The Prowess Of Black Athletes Changed The Games
African American Intellectuals Confront Darwin’s Athletes!
There was an air of excitement on the cool spring morning in early April when I entered the Washington Square Park quadrangle, which is surrounded by the buildings of New York University. Part of the excitement was generated by the television cameras set up on the sidewalk outside the law school, where anxious reporters hoped to catch a glimpse of, and perhaps cajole a statement from, Kenneth Starr, the grand inquisitor of the most powerful man in the world – President Bill Clinton. “Porn” Starr was on campus to teach his weekly law class, which is held on Friday mornings. But it was not the antics of Mr. Starr, as amusing and dangerous as they are, that occasioned my visit to this elite Manhattan campus.
I had come to NYU in order to check out “Sports Matters: “Black Intellectuals Respond to and Transcend Darwin’s Athletes,” a symposium held between April 2-4. Organized by NYU history professor Jeffrey T. Sammons, who’s book “Beyond The Ring” is the definitive study of boxing in America. The symposium’s raison d’être was a challenge laid down to black intellectuals by John Hoberman, a white professor of Germanic languages and sports studies at the University of Texas, who is the author of the provocative polemic “Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America And Preserved The myth Of Race.”
“Interestingly,” writes Hoberman in the introduction to the paperback edition of his book, “my claim that much of the black male intelligentsia is generally unprepared to think critically about the role of sport in black life has evoked little response.” Well, the response came in spades – so to speak – at the NYU symposium when a group of mostly black male scholars from various disciplines critiqued Hoberman’s book in a wide ranging series of scholarly papers. The papers are being prepared for publication under the editorship of Dr. Gerald Early – a Professor of Literature and Afro-American Studies and historian Jeff Sammons.
To the disappointment of the participants and the audience, this writer included, John Hoberman, the catalyst for this event, was invited but chose not to show. Hoberman has subsequently told Marion Boykins – the sports editor for The Black World Today - that he decided to boycott the Symposium because Sammons, whom he described as “a hostile reviewer,” chose an “all black” group of presenters who “shared his views on the book.” This is a curious response from a man who publicly chided black intellectuals for not responding to his text. Furthermore, Hoberman’s self-serving charge that Sammons stacked the deck borders on slander.
Professor John Hoberman
He Picked a Fight then Punked Out!
The Text that Started it All
A bizarre mixture of fascinating fact and white paternalist fiction
What Prof. Sammons did was send copies of Hoberman’s book out to a group of black scholars who could offer thoughtful and enlightening commentary; that they independently arrived at similar conclusions about the quality of “Darwin’s Athletes” speaks more eloquently about the failures of Hoberman’s text than any conspiracy orchestrated by Sammons. In fact, the presenters represented a remarkably diverse group.
They ranged from Kenneth Manning, the Thomas Melroy Professor of Rhetoric and of the History of Science, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to Kenneth L. Shropshire, Chairman of the Afro-American studies department and a professor in the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania, to Sonja Steptoe, an attorney and a senior editor at Sports Illustrated and a national correspondent for the sports television network CNNSI, to Keith A.P. Sandiford, a cricket expert and Professor of History at the University of Manatoba in Canada, and Gerald Early, a distinguished sports essayist and the Chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Washington University.
This list is but a sampling of the heavyweight presenters who answered the call to critique “Darwin’s Athletes.” Several of them have published splendid books and essays on the major themes explored in the book : the black athlete, the business and culture of sports, the class structure in black communities, the history of race and science, etc. And it is fair to say that professor Hoberman’s arguments went over like a concrete balloon in this crowd; they just didn’t fly.
The overall attitude toward the book was that it is a work of grandiose ambition but is replete with half baked conjectures and gross speculations that are unsupported by the evidence Hoberman offers in defense of his major arguments: That Afro-Americans have a historically conditioned “sports fixation” which is the main obstacle to academic achievement and vertical mobility for black males, and that the enormous success of black male athletes is the major reason why 19th century theories of white supremacy are being dusted off and thrown back into the discourse on race by academic racist and other garden variety bigots.
Nobody at the symposium who had read the text felt that Hoberman successfully proved either point, this writer included. His argument that the interracial camaraderie exhibited by black and white athletes in the sports arena has not carried over into other areas of American life seems on firmer ground, but he offers no evidence to support this hypothesis either.
The strongest part of the book is the author’s wide reading and analysis of the scientific and pseudo-scientific literature on race biology and athletic performance – from which I learned much – although it gets a bit redundant – as well as his biting critique of the white racist hypocrisy that surrounds big time sports. His discussion of the psycho/social role of sport in legitimizing European colonization of third world countries is also enlightening. But Hoberman’s approach to the presentation of evidence when theorizing about the role of sports in Afro-American culture and community, which often seems arbitrary, presents big problems.
Relying on a series of anecdotes and hearsay he employs neither the careful documentation of specific claims which is the standard methodology of historians, nor the rigorous comparative statistical analysis that is the indispensable tool of the sociologist. psychologist, et. al. The result of this shoddy approach to documenting his central thesis is a seriously flawed book, perhaps fatally. Hence Hoberman is like the proverbial cow that gives a good bucket of milk then kicks it over.
Among the scholars assembled at NYU, no one believed that “Darwin’s Athletes” would have ever seen the light of day had it been subjected to the kind of exacting peer review that would have greeted the work of a professional historian, sociologist, anthropologist, et. al. The book was universally regarded as the work of a paternalistic dilettante – Kenneth Manning dismissed the text as “unintelligent and not well written” – but still found its way to publication mainly because it is yet another work by a know-it-all white male author that traffics in what Albert Murray has aptly called “The fakelore of black pathology.”
It is a subject for which white folks apparently have an insatiable appetite. In fact, my experience as a journalist convinces me that Albert Murray is right on the money when he argues that “Whenever whites are given a choice of black pathology or black heroism, they will inevitably choose pathology.”
One example of this is Hoberman’s decision to seize upon Ralph Ellison’s comments on Richard Wrights descriptions of his bleak childhood in Mississippi as an example of how southern black parents in general brutalized their children, crippling their intellectual and emotional development. Aside from the charge made by Daryl Scott, a Afro-American professor who teaches at Columbia University, that Hoberman misrepresents Ellison’s views in his paper, “Exposed and Abused: Hoberman’s misrepresentation of Ellison,” Hoberman offers no supporting empirical data to support these highly personal and subjective ruminations.
Hoberman also ignores autobiographical and literary texts which paint a very different portrait of Afro-American family life and community, like Albert Murray’s trilogy – Train Whistle Guitar, The Spy Glass Tree and The Seven League Boots – which follow the growth and development of a southern black boy who came from humble Alabama roots and went on to achieve heroic status as an intellectual and artist. A story that mirrors Mr. Murray’s own marvelous life.
Albert Murray: Blues Philosopher
With fellow sports fan and novelist Ralph Ellison
Although Hoberman flatters himself by suggesting that Sammons rigged the debate, when I read the book I had never met Sammons and knew nothing of the forthcoming conference, yet I found that my thinking was in harmony with the opinions expressed there and my final judgments about the book has certainly been influenced by what I heard. I originally read Hoberman’s polemic on the recommendation of Marion Boykins, who, although expressing some reservations, actually liked the book. So I approached the reading with an open mind and positive vibes. But I was unable to make it through the introduction without developing profound misgivings about the author’s sweeping generalizations, which I seriously doubted that he could prove.
The Stylized Body Of the Highly Eccentric Dennis Rodman
Hoberman assures us this striking man hates himself!
For instance, Hoberman’s pronouncement that “the self mutilating eccentric Dennis Rodman, whose hair dyes and tattoos have turned his entire body into a kaleidoscopic demonstration of how black self hatred can be marketed to white America,” is typical of many conjectures for which he never offers any empirical evidence. We are simply expected to accept this as the truth because he says so.
Using Hoberman’s logic one could just as easily conclude that white women hate their color, body image and facial features because they are spending millions on plastic surgery designed to give them larger breast and fuller Negroid like lips; plus they – along with white males – are willing to risk acquiring a deadly skin cancer in order to tan their pale skins!
I would later discover that so much of what Hoberman has to say regarding Afro-American culture and the role of the athlete resembles this kind of omniscient preachment rather than objective scholarship. But even relying on the kind of impressionistic analysis Hoberman so often resorts to, one could argue that Rodman’s style is characteristic of the white rock milieu in which he hangs out, and in which he is lionized.
While Rodman is undoubtedly viewed by many whites and blacks as a buffoon, millions of others would gladly change places with him faster than the Cisco Kid could draw his guns. Especially after witnessing Madonna, and one of the blond female heirs to the vast fortune of the Texas Hunts, almost engage in a fist fight in order to get a seat closest to the court in order to watch their Rod-man rebound the rock.
She was ready to rumble over her chocolate Rod Man!
Of course, the erotic attraction of choice white females to black male prowess is the great unacknowledged subtext to the century old white male discussion about the role of the black male athlete. Perhaps this explains the conspicuous absence of discussions about the black female athlete, who is just as dominant as her male counterpart. Consider Wilma Rudolph, Althea Gibson, Florence Joyner, Jackie Joyner Kerse, Merlene Otty, Venus and Serena Williams, Cynthia Cooper, Chyrl Swoops et. al.
Black Women Dominate the Same Sports as Black Men!
This is the Olympics: Where’s the White Girls?
The Great Merlene Otty
A Seven Time Olympic Sprinter!
Serena: A Force of Nature On the Tennis Court!
Powerful and Sexy too
As I read Hoberman’s scathing critique of Rodman, Nate Newton, Charles Barkley, and Alonzo Mourning et. al., I began to brace myself for another round of spurious arguments about the pathological nature of African American culture, offered up by yet another patronizing white academic on the make, with too much time and money on his hands, taking a well worn path to a wider arena of recognition than is generally afforded an obscure language teacher in a Texas university. As Hoberman’s preachment became shrill, with dire warnings about the evils of black America’s “sports fixation,” I was reminded of the old Ibo proverb: “Beware of the stranger who comes to the funeral and cries louder than the bereaved.”
After completing the text, I remain convinced that my original suspicions were true, although I would add that Prof.. Hoberman also seems to be motivated by some of the same missionary impulses that compelled his white ancestors to ship out to Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the islands of the seven seas on a mission to civilize the “savages.” And, as a descendent of Africans, I am forced to remember that that’s where all our troubles with white folks began. And our troubles have been legion.
Hoberman’s contention that “Interracial sport has thus breathed new life into our racial folklore, reviving 19th century ideas about the racial division of labor that then recur in a trend-setting book like The Bell Curve,” is also unconvincing. When I was a boy growing up in Florida, there was a time when there were no black athletes in professional sports except boxing.
Yet there was no paucity of theories of black inferiority because such theories supplied the intellectual underpinnings for a system of de-Jure white supremacy, just as they continue to lend legitimacy to de-facto white supremacy. As Hoberman’s own research demonstrates, there has never been a time in the nation’s history when white Americans were not espousing some racist theory or another about the inferiority of their black countrymen. Clearly, white racism is a persistent pathology that infects the American body politic and the nation’s major institutions in good times and bad.
There Were Virtually No Black Professional Athletes Back Then
But still…white racism was the order of the day
It was the way we were!
The truth is that there is an unbroken tradition of white racist ideology in this country that ranges from the “Great Chain of Being” which was popular during the revolutionary and early national periods in the 18th century, to the “Bell Curve” in the declining years of the twentieth century. Hence there is no plausible reason why African Americans should especially concern themselves with the fact that some white folks are now zeroing in on the stunning success of black athletes as an excuse to attack their humanity.
I emphasize some white people because a serious shortcoming of Hoberman’s argument is his tendency to speak of white and black Americans as undifferentiated masses who think alike. However, as any editor of a major newspaper knows – or had better know if they hope to succeed – there are many publics even within the same racial or ethnic group, and they all have a different take on reality.
Since the author presents no polling data or opinion surveys, I have no idea what percentage of white Americans actually view great black athletes as proof of Charles Darwin’s compensation theory – an argument advanced in his book ”The Decent of Man” – that great physical prowess is compensation for an intellectual deficit. First of all, when this book was written Africans were an enslaved people all over the western world, and theories of white superiority abounded because they were employed to justify a system of racial tyranny which was clearly at odds with Judeo-Christian ethics which provided the moral basis of the American creed.
He’s An Athlete and Big Time Sports Fan Too
Astronaut and Space Scientist
MIT PhD in Physics, Musician, and Martial Artist
Dr. S. Alan Counter Explorer of the Artic and Amazon
Harvard Biologist, Koralinska Fellow, MD Neurologist
A Former football player and avid sports fan!
Yet today, the descendants of those African slaves have overthrown the legal caste system in a century of heroic struggle and are now piloting space ships, designing space stations, running big cities, passing legislation in the Congress, performing brain surgery, playing the Hyden Concerto, singing Italian operas, winning Nobel Prizes, teaching at Harvard and MIT, running business,’ commanding the nations armed forces, creating the nation’s popular culture, brokering deals among the nation’s power elite in Washington, managing the President’s budget and even making presidents, elevating the art of legal argument, capturing the Pulitzer prize and the National Book Award, composing and performing jazz at the Lincoln Center, and catching satellites in outer space. And since this essay was originally written we have a basketball playing, Harvard trained black President in the White House!
After black Americans have proven themselves in all these arenas, it boggles the mind to believe that their white fellow Americans are still so screwed up on the race question that they are prepared to retreat to 19th century Darwinian compensation theories because some Afro-American males routinely fly through the air dunking basketballs with a spectacular power and grace that white players – Brent Barry excepted – have been unable to match.
In any case, even if Hoberman is right about the racist response of white Americans and their European brethren to black athletic dominance, what would he have black athletes do? Dose he think they should stop giving superb performances? These questions are never satisfactorily addressed in the text.
While fudging these questions Hoberman does offer plenty of advice, some not without merit, about the need to direct black youths away from excessive concentration on sports as a profession. The problem is, like his speculations about the reactions of white Americans to the great Afro-American sports spectacle in living color, Hoberman never demonstrates that the black community’s alleged “sports fixation” actually exist, and if it does the consequences of this fixation are what he says they are.
Nothing in Hoberman’s argument inspired more critical comment during the symposium. “Here too there is no point in speaking hypothetically,” writes Hoberman with an air of authority reserved for omniscient white male academics, “since African Americans’ attachment to sports has been diverting interest away from the life of the mind for most of this century.
The rejection of academic achievement as a source of “clan pride” is already rampant among black boys, whose preferred models are rappers and athletes.” That this statement is offered as a reply to Charles Murray, co-author of “The Bell Curve,” who suggested that since black folks have been slighted in their intellectual endowment we should content ourselves with “the dominance of many black athletes,” demonstrates the central problem most critics at the symposium had with the book. Hoberman simply substitutes claims of biological inferiority for allegations of cultural pathology, a maneuver that Afro-American anthropologist Lee D. Baker, a presenter at the symposium, calls “tag team white supremacy.”
Let me declare my self right off : I think the first proposition advanced in Hoberman’s argument is bunk, and while his second point has some validity, I suspect it is greatly overstated. But these are not the worst of Hoberman’s intellectual transgressions. His misreading of Afro-American history and wild conjectures about black culture degenerate into hyperbole when he attempts to manufacture evidence in order to support his sports fixation thesis.
The following statement is a representative example of his method. “Although neither The Souls Of Black Folks nor the Miseducation Of The Negro contains a word about sports, both address with disarming candor the demoralizing educational predicament that encouraged a growing adulation of Negro athletes during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The black athletes who today refine their athletic skills and little else at American universities are thus the damaged inheritors of an educational philosophy that once promoted manual training as the highest cultural achievement to which black youngsters could aspire.” There are so many holes in this argument that a separate treatise could easily be written just to fill them.
What Hoberman is referring to is the system of industrial education advocated by Booker T. Washington, which WEB Dubois harshly critiques in his essay “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington And Others.” It was an educational philosophy which privileged the acquisition of vocational skills over academic learning. Yet Dubois, a militant New Englander who had received a classical academic education – beginning at Fisk , a private black college in Nashville, Tennessee, then earning a Harvard doctorate, and completing all work, including dissertation, for the doctorate in economics from the University of Berlin – did not deny the need to train Afro-Americans in the skills critical to survival in an industrializing economy and, in fact, praised Booker T. for his efforts.
However Dubois also argued that a modern liberal education was essential for the growth of a competent leadership class who could direct the development of the mass of Afro-Americans in political, cultural and economic affairs. This was the logic behind his call for the creation of a “Talented Tenth,” which he advanced in “The Souls of Black Folks,” published in 1903, eight years after Washington’s Famous Atlanta speech laying out his philosophy for black development, and only thirty eight years after the close of the civil war that finally ended chattel slavery.
And Carter G. Woodson, who began high school at 21 years old then went on to earn a Harvard PhD in history, obviously shared Dubois’ views on the importance of higher education in spite of the fact that he was pro-Washington. His call for a “New Type Of Professional Man” in The Miseducation Of The Negro, although published three decades later, bears a close resemblance to Dubois’ Talented Tenth. Woodson wrote: “Negroes should study for the professions for all sane reasons that members of another race should go into these lines of endeavor and also on account of the particular call to serve the lowly of their race.”
Dr. DuBois Was the Preeminent Champion of Liberal Education
Yet more objective in his critique of Washington
Hoberman quotes the following passage from The Miseducation of the Negro, and, as is his habit, proceeds to draw the worst possible conclusions about Afro-American life. “Negroes, then, learned from their oppressors that there were certain spheres into which they should not go because they would have no chance therein for development.” From that comment by Woodson, Hoberman concludes that “Intellectual curiosity itself was being strangled at birth.” But it does not follow that this was the result. I have heard similar comments from Jews who went on to outstanding careers in the learned professions. Among the people who told me his Russian immigrant father discouraged a serious pursuit of advanced education because he didn’t believe it would lead to success in a land run by Anglo Saxon anti-Semites, is the brilliant New York attorney Martin Garbus.
Dr. Carter G. Woodson
The Father Of Afro-American Historiography
And in any case Dr. Woodson is describing an attitude that existed among some Afro-Americans over half a century ago, when it was wise counsel for black parents to warn their children about the restrictions America’s racial caste system placed on their life chances. Even now it is sometimes wise for black parents to counsel their children against pursuing certain careers – a tactic with which Hoberman obviously concurs if the kid is an athlete.
However, I think that a brilliant black ballet dancer, operatic tenor, or classical violinist has less of a chance to rise to the top of their profession than a similarly talented black athlete. That’s why I discouraged my daughter from seriously pursuing a career in ballet, and many black parents advise their children from pursuing a career in European classical music- especially those who have first hand knowledge of the added burdens that race imposes on an already demanding field of endeavor.
Furthermore Woodson, whose pioneer role in Afro-American historiography is above reproach – was not always consistent in his opinions regarding racial uplift. For instance, in the same book quoted by Hoberman, Woodson himself ridicules the aspirations of highly educated Afro-Americans whose academic training only led to disillusionment because their ambitions could not be realized under the American racial caste system.
“In the schools of business administration Negroes are trained exclusively in the psychology and economics of Wall Street and are, therefore, made to despise the opportunities to run ice wagons, push banana carts, and sell peanuts among their own people.” Woodson’s scathing critique of black businessmen is echoed in his criticism of striving black journalist: “In schools of journalism Negroes are being taught how to edit such metropolitan dailies as the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times, which would hardly hire a Negro as a janitor.”
However, what Hoberman also fails to mention is that Woodson saves his most caustic criticism for the white teachers and administrators who make their living misleading black students whom they despise. “These misfits belong to the very group working out the segregation of the Negro,” Woodson argued “and they come into these institutions mainly to earn a living. They make no particular contribution to the development of education, for they are not scholarly enough to influence educational theory; and they are so far out of sympathy with the Negro that they cannot make any contribution to educational practice.”
Clearly a great part of Woodson’s contempt for these whites, who owed their positions to the politics of race, was that they should be directing the education of black youths while great scholars like Kelly Miller, Dubois and himself, who could have made a priceless contribution were denied the opportunity! And when Woodson spells out his ideas about a suitable pedagogy for black youths, it sounds a lot like what the best Afrocentric intellectuals advocate today; especially strong programs in African and Afro-American history, reassessments of religion and the bible from a black point of view, and an approach to the study of language that bears a striking resemblance to Ebonics.
While Dubois disagreed with aspects of Tuskegee’s educational program, what he most abhorred about Washington was his accomodationist social and political policy, as expressed in his 1895 speech at the World Exposition of Cotton Growing States, which Dubois labeled the “Atlanta Compromise.” The positions on black affairs advocated by Washington in that speech and many other public utterances won over powerful white men even as it made him sound like a character right out of Stanley Elkins’ infamous essay “Slavery and the Sambo Personality.” But those who have read historian Louis Harland’s works on Washington know that his humble Uncle Tom public image was a mask.
It was a masquerade dictated by the imperatives of survival under the oppressive caste system that prevailed in Washington’s America, and was immortalized in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask,” as well as in the folk ditty “Got one mind for white folks to see/ got another mind I know is really me.” Washington was anything but the obsequious darky most white Americans believed him to be. Despite the fact that he spent his first decade as a slave, like Frederick Douglass, Washington developed into a sophisticated cosmopolite who became quite at home In the company of powerful white men. And he was the best ever at getting those white men to support his causes!
The Wizard Of Tuskegee
The Slave Who Became an Aristocrat
Washington promoted the idea of industrial education so heavily because he, like other black southern educators to follow, understood that it was much easier to placate racist southern officials and northern white philanthropist if he privileged vocational training over a liberal academic education. Furthermore, this philosophy was intended to serve the needs of a predominantly rural population whose main experience with the world of work was the plantation, as former chattel slaves and sharecroppers.
Many of the students who graduated from Tuskegee Institute, like my uncle Birnry, went on to establish businesses and sold their services to the highest bidder, becoming property holders with money in the bank. And this is precisely the outcome Booker T. wanted for Tuskegee graduates. Aside from the Herculean task of raising money, he had the added burden of trying to sustain the school in Ku Klux Klan infested rural Alabama at a time when black people were being lynched throughout the south at a rate of one every two and a half days.
That’s why he adopted a strategy of making public statements accepting segregation and denouncing political agitation, while finessing huge sums of money from super rich industrialist, like Andrew Carnegie, and secretly financing lawsuits challenging racial inequality. By the time Albert Murray, one of America’s most literate men, attended Tuskegee in the thirties the campus had developed sufficient intellectual resources to produce a Ralph Ellison, to whom Hoberman dedicates his book.
It should be duly noted that Ellison’s stint at Tuskegee is the only formal education he ever received. A poignant look into the intellectual life of some of the students of that era can be found in Murray’s “The Spy Glass Tree,” which paints a very different picture of black college life from “Invisible Man,” although he was at Tuskegee when Ellison was there, albeit an underclassman.
Hoberman’s argument that the philosophy of industrial education in black schools, which was centered at Tuskegee, limited the cultural aspirations of their students to manual work, and that these demoralized students then turned to athletic hero worship for some sort of psychic salvation is absurd!
His contention that black athletes who are failing in white universities today have been damaged by a educational philosophy that was advocated in some black colleges in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is without any factual basis whatsoever, and he makes no attempt to establish one. An obvious test for his thesis would be to compare the graduation rates of black athletes at white colleges with those of black colleges.
I suspect that a comparison of the graduation record of students who played for Grambling’s Eddie Robinson, who has more victories than any coach in the history of college football and is a steady supplier of superstars to the NFL, with the records of some of the better known white football coaches, might easily discredit Hoberman’s half baked theory. And I also suspect that’s why he avoided such a comparison.
The Great Eddie Robinson
He insisted that his players get a degree
The fact is that those of us who went off to black colleges in the fall of 1959, the generation that launched the student sit-in movement, found schools which were overwhelming devoted to providing a liberal academic education. The educational philosophy of Dubois had long triumphed over Washington’s. If black students had been the demoralized, sports fixated, ignoramuses Hoberman describes we would have been incapable of waging the heroic struggle that toppled southern apartheid.
Although I grew up in the segregated south the black southern students, schools and community Hoberman describes are strangers to me. One of the reasons why he misses his mark is because he freely mixes events and eras in such a way as to arbitrarily attribute events of one era to causative factors from another.
For instance, his conclusion that the beatings which are a part of the hazing rituals of black fraternities are symbolic re-enactment’s of the ordeals of slavery, rather than the far more plausible explanation that these violent practices were simply copied from the white fraternities on whom the black Greek letter organizations are patterned, is a strong case in point regarding the shortcomings of his methodology. Hoberman avoids the rather obvious conclusion that black fraternities borrowed their hazing rituals from white fraternities, even while admitting that more students have died from white fraternity hazings.
It is puzzling how Hoberman chastises other authors throughout his text for advancing spurious arguments that violate the principles of scientific investigation, then so brazenly engages in the practice himself. Reflecting on the fictive character of Hoberman’s theories about Afro-American culture, I wondered if it might be the result of his long involvement in literary studies, a field where subjective interpretation and creative riffs on the facts are accepted practices. But his willingness to repeatedly draw the most perverse conclusions about Afro-American life based on the flimsiest of evidence calls into question not only his methods but his motives.
Bart Landry, an Afro-American sociologist at the University of Maryland, who is an authority on the black middle class, raised questions about Hoberman’s misuse of evidence in a paper presented to the symposium entitled “Are We Our Brother’s Keeper?”
Responding to Hoberman’s charge that the black community – including the middle class – has a historical sports fixation that has prevented them from stressing the importance of education, Prof. Landry observed: “I find these charges to be frivolous at best, especially since evidence to the contrary is either omitted or discounted by him. While giving the impression of knowing a great deal about black history and contemporary black life, Hoberman ignores the fact that blacks of all classes have historically placed strong emphasis on education.”
He invented the modern running back style
Landry’s view of the Afro-American community’s devotion to education is reminiscent of my own memories of how education was regarded in the black southern community in which I grew up. I went to all black schools from elementary school up to college, and I can’t remember a single teacher, including the coaches, who suggested that we pursue a career in sports., nor hold up athletes as our most important role models.
This was true in spite of the fact that football was almost a rite of passage for black and white males in Florida, and that my small high school, in Saint Augustine, had produced two players who played in the National Football League during the openly racist fifties. Bill Irving played with the Philadelphia Eagles, and the great Willie Gallimore; whose feats with the Chicago Bears qualitatively changed the running back’s game.
But not even these two splendid athletes were held up as role models in whose footsteps we should try to follow, because our parents and teachers had far better sense than that. The race heroes who were most often celebrated in our schools and churches were Booker T. Washington, scientist Dr. George Washington Carver, Generals Benjamin Davis junior and senior, Civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall, labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, Nobel Laureate Ralph Bunch, pioneer heart surgeon Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, Dr. Charles Drew, the inventor of blood plasma, inventor Elijah McCoy, “The Real McCoy,” classical singers Marion Anderson and Roland Hayes, educator and racial diplomat Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, and just before I graduated from high school Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah, Egyptian President Abdel Gamel Nasser and Dr. Martin Luther king was added to the list.
Dr. George Washington Carver in his lab
The only athletes who warranted honorable mention in the pantheon of black heroes listed above were Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, and Althea Gibson. And these athletes were celebrated more for the racial obstacles they had to overcome and the racial uplift propaganda that could be gleaned from their triumph over whites on and off the playing fields .
And once he became the Vice President for Personnel, with the Chock Full of Nuts corporation, that achievement was elevated far above his baseball exploits by the leaders of Afro-American opinion. And in any case, the self-control Robinson maintained because he recognized that he was a path blazer for other black people was what black preachers, teachers and other members of the educated class always celebrated most in him.
Robinson was as much admired for his articulate speech, elegant style and dignified demeanor as his outstanding play. And in his later years it was his active participation in the civil rights movement that won him the most respect from black Americans. One of the real scandals of this book is the way Hoberman totally misreads the significance of Jackie Robinson to Afro-Americans.
Let me elaborate on just how badly Hoberman misses the mark. I am engaged in a project to interview everybody who is still alive that participated in the bloody demonstrations in St. Augustine Florida during 1963- 64, the brutality of which served as a catalyst for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill; a piece of legislation that radically altered race relations in America and changed the country for the better.
One of the people interviewed was my boyhood friend Heywood Fleming, who was a soldier on the front lines during the protracted racial conflict that greeted the movement for civil rights on the part of the oldest African-American community in the country. I asked him about one march in particular, a night march down to the old slave market In the heart of the ancient city.
When I read about it in the carefully preserved documents in the city’s historical archives, I was amazed at how they commanded the intestinal fortitude to carry out the march when everybody knew that “Hoss” Manucy and his posse of armed rednecks called “The Ancient City Gun Club,” a chartered organization that allowed the white racist to arm themselves to the teeth and use those weapons to threaten and attack black citizens of St. Augustine, would be laying In wait for them.
Having grown up there and walked that route many times, I knew there were endless nooks and coveys from which an aggressor with murder on their minds could hide out and launch a surprise attack. Furthermore, the black marchers were pledged to remain non-violent in the face of a violent attack from the rednecks. The whole thing was quite Incomprehensible to me; I was committed to Malcolm X’s position: “If a cracker lays a hand on you or anybody you care about try your best to put him six feet under!”
I felt that way then and I feel that way now. So it was with genuine curosity that I asked Heywood: “How did yhall do it…where did you get the nerve?” His reply astonished me. “Well, you know It was a very religious atmosphere around the movement; I mean Dr. Martin Luther King had just delivered a great sermon and there was all the good singing to fire up the crowd. We definitely felt that we were doing the Lord’s work, and that he was on our side.”
“But I was still unsure if I was going to march or not,” Heywood said, “I mean it was a really scary situation. But our leaders kept telling us that the world was with us and if we kept marching we would eventually win our freedom; we just had to stand firm and keep our eyes on the prize.” Although I have been an avowed atheist since I was thirteen, his description of the central role of religion didn’t really surprise me.
But I was shocked when he said: “I was still sitting up in the sanctuary trying to make up my mind while others were falling in line to begin the march; then somebody came running up the stairs and shouted excitedly ‘Jackie Robinson is downstairs and he’s gonna march with us!” I ran to the window to see if it was true’ and when I saw Jackie Robinson standing in the middle of Washington Street that’s when I made up my mind to march. Because we felt like if Jackie Robinson was with us we couldn’t lose!” Hence contrary to how Hoberman and a few northern black militants feel about Jackie: to the struggling black people of St. Augustine he was a saint!
This admiration springs for the things Jackie contributed to our struggle. This includes his putting up with bullshit insults from white boys he could have squashed like a fly, in order to open doors for other black players. Although Mr. Hoberman doesn’t seem to realize it – perhaps it’s because of the Teutonic inclination to violence in order to get their way – the posture assumed by Jackie when he came into Major League baseball require great discipline and incredible courage. It also required a great love for and commitment to the freedom and progress of his people. And it was these qualities, rather than his athletic exploits, that won him the love and respect of millions of Americans black and white!
Hence there was no dichotomy between athletics and scholastics In the black communities I came of age in. Although I doubt that anyone of my generation loved playing football more than I did, that love didn’t stop me from dreaming about becoming a symphony conductor, nor diminish my curiosity about the wonders of science, nor prevent me from becoming a civil rights activist – although certain football players at A&M shunned involvement in the movement because they thought it could hurt their athletic careers – nor did it dampen my love for reading Shakespeare.
I first heard the ideas of European philosophers like Kant and Spinoza passionately debated by local black college football and basketball players like “Bubby Robinson” and “Big Bama,” outside of McCall’s barbershop, which became an important center for organizing the civil rights struggle when Martin Luther King came to town in 1964, and one of it’s proprietors, Clyde Jenkins, became a hero of the movement.
Jackie Comforting The Children in St. Augustine
A True Hero of Our Struggle!
Jackie was a close ally of Dr. Martin Luther King
In my youth growing up in the black schools of Florida, there was no dichotomy between sports and sholastics. That’s why, although I doubt that anyone of my generation loved playing football more than I did, that love didn’t stop me from dreaming about becoming a symphony conductor, nor diminish my curiosity about the wonders of science, nor prevent me from becoming a civil rights activist – although certain other football players shunned involvement in the movement because they thought it could hurt their athletic careers – nor dampen my love for reading Shakespeare.
I first heard the ideas of European philosophers like Kant and Spinoza passionately debated by local black college football and basketball players like “Bubby Robinson” and “Big Bama,” outside of McCalls barbershop, which became an important center for organizing the civil rights struggle when Martin Luther King came to town in 1964. One of the proprietors, Clyde Jenkins, became a hero of the movement. And, I might add, another hero of that movement was Jackie Robinson.
The argument presented by professor Landry confirms my own memory of the importance of education among Afro-Americans. “In the late 19th and early 20th century,” he writes, “black families were more likely to send their children to school than immigrant white families. In pursuit of an education, several generations of black youth crowded into one room school houses all over a segregated south.
That this emphasis on educational attainment has continued is evidenced by the fact that in 1976, when financial aid from the government was high, the same proportion of black as well as white high school graduates entered college. Thereafter, a decline in financial aid resulted in the reduction of black college attendance.”
Landry summed up the prevailing sentiment at the symposium when he concluded that “Darwin’s Athletes” leaves one with “the impression of a book written to ‘prove’ a thesis by marshaling supporting anecdotes and making unsubstantiated sweeping generalizations.” An excellent example of Hoberman’s selective use of evidence is his failure to mention the fact that Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams, is the only parent to our knowledge who withheld two world class teenage tennis players off the international circuit because he thought it was “child abuse.”
Instead, he sent his daughters to school, an act which was regarded as bizarre by the legions of middle class white parents who couldn’t wait to push their less talented progeny onto the tennis courts of the pro circuit. But then, guys like Richard Williams are almost always viewed by white Americans as exceptions to the rule who just pop up out of nowhere. They are rarely seen as the product of enlightened Afro-American cultural traditions.
The smartest parent in tennis!
“Do middle-class blacks like sports?” Landry asks, dealing with the heart of Hoberman’s indictment of the black elite for having succumbed to “a sports infatuation.” “Certainly many do. Do Middle-class blacks focus on sports more than whites? Well, no one really knows. However, national time use surveys by one of my colleagues at the University of Maryland, John Robinson,… show that middle-class whites devote more time to attending sporting events than do middle-class blacks. The same is true for working class whites.” However, not all of the scholars at the symposium agree that even if it’s true that Afro-Americans have a love of sport that amounts to a “fixation,” it is automatically a bad thing.
The most persuasive argument for that point of view was put forth by Dr. Keith A. P. Sandiford, an Afro-Barbadian cricket expert who is a Professor of History at the university of Manatoba, in Canada. “ Some former colonial societies have succeeded extremely well here by emphasizing the value of education, by arguing that athletic triumphs depend to a large extent upon mental acuity, and by promoting their black, brown, and yellow heroes in all disciplines.” Hence Sandiford, who pointed out that Barbados has the highest literacy rate in the world, argued that “It cannot be disputed that Barbadian cricketers continue to be lionized by a society still enthralled by the cult of cricket, but the Barbadians (committed as they have traditionally been to the competing cult of education) have never lost their respect for intellectual genius. There is, in the final analysis, nothing wrong with the sports fixation itself- so long as it leaves time for other constructive addictions.”
Cricket: A National obsession in victorian England and Barbados
Two of the most literate societies in the world!
Sandiford’s argument raises an important question: Why did Hoberman not devote at least a chapter to great black athletes who do not fit the model of the muscle bound ignoramus who, in his mind as well as the racist academics he so vociferously denounces, is the prototype of the black athlete. Some very obvious examples come to mind. Paul Robeson, Fritz Pollard, W. Montague Cobb, Benjamin Davis, Arthur Ashe, Allan Page, Leroy and Dewy Selmon, Bernie Casey, Ed Beatty, Jim Brown, Gail Sayers, David Robinson, Grant Hill, Calvin Hill, John Wideman, Napoleon McCallum, Edwin Moses and Karim Abdul Jabbar. Dr. Ralph Bunche, Gene Fugett, Peter Westbrooks et. al.
As close to Human Perfection as we are likely to see
Given the fact that he lettered in four varsity sports, and went on to play professional football, one could say that if anyone had a “sports fixation” it was Paul Robeson. Yet few Americans, if any, can match his intellectual and artistic achievements, not to mention his extraordinary commitment to social justice. But there is only one mention of Robeson in Hoberman’s text , and that was an obviously political statement made by Robeson in an attempt to goad black athletes and entertainers into political action. And what about John Wideman and Ed Beatty, both of whom turned down an opportunity to play in the National Basketball Association to pursue intellectual and artistic interest. Wideman took a Rhodes Scholarship and went on to become a literature professor and one of the nations premiere writers, and Ed Beatty, a 7’-1” center, chose to play ball in Europe in order to pursue graduate study in the fine arts. He is now and internationally renowned painter.
An Officer and a Gentleman!
From the Naval Academic to the NBA Hall Of Fame
David Robinson and Napoleon McCallum are both graduates of the Naval Academy, Calvin Hill has a Masters degree from Yale, his son Grant is a Duke Graduate, W. Montague Cobb, who was a collegiate boxing champion in two weight classes as well as a cross country racing champion, went on to get an MD and a Ph.D. Allen Page, whom many consider to be the best defensive tackle ever, is the Chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. And what of Charley ward, the Hiesman winning quarterback who was drafted by a professional baseball team, and now starts at point guard for the New York Knicks. His “sports fixation” didn’t prevent him from finishing his degree requirements in three years.
Then there is the splendid example of Peter Westbrooks, whose skill with the Saber took him from the projects of Newark, New Jersey, to New York University, and who became the only American to medal in Olympic fencing. Today he is a commodities broker in Manhattan and the founder of the Peter Westbrooks Foundation, which has become the center of American world class saber fencing. In the recent World Cup match in New York, three of the four members of the all black American national team came out of the PFW.
All of the coaches in the PWF are former Olympians and educated successful men: black, white, and Hispanic. Hence academic achievement is stressed along with athletic excellence. I cannot imagine a better experience for the inner-city youths – male and female – than participation in the program at the PWF. If there is any mistake that I have made in the raising of my sixteen year old twins, it is not starting them in the PWF’s fencing program sooner. Westbrooks has said that he believes fencing saved his life. His fascinating story can be read in his recently published autobiography. “Harnessing The Anger : The story Of An American Fencer.”
This is just a sampling of the many black athletes who have gone on to productive careers in other fields such as law, medicine, business, education, etc. Nothing invites suspicion of Hoberman’s motives more than the fact that he makes no attempt to determine the percentage of black college and professional athletes who go on to other careers, or that he fails to examine the factors in their upbringing and socialization which might help explain why these athletes succeeded academically in spite of their “sports fixation.” This glaring omission lends further credibility to Prof. Landry’s observation that Hoberman has skewed the evidence to support his polemic. In the end, Hoberman is guilty of the very thing that he accuses Ishmael Reed of . ”Reed, for example,” Hoberman argues, “who objects with good reason to the image of blacks as a ‘physical people,’ has little more to offer than a collection of inchoate resentments as opposed to a philosophy of action that might move the black image in a more cerebral direction.”
Since this “image” thing is mainly a problem with Hoberman’s white brethren, he should take up the cudgel and lead the fight against the exclusion of articulate Afro-Americans from the major forums of opinion instead of preaching to the converted. I would argue that the reason for the paucity of black intellectual images is not due to a shortage of black intellectuals to fill this role – I could produce enough brain power from just among my friends to change that perception, whether the subject matter deals with the arts, politics or science – but is the result of a calculated effort to restrict their access to the media in favor of apolitical athletes and entertainers. And while Hoberman acknowledges this fact, he offers no plan of action to correct it. Which is a serious failing because, alas, it is a White problem.
At this moment in American history there are no regular black commentators on the major Sunday morning network television news shows, not even the sort of black men or women that whites regard as reasonable or safe. Perhaps this is because they remember that the last time black intellectuals were given wide access to the media, back in the sixties, they helped to bring and end to American apartheid and set off a series of social upheavals that are still making waves i.e. feminism and women’s studies, resistance to military adventures abroad, black studies, ethnic studies, affirmative action, Gay Pride, etc.
On more than one occasion Hoberman expresses surprise that black intellectuals have not attacked the black community’s “sports fixation” as a “social pathology” which is the major cause of the vocational and educational problems of black men. However, William Julius Wilson, who has studied the causes of black joblessness and poverty for twenty five years, and defined the myriad maladies it has given rise to in black life, dose not even mention sports as an important factor – just like Dubois and Woodson earlier. And, anyway, for a white guy who teaches at the university of Texas, a state where a Hiesman trophy won by a semi-literate black running back would bring the university more money and recognition from the white folks of his state than if “darwin’s athletes” won the Pulitzer Prize, or a National Book Award, complaining about black folks having a “sports fixation” is really a case of the pot calling the kettle black!
Are These People Suffering From A Sports Fixation?
Charity, and paternal advice, begins At home Mr Hoberman!
Furthermore, given the serious problems with alcohol abuse among the white students at the University of Texas – recently exposed in a HBO special – it’s all too obvious that many of these students would benefit from involvement in the rigorous training that excellence in sports demands. But Hoberman can ignore these obvious facts, and gloss over the institutionalized racist practices which are increasingly pushing Afro-American men out of the job market, because they do nothing to support the black pathology arguments in which the professor appears to have an emotional investment..
Even a casual reading of “Darwins athletes” leaves one with the feeling that John Hoberman has a visceral disdain for the black male style. When he writes about the braggadocio and swagger, the trash talkin – what the Afro-American linguist Geneva Smitherman calls jokin, jivin and signifyin – or the celebratory impromtu dances that often follow a great play, the biting tone of Hoberman’s criticism suggest a personal offense. Where almost everyone else in the world -this writer included – marvels at the high style, amazing grace and prowess of the black athlete, Hoberman envisions a narcissistic display of black male “physicality” that masks feelings of intellectual inferiority.
In his paper about the ways basketball players and rappers influence each other entitled “It’s All About the Benjamins: Style, Cultural Identity, and the Modern-Day Nigga Athlete,” Professor Todd Boyd, of the University of Southern California, argued that “John Hoberman’s problem is that he is a player hater!” Boyd explained that “player hater” is a term that rappers use to describe the mixture of jealousy and disdain which many middle and upper class people feel toward lower class black males who make a lot of money through entertainment or sports, but refuse to change their street oriented style. “White America does not know what to do with these gifted young black men who have acquired wealth and fame but continue to maintain their ghetto connections.”
Interestingly enough, the black intellectuals whom Hoberman finds most helpful in pathologizing black athletic excellence are black conservatives whom rightwing whites, with whose aims Hoberman claims to disagree, routinely call upon to co-sign all sorts of anti-black claims, namely Glenn Lourey and Shelby Steele – although Lourey has recently gone on the op-ed page of the New York Times to protest the yes-man role assigned to black conservatives by their white counterparts. Hoberman’s choice of black intellectual authority was duly noted by Angela Dillard, a historian of ideas at NYU, in her insightful paper : ”Hoberman’s Heroes : Black Conservative Intellectuals and the Post Liberal Critique of Race And Sport.”
Aside from whatever intellectual and ideological interest they hold in common however, I suspect that there is a bond beyond politics which has drawn these strange bedfellows together: They all lack the “physicality” associated with black men. I cannot imagine the rotund professor Lourey playing any sport, and I’d bet my bottom dollar that professors Lourey, Hoberman and Steele are secret members of the Wallflower Order, those terminally awkard souls who suffer from two left feet and live in constant terror of the dance floor. This probably explains the revenge of the nerds tone of this misguided tome.
Hence, at the end of the day, John Hoberman’s original sin was associating the good name of Brother Ralph Ellison with this dreary text. For if it didn’t have that swing it didn’t mean a thing to Oklahoma Red, who was a killer diller on the dance floor. Like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Ellison took great pride in his dancing and talked trash about it too. “Part of my pride in being what I am is that as a dancer, as a physical man,” says Ellison, “I bet you I can outdance, outriff most of these intellectuals who’re supposed to have come back…It’s a glorious thing to know the uses of the body and not to be afraid of it, but that has to be linked to the mind.”
In my experience, and that of every black American of my generation- and earlier ones – that I have quizzed about this issue, this has always been the attitude toward participation in sports among educators and other authority figures in the Afro-American community. “Sports are fine but once you get somthing in your head not even the meanest cracker can take it away,” was common advice in my youth. That’s why I feel no inhibition about saying candidly that anyone who claims black Americans did not value the mind is either an ignoramus or a charlatan!
When the Pulitzer Prize winning essayist, Alan McPherson, arrived at Ralph Ellison’s apartment to interview him in 1968, after Ellison was well into middle age mind you, he found him with “a pair of high powered binoculars close to his eyes.” Ellison was sitting “by the window of his eighth floor Riverside Drive apartment looking down. Across the street, in the long strip of green park which parallels the Hudson River, two black boys are playing basketball. ‘I watch them every afternoon,” he says, and offers the binoculars to me.” Obviously Ellison, like most other people who have had the opportunity to see them perform, also got a big kick out of watching the artistry of the Afro-American athlete. And we know from his comparison of Joe Louis with the best ballet dancers that Ellison was capable of viewing black athletes as artist – a position that Hoberman regards as an abomination when taken by other black intellectuals.
Frankly I don’t give a fig what Hoberman thinks about what is, or is not, art. Anyone who is familiar with the history of western art knows that there is a never ending debate about what should be included in the canon of art. The creation of the Whitney was an effort to seek formal recognition for the achievement of American artists, while the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenhiem were the result of a raging debate about the value of modern art in general – a genre not considered important by the venerable Metropolitian Museum of Art. Once upon a time Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamps and Salvadore Dali were widely viewed as talentless iconoclast. Charles Dickins, Mark Twain, and James Joyce were deemed unworthy of inclusion in the literary canon. Johanne Sebastin Bach was viewed as a menace to sacred music by the princes of the German Church, and Jazz was once considered artless jungle music created by savage sensibilities. Well, so much for authoritative opinions as to what can be considered art !
A Fancy Dancer with Great Athletic Prowess
For grace and Beauty of movement: Barishnahov Had nothing on Ali!
For my money, anyone who cannot appreciate the artistry of Pele on the Soccer field or Sir Garfield sobers on the cricket field, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson and Wilfredo Benitez in the boxing ring, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Magic Johnson, Julius Irving and Michael Jordon on the basketball court, Peter Westbrooks wielding his saber, and Lynn Swan, Gail Sayers and Warren Moon on the football field is automatically disqualified from any serious discourse on art. I predict that history will judge them to be as narrow minded, insensitive to innovation, and short sighted as those who once dismissed Picasso, Twain and Bach.
Finally, since I don’t think I could say it better, I will defer to Prof. Lee D. Baker’s argument as to the real meaning of Hoberman’s obsession with black athletic excellence as socio/cultural pathology: ”Since the 1970’s poor people of color have been adversely affected by the transformation from a from a goods producing to a service producing economy. The low wage/high-wage polarization, the relocation of industry, and the reduction of federal moneys to urban and rural areas has increased poverty, joblessness, and the welfare rolls, despite the passage of civil rights legislation and a booming economy. People who see lack of personal responsibility, poor family values, or a fixation on sports, as root causes of entrenched poverty, soaring incarceration rates, and disparate per capita school expenditures, can easily substitute culture for biology. In effect, they subtly shift the cause of racism from being black to acting black.” Few white peddlers of black pathology theories have pulled off this bait and switch more adroitly than professor Hoberman.
Harlem New York