FreeDarko Book Club #3: Breakfast On Warring Islands
First, off later today I'll be on this internet radio show whose concept I don't quite get. The lowdown:
Join Shoals today from 1 to 3pm central time (2-4pm eastern) as he appears live on The Sports Pulse with Grant Thompson- sports talk radio streamed live at NowInLA.com. Interactive message boards allow you to get all your NBA questions answered in real time.
Now, away to the rapids!!!!!
I am sure some of you think of the towering FreeDarko Book Club as the utmost in narcisscism. Like you should give a fuck about my research. I beseech of though, look through the veil of poison, and recognize FreeDarko's ultimate collision with intellectual rigor. I've been directed to critique myself like an adult, and hereby I shall. In Part 1, I insisted that FD made no bones about crafting folklore, and that this came with the postmodern presence of athletes. No, it isn't the truth, but it's closer to it than the real thing. In Part 2, I faced the possibility that we overestimate the political utility—and cultural import—of these figures. After a long stay under duress, I emerged to make a thin distinction: socio-cultural problems are reflected in sports, while nothing inspiring is really held up as a solution.
This led to a curious juncture: after two years of advocating style, I was stuck claiming that it had no real world relevance. In particular, I'd floated far, far away from our familiar refrains of "this team is black as hell" or "this team plays black as hell." As Silverbird5000 observed, there was nothing stopping us from still believing that certain approaches of basketball correlated with certain socio-cultural populations. Thus, conflicts in the NBA workplace could be understood as cultural tensions. But was it then impossible to hold up basketball play as standing for something positive? The lesson of Darwin's Athletes seems to have been that no, this was a grave mistake; it made perilous assumptions about the worth of sports and the capability of African-Americans. Standing on the hilltop of all that we have accomplished together, I feel myself determined to seek compromise.
As if guided by magic, I turned to William C. Rhoden's $40 Million Slaves. As a whole, this book concerns itself with the systematic oppression, commodification, and deceptive disenfranchisement of blacks in American sports. As someone who really doesn't need to be convinced of this point, I was especially drawn to the chapter known as "Style: The Dilemma of Appropriation." Long before FreeDarko stood for much of anything, we trumpeted the cause of style. Not knowing what it meant or who had it sent it our way, this was our rallying cry. Over time, it morphed into "competitive" or "practical" style, went to great pains to distance itself from profligate style, and rebelled violently against claims that it was like an art form. Good for business, bad for organizing a quasi-political group that would one day destroy a small city.
In his examination of style, Rhoden performs an admirable taxonomy of the many perverted natures of sports style. He presents them most succinctly in reference to Willie Mays, who you may have noticed is in our banner. I am not so sure that any of his arguments are new to FreeDarko, but having them all in one place is the perfect opportunity to sort out our own agenda. For each, I have offered a representative quote from Rhoden, followed by my own stance on the subject. Note: Rhoden doesn't necessarily recognize these as potentially separate entities. For him, they are all bound up in a single constellation of fright. One that I don't think many of us would deem coherent.
"Willie Mays introduced a flair and cool style in sports. He introduced the Black Thing to a mainstream public that devoured it—and has been devouring it ever since. . . It was this stylistic integration that led white sons and daughters to embrace the Black Thing in every part of their lives—from style of play to clothes to language."
This is both the most obvious and the most problematic of the many facets of style. It would be truly foolish to suggest that certain ways of playing a sport did not incubate in certain areas, among certain peoples. That's as much custom as authoritative culture. Silverbird was particularly outraged at the possibility of letting this one go: no shit, blacks in certain cities in this day and age do things differently than, say, the Hoosiers of the 1950's. At the same time, canonizing this seems questionable, not in the least because it tends toward essentialism. My dear friend Hoberman made this very point in reference to "rhythm," though he seemed just as concerned that it verged on a biological claim.
I am someone indefinitely fascinated by cultural fundamentalism, provided it's in the service of rebellion. "Say It Loud," or the Panthers in their prime, are filled with promise only because this kind of broad statement had to be made. On a very basic level, something had to be asserted, even if this monolithic outcry also primed itself for failure and dissolution. Generalizing about blacks in this country, especially in any vaguely political context, seems woefully misguided at this point in history. So while we will no doubt persist in casually calling teams and players "black," there's certainly not much serious use in doing so. Unless, of course, it's an eye-of-the-beholder deal in which the culprit does not even recognize modifiers such as generation, region, class or employment history.
"There was something magnetic about Mays, not just the basket catch ot the speed, but the familiar nuances I recognized in his body language. I felt so much in that catch—jazz and blues and all the R&B I loved. I felt the signifying, the dozens. . . Plain greatness wasn't enough; you had to play with style and soul."
Everyone knows that FreeDarko loves it some pretty moves. We are also vehemently opposed to basketball as jazz, and, dare I say, any reduction of sport to an art form. Certainly there are parallels, and some superficial resemblances. But to assert that they share a common lineage, or pray at the altar of a shared tradition, ignores one basic fact: in sports, there are clear goals and outcomes. In art, no, unless your boss is named Lenin. Again, only a card would not recognize the common rhythms in hip-hop and today's up-and-coming NBA stars. That does not, however, mean the two are similar pursuits, at least not any more than my love life is a form of Jewish religious inquiry.
Hoberman cautioned strongly against this precisely because it displaced the genius of art and replaced it with dunks and twirls. Granted, equating Oscar Robertson with Charlie Parker makes some depressing projections for African-American potential. In the land of the whites, Larry Bird is kept quite distinct from Mozart, as well he probably should be. Koufax may be akin to David, but that has more to do with the Jewish fascination with strength—and presumption of intellect. I also want to be able to say, though, that it fails to let sports be what it is. Hip-hop is the soundtrack, basketball is the game of choice. That these two overlap does not mean that they are similar pursuits, and thus the creativity behind each must be understand differently.
"Mays introduced the notion that black athletes played with a "style" that catapaulted them to another level and separated them from the pack. He established that there was a level of artistry in athletics that could be attained through 'black style.' A level that could not, at that point, be reached by white players, who were too often shackled by limitations and expectations imposed by the very conventions Mays challenged."
Yeah, this sounds about right. The logic is something like that of "why Jews designed psychoanalysis"—situationally determined, but by no means inevitable. The only question: how suspectible is it to the folly of its fellows? And can it run forever?
"The isolation and invisibility, the bitter awareness of being accepted but not embraced, and the anger at this cultural glass ceiling—feelings that athletes like Mays shared with the majority of the black population of the country—also played out in Mays's soulful style of play. . . He wasn't being cool for the sake of being cool. He was cool out of a genuine urge to make a performance out of the most basic athletic acts, to fully exercise his skill and creativity amd his desire for jubilant expression. But Mays was also literally cool, in his air of detachment and resignation. This graceful ease and 'cool' has come to be broadly associated with African American athletes—it's part of what makes them so fascinating and appealing. But this distinctive style is also a reflection of the powerlessness on the part of African American athletes. For Mays, that famous style and "soul" came at the price of staying in segregated hotels, eating in segregated restaurants, and dealing with the daily bombardment of racism. For black athletes as a whole, that style in some ways underlines their inability to define themselves in more substantive ways and find acceptance."
This reminds me of something Gerald Early wrote about baseball being a game of the blues, centered around failure and faith. It's one thing to say that the athlete himself is working in the same vein as the musician or athlete. But observing that the audience might draw similar meaning from the two—that popular culture expressed in the blues could envelope something as seemingly abstract as baseball—seems perfectly fine. We can just as easily imagine football being imbued with some narrative of blue collar striving, or soccer taken as a metaphor for life in the Third World.
The problem here is with basketball itself. Certainly, football and baseball lend themselves to generalized narrative and moral trajectory far better than basketball. As much as I prize the story of the individual, a collection of individuals, or an individual collective, the sport defies any attempts at generic meaning. Perhaps this is why the aesthetic and cultural explanations for style so compel certain critics: in some ways, basketball is a pointless, confounding enterprise.
"Whether it was Jackie Robinson's daring on the base paths, Muhammad Ali's mocking brilliance and fire in the ring, Wilma Rudolph's willowy grace and speed, or Michael Jordan's aerial exploits, black athletes have brought to the field a tantalizing mix of ingenuity and grace, sensuality and strength, beauty and violence, rage and vulnerability."
The flaw here is evident. Were these simply descriptions of individuals, and assertions that their personalities and histories shown through in the basketball solutions they chose, I would be at ease. Instead, this mass psychologizing does nothing to breach the heart of style—which, at the end of the day, is forged in the individual and not in some de facto institution. To say that these athletes reveal the psychology of the black man may have been a novel, if rudimentary device in Ali's day. But just as America has moved past "Say It Loud," so should it have moved past this view of athletic accomplishment. The truth is indisputable, but to leave it at that results in a falsehood.