Saturday, March 26, 2011

Barry Bonds and Black Manhood

One well-known theme of the African-American quest for civil rights and justice is manhood. In Toni Morrison's Beloved, for instance, one white slaveowner likes to flatter his own sense of mastery by referring to his slaves as men, a practice that draws disapproval from his peers. Continuing into the era of neo-slavery commonly known as Jim Crow, black men were still routinely referred to as "boys," and the lynchings of black men often included ritual castration. It's common knowledge that black jazz musicians slyly fought back by casually referring to each other as "man," a form of address that, like so many originally black locutions, has made its way into the wider (and whiter) American vernacular. More recently, on Kanye West's 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the controversial hip-hop artist defiantly asserts his manhood in response to his critics:

... the same people that tried to blackball me
Forgot about two things: my black balls.

In popular culture, black masculinity is often contested in the arena of sports. Think of Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali—two powerful black male athletes whose assertions of self, sexuality, and political independence brought them into direct conflict with the U.S. government. Or think of Hank Aaron, whose pursuit of Babe Ruth's venerable homerun record brought him piles of racist hate mail.

All of this history sprang to mind for my yesterday when I read an article in the New York Times about the ongoing Barry Bonds trial. Bonds, who long since passed up both Ruth and Aaron as the career leader in homeruns, is on trial for perjury, accused of lying to a grand jury in 2003 about whether or not he ever used steroids.

I don't listen to a lot of sports talk radio or talk much about sports myself, but even from my rather distant perspective, I'm aware that there are a lot of white people in America who revile Bonds in much the same way that many whites in the past reviled Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali. I also get the sense that many of them are licking their chops at the prospect of Bonds' getting cut down to size in this trial.

There's something unseemly about it—this white desire to see a black man punished for getting too big, literally—that puts me in mind of a fatalistic comment made by the poor black sharecropper Trueblood in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: "no matter how biggity a nigguh gits, the white folks can always cut him down."

Kanye's lyrics notwithstanding, the people who are going after this black ballplayer have not forgotten about his black balls, whose size may soon become a piece of forensic evidence in the trial, according to the Times article:

Jeffrey Nedrow, an assistant United States attorney, asked (Larry) Bowers, the chief science director of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, how steroid use could affect a man’s testicles.

“It’s been well documented that you could have testicular atrophy,” Bowers said, before putting it simply. “They will shrink” ...

While listening to that testimony, some jurors knitted their brows or even giggled. When they return to court Monday, though, they will learn the relevance of that information.

Kimberly Bell, Bonds’s girlfriend from 1994 to 2003, is expected to testify that she noticed a marked decrease in the size of Bonds’s testicles while they were dating.

This is surely one of the more absurd turns in recent American jurisprudence. At the same time, it's hard not to see it as merely the latest variation on the well-rehearsed theme of America's uncomfortable relationship with black manhood.


Al Muntges said...

"I'm aware that there are a lot of white people in America who revile Bonds in much the same way that many whites in the past reviled Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali."

I wonder whether you'd indulge a regular reader and point to what made you aware of that white revilement, e.g.s, article, editorial, etc.

Jeff Osburg said...

While the seriousness of Bonds’ offense (lying to a grand jury) is in no way comparable to OJ’s crime, I have observed that among my friends (black and white) that their alignment with regard to how they want the trial to come out is exactly the same as was their alignment for a desired outcome in the OJ trial. I believe that you are onto the reason for this alignment and that there is an important truth to your notion that black manhood is still under attack, albeit in a more insidious way than in the time of slavery and subsequently Jim Crow.

In the Bonds case, whether he lied or not seems so much the smaller issue than does your assertion about what is at the heart of much of white America’s disdain for Bonds. On the other hand, OJ’s murdering two people was, of course, worthy of prosecution. But, nearly all of my black friends (and one white friend who, had he lived in 1840, would have been an abolitionist)--even though they admitted they thought he did it--saw OJ’s prosecution as persecution. Although they did not exactly say so, I now believe that their siding with OJ was an almost instinctive defense of the ongoing insidious attack on black manhood. So intense was their instinct to defend black manhood that they gave less regard to the murder of two people (whom they did not know) than to defending black manhood. Furthermore, I think white men’s side choice in the Bond’s case is an unwitting joining in on the attack. I will not say the same for white men’s choice of side in the OJ case but, thanks to your blog, I now think I better understand the pro-OJ side.

I am anxious to see how we onlookers align ourselves if and when the Roger Clemons trial takes place.

framiko said...

@Al, thanks for being a regular reader. My awareness of widespread white antipathy for Bonds is primarily an impression—something I've picked up from the comments and attitudes of friends and acquaintances over the last ten or more years. Like I said, I'm not a big follower of sports, but when I see a white Facebook friend posting an article about the Bonds case and stating that Bonds "has finally admitted to using steroids" (when actually the article does not say that), I detect a note of triumph and a desire to see Bonds brought low that make me realize that this guy inspires deep dislike. It's no longer socially acceptable for people to overtly frame that dislike in racial terms, so articles like this one work strenuously to deny that there's any racial element to anyone's dislike of Bonds, but my own sense of things tells me otherwise.

@Jeff, that's a very interesting comparison. Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful comment.

Steve said...

If I strenuously dislike Barry Bonds—and I do—why is it that if I frame that dislike in non-racial terms (he's an egotistical jerk; his steroid use was driven by ego and a chip on his shoulder about "white players"—though there was also Sammy Sosa—that seems to me also insidious) I am assumed to be hiding my real racial dislike of Bonds and his stature because I'm smart enough not to frame it that way?

I'm sure that for some people, race plays an ugly part in their response to Bonds. I think though that for many more, Bonds' race is incidental. I can't stand Roger Clemens for many of the same reasons: huge ego, willing to make a deal with the devil to gain sports immortality (i.e. Hall of Fame, records, World Series). Each year he came back with the Astros later and later in the season, with fewer and fewer team commitments (no travel, no show up at the park other than on days he pitched) made me hate him and his self-interested quest more.

Maybe what people—me anyway—want to see is the the outsized ego, the cartoonish super-hero home run hitter, cut back to size. That's what happened to Jose Canseco (ripped by just about everyone, media included, for being an egotistical jerk) and Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, all to different degrees.

Sports and fandom depend in part on defining an Other against which to set yourself. What you see as people's racial Othering of Bonds (I think that's what you see?) I think might have something more to do with the way that we admire the heroes on our side and revile the villains on the other when we're dealing with sports, especially team sports. Bonds is easy to revile—not because he's black, but because he is a high profile, very talented, very egotistical jerk who seems to care only about Barry Bonds. If I were a Giants fan, though, I might feel all that but forgive because he was not Other but source of hometown heroics. And this isn't boxing, where it's Jack Johnson fighting some Great White Hope in a battle of the races; Bonds played baseball with and against other blacks, whites, Latinos, Venezuelans, etc. etc.—so I'm not sure I buy that comparison either.

And though I find the article you cited mostly compelling (I believe the work it's doing), I do detect a little of the old good / bad Negro dichotomy (smiling Griffey, round Gwynn)—and maybe there's a little of that in the way that Bonds seems so angry and, in recent testimony, violent. But I don't think that race is the primary reason that most of the people who revile him do.

framiko said...

@Steve, thanks for the comment. I think the parallels between white revilement of Johnson and Ali and white revilement of Bonds are valid because the qualities you cited for reviling Bonds—his being a high profile, very talented, very egotistical jerk who seems to care only about himself—could also have been applied, and no doubt were applied, to Johnson and Ali. Many white athletes could also be described as having those qualities, but they don’t seem to have been reviled as widely or as intensely as Johnson, Ali, and Bonds.

I offer this judgment as my own humble opinion. I think each individual Bonds hater must examine his own conscience, as you do above, to determine what role race plays in that distaste. Given the history involved, it does seem to me that the burden of proof is on white people.

Have you read Ben McGrath’s recent New Yorker piece about Bonds and the steroids investigation? I thought it was very interesting—and interesting especially in its ambiguities.

Steve said...

I think the guys I named—especially Canseco—have been as widely and intensely reviled. But Canseco doesn't have the stature of Bonds (or Ali or Johnson)—his talent and accomplishments are nowhere near Bonds's.

My sense is that Ty Cobb in his day was as widely reviled and intensely hated, including by other ballplayers. History has certainly granted him his skill and accomplishments, though he is at the other end of baseball fan hero-dom from Babe Ruth because he was also an egotistical, cruel jerk. You could look up John Rockers for a more recent, B-list example who isn't in remotely the same talent and therefore enduring media / public spotlight as Bonds.

Pete Rose was and I think is still fairly widely viewed as a jerk too, and that's outside his dismissal from baseball with his own scandal.

The Tiger Woods scandal is interesting to think about here too, I think—the details are certainly sordid, and I think all of the women were white. Seems like there would have been a lot of easy white revilement there. I think Woods certainly fits the highly talented / high profile / egotistical jerk (in this scandal) description here.

I'm looking forward to reading the New Yorker profile—I don't know if the "ambiguities" you're referring to are in regards to Bonds's having used steroids or not.

Are you saying that Bonds is a victim of white racism? And do you have in mind some normative "white" response to Bonds? (Though these sound kind of Law and Order cross-examination-y, I'm really asking.) And finally, let's say Bonds is analagous to Ali—what will enlightened people 50 years from now refer to as his (Bonds's) redeeming qualities, his dignity amidst the storm of white racism and its inability to accept such powerful black manhood? What moments will they point to, what ethos, what insights? Or, are you less interested in the Bonds end of this transaction than you are in how whites perceive him? Can you really separate the two?

framiko said...

Good questions, Steve. To answer them all fully would require me to write an essay worthy of Gerald Early, and I’m afraid I don’t have the chops—or the knowledge of baseball or American cultural history—to do that.

But: as for the ambiguities in the Ben McGrath article, I thought they were not about Bonds’ use of steroids (McGrath says that it’s virtually a certainty that he did use steroids), but more about what that steroid use meant. He points out that many of the pitchers Bonds hit all those homeruns off of were also using steroids, and that Bonds was already a Stan Musial-level player before he started using them, but that no one really paid him that much attention. He talks about Bonds as the greatest player of all time, and compares him to someone who has figured out a way to outsmart a video game (remember in Double Dribble how there was a spot from which you could always hit a three-pointer?). McGrath suggests, I think, that baseball fans share responsibility for the steroids era—that there’s a kind of symbiotic relationship between players and fans. He calls into question the amount of time and money spent on the investigation, and ends with the story of a black law enforcement officer who had two strokes and came to see them as a divine sign telling him to quit his work on the steroid investigation. The article ends with a scene of the man using steroids to ease his own pains from the strokes.

Lisa had a somewhat different reaction to the article. She thought it was mostly about how Bonds was a jerk. So I’ll be interested to hear your take.

As for Bonds himself, maybe 50 years from now he will be remembered as a hero for his excellence and unparalleled accomplishments on the field, and seen as the most prominent black target of a decades-long national anti-drug craze that disproportionately targeted, prosecuted, and jailed black men. Bonds’ less savory qualities, like those of Johnson and Ali, will be acknowledged, but his intensity as a player and his defiance in the face of white hatred will be highlighted and also linked with his predecessors’.