Saturday, January 31, 2009

When Hate Was the Game

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
Netflix via XBox 360

I'm a sucker for Ken Burns documentaries, and anything on the subject of America's sorry racial history makes me tear over in an energizing, cathartic way. So it's surprising that I hadn't yet seen Unforgivable Blackness, Burns' smaller-scaled piece on the first black heavyweight champion, until last evening.

I decided to give the documentary a look pretty much by chance; I've been adding anything and everything Netflix has available on its new instant service. It just looks super cool flipping through all the virtual movie boxes in the XBox dashboard. But it is sort of a relevant time to be reviewing Jack Johnson's life story. The Super Bowl, the modern equivalent to the megabouts Johnson engaged in during the 1900's and 10's, is this weekend and the athletes expected most to affect its outcome are African-Americans. Additionally, seeing grainy black-and-white footage of Tommy Burns covered in blood from his nose to his shins reminded me of Joe Stevenson being dragged around through a puddle of his own blood by B.J. Penn in a UFC title fight about a year ago. Penn fights for another title tonight.

I don't have much bloodlust in me -- I was averting my eyes and gasping for the last round of that Penn fight -- but I am absolutely fascinated by sport and its relationship to society, in addition to admiring the strategy of all games in the abstract. ("American Idol" is not entirely unlike a 45-round boxing match with the indomitable Johnson, except in the sense that it's the voters who artificially preserve the beaten and bloody rather than the opponent.) The most interesting detail of Unforgivable Blackness to me, then, was a combination of the two. In many of his most publicized fights, Johnson had to be careful not to knock his inferior opponent out too quickly, lest the audience riot (and later, so there'd be a long enough film to show in movie theaters and pocket major profits).

Absolutely nobody works a slow zoom into a still photo like Ken Burns, and Blackness has some searing images. It's devastating to see that in this country less than a century ago it was perfectly acceptable for editorial cartoons to render any and all blacks as thick-lipped Happy Sambo types, even in northern newspapers. Our education system does a deplorable job still with teaching black history, playing large on the Civil War and the Great Liberator (who was an unapologetic racist who issued the Emancipation Proclamation for purely tactical reasons) and somehow not properly impressing the fact that "Reconstruction" didn't reconstruct anything and that "free" blacks had to wait something like 90 years to even begin to be recognized as human beings with rights and dignity.

Our society still has a lot of trouble accepting wealthy black athletes who drive expensive cars and date white ladies. Just look at all this coverage running up to the Super Bowl. Anquan Boldin is criticized incessantly merely for being outspoken and passionate about his desire to help his team while Peter King practically busts a nut over Larry Fitzgerald calling him "Mister." Hines Ward just about gets canonized because he's soft-spoken, articulate, and good at blocking people while analysts always seem to hold their noses slightly while talking about Edgerrin James since he was bold enough, a guy who plays running back, to ask maybe if he could carry the ball a little bit more often.

How can you judge an athlete by their personality? If they try as hard as they possibly can on the field and don't punch out any of their teammates or discharge firearms in strip clubs, what difference does it make if they're polite or salty or cocky? The Cardinals gave Fitzgerald a big contract extension last summer and told Boldin he'd have to wait. Is Fitzgerald that much of a better player than Boldin? I think they're both great. And part of what makes them work so well together as teammates, I'm willing to speculate, is their differences in temperment.

Jack Johnson was arrested and exiled basically because he was an uppity black who liked the company of white women. He refused to hold his head down when in the presence of whites, and he drove his sports cars and wore his fur coats as if no one else's opinion mattered. He was light-years ahead of his time. And he was absolutely right -- you're not free if you have to behave the way someone else chooses at certain times. You're not free if you can't have consensual adult relations with the adults you want to, and you're not free if to be accepted you have to dress or speak in a certain way.

I say this all the time -- how many civil rights movements do we need to have? Once upon a time only the nobility really counted as people. Then there was some incremental progress and it was white landholders. Then it was all white men. Gradually, slowly, the world began to warm to the fact women are people as well. Then the blacks, then the immigrants, then the gays... why do we have to keep repeating this process? What's wrong with our society that this simple concept, which is in all of our founding documents in case anyone needs a refresher, keeps having to be debated generation after generation?

We're all just folks, people. Black, white, Arab, Jew, bisexual, Communist, Mormon, what have you, let's all put our differences aside for this weekend and watch B.J. Penn clean Georges St. Pierre's clock, followed by the Cardinals upsetting the Steelers. Thank you.

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