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 They were off the cuff comments done without context or any historical reference points, but their rooted meaning goes deep.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.
Despite losing the hard fought 15 round battle to Frazier, Ali’s influence spread and in the ’70s as black athletes became more and more visible to mainstream America, the idea of good and bad negroes continued to influence sports. A perfect example of this are the tales of Duane Thomas and OJ Simpson. For two seasons 1970-71 and 1971-72 Duane Thomas was quite possibly the best running back in professional football. So good in fact that he led the Dallas Cowboys to their first ever Super Bowl title in the 1971-72 season.
That same season he took a vow of silence towards the media and because of his silence was dubbed “The Sphinx”. He only broke that vow in the post game interview of Super Bowl VI in which he starred. During the interview, Thomas exhibited a restrained yet non-conformist attitude that unfortunately was taken as sullen and angry. The following passage from the Time Magazine article which covered the post game interview speaks volumes about how Thomas was perceived:
“It remained for CBS-TV Commentator Tom Brookshier to provide some comic relief. While conducting the ritual post-game interviews in the jubilant Cowboys’ locker room, he suddenly found himself staring into the baleful eyes of Duane Thomas.”
Looking at the video of this interview, it’s hard to see anything baleful in Thomas’ eyes. Yet since America was still experiencing extraordinary racial upheaval, a black man who chose to express himself on his own terms was often mis-characterized as threatening—even if that form of expression was silence. Simply put, Thomas made many white men associated with the NFL uncomfortable. This lack of comfort was definitively demonstrated when Thomas was reportedly voted as the Super Bowl’s Most Valuable Player by an overwhelming margin.
However, Larry Klein, editor of Sport, which presented the award, didn’t know how Thomas would act at a banquet in New York. With this in mind, Klein announced Roger Staubach as the winner. For all intents and purposes, that was the last we would hear from Thomas. Before the next season began, despite having been arguably the Cowboys best player, he was traded off of the team for smoking marijuana and essentially blackballed by the league.
Thomas’ marginalization coincided with the promotion of OJ Simpson. Simpson played the same running back position as Thomas and was just as gifted a player. Unlike Thomas, Simpson was personable with a ready smile that (at the time) made white football and business executives comfortable. In a sense he was the ultimate good negro, a subconscious antidote to the Ali’s and Thomas’ of the world and because of this, the corporate world was opened to Simpson in a way never before seen for a black athlete.
Where bad negro labels of Ali and Thomas were concerned, they were based on the rebellious political and personal stands each man took, respectively. Rose and Hopkins clearly see themselves as “bad negroes” cut from the same cloth as an Ali or a Thomas, but to my knowledge neither have taken political or personal stands. Neither man has ever said something about the American political landscape as Ali did, and neither man has eschewed the media in the way that Thomas did.
Nonetheless, both men took it upon themselves to tie the image of the bad negro exclusively to socioeconomic status–if you’re “from the hood” you’re considered a bad negro (and that’s good), if you’re from “the burbs”, you’re considered a good negro (and thus, not such a good athlete). Nothing could be more wrong or ironic. In fact in the original templates of Ali/Frazier and Thomas/Simpson the two bad negros — Ali and Thomas — came from more stable financial backgrounds than either Frazier or Simpson, in a sense both men’s upbringings were closer to Hill’s and McNabb’s, while Frazier and Simpson’s were closer to Rose and Hopkins. This is the fallacy of the “Uncle Tom” or “not black enough” assertions of Rose and Hopkins–that the more “hood” you are, the more “black” you are.
Because black people in America today have more mobility than in Ali’s, Frazier’s, Thomas’ and Simpson’s heydays, the house slave / field slave construct seems anachronistic to some; but in point of fact the idea that some black people make some white people uncomfortable while others don’t, still exists. This is part of Rose’s and Hopkins’ point, but unfortunately they tied it to a demographic rather than a psychographic. Apparently in both men’s minds, blackness is more a class construct and less a cultural one.
On one level Hopkins and Rose are not to be blamed for the sentiment behind their statements. They were speaking to a general truth about blacks in America in which even Senator Harry Reid has alluded (e.g., “negro dialect”). In short: as American society has moved forward, there have been differentiations made between “types” of black people. This differentiation plays itself out not just in how white people react to black people, but how black people react to one another, as well.