It’s weak to speak and blame somebody else, when you destroy yourself
— Chuck D
Forty years ago this past March, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier waged an epic battle for supremacy in the heavyweight division. Though the fight was arguably the greatest in boxing history, it’s lasting legacy is it’s utilization of the Malcolm X “house slave” / “field slave” maxim for the first time in professional sports as social commentary. Recently, Jalen Rose and Bernard Hopkins trampled all over that legacy by mis-using and misunderstanding this construct.
In Rose’s case it was his confession that as a 17-year-old, he thought black athletes that attended Duke University were privileged and that privilege made them Uncle Toms. While in Hopkins’ case, it was his statement that potential NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Donovan McNabb was not tough enough or black enough because of his suburban upbringing. In their statements, both men identified with the “field slave” construct and extended this identification to the field slave being synonymous with the “bad negro” in larger white American society. They were off the cuff comments done without context or any historical reference points, but their rooted meaning goes deep.
It seems as if some black athletes have lost their sense of history. To remedy this possible affliction, I suggest Bernard Hopkins, Jalen Rose and any other athlete that is confused about black male identity, spend a few hours at their local public library and read up on Muhammad Ali and Duane Thomas.
Before Ali-Frazier (they ultimately fought three times), the idea of good negro/bad negro or house slave/field slave in sports or performance fields was a one way communication controlled by the largely white media. Though the media didn’t use the labels popularized by Malcolm X, it did determine which black athlete/performers were “good negroes” and which were “bad negroes”. For example, when Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion in the early 20th century, his arrogance and his predilection for white women caused him to be portrayed as a bad negro—someone who had to be stopped.
Some 30 years later, when Joe Louis became the second black man to win the heavyweight crown, his low key, demeanor made those in the media comfortable with him, and he was promoted as an anti-Johnson black figure, and then later as an all-inclusive American hero. While Johnson’s reign gave birth to the “great white hope” representation, Louis’ reign gave birth to the “credit to his race” representation. With Johnson long gone and Louis as one of the dominant sports figures of the ‘30s and ‘40s, the “credit to his race” image carried the day, and was later built upon by Jackie Robinson, when he integrated major league baseball. For many years, Robinson along with Louis, were “good negroes” that made white Americans comfortable with the country’s pace of racial progress. Because of the sense of race pride they engendered, seldom, if ever, was there any commentary coming from the black community that was critical of what Robinson or Louis represented.
In fact, in 1949 with his “good negro” cred well established, Robinson was called into action by the US Government to discredit “bad negro” Paul Robeson’s anti-war stance during the Hearings of the House Un-American Acitivities Committee. This was the first time the “good negro” was publicly used to explicitly and completely vanquish the “bad negro”, but while Robinson was allowed to critique and condemn Robeson verbally, Robeson was not allowed “equal time” with Robinson, so there was no contest between the two men. In short Robeson, the presumed “bad negro” in this scenario, had no way to defend himself.
Muhammad Ali changed all that. By declaring his allegiance to Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, and the Nation of Islam one day after winning the heavyweight crown and then later refusing to participate in the Vietnam war, Ali became the patron saint of bad negroes all over America. With Ali as their example, athletes like Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos represented an uncompromising, outspoken athlete/performer that hadn’t unlike any before them.
By the time Ali-Frazier I was signed, the bad negroes in sports gained significant traction and reached their high point in the 1968 Olympics with the famous Smith-Carlos black power salute at the Olympic medal platform. It was in this context that the idea of the “Uncle Tom” athlete was born, and Joe Frazier was given the moniker by Ali.
From an accuracy standpoint, Ali had given black fighters like Floyd Paterson and Ernie Terrell the “Uncle Tom” label before Frazier, but neither man was any competition for Ali in the ring—and he vanquished them physically, much like Robinson had been allowed to vanquish Robeson verbally. Call it a payback. The mainstream media did not like it, but had to accept it. Frazier was a godsend—a ferocious fighter, who everybody knew would be a match for Ali in the ring. Ali recognized that this would be his toughest fight and used what he probably hoped would be damaging the “Uncle Tom” label on Frazier relentlessly. It was part social commentary and part trash talk.
In truth, Frazier was a proud black man and was in no way an Uncle Tom; however he was not outspoken, and in insisting on calling Ali, Clay, the moniker stuck. Like Rose and Hopkins 40 years later, it was an imprecise choice of words, but unlike Rose and Hopkins, the times enabled people to decipher Ali’s meaning. Ali made many white Americans uncomfortable. Frazier did not. In the American psyche he was the house slave to Ali’s field slave. To that notion, there was no debate.