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Rhoden carefully explains the mechanisms of white supremacy that have

disfranchised and excised black athletes (the “Jockey Syndrome” p. 61)

who challenged racist hegemony and the “Conveyor Belt” system

 

 

Rhoden, William.  Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete.

 New York: Crown Publishers, 2006. 304 pages. ISBN: 609601202.

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William Rhoden’s Forty Million Dollar Slaves

 and the Call for Black Athletic Leadership

By William Broussard

 

In his volume of poetry entitled More than an Athlete, Washington Wizards power forward Etan Thomas offers us a window into the mind of a true scholar-athlete and model for athletic leadership in our society as he stands up for justice, equality, and his own humanity and remains committed to using his celebrity to address issues of importance to a wide segment of Black Americans.  In doing so, he confirms the long-espoused adage of sport culturists that athletes have great potential and capability to be inspirational leaders at the vanguard of the pursuit for social justice in our society.  Thomas not only pursues social justice in his literature, but also in his philanthropy and community service, visiting with school children and prison inmates sharing with them a message of hope and compassion.  It is exactly this kind of leadership in difficult times that William Rhoden charges contemporary black athletes with in Forty Million Dollar Slaves.  Unfortunately, it seems that in his ardor to praise past generations of black athletes who have answered the call, Rhoden has suspiciously overlooked the many ways in which contemporary athletes demonstrate the willingness to lead that he so ardently calls for, even though he accomplishes the task of identifying the mechanisms that predicate the apolitical stances of a majority of contemporary black athletes.   

The book’s subtitle, “The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete,” indicates that Rhoden is more than a historian, but a nostalgist fully convinced that the black athlete’s historical willingness to advocate for social and economic justice for all black people has diminished—and perhaps disappeared—in recent times.  In order to drive home the suggestion that a vacuum of leadership has led to black athletes becoming a “lost tribe,” he relies heavily upon the metaphor that the relationship between athletes/owners/sport-industrial complex is akin to the relationship between the slave/master/plantation (Prologue).  In other words, though contemporary athletes receive lucrative compensation for their labor, they still rely exclusively upon white owners—who buy, sell, and trade them, and ultimately control their fates—and thus are condemned to exercise silence, complicity, and coercion when it comes to issues that impact the entire black community.  After all, in the end, “anyone who exercises power over them is white, and they feel […] that the owners are taking more value out of them than they are putting in” (xi).  Additionally, as in times of slavery, their athletic prowess exists solely at the “spectacle of white owners” (8).  According to Rhoden, as Marvin X points out in “How to Recover from the Addiction to White Supremacy,” many contemporary professional athletes’ “Desire to possess things upon things for no other reason than greed and selfishness” eradicates their desire to stand up for others who are excluded from the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Controversial, certainly, and hyperbolic, perhaps, but Rhoden carefully chooses the slave/master/plantation metaphor and explicates it deftly throughout the text, relying upon historical examples of athletes who embodied the black struggle for self-determination through their athletic exploits, and profiling modern athletes who most aptly fulfill the slave/master relationship in contemporary times.  His censure of Michael Jordan is gripping and wonderfully metaphoric.  Jordan, Rhoden claims, rose to global popularity because he was marketed as capable of transcending race, and Jordan avoided race politics because of the threat to his brand as a player.  However, when Jordan aspired to executorial ranks in the NBA and was denied entry, he was spurned after his labor was exploited to revitalize the Washington Wizards’ brand (206-209).  When even arguably the world’s most well-known athlete is discriminated against because of his race, Rhoden asserts that no athlete is immune to racism, heightening his call for activism and quest for racial justice among contemporary athletes. 

In the context of riveting narratives about the athletic and social movement exploits of Tom Molineaux (boxer), Jack Johnson (boxer), Isaac Murphy (jockey), Arthur Foster (Negro Leagues entrepreneur), and Jackie Robinson (baseball), whose athletic exploits and pursuant social action inspired social movement, black solidarity, and paved the way for future black successes both in and out of the arena of sport, Jordan’s experience seems all the more divergent.  Rhoden deserves high praise for pulling no punches when he accuses contemporary black professional athletes of abdicating their responsibility to their community with “treasonous vigor” (8).  Their stories serve as blueprints for breaking away from the plantation and slave-master, and offer useful metaphors for black independence and entrepreneurship against great odds. 

Rhoden does show flashes of compassion and even sympathy for the contemporary black athlete’s condition relative to engaging in social activism.  He believes that their disconnection from the black community and the reprisal black athletes face from reactionary sports media has fractured the “common cause” that once united all black athletes when they stand for causes for social justice.   He offers an analysis of forces in American professional sport that disconnect black athletes from the black community (the “Conveyor Belt,” p. 177-78), detailing the process by which they are prepared for professional athletic competition and the ancillary public relations requirements (5).  Throughout the process, by which potential professionals are isolated and alienated from their native networks and increasingly cloistered into new networks as they become corporatized entities, they are excised from their communities as they fulfill their professional responsibilities and disconnected from the networks of people, in many cases predominately African-American, who once comprised their ‘community’ (177). 

This leads to a general ignorance of the issues impacting a vast majority of African-Americans across the country.  Furthermore, for black professional athletes who do remain connected to the black community in significant ways, Rhoden focuses on the harsh reprisal that they are likely to face at the hands of a largely white, reactionary sports media[1] (209).  Also at the root of the problem for contemporary athletes, Rhoden outlines, is the threat that engaging in causes and issues that white owners and management might consider politically unsavory would consequently lead to the loss of earnings potential.  

Rhoden’s accusation that contemporary athletes have failed to advocate social justice (as he claims those of previous generations had done) unravels at the hands of his own thorough historical research and analysis.  Rhoden’s charge that contemporary black athletes of great import (think Kobe, LeBron, Donovan, Tiger) have not seized upon their global popularity in order to take up issues of racial justice and equality fails to consider the workings of Gramscian hegemony that dictate their actions.  In The Prison Notebooks, Gramsci defines hegemony as “cultural consent” and “force” used in a society to create compliance with societal norms defined by the majority.  It is easy to see these forces at work as Rhoden carefully explains the mechanisms of white supremacy that have disfranchised and excised black athletes (the “Jockey Syndrome” p. 61) who challenged racist hegemony and the “Conveyor Belt” system through which potential athletes develop new cultural values.  One wonders how athletes can answer Rhoden’s call against such sobering odds. 

In fact at times, when reading about the personal turmoil encountered by previous generations’ athlete activists, Forty Million reads almost as if it were a cautionary tale compelling contemporary black athletes to avoid the political arena and avoid drawing any attention to themselves that could leave them characterized as ungrateful malcontents.  After centuries of black athletes who faced the most dire consequences—loss of livelihood and death threats—we have now entered a period where an unspoken code encourages contemporary black athletes to avoid ‘rocking the boat’ lest they risk losing their lucrative sponsorships and opportunity to compete professionally.  It is no wonder that black athletes more often than not choose to avoid hot-button political issues and, as Rhoden puts it, concentrate on “making those in positions of power feel comfortable with (their) blackness” (178).  Given the swiftness and severity with which athletes are vilified for publicly discussing politically sensitive issues, it has become increasingly dangerous for them to do so.   

And yet in the face of those odds, individuals such as Etan Thomas, John Amaechi, Warrick Dunn, Joe Horn, and Carmelo Anthony[2] refuse to, as Dave Zirin puts it, “Be like most athletes and just toe the line, drink Coke, wear Nike and tap-dance on cue”[3].  Each has taken up unpopular causes, using their popularity to bring vital media attention to important issues.  Etan Thomas has also vehemently challenged Rhoden’s claim that contemporary black athletes have dropped the ball, citing his own efforts to reach out to black youth in schools, prisons, and in the community.  Rhoden, however, chooses to write off Thomas’ contribution, dismissing it as singular and nominal, and failing, in my opinion, to apply the same vigor and thorough analysis to uncovering the efforts of contemporary black athletes to improve their communities as he did to uncovering and praising the efforts of black athletes of yesteryear[4].

As individuals such as Etan Thomas prove, contemporary black athletes are capable of carrying on the tradition of their brave brothers and sisters before them who led their teams to victory on the field and led the way in challenging racial disunity and injustice in the world outside the athletic arena (all while facing the petty and insipid criticism of reactionary media[5]).  And yet, Rhoden proves that the mind-state of most contemporary black athletes is akin to a kind of slavery--and we are at an unfortunate intersection in history where apathy and approbation have created an unwillingness and inability to act in the interests of black social justice. 

Though I question Rhoden’s unwillingness to acknowledge contemporary athletes who heed his call, there is no doubt that Forty Million Dollar Slaves is an excellent read on the peculiar yet vital intersection between black athletic excellence and black social movement and provides a reference point for future scholars to continue this vital line of inquiry.  I look forward to future volumes by Rhoden, who is as excellent a writer as he is a historian, in which he focuses his analytical lens on contemporary trends in black athletic leadership--building on the excellent history he outlines in Forty Million Dollar Slaves and perhaps identifying more contemporary black athletes who have heeded his call.  Perhaps other scholars will begin where he leaves off, theorizing contemporary black athletic leadership given the parameters Rhoden has identified.    

Notes

[1] See Richard Lapchick’s “Crime and Athletes: The New Racial Stereotypes of the 1990's.” Center for Sport in Society, 2002. Sport in Society. See also Scoop Jackson’s “1.3 Percent Doctrine.”

[2] Who is the only professional athlete listed among the Giving Back Fund’s “Giving Back 30” as the 8th largest public donor to charitable causes in 2006 (at 4,282,000). 

[3] See Zirin’s column “In Defense of Etan Thomas” on Edge of Sports.

[4] See Rhoden’s “Power Play” in Crisis, Nov/Dec 2006.

[5] See the Washington Post’s Tom Knott’s article “Injustice? Look at your contract, Etan.”  Washington Times.

William Broussard is an Associate Director of Athletics and Assistant Professor of Journalism and Public Relations at Northwestern State University, Louisiana who has published on the intersections of sport and culture, college athletics administration, and community literacy

posted 2 November 2007

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.WashingtonPost

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Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid

By  Frank B. Wilderson, III

Wilderson, a professor, writer and filmmaker from the Midwest, presents a gripping account of his role in the downfall of South African apartheid as one of only two black Americans in the African National Congress (ANC). After marrying a South African law student, Wilderson reluctantly returns with her to South Africa in the early 1990s, where he teaches Johannesburg and Soweto students, and soon joins the military wing of the ANC. Wilderson's stinging portrait of Nelson Mandela as a petulant elder eager to accommodate his white countrymen will jolt readers who've accepted the reverential treatment usually accorded him. After the assassination of Mandela's rival, South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani, Mandela's regime deems Wilderson's public questions a threat to national security; soon, having lost his stomach for the cause, he returns to America. Wilderson has a distinct, powerful voice and a strong story that shuffles between the indignities of Johannesburg life and his early years in Minneapolis, the precocious child of academics who barely tolerate his emerging political consciousness. Wilderson's observations about love within and across the color line and cultural divides are as provocative as his politics; despite some distracting digressions, this is a riveting memoir of apartheid's last days.Publishers Weekly

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The White Masters of the World

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Ancient African Nations

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