect your own experience or show you someone else’s. While Change the Game tells Kaepernick’s story—being an athlete and an adoptee—many parts are universal, like having a first crush and standing up to your parents. “The things that bring us together are so much more powerful than the things that tear us apart,” Ewing says.

At the end, Calloway returns to the stage to talk up Kenwood’s basketball champions and its spelling bee winner—and, to the audience’s amazement, relents on the picture ban.

Kaepernick makes his way to the edge of the stage. He shakes the hands of middle schoolers and middle-aged schoolteachers alike. He smiles in selfie after selfie.