Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Question of Manhood: Jonathan Martin, Self-Defense, and Black Manhood

While the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation is creating a necessary conversation about bullying, a discussion about black manhood is also bubbling to the surface. Surprisingly, Incognito’s black teammates have come to his defense with one even calling him an “honorary black man.” The teammate clarified this awkward comment, adding “I don’t expect you to understand because you’re not black. But being a black guy, being a brother is more than just about skin color. It’s about how you carry yourself. How you play. Where you come from. What you’ve experienced. A lot of things.” Within the Dolphin locker room, it seems as if many teammates viewed the Stanford-educated Martin as Carlton Banks and thought because of his middle-class background he wasn’t a real black man and needed to be toughened up. This situation goes beyond petty classism, however; it also highlights a question about black masculinity and self-defense.

To be clear, I am not supporting his critics’ actions, but it is important to try and understand where black criticism of Martin is coming from. Incognito threatened to “s***” in Martin’s mouth, slap his mother, and kill Martin. [Note: some teammates say this was a joke.] In a number of black players’ summation, a real man would have stood up to the racist bully and confronted Incognito like a man. As Jackie Robinson once said, “The most luxurious possession, the richest treasure anybody has, is his personal dignity.” While players’ disdain of Incognito reeks of jock culture, it is also clear that Martin’s black critics are operating from a perspective that has historically linked self-defense to black manhood. We see this connection in the words of Frederick Douglass when he remembered his fight with the overseer Covey: “This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.” In the 1880s black newspaperman T. Thomas Fortune told his readers, “If it is necessary for colored men to turn themselves into outlaws to assert their manhood and their citizenship, let them do it.” Self-defense and black manhood are interlinked in Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die,” when he implores black men to fight back against their racist attackers. Malcolm X famously critiqued Martin Luther King’s nonviolence tactics, when he noted “Those days are over, they’re gone, that’s yesterday. The time for you and me to allow ourselves to be brutalized nonviolently is passé. Be nonviolent only with those who are nonviolent to you.” Instead of nonviolence, Malcolm X believed that blacks had a manly right and a duty to protect themselves.

The connection between self-defense and manhood is also part of the history of the black sporting experience. For example, civil rights legend Paul Robeson, an All-American football player at Rutgers and the quintessential example of black manhood during the 20th century, had to fight back against his bullying teammates. In his early days at Rutgers, Robeson’s teammates physically and verbally brutalized him. He wanted to quit, but he knew he had to prove his own manhood and protect young black boys “who wanted to play football, and wanted to go to college, and, as their representative,” Robeson had to prove he “could take whatever was handed out...” To demonstrate his manliness, Robeson, a defensive tackle, violently grabbed one of his teammates during a scrimmage and “was going to smash him so hard to the ground that I’d break him in two.” After that outburst of self-defense, his teammates never bothered him again. While Martin’s critics may not be familiar with any of the above stories, their remarks have tapped into the same line of thinking that manhood and self-defense are interlinked. But there are many layers to black manhood.

Martin’s critics miss the reality that it takes courage to avoid physical confrontation. Being nonviolent, as Martin Luther King often said, is not for cowards.  As his weapon of protest Jonathan Martin boycotted the Miami Dolphins and their culture of bullying. “One must remember” King wrote about nonviolence, “that the cause of the demonstration is some exploitation or form of oppression that has made it necessary for men of courage and good will to demonstrate against evil.” The demonstrator, in this case Jonathan Martin, “agrees that it is better for him to suffer publically.” Black teammates and other NFL player’s tried to assassinate Jonathan Martin’s character by calling into question his manhood, but it was Jonathan Martin’s brave stance against racial hate, not a cowardly retreat, that has opened our eyes to the “evil” of bullying in the NFL.

Friday, November 1, 2013

From Jackie to Dez: Race, Sports, and the Black Attitude

The Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant’s outburst on the sidelines last Sunday raises interesting questions about race, rage, and the black athlete. While some commentators berated Bryant for his supposed immaturity, others TV personalities, especially retired black players like Keyshawn Johnson, noted that the star wide receiver was exhibiting passion and a desire to win. The debate showcases that there is a very fine line between immaturity and passion, and for many people race is the barrier that separates the two terms. For example, future Hall of Fame receiver Terrell Owens created controversy when he claimed that when white athletes like Tom Brady yell on the sidelines at teammates and coaches they are seen as passionate and full of heart, whereas black players are seen as selfish and immature. While many dismissed TO because he is TO, Owens raised an important observation about how the media has historically viewed the black athlete.  In challenging their bias, TO tapped into his inner Jackie Robinson.

According to Robinson, when Branch Rickey finally allowed his star player to show emotions, Jackie quickly realized that the media treated his passion differently than white players. “Very soon,” Jackie claimed “I learned that as long as I appeared to ignore insult and injury, I was a martyred hero to a lot of people who seemed to have sympathy for the underdog.  But the minute I began to answer, to argue, to protest—the minute I began to sound off—I became a swellhead, a wise guy, an ‘uppity’ nigger.” However, Robinson realized when “a white player did it he had spirit. When a black player did it, he was ‘ungrateful,’ an upstart, a sorehead.”  If Jackie spoke his mind he became a “‘pop-off,’ a ‘troublemaker,’ a ‘rabble-rouser.”’ Robinson remembered, “it was apparent that I was a fine guy” until “‘Success went to his head,’ until I began to ‘change.”’ In other words, the media expected their black athletes to be quiet, humble, and grateful for their opportunity to get paid to play sports.  But why was/is this? Why see whites’ antics differently?

The rise of sports in post-Civil War America coincided with a crisis in white masculinity. In short, the white middle class worried that they lacked necessary aggression, virility, or physicality and sports were supposed to be an anecdote to modernization and softness. Teddy Roosevelt, for example, wrote about the “strenuous life,” and the importance of sports in America, saying “I have always been fond of boxing, and have always believed in it as a vigorous, manly pastime, one of those pastimes which have a distinct moral and physical value, because they encourage such essential virtues as courage, hardihood, endurance and self-control.” At the turn of the century when reformers tried to ban boxing and football, Mayor Carter Harrison II of Chicago claimed “if you legislate against football and boxing, the next generation will be a generation of sissy boys. I intend to teach my boy how to box and how to play football. I think such sports make boys manly. The Lord help this country if we knock out boxing and football.” In this context to have spirit, vigor, hardihood, or “passion” in sports was signs of manly maturity and a component of whiteness.

On the other hand, the natural inclination was to think the black athlete lacked these positive manly characteristics. Instead he was often deemed to be yellow, without pluck, hot headed, a braggart, and with child-like immaturity. “The question has often been asked,” one reported noted, “has the Negro the grit and the staying qualities of the white pugilist?” In other words, they assumed the black fighter lacked manly toughness, he was less than a man, and had to prove otherwise. But manliness came at a price. The black athlete had to be docile and humble too. For example, the white press celebrated boxer Joe Gans because Gans was “meek and humble,” in comparison to other black men who would “put on” and “swelled up and burst with inflated pride” in front of a crowd.  Early in his career Jack Johnson was praised as being “a well behaved, orderly negro.” And the great fighter Peter Jackson was “frequently called the whitest black man who ever lived.” “Jackson’s main assets” one writer reflected “were his excellent behaviour [sic] and his sportsmanlike qualities. He was never known to boast.” Any deviation from acting humble, staying quiet, and being restrained, the white press attacked the black athlete as being immature.

Jackie Robinson had to face that assault on his character, Terrell Owens battled this, and Dez Bryant continues to struggle against this character assassination.  While Bryant and Owens never had to face the racist animosity that Robinson battled, and the star receivers are not civil rights icons, like Robinson they want respect.  In many ways, viewing Bryant’s tirade on the sideline as passionate and not immature is recognizing that Bryant has manly virtues that sports cultivate.