Thursday, July 13, 2006

"The Plantation Metaphor": Black Athletes and American Sports History

In Sunday's Los Angeles Times, Susan Straight, who is a Professor of Creative Writing at UC Riverside, published a compelling book review of William Rhoden's recent book on black athletes, "Forty Million Dollar Slaves." A main theme of Rhoden's book holds that big-time sports for the African-American going back to the early 1700s has resembled a plantation system in which black athletes, to quote Straight's review, "have used superior physical ability as well as 'soul and style' not only to thrill and entertain their fellow Americans but also to make money for white owners, yet they have been unable to control their own destinies." Here's a longer segment from the review:

Rhoden begins with Tom Molineaux, a former slave whose boxing career took him to England in the early 1800s to fight the British champion. Before he was an internationally known athlete, he was a plantation slave. "The most talented enslaved athletes not only earned respect among fellow slaves, but also garnered favor among owners, who saw their prowess as an outward extension of the owner's own strength. For those in bondage, the image of the strong black body engaged in competition was a positive one, and a powerful symbol. The black athlete's strength and grace presented a powerful counter-image to the prevailing stereotypes of blacks as slump-shouldered, shuffling bondsmen with heads bowed and knees bent."

Rhoden writes about the Negro baseball leagues and about Jack Johnson, who became the first black to win the world heavyweight title in 1908. He recounts the fascinating and little-known history of black jockeys in America. He also traces the rising influence of top black athletes on modern American culture at nearly every level, through their performance, attitude, dress and sense of style.

Johnson, Rhoden writes, drove a cold realization through white America — that a black athlete had surpassed a white one, and that he desired to show fellow African Americans his triumph in all its glory. Rhoden includes a quote about the boxer from a white writer of the era: "With money in his pockets, physical triumph over white men in his heart, he displayed all the gross and overbearing insolence which makes what we call the buck nigger insufferable."

The book examines the integration of college football, the emerging dominance of black athletes in professional football and basketball, and the case of center fielder Curt Flood, a seven-time Gold Glove winner who in 1969 refused to be traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. "After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes," Flood wrote to then-commissioner of baseball Bowie Kuhn.

Rhoden describes Flood's lawsuit (which, though he lost, opened the way for others to become free agents), NBA player Larry Johnson's controversial reference to fellow Knicks as "rebellious slaves" in 1999 and other such episodes as examples of the similarities between modern professional sports and plantations of the past.

It is, according to Rhoden, all about money. From the earliest days, when slave owners pitted their slaves against each other in races or matches, money was on the table. And now, when every schoolyard basketball player dreams of being drafted by the NBA, it's still all about money. Think of only one example of the commodification of black style in sports — the shoe industry — and then think of the enormous profit made on shoes that cost a few dollars to manufacture overseas.
The book's title, as Straight notes, is a play on the words of the old historical promise to the former slaves after the Civil War of "40 acres and a mule." Perhaps the allusion is a little over the top, but in an era when young blacks -- in many cases emerging from a familiy or community background lacking a deep cultural ethic of educational attainment, and seeking upward mobility (and riches) through sports -- Rhoden's thesis of the commodification of black athletics ought to receive serious consideration. I found particular interest in the book's "plantation metaphor" in the context of my continuing series here at Burkean Reflections on "Jubilee," a novel of slavery, and the Southern planter society.


M1 said...

Another great post. Hey, what's up? A Burkean revolution in the revolution?

Donald Douglas said...

Thanks for visiting, Meatball. Come back again and comment away!