If America is 'post-black,' are sports?
Among the native Bostonians who’ve taken great delight in watching the Red Sox's collapse is a writer — a “post-black writer,” as he might classify himself — named Toure. Toure’s father was an accountant who arrived in Beantown by way of Brooklyn, where he had spent his own formative years rooting for Jackie Robinson’s Dodgers.
“The first thing my dad taught me about sports was, ‘Black people don’t root for the Red Sox,’ ” he says.
Boston, of course, was the last major league team to integrate. Less well-known is the story (see Howard Bryant’s excellent “Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston”) of Robinson’s tryout at Fenway Park, during which, with only management types in the stands, someone was heard to holler: “Get those n****** off the field.”
That was April 1945, two years before Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier and nine years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.
Now, 66 years later, I don’t begrudge Toure his sentiments. Just the same, well into a new millennium, I wonder whether the Red Sox shouldn’t get a chance to be post-black, too.
“They are,” says Toure. “The whole country is.”
Just goes to show, then. Even in black America, some feelings die very hard, if at all.
Most fans would know Toure as the guy who recently wrote a piece for ESPN, “What if Michael Vick were white?” The accompanying illustration — Vick as a white guy in a video game motif — caused a minor controversy. Personally, I thought the image was smartly provocative, appropriately inappropriate — not unlike the great George Lois covers in Esquire featuring Sonny Liston in a Santa hat, or Ali as the martyred St. Sebastian, shot through with arrows.
Toure, on the other hand, found the Vick image repugnant.
“Stomach-turning, a horrible representation,” he said. “The whole point of the piece was that it was impossible to reimagine Vick as white, and here they were reimagining him as white.”
We’d agree to disagree, which seems an agreeable position given the thesis of his recently published “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?” If there are 40 million ways to be black, as Toure argues, there have to be at least a couple to consider the Vick illustration.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m obliged to mention that Toure and I share a very talented editor at Free Press. I wouldn’t have read the book if he hadn’t directed my attention toward a review in last Sunday’s Times. But I wouldn’t be wasting your time, much less mine, if the book weren’t valid, uniquely American and spectacularly optimistic — not a quality one usually associates with the subject of race in America.
For an operative definition, Toure quotes Duke law professor Wahneema Lubiano: “Post-black is what it looks like when you’re no longer caught by your own trauma about racism and the history of black people in the United States.”
It’s liberating, not constraining. It’s forward-thinking, without forgetting. It’s inclusive.
“A state of maturity for the entire culture,” says Toure (I am remiss in not having asked what makes him cool enough to have a single name). “The freedom to be an individual and move away from group-think.”
OK. But what about Jackie Robinson?
And why does Toure still hate the Red Sox?
Seems the least post-black part of popular culture is sports. It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of sports in American life. And it’s impossible to consider sports apart from race. Sports have been an agent of achievement, assimilation, even enlightenment. But they’re also a great, enduring bastion of group-think.
Don’t lie. You think of most sports as “white” or “black.” Tennis. NASCAR. Basketball. You know what’s what.
Beyond that, within each sport, athletes are characterized, identified and typecast.
Michael Vick’s style, as noted, was black.
Like Allen Iverson.
Pete Maravich was interesting, in part, because people (black and white) thought he “played black.”
As for that guy who runs your favorite BCS bowl committee? Rest assured, he’s white.
Stereotypes? Of course. But in sports, they’re second nature, deeply ingrained, often unchallenged. And those who violate them aren’t treated kindly. A few months back, Jalen Rose — then promoting a film on Michigan’s Fab Five — said he disliked Duke, as it recruited “Uncle Toms.” The remark evoked an appropriate Op-Ed response from Grant Hill, Duke ’94, whose black parents graduated from Yale and Wellesley.
“It’s a pretty common schism in the black community,” says Toure. “Jalen is coming from the working class. Grant is coming from the upper-middle class; his dad is part of his life. Jalen just voiced a bitterness that is probably not uncommon: ‘Gee, this guy gets his dad, and we gotta eat bread sandwiches.’
“I had the impression (Rose) was talking about something he still feels . . . I would have loved to have talked to him.”
If there’s a problem with “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?” it’s Toure’s failure to interview athletes and coaches, black or white. That might’ve made for a slightly different book, certainly a longer one, as it would’ve raised the issue of class.
“Sports is tricky because the vast majority of athletes come from the working class,” he says.
Always have. Always will. Great athletes can be found all over. But properly hardened desire is typically forged in the poorest of neighborhoods. So, is it a black thing? Or a class thing?
In fact, it’s a complicated thing, as the author knows full well. Nothing attunes you to the idiosyncrasies of race and class quite like playing the other guy’s game — whether you’re the white guy in a summer league or, like Toure, you’ve grown up playing tennis. These are educations, but they don’t spare you.
Toure suffered his own Grant Hill moment in college when a guy at a party said, “Shut up, Toure! You ain’t black!”
It’s worth mentioning that Toure rooted for the Fab Five, Patrick Ewing’s Hoyas, Larry Johnson’s Runnin’ Rebels and Willie Stargell’s Pittsburgh Pirates, all of whom he considers seminal black teams.
Toward the end of our conversation, however, the subject turns to tennis. Maybe I’d watch the Wimbledon finals, but the only characters of remote interest to me are Venus and Serena Williams.
“Really?” he says. “I find Nadal and Djokovic and Federer infinitely interesting.”
Now that’s post-black.