Monday, January 27, 2020
[If it’s Super Bowl week, it’s time for another SportsStudying series! This time on the fraught and contested, and not the slightest bit new, intersections between sports and politics. I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the week’s posts or any related issues!]
On an ugly moment when white supremacy took precedence over athletic supremacy.
I was super excited when I was invited to review Cecelia Tichi’s book Jack London: A Writer’s Fight for a Better America (2015) for the American Historical Review. There were lots of reasons for my excitement, including how important Tichi’s book Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America (1987) was for my development as an AmericanStudier, and how much I appreciated her goal in this new project of recuperating London as a public intellectual (and thus a model for that role in 21st century America as well). But I was also just super excited to learn more about London, whom I knew largely as the author of hugely popular boys’ adventures stories about wolves and sailors and that one incredibly realistic and depressing story about a man who needs to build a fire in order to keep from freezing to death and the dog who becomes a witness to the unfolding horrors (all of which of course was a central rationale behind Tichi’s attempt to recreate the more socially and politically engaged sides of London as both a writer and a public figure).
I’m not trying to dwell on my one criticism of Tichi’s book here, but it turned out that one of the things I learned about London was a frustratingly bigoted moment that Tichi understandably but problematically minimized in her project. She did note (if still to my mind a bit too briefly) London’s lifelong fascination with Social Darwinism and that philosophy’s consistently hierarchical and racist worldviews; but it was in response to the controversial (at least for white supremacists) rise of early 20th century African American boxing champion Jack Johnson that London would articulate much more overtly his own racism. In December 1908 Johnson became the first African American world heavyweight champ, defeating the reigning champ Tommy Burns, and that historic moment led London to implore a retired white champion to return to the ring and defend his race. Covering the 1908 fight as a syndicated sportswriter, London concluded his column, “But now one thing remains. Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his [Burbank, CA] Alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson's face. Jeff, it's up to you. The White Man must be rescued.”
Initially reticent, Jeffries did eventually emerge from retirement, facing Johnson in a July 4th, 1910 championship bout in Reno. Jeffries was by this time so out of shape that “bout” probably isn’t the word, though, as he was quickly knocked down for the first time in his career and threw in the towel at that point. Given that white Americans often find reasons to riot in both sporting events and racism (although not usually at the same time), it’s unfortunately no surprise that Johnson’s victory led to riots around the country that left a handful of African Americans dead and many more injured (riots, I’ll note, that to this day, when they’re remembered at all, are usually and all too typically described with that deeply loaded phrase “race riot”). Perhaps it should be no more surprising that when an African American athlete reached the pinnacle of his sport, theories of physical prowess and the survival of the fittest gave way to white supremacist bigotry and ignorance, even from an otherwise intelligent and (as Tichi convincingly argues) socially progressive figure like Jack London. But it’s still frustrating to see how powerful such white supremacist nonsense can be—although it’s also deeply satisfying to see it literally and figuratively knocked on its ass.
Next sporting post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other sports and politics intersections you’d highlight?
Saturday, January 25, 2020
[For this year’s MLK week series, I’ve highlighted under-remembered figures, histories, and stories that can expand our collective memories of the Civil Rights Movement. Leading up to this special weekend post on 21st century voices!]
On five figures helping carry the legacies and conversations forward.
1) Alicia Garza: I said much of what I’d want to say here in that hyperlinked post, but will add that of course the #BlackLivesMatter movement is not just about individuals or leaders, no more than the Civil Rights Movement was. Yet individual figures can nonetheless serve as inspirational models, for the best of what a movement represents and for the kinds of activism, leadership, and thinking that embody the best of American identity and community. To my mind Garza does and is all those things, and then some.
2) Tressie McMillan Cottom: I don’t imagine it’ll be a surprise that I think writers and public scholars can also be civil rights leaders. But they really can, more than ever in this era of social media and multimedia conversations and communities, and an inspiring case in point is Cottom: for her black feminist podcast (co-hosted with Roxane Gay, who could certainly occupy this spot as well) and her Twitter account just as much as for her acclaimed and groundbreaking autoethnographic and sociological books. In all those ways, Cottom’s voice and words offer vital guidance, on civil rights and so many other issues, through our 21st century maze.
3) Ava Duvernay: Not just because she made (to my mind) the best film yet about the Civil Rights Movement; nor just because she made (to my mind) the best TV show yet about race, justice and community in late 20th and early 21st century America. Each of those cultural works would certainly merit Duvernay a spot on this list, but I would argue that it is really her amazing support for fellow artists, filmmakers, and cultural voices that makes Duvernay not just a civil rights artist but an activist and leader as well. Pop culture and mass media are, now more than ever, key battlegrounds in the fight for civil rights, and I’d follow Duvernay into any such conflict.
4) Jennifer Gunter: Before these last two figures, a disclaimer: I would never argue that the movements for other civil rights are identical, or even necessarily parallel, to the ongoing one for African American civil rights. But as figures from this week’s series like Bayard Rustin and Lillian Smith (among so many others) remind us, the fights for justice and equity around issues of sexuality, gender, and so many others are at the very least deeply interconnected with those of race, and are in any case vital civil rights fights on their own terms. In recent months, Gunter has emerged (on Twitter and beyond) as one of the most vocal and vital voices on issues of gender, sexuality, and sex. I can’t wait to read her book The Vagina Bible and continue learning from her expertise and activism.
5) José Antonio Vargas: That’s just one of many posts in which I’ve highlighted Vargas’ inspiring and courageous voice, writing, and activism. To be honest, it feels a bit as if his voice had receded a bit in recent years (I could be totally wrong on that and welcome other perspectives as always!), which is doubly frustrating as I can’t imagine a moment where he and all he does and supports are more needed. Again, every issue and movement is distinct, but to me the fight for undocumented immigrants is one of the central civil rights battles of the 21st century. In that, as in so many other conversations, Vargas remains an essential voice and leader.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other contemporary voices you’d highlight?
Friday, January 24, 2020
[For this year’s MLK week series, I’ll highlight under-remembered figures, histories, and stories that can expand our collective memories of the Civil Rights Movement. Leading up to a special weekend post on 21st century voices!]
In June 2015, I dedicated a weeklong series to the amazing photographer, author, filmmaker, activist, and American Gordon Parks. He still needs far better remembering, to expand our collective memories of the Civil Rights era and for many other reasons. Here are links to those five posts:
1) The week started with a few thoughts on the MFA exhibition Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott that kicked off my interest in Parks and his work;
2) On Tuesday I highlighted three exemplary projects in Parks’ career as a talented and groundbreaking photographer;
3) On Wednesday I wrote about his autobiographical novel The Learning Tree (1963) and its film adaptation (1969), both of which remind us of the vital need to expand our canon beyond To Kill a Mockingbird;
4) On Thursday I used Parks’ role as director of the first two Shaft movies to think about the problems and possibilities of Blaxsploitation films;
5) And on Friday I took a step back to think about the complicated, crucial artistic genre of portrait photos (for a lot more on photography and Parks, see the work of Professor John Edwin Mason, for whose book on Parks I can’t wait!).
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Civil Rights figures, histories, or stories you’d want to add to our collective memories?