FreeDarko Book Club #1: My Faith is Like a Shark's Fin
The kind of FreeDarko vets with barbs in their knuckles may recall a little thing called my Master's thesis. Since I now despise football, that survey several hundred people volunteered for is never going to happen; actually, it might've been anxiety over that project that killed my interest in the sport of freckled beasts. Instead, I'm writing about FreeDarko itself, which has involved coming to terms with the fact that we may or may not be doing anything new. Or intelligible. Or politically sound.
Because my place of study does need something nominally academic, this also means that the notorious reading-shy Shoals has to learn to look at something other than screens. Thusly, you may be treated to the occasional post on a book whose hour has long since past. When I tried to explain FreeDarko to one of my readers, he came to the totally fogivable conclusion that the credo was distortedly Romantic and likely delusional. He told me to make a priority of reading David Shields's Black Planet, which made three on the week. I'm guessing that he either wanted me to learn from Shields's self-critique, or thought that the book's maudlin excess would shame me into sobriety.
This recap is intended as a service to any come-latelys like myself; if it turns out I'm the only person in the world who hadn't already raced though Black Planet, fine. David Shields is a middle-aged Jew teaching writing at the University of Washington. He is married to a shiksa, stutters, and has a daughter. Shields has taken a sabbatical supposedly to write a book on the Sonics' 1994-1995 season; when his access falls through, he ends up keeping a journal from the outside looking in. Shields is obsessed with Gary Payton, and black masculinity in general. He's overflowing with race-based epiphanies on basketball and/or society, many of which would not be out of place in an undergrad classroom. This may or may not be a dramatic construct, just as his homoerotic identification with Payton and endless self-laceration seem to relish their own effect. Written in a simpler time, when the players were running the madhouse and their feats were impenetrable to white fans, it's part historical document, part trainwreck-as-parable.
Speaking as the Executor General of FreeDarko, reading Black Planet was like meeting your criminally insane older sibling who lives in a pit of moss, cataching a glimpse of yourself in his eyes, and then remembering he's a gut-eater who dwells in darkness. Shields can find a paragraph's worth of meaning in a single gesture or throwaway remark; last I checked, we do that pretty well. His rendering of Gary Payton, literary persona, is tremendous when it gets room to breath. And in the fluffy abstract, he seems to grasp a lot of how those mid-nineties miscreants felt about the game, especially when it comes to style versus function. Which, considering the abrupt upheaval taking place and Shields's age, is either really perceptive or proof that "style=style" is the ultimate intellectual sports syllogism.
Ultimately, though, I know there's a lot to distinguish FreeDarko from both Shields the subject and the man as his own object. For one, he's often just plain wrong. When Gary Payton keeps the tag on his hat, it's a fashion trend based on brand fetishism, not one man's critique of the sport's business underpinnings. The thumping of one's own chest may be performed uniquely by each player, but its general syntax is as shared as the high-five. An interaction between Hakeem and Detlef Schrempf does not embody standard issue U.S. racial strife. And NBA players never accept an opponent's help getting up off the ground, no matter how well-meaning it is.
These are some of his more egregious gaffs, but running throughout Black Planet are three potentially fatal strains. For generational reasons, Shields is not exactly in-touch with the emergent hip-hop argot; simiarly, as someone who had only recently returned to the game, he has a tendency to mistake quotidien basketball culture for organic occurrence; and most gallingly, he's so intent on wounding his own gourd that he undermines the things he does well. I know that ultimately, we're supposed to second-guess everything that we as outsiders think about the game. But insofar as some of Shields's work is just harmless, artful characterization, and his insight into the player/coach dynamic simply sharp observation, I wonder how much the reader's meant to throw out the baby with bathwater.
Now for the daring part: what this means for FreeDarko. In Black Planet, Shields seems to conclude that social justice and fruity sportswriting are contradictory goals. Being sensitive to race precludes worshipping NBA players as superhuman are, and worshipping NBA players makes it impossible to speak plainly about race. Black Planet settles on a system of false positives concerning players, true negatives about race in the NBA, baseline questions about American race relations, and a narcissistic prison of personal negatives.
I like to think that FreeDarko evades this fatalism by virtue of accepting that player myths are stylized, having some generational comprehension of players' language, and gotten past some of the more angsty white guilt. Maybe we're failing, but I feel confident that our readings of LeBron or Arenas are not crass or apolitical. We're not using them to fill voids in our lives, and what we say about them follows from having already spent a lot of time troubling ourselves about race. We go a little overboard when it comes to making them explicitly political, but in the larger, post-sixties sense of the term I don't see how they can't be. The most lasting politicans develop into complex characters through a mix of the factual and the fictive, the intentionally public and the backroom leak; this is its own kind of authority, one that at once engages, intoxicates, and challenges the public. If we don't admit that today's athletes might function in the same way, we're once again selling them short.