One well-known theme in the narrative of African-American history is manhood. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for instance, one white slave owner 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 defiance of mainstream white sensibilities eventually brought them into direct conflict with the U.S. government. Johnson’s flamboyant style and interracial relationships led to his conviction on trumped-up charges that he violated the Mann Act, and Ali’s refusal on religious grounds to enlist in the military got him barred from boxing for a time and eventually led him to the Supreme Court.
This history springs to mind when I consider the ongoing U. S. district court trial of Barry Bonds. Bonds, whom some have called the greatest baseball player of all time, is accused of lying to a grand jury in 2003 about whether or not he ever used steroids.
Kanye’s lyrics notwithstanding, the people who are going after this black ballplayer have not forgotten about his black balls, whose size became a piece of forensic evidence in the trial recently, when Bonds’s former girlfriend testified that his testicles had shrunk during the course of their relationship—evidence of steroid use, according to the prosecution’s expert witnesses.
I get the sense 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 eager to see Bonds humiliated in this trial.
Like Johnson and Ali, Bonds is arguably the greatest athlete of his era in his chosen sport—perhaps the greatest ever. Like Johnson and Ali, he has an unbowed, haughty quality about him. And, as with Johnson and Ali, one can find plenty of reasons to consider Bonds an egotistical jerk.
In America, though, the undeniable racism of our national past (and pastime) and racism’s more subtle endurance in our national present cast whites’ judgment of athletes like Bonds in a foggy light. For that reason, I’m uneasy about this white desire to see a black man punished for getting too big, literally.
Though Bonds may be the one on trial, given the history involved it seems to me that a different burden of proof is on white people who want to see Bonds brought low. I think each individual Bonds hater must examine his own conscience to determine what role Bonds’s race plays in that distaste.
It’s impossible to know how history will ultimately remember Barry Bonds, but it does seem safe to say that he will be remembered, given the many prominent records he holds. Bonds’ historical significance, though, like that of Johnson and Ali, will depend a great deal upon how one understands the period in which we’re living.
The Ken Burns documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, portrays Johnson as “a pure individual,” in Stanley Crouch’s words, a black man who insisted upon being free even while living during an era that was one of the low points of the African American experience, a time when the racist film Birth of a Nation was privately screened at the White House, where Woodrow Wilson gave it a rave review.
Similarly, in an interview for Henry Hampton’s documentary Eyes on the Prize, Harry Belafonte casts the meaning of Ali’s life in the context of Ali’s different historical moment, the Civil Rights and Black Power eras: “He was the best example. He was the Negro kid who came up in the time of the black movement…. He took on all of the characteristics and was the embodiment of the thrust of the movement…. Out of the womb of oppression he was our phoenix, he was the spirit of all our young. He was our manhood.”
What about our era? As time passes and we look back, the fog sometimes clears and allows us to see our past selves in a sharper light. White Americans may come to realize that the times we’re living in are not as racially enlightened as some think they are, and that we’re not living in a post-racial era.
And what about Barry Bonds? Maybe fifty years from now Bonds, remembered for his excellence and unparalleled accomplishments on the field, will be viewed as the most prominent African American male to be caught up in a decades-long national anti-drug craze that disproportionately prosecuted and incarcerated black men. Today most white press reports focus on Bonds’ less attractive qualities, but maybe in the distant future these will seem less important than his athletic tenacity and his defiance in the face of white hatred.
[Adapted from a post originally published on Corresponding Fractions]