Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A "Bad Nigger"



I've been collecting and reading boxing literature for a couple years. There is quite a bit for an enthusiast to devour; short stories by Hemingway, Jack London, FX Toole, full length novels by WC Heinz, Leonard Gardner, and finally there is a plethora of books that compile articles on boxing. The infamous "Sweet Science," by the regular New Yorker writer AJ Liebling is considered a sports classic and perfectly represents boxing literature. The series of articles is both recounts of fights, and depictions of the life surrounding fighters.

Over the last two years I've picked up a handful of books and most recently I picked up "The Art and Aesthetics of Boxing" and "Boxer: An Anthology of Writings on Boxing and Visual Culture." While I haven't gotten to the former I have read most of the latter. "Boxer..." is a beautiful coffee table book with great pictures, and interesting yet short essays. Included, of course, is Joyce Carol Oates famous essay "On Boxing," which is part of virtually every compilation of boxing writing post '95.

The compilation also includes an essay by Keith Piper, entitled "Four Corners, a contest of Opposites." The essay briefly hits on the careers and lives of four african american fighters; Joe Louis, Jack Johnson, Mike Tyson, and Muhammed Ali. Specifically the writer highlights the struggles with racism each fighter as had during his career. It should be noted as well that all four were heavyweights, heavyweights have typically had a larger political burden placed upon their careers as their size is a mitigating factor. Smaller fighters "'... do not sybolise the nation or their race since the biggest fighting men have always had that burden.'"

Piper points out the complexities of being a black fighter succinctly; "The black fighter is forced to negotiate a precarious line between, on the one hand, the prescriptions of the white staus quo, the boxing promotions industry, the press and to an extent, apologist portions of the black middle class; on the other hand, the aspirations of black audiences yearning for an empowering antidote to their powerlessness."


Keith argues that Jack Johnson and Ali contested a symbolic war against the racial status quo while Tyson and Joe Louis conformed to and reinforced the dominant messages about the nature of black masculinity. Tyson's compliance with the spectacle of black masculinity is "expressed in the uniquely late twentieth century terms of individual redemption and condemnation. It attempts to convince us of the possibility of meteoric rise, which it portrays as the All American Way." Of course the subsequent fall of Tyson's career is put on his shoulders as an individual. Yet there are other readings of Tyson's story that go unsaid. "The ones which suggest that Cus D'Amato's only interest in Tyson was as a fighting machine, as product. The teenager's evident sexual aggression was allowed to devolp unchecked as long as he kept knocking other boys over in the ring. ...At the same time Tyson's intellect was deliberately left underdeveloped in order to hone his persona into that of an American pit-bull terrier."

The truth of the situation is probably lost in the dizzy oscillation between individual autonomy and the power of social constructs. It is in this space that we all live.

1 comment:

Judith said...

Consider adding Absalom Absalom by William Faulkner to your boxing literature reading list if you haven't already.