Boxing, Race & Obama (And David Remnick’s New Book)

In a recent conversation at the New York Public Library about David Remnick’s new book about Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates asked Remnick whether there was an analogy to be made between Remnick’s experience as an American Jew and Obama’s experience as an African American. On the contrary, Remnick insisted, pointing out that he acquired his cultural identity at the kitchen table, his family and community’s idiosyncrasies seeping in almost unnoticed. Obama, on the other hand, had to actively seek out his identity as a black man in America since he was raised by a white family in a state with a negligible black population.   Remnick’s book revisits the conversation about Obama’s racial identity – both self-imposed and perceived – and the role his racial identity plays in shaping the discussion about race in America.

Remnick has had some experience writing about iconic black American men and their redefinitions of “blackness” on their own terms.  In his seminal book on Ali, King of the World, Remnick deftly explores Ali’s transformation from Cassius Clay – the middle class young boxer from Louisville, with grand aspirations – into Muhammad Ali, the larger than life boxer on the world stage with even grander ideas about boxing, race and a keen understanding of his role in both, arguably as keen as Obama’s.  In King of the World, Remnick writes about Cassius Clay after his entry into the Nation of Islam: “…whether the press understood it or not, (Ali/Clay) had quietly forsaken the image of the unthreatening black fighter established by Joe Louis and then imitated by Jersey Joe Walcott and Floyd Patterson and dozens of others. Clay was declaring that he would not fit any stereotypes, he would not follow any set standard of behavior.  And while Liston had also declared his independence from convention (through sheer don’t –give-a-shit truculence), Clay’s message was political. He, and not Jimmy Cannon or the NAACP, would define his blackness, his religion, his history.”

There are few better prisms through which to observe race in America than boxing. Several books have grasped this notion especially well :   Unforgivable Blackness by Geoffrey C. Ward, about the first black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, and more recently, Sweet Thunder about Sugar Ray Robinson, by Wil Haygood.  And Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, perhaps most poignantly and famously, wrote about Sonny Liston as the kind of black man white America was only too willing, for too long, to ignore. Jones wrote this homage to Liston in reaction to other writers’ praise of Patterson, and their contrasting abhorrence of Liston. Norman Mailer and James Baldwin lauded Patterson’s gentle strength and fortitude and rejected Liston’s brutish, unrefined persona.  Jones, on the other hand, had a rather different appraisal of Sonny Liston and rejected what he saw as the passivity and preciousness of Patterson.  In an essay, originally published in 1964 and now part of a Jones collection titled Home, he writes of Liston:

(He was) “the big black Negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under for all the hurts white men, through their arbitrary order, have been able to inflict on the world…He is the underdeveloped, have-not (politically naïve), backward country, the subject people, finally here to collect his pound of flesh.”

While Jones eventually gravitated towards Ali, his riff on Liston tore open the positive perception and acceptance of the more mild-mannered Patterson and the attendant dialogue about race, which seemed due for reappraisal in an era where established identities and myths were exploded on a daily basis.

Both that defining era and today were strikingly present during Remnick’s and Coates’ conversation last week, as they similarly were during the last presidential race. Coates himself embodies the several tones present in every discussion of race, since his father was a Black Panther and came of age in that era, after serving in Vietnam.  Apparently Coates’ father even chided his son for drinking from the Obama Kool-aid (though Coates senior did eventually vote for him as well).   And the best example of the old guard’s relationship with Obama was summed up perfectly in Remnick’s anecdote about Bobby Rush’s imitation of Obama’s acquired “black” strut, openly mocking what Rush sees as the President’s inauthentic way of coming by being black.

Obama is, very much, the consummate politician, and has succeeded in remaining just opaque and vague enough to withstand scrutiny visited on less canny pols. Especially as compared with American history’s great black boxers, this makes it much more difficult to assess his racial identity, since it is hard to tell where the true man begins and the politician ends. Yet Remnick, who acknowledges Obama’s keen machinations in many other parts of his life, does not attribute any calculating tendency as part of Obama’s self-constructed racial identity, which is a bit surprising.  Everyone’s identity is a construction to varying degrees, so it seemed odd  that Remnick would go to great lengths to stress Obama’s authenticity as a black man, and also seems besides the point. Remnick should perhaps instead emphasize what he did so beautifully in his Ali book, and invoke Obama as a reflection of American perception of race today and what is possible racially and what is still not.

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One Response to “Boxing, Race & Obama (And David Remnick’s New Book)”

  1. Geoff Hurst Says:

    I disagree that American white society ignored Liston and the type of black man who symbolized. Liston was a criminal and threw a fight in front of the whole world (in Lewiston, ME if I’m not mistaken. He went down without a real pucnch and flickered his eyes around the ring until he was counted out. I bet there is a u-tube flick you can watch re same. He had a violent felony record and was incarcerated a few times. I loved the description of Liston as the big black man in th hallway, etc…. By the way…Patterson was often seen as “white” in many quarters back in the day.

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