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Lacrosse Star Jules Heningburg On Being Black, Surviving White & Validating His Biracial Journey

As race and COVID moved to the forefront of our country's social consciousness, so did Jules Heningburg, and his experiences as a biracial athlete.

In America, where the number of multiracial children has multiplied tenfold in the past 50 years, their experiences remain very challenging and unique as they navigate through a society where personal, political, and business allegiances are largely based on a system of rigid racial definitions.  

Skin color often dictates who will become the haves and have nots in American society. When you wear darker skin, it is a mask that can’t be removed or compromised. It reflects stories of redemption and often condemnation. One who has the choice not to be recognized as Black in this country is shielded from being personally indebted to protesting or speaking out against racial injustice and systemic racism. They are also spared from the burdensome task of being victims of this oppressive system.  

In the world of lacrosse, melanin can be the difference between rising through the sport and never getting an opportunity to put your skills on display.  

Premier League lacrosse superstar Jules Heningburg, the product of a Black father and white mother, has spent his life sitting in the middle of two races, like gold on a scale, balancing the weight of each culture. 

Living in a world where the color of one’s skin often determines how they are treated, growing up, Jules didn’t deny his Black race but admits that he used his white appearance to avoid the racial pitfalls and divides that exist in a white-dominated, upper-middle-class sport like lacrosse.  

“It allowed me to gain perspective through all that because no one really knew what I was or where I stood when they first met me,” Jules told the Shadow League.” It allowed me to operate differently while other people were out in the open about who they were.” 

George Floyd Inspires Reflection On Race

The George Floyd murder inspired a global conversation on social justice and racial equality and individual reflections on how race, politics and socio-economic conditions shape our experiences. 

“I watched the George Floyd video, with respect to my history and what I’ve been through,” said Jules.  “I never felt like I needed to validate who I was.” 

The 24-year-old lacrosse bandit has emerged as one of the deadliest attackers and rising stars in the PLL, scoring 25 goals and accumulating 39 points while leading Redwoods LC to the championship game in 2019. The majority of his lacrosse fans, however, didn’t know that Jules is biracial. That lingered in the back of his mind.  

Jules Heningburg: As a partial conclusion to me speaking up, it was inevitable that I was validating who I was. Watching that video, it was very much police officers dictating life or death because of the color of someone’s skin rather than the court of law. That’s not Constitutional. Due process is not a reality for so many Black people in America who have interactions that end fatally with police officers. 

That’s where it hits home. That could be my brothers, that could be my teammates, that could be any of my best friends growing up, but it was never going to be me because my skin is not dark enough for that to be the case. 

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George Floyd’s death caused Jules to confront his own racial existence.  As people from across the world started giving testimony on their experiences as people of color, Jules was inspired to speak out on how he’s navigated the world of lacrosse and beyond as a multiracial person who can pass as a white person. 

He basically dropped a bomb on the game that went viral.  

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Ive wanted to express this for a long time. Your brother in the game, Jules. #GeorgeFloyd

A post shared by Jules Nehemiah Heningburg (@julesheningburg) on

Heningburg: “In the sport of lacrosse, in the locker room, there was always maybe 1 or 2 other Black kids. My experience was being an ally with the Black kids on my team who were maybe misunderstood and educating the other people in the locker room to what maybe needed to be understood. 

So I was kind of playing that middle ground. Always standing on the side of what was right. In times of conflict, I always was there to bridge the gap and look to educate and find some understanding. I was able to penetrate the conversation in a way that’s different from how other people go about it. 

I’m fortunate and privileged to not have dark skin where perhaps I wasn’t dealing with those same anxieties..same fears growing up. I didn’t get those same looks from white people. I didn’t ever have that fear of walking into a restaurant and being judged by the color of my skin. So these things allowed me to operate, move differently, and have different perspectives in that sense.

Civil Rights Pedigree & Legacy

Jules combined his unique racial advantage with a heritage and legacy entrenched in civil rights. The racial advocacy of his grandfather was a constant reminder to Jules that there were strong, positive Black roots at his foundation and guiding his conscience as he moved through a melanin’s no man’s land growing up.  

Heningburg: My grandfather grew up in the South and moved up North to Newark when my Dad was born and eventually they were one of the Black families to move into Maplewood. My grandfather was one of the leaders in terms of the labor movement in New Jersey. Really working to help set up equality within different labor sectors within the state. Similar to me, he wasn’t one of the frontline people as much, he was a very educated man, worked in government and held lots of different positions that allowed him to operate behind the scenes and maneuver in a way that allowed him to make deals and bridge the gap between the white and Black communities. 

After The Newark Riots (159 race riots that swept cities in the United States during the “Long Hot Summer of 1967), he was one of the people who came in after and helped mend relationships. I didn’t understand fully when I was younger then, but when he passed away the reverence with which people spoke of him at his funeral made me understand who he was and how he was able to garner respect from the white community while ensuring the Black community that he was working for them. 

Jules is able to reach both sides of the cultural spectrum as well. 

 It’s two-fold. Never having to admit to being Black definitely allowed me to observe the differences in how Black players, people in general, are treated. It definitely benefited me to not have to be judged on my skin color. Knowing that I was half Black also motivated me in a lot of ways because I knew that I was different than the kids I played with in more ways than one. 

 

Socio-Economic Barriers For Blackness

Jules was able to exist as a colorless person within the lacrosse culture, but other social barriers threatened to impede his journey. He didn’t live in the same affluent neighborhood as most of his teammates. 

Heningburg: I grew up in one of the most diverse towns in the country, Maplewood in North Jersey. We border Irvington and we border Newark, which is one of the most populated cities in the state of New Jersey… a very urbanized city, majority Black.

Irvington is one of the suburbs up North and is probably 95 percent Black. Maplewood sits right on the border and on the other side of town Maplewood is also bordered by Millburn Short Hills which is one of the richer towns in the state of New Jersey and the country. In Short Hills, you have more money and affluence closer to the Millburn side. On my side, there’s not as much money, more minorities. For me growing up pretty much, all my friends were Black. When I was younger I didn’t look too much into it. 

As I  started to get older and started to play lacrosse I realized that none of my Black friends from basketball were playing with me. It was just one of those things where basketball season would end, I’d go to lacrosse practice. None of my friends would be there and I’d just see all these white kids that I never saw because I didn’t go to school with them. I went to an elementary on my side of town. I would see them and then go home. It was very odd to me. 

As I got to middle school I started to see how that worked. I started to have friends that couldn’t come to my side of town. I was never fully invited to that clique on the other side of town because my parents didn’t interact with them. Meanwhile, my play on the field had nothing to do with that. It was an odd dynamic for me to see how the socio-economic race relations were playing into the sport when I was just a young boy just trying to play the game that I love.

Jules continued to advance through life’s lessons and maneuver through lacrosse’s white ceiling.

Following a stellar college career at Rutgers — where Juels was a two-time captain and helped turn the program into a national power, achieving a No.1 national ranking at one point — the second-leading scorer and highest pro draft pick in Scarlet Knights history broke into the pro ranks and conveniently dropped his POV Tweet around the same time that his Mission Prime Initiative multi-day lacrosse camp was being launched. 

Heningburg: I was able to curate a culture that was needed to maneuver at a university like Rutgers. And now the ironic part is I’m circling back to being a pro player and wanting to give back and help the next generation with what I felt that was lacking from my own experiences in the game, in a socio-economic sense.  

Supporting Diversity In Lacrosse Through Mission Prime

Jules identified the need to equal the playing field for the game of lacrosse and developed the camp as a mechanism for doing so. This summer, Jules has been executing a digital experience (due to COVID-19), where he facilitates workshops with experts in their field and coaches to provide the incoming D1 lacrosse players with the skills needed to navigate collegiate athletics.

Unlike other camps, this brings a combination of skills to the players. The camp focuses on the importance of relationships, sacrifices, and routines as its core pillars. 

Lacrosse is in its infancy in terms of sports development. I believe that the way that it has grown, there’s still a missing piece in terms of development, specifically that summer going into college and after your senior season.

Jules empowers the players to think strategically about how they are owning their college experience. The hands-on workshops allow players to think critically about how they will approach preparing for the game both on and off the field.

Maneuvering Through Lacrosse’s Socio-Economic Maze

Heningburg:: Lacrosse is a very clicky sport. If you don’t know this guy or that guy you’re not going to that university.  If you can’t afford to go to this camp or you can’t go to that, you’re not going to get to go to that school. 

I felt like with my resilience, I was able to overcome all of that with the idea that I was never going to let anyone define my experience other than myself. And giving back to these kids who potentially felt like they need to define themselves within these different politics that exist within lacrosse.

This is very much tied to race because at the end of the day the politics are tied to the socio-economic side which is tied to race. If you’re in a certain neighborhood and grow up going to a certain school and can’t play on that club team then you don’t get seen by that coach to go to that university. 

 I’m trying to even that playing field for everyone. Anyone can achieve anything in this sport if they set their mind. I just want to allow those players to understand that and give them the tools and strategies and confidence to achieve that. 

Humble But Enlightening Beginnings  

Jules’ Dad, a former high school hoops player, grew up in Maplewood during the 70s, which along with Montclair had the oldest club programs for lacrosse in the state. Jules said his Dad would hang around the lacrosse guys sometimes. 

“He saw what they were doing…saw how exciting the sport was and Jim Brown was playing years prior there… and Morgan State Ten Bears was another group my Dad was captivated by,” Henninburg told The Shadow League.”   

Jules’ pops studied the history of the game, found out that the sport was started by Native Americans and “hijacked by white people,” and passed his love of basketball and lacrosse onto Jules who phased out of hoops, but never stopped playing lacrosse. Picking up that lacrosse stick in the third grade has sent Juels on a whirlwind of success and self-discovery that continues to this day.  

COVID-19 Contraction, Health Risks

Life is still coming at Jules 100 miles per hour.

After putting in months of work in preparation for helping his team win a 2020 PLL championship, he was first diagnosed with COVID-19 in June and then after a series of tests, doctors determined that his oxygen levels were dangerously low and he was at a higher risk for cardiac arrest after intense physical activity.

Heningburg made the decision not to risk his life for four weeks of lacrosse.

“It was scary for me to find that out,” he said. “I was not concerned with playing at all. It’s a great tournament, but I know that there are much bigger things at play in life. If I put my life at risk for four weeks of playing lacrosse, it’s just an irresponsible decision.”

With the moment of enlightenment still fresh in our minds as the country battles a pandemic, economic depression and faces the realities of race in America, Jules expresses that these setbacks are almost a welcome burden for him.

I don’t think it’s a surprise that the two most pressing events in the country right now, racial relations and COVID, are falling on my shoulders,” he said in a recent interview.  “It’s not ideal, but it is what it is. I knew when I got diagnosed that that wasn’t the end of it. I was compelled to share with the league to let them know that this is a real thing to take seriously.

The Redwoods LC organization will desperately miss its emerging leader during this 2020 playoff run, but Heningburg’s health problems actually allow Jules more time to advocate for COVID-19 relief and focus on building lacrosse at the grassroots level using his rising platform. 

Heningburg: Really I just want to continue to inspire. This sport is so young that there’s such an influential impact I can have on the next generation to really set up — especially in the Black community — to see that this game really is for them. To inspire players in all walks of life, regardless of the color of their skin.

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