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.


At 2/21/2007 10:57 AM, Anonymous amphibian said...

I must reiterate the age-old question: Where do you find these pictures? The gospel scene, with the man in the foreground staring upwards in incredulity, and the thunderous jam by the hiking sandal-wearing Korean are images that will live forever in my mind.

It seems like Rhoden is an naive Shoals with no LIC, Silverbird or TAN to check the rambles. I already feel a strong dislike towards his editor.

At 2/21/2007 11:08 AM, Blogger Brown Recluse, Esq. said...

that "gospel scene" is al jefferson on draft night.

At 2/21/2007 12:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

when is the definitive FD post on maravich? or have I missed it?

At 2/21/2007 12:22 PM, Blogger Pacifist Viking said...

I'm reminded of Langston Hughes:

"One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, "I want to be a poet--not a Negro poet," meaning, I believe, "I want to write like a white poet"; meaning subconsciously, "I would like to be a white poet"; meaning behind that, "I would like to be white." And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America--this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible."


At 2/21/2007 12:44 PM, Blogger SilverBird5000 said...

I still think Hoberman is wrong re FD, but reading these Rhoden quotes, I begin to see his point about the essentialist conflation of "Style" and "Blackness" (race). I mean, how else can we interpret this ridiculous statement:
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.
Needless to say, Mays wasn't segregated because of his style. He was segregated because he was black.

I guess the question then is, how does saying "this team is black as hell" avoid the same conflation?

At 2/21/2007 12:52 PM, Blogger Pacifist Viking said...

Re-reading that Langston Hughes essay, here is the excerpt more applicable to Rhoden's quotes:

"they do not particularly care whether they are like white folks or anybody else. Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy. Their
religion soars to a shout. Work maybe a little today, rest a little tomorrow. Play awhile. Sing awhile. 0, let's dance! These
common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child. They
furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of
American standardizations."

At 2/21/2007 12:53 PM, Anonymous JTS said...

Haven't read Rhoden's book so I feel at some disadvantage, but I'm somewhat curious as to what others think about the danger of pointing to an individual as an example of style in athletics. Clearly, as Shoals points out in the section of cultural style, certain ways of playing certain sports are tied to certain areas. But it would seem that there is some danger, and perhaps some dishonesty, in referring to Mays or Ali or even Agent Z as representative of a style or just "style." They are each extreme examples, and while they are readily accessible and easily understood, I wouldn't necessarily call them representative. I guess I'm trying to get at SB's comment, and the "aestheic style" section. The answer it would seem to me is that it makes the exact conflation, but these type of statements have become statements about the sport and not about race, when in fact the two are inextricably intertwined.

While again I haven't read the book, I was surprised that Rhoden even tried to differentiate these aspects of style. Shoals mentions that he views each as bound up in a single "constellation of fright," but it would seem that by separating them at all, he's still trying to draw lines and distinctions that cloud the argument.

At 2/21/2007 12:59 PM, Blogger Kirk Krack said...

al jefferson has burberry pjs??!

At 2/21/2007 1:42 PM, Anonymous Red Snapper said...

At first I was in total agreement with Shoals about the art/music vs. sports, but now I'm not so sure. "...in sports, there are clear goals and outcomes. In art, no..." Yes, and no. I'm a musician, and grew going to one competition after the other, playing in front of judges in jazz bands, individual competitions, concert bands, etc. The goal was to impress the judges enough to go home with the prize.

How is this different from, say, gymnastics? The difference between "goal oriented" sports and "non-goal" is in how the outcomes are measured, not in the nature of play. Being a musician requires physical stamina, coordination, and many other attributes we associate to sports.

In addition, especially in Europe, music has progressively moved towards the "higher, faster, louder" school. The higher, faster, and louder you can play, the more talented you are, and therefor, you win.

Where the art vs. music argument matches with Shoal's is where music surpasses sports as a competition. Music is SO varied that it can encompass competition, aesthetic realism, financial motivations, religious ceremony, etc. etc. "Goal" oriented sports is limited in that the "goal" is it's ultimate purpose.

What would basketball become if we stopped keeping score?

al jefferson looks like Phil Ivey

At 2/21/2007 1:46 PM, Anonymous PCA said...

As an aside, Chad Ford uses Forty Million Dollar Slaves as one of the texts in his class at BYU-Hawaii.

I don't know the meaning of this convergence, except that apparently Mormons and Jews worldwide are fascinated with black people.

At 2/21/2007 2:05 PM, Blogger T. said...

And what to make of Matt Weddle's guitar acoustic cover of Hey Ya (easily searchable on YouTube) - certainly that has a lot of style, but it's coffeeshop, bearded white guy style.

What would Kidd to the Lakers mean for the triangle? (Sorry to ask a timely basketball question) - seeing as how the system-as-run-by-Winter has never had one (Paxson, Kerr, Pippen, Harper, Fisher, Parker - no true passing points to be found)

At 2/21/2007 3:41 PM, Blogger Jordi said...

In reading about Willie Mays I was reminded of my only point of reference in the reverance of Willie Mays in Black Culture in the 1960's, or perhaps the backlash against his reverance in Gil Scott Heron's "The Revolution will not be Televised".
Perhaps I am wrong, but when it sounds like Gil Scott is saying "There will be no pictures of you and Willie May
pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run," he means it is time to move on from the idolatry of athletics in black culture. Perhaps he says Willie May, in which the meaning would still apply.
Also, your post reminded me of an old George Carlin skit from the 70s of which I am less familiar with so hence can not fully elaborate on. In the skit, and of course through comedy, Carlin discusses the "coolness" of black people as compared to whites. I remember he mentioning that if you had one white guy hang out with a bunch of black guys, eventually the "coolness" and nonchalance of the black guys would "rub off" on the white guy and he would stop being "uptight".
Not sure how true this is, but I believe such opinions are still the case. I could go on and on about this but I'll wrap up.
Keep up the great work.
- Jordi

At 2/21/2007 4:14 PM, Anonymous db said...

"We make the music and they own it." You can't say race doesn't matter in the current ownership environment.

I am also very skeptical of the refrain that the civil rights movement is over and therefore there are no political implications to blackness or collective racial politics in the NBA or US society.

At 2/21/2007 4:16 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

i'm not saying that there are no political implications for blackness. . . just the bald assertion thereof is no longer a productive strategy in itself. otherwise, michael jordan would have been obviously positive for black nationalism, which he wasn't.

At 2/21/2007 4:38 PM, Anonymous paper tiger said...

surely predictable cries of self service would've prevented you from doing this of your own accord, but perhaps when you feel a book club coming on you can give a little advanced notice, so that those of us so willing can bring a chair to the table.
not to suggest our oprah-ization.

At 2/21/2007 4:52 PM, Blogger Kirk Krack said...

michael jordan would have been obviously positive for black nationalism, which he wasn't.

wait a second... explain this one just a little. start with what mike even had to do with black nationalism, then show how he was bad for it.

At 2/21/2007 5:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

kk, as the most recognizable black man on earth, mj had a platform to advocate black causes like no other. he didn't...

wv: pdglub=smegma

At 2/21/2007 6:24 PM, Blogger Pacifist Viking said...

KK: The statement doesn't say he was bad for black nationalism, just that he wasn't good for it. Your suggestion that he doesn't have anything to do with black nationalism fits within that assessment.

At 2/21/2007 7:26 PM, Blogger Kirk Krack said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 2/21/2007 7:44 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

"black nationalism" is kind os a strong way to put it. . . but that's what asserting undifferentiated blackness for its own undifferentiated sake comes down to. or at least at what point in history it made the most sense, strategically speaking.

At 2/21/2007 7:50 PM, Anonymous trouc said...

i'm still trying to figure out how you people are even talking about essentialism in the first place. the word black itself refers to and comes from a particular, individual moment that is a factor of all sorts of things, economics, politics, culture, religion, etc. saying "that team is black as hell" isn't saying "that team is an authentic expression of the black race," but that it articulates current notions of black-ness (which does exist conceptually) right now.

At 2/21/2007 8:07 PM, Blogger Kirk Krack said...

right BS that's what I thought you were implying and you no doubt recognize that it's problematic to equate the two, "authentic" black politics with black nationalism

At 2/21/2007 8:11 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

trouc, i see what you're saying. but suppose you extend it across generations, or choose to acknowledge regional distinctions. once that starts, you start sliding toward some form of essentialism or the kind of assertion of social category that i was so hard on earlier.

At 2/21/2007 8:14 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

i don't know what "authentic black politics" is. . . then again, i'm not black.

you're right though, i meant something more like "the conceptual underpinnings of black nationalism," minus the rhetoric.

At 2/21/2007 10:44 PM, Anonymous cw said...

Does Jerry Sloan have a style?

At 2/21/2007 11:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard traffic was rough today...weave-ish, even.

At 2/22/2007 1:18 AM, Blogger T. said...

has that ad always been there?

At 2/22/2007 1:45 AM, Anonymous D-Wil said...

I always get especially pissed off when reading the Rhoden quote under "Psychological Style." It reminds me of reading romanticized descriptions of black people by white "liberals" who actually believe a passage of that sort reaches our "essence." Unfortunately, that passage also typifies Rhoden's essence - a darling of white liberals, applauded by conservative black people, and looked upon with sadness by those of us with who fight to command a space independent of either of the other two.

However, in the NBA I have noticed some collective reactions to the "times" or "climate" in which players played. In watching films of players and teams of the 60s, black players carried themselves differently than they did in the 70s, than they did in the 80s, than they did in the 90s, than they do now. And by "carried themselves" I mean by how they moved through space on a basketball court and their relationship with everything from other players to referees to spectators to coaches.

Rhoden's earlier comment under "Aesthetic Style" is ridiculous. Baseball players in the Negro Leagues KNEW they were entertainers as well as baseball players and therefore never took themselves too seriously, but took their athletic skill very seriously..... THAT, if anything is black style. We see the same today, particularly in football and basketball. In hoops, though, players today too often fail to take their skills as seriously as they do their part as entertainers. They too often fail to hone their skills to the highest level, resulting in stylisitc expressions that are trite, contrived, and ultimately meaningless.

Continuing backward, the only Rhoden quote with relevance is the one under "Cultural Style." I explain that under "Aesthetic Style." Willie Mays did bring flair to the game - a flair born of being so sure in his abilities that he could play to the crowd's emotions while never losing his sense of the game in which he played.

...great post Shoals.

At 2/22/2007 9:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

at least not any more than my love life is a form of Jewish religious inquiry

Song of Solomon says it is. Heck, so does Genesis. God is love. He who has ears, let him hear.

At 2/22/2007 9:34 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

why would someone drop that gem and choose to remain anonymous?

god is love, but he's not highly neurotic, woody allen-esque sex. sex can resemble talmudic inquiry; doesn't mean i want to equate the two or assign them a common essence.


At 2/22/2007 9:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why would Michael Jordan want to be the face of black nationalism? Wasn't he trying to appeal to as many people as possible? I would argue, that his moderate stance did more for the black "cause" in America, than anything Ali did.

Why is black nationalism acceptable, yet white nationalism is racism?

Why build walls, rather than bridges?

Larry Bird's backstory is just as bad as any black athlete, except for his pale. I thought he had style. He just didn't wear his pain on his sleave. Why wasn't he the face of white nationalism? I guess it is because he had class.

At 2/22/2007 10:19 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

is anon 11:23 the only person who heard me on grant's show? was the weaving that obvious?

At 2/22/2007 3:00 PM, Blogger matt bird said...

"Sex is not the talmud."

Thank you, Shoals . . . I've been waiting for someone to say that for years.

At 2/22/2007 4:49 PM, Anonymous Kaifa said...

The NBA and social realities in two parts:

1. Tim Hardaway is still ignorant:

2. Whitlock talks about the black KKK:

At 2/23/2007 2:00 AM, Blogger d.d. tinzeroes said...

familiar refrains of "this team is black as hell" or "this team plays black as hell."

That shit was agitprop broadsides of the nth degree.

Man, I miss those days...


wv: tubll - flip murray's fake autobiography.

At 2/24/2007 6:13 PM, Blogger zip zip said...

Counterargument to Rhoden - Pete Maravich. Good night.


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