Planet Rock

by December 11, 2013
gary payton

SLAM: I do. You hesitated there before saying “blackness”—were you looking for another word to use?

DS: Well that’s an excellent question. Even in my discussion, I was trapped in my own white guilt. “How much black body language,” can one say that? Because that’s supposed to be essentialism, in which people would say there’s no such thing as blackness or whiteness. But I think there is. Or at least in the cultural map there is understood to be those things. Even as you and I are talking about it, here comes race in how I’m deciding what words to use. There it is, right there. There are so many moments with Obama that are so loaded. During the campaign, I was just fascinated by it. And it’s so rich for him — he had a white mother and black father, obviously, and I think he’s honestly somewhat confused by it.

SLAM: Does Obama ever address that?

DS: Obama’s always talking about going full Bulworth, which means he would actually say what’s really going on. I would just give anything for that, in which he would say: Here’s what the right is doing, here’s what the left is doing, here’s what I’m doing. Basically, Obama in public is always pretending to be conducting a civil discourse, because he’s so invested in being the last civil black man: He pretends not to be angry, to be beyond that. Which is total bullshit. He’s furious, as well he should be. Which is not to say I’m a huge Obama fan; I think he’s remarkably timid and I’m far to the left of Obama. I just think he’s a fascinatingly cautious person, whose whole investment is: I’ll bring together Kansas and Kenya, I’ll bring together white and black, I’ll bring together my mom and dad, I’ll bring together Hawaii and New York City. I’m not saying anything new, but his whole life, at Harvard Law School and everywhere else has been: I’ll bring together the left and right. I’m just really interested in trying to conduct, as well as I can, a discussion in which the enemy is righteousness and self-righteousness. I try to be honest at ground level. There’s a wonderful line of Graham Greene’s: “When we are not sure, we are alive.” And he’s basically saying, when you’re confused, that’s human life, and when you’re not confused, you’re a robot. And I guess for me, as you can probably tell, I hate certainty. And basically, part of it is me, part of it is the art I like, part of it I think is the family I grew up in, which I think was a little too certain about lefty political things and didn’t acknowledge its own confusion, but I’m really invested in doubt. I love doubt. That’s the art I like: from Blaise Pascal to Simon Gray.

SLAM: Why do you think sports engender that sort of attitude in fans?

DS: Obviously there are parts of Black Planet that touch on it a little bit. This one guy in the Washington Post wrote a review of the book in which he said on the basis of this book my wife should divorce me. Then a few days later the same column had to print that the book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. I wanted to use myself as a template for a kind of white, middle-aged, middle-class sports-fantasy life, and so I pushed as many awkward-making buttons as possible. Why is sports passion such a big deal? These people whom we watch on the screen are about that high, and we pretend that we know Marshawn Lynch or Richard Sherman or Russell Wilson. It’s a big connection right now between myself and my daughter. She goes to school on the east coast, and we text about it. Basically, men in contemporary Western industrialized democracies are no longer warriors. We’re just animals, and 10 million years ago, we were hunting brontosauri, and that’s still deeply within us, hugely so. But the average American male is just, say, an accountant. How are you expressing your warrior self? I think there’s a huge part of our reptile brain that is living unbelievably vicariously through these warrior athletes.

SLAM: Are you still much of a sports fan?

DS: All I do is watch Seahawks games with my wife and we text with my daughter during the game. And if I’m doing errands I listen to sports talk. What’s my point in all this? I think the key facets of fandom are territoriality (where we live is holy), religion (awe before the miracle of physical feats, the holy space of the body), and then there’s clearly a kind of sexuality, where I think for middle-aged men, or older men or for that matter much younger men, here are these guys who are unbelievably rich, unbelievably famous and often have incredibly, beautifully toned bodies, and very few people in the world have such beautiful bodies. These guys, they do unbelievable things. Basketball players, almost without fail, have gorgeous bodies; they just do. They’re 6-8, 230 pounds or whatever—sculpted Greek gods. And I think, what is going on there, what is it? It’s that American virus, that is, slavery is the original American sin. I don’t think it’s ever gone away, it never will go away, and I think that white people are endlessly processing that guilt, this confusion about black bodies. And I think in watching the NBA, white fans are both celebrating African-American bodies and living vicariously through African-American bodies, and also on some level, they hate their own bodies. Because, whoa, if I’m only admiring Gary Payton, what element of self-loathing is there in this ceaseless admiration? If all you’re doing is gazing up at the Greek god of Shawn Kemp, then that turns into a kind of emptying of self, doesn’t it, if you’re just some schlumpy guy with a beer gut? I think what happens then is, you’ve got to then say, Wait a minute, I have to reclaim some virility in this. OK, I’ll mock Shawn Kemp’s mixed metaphors. I’ll mock Gary Payton’s trainwreck sentences. And thereby I’ll reclaim my dignity.

The African-American Seattle sportswriter and sports-talk radio host Jerry Brewer plays with race really interestingly, especially on the radio. He was talking about Percy Harvin, and Jerry Brewer said, “I nominate him for a member of the BWVSV.” People said, “what’s that?” And he goes, “brothers with very soft voices.” That was interesting to me, and no one on the air with him really knew where to take it. Jerry Brewer is at least a generation younger than I am, he grew up in the South, and the dynamic between him and Elise Woodward on KJR interests me. She is probably approximately the same age as Brewer, and she is more comfortable with hip-hop than other hosts at KJR are; she played basketball at the UW, etc. She’s got a little bit of street cred, and she can kind of hang with Jerry. A black man could say, “BWVSV.” If Bob Condotta said that, I don’t think he’d be fired, but, I’m not sure he could say that, or you or I could say that.

Sometimes people ask me how come I see race everywhere? I remember when Black Planet came out, someone from some magazine said, “I really like the book, but don’t you think that you’re overscrutinizing these moments?” And I kind of feel like, it doesn’t really matter if I’m right or wrong everywhere; it’s more that race makes all of us crazy. That’s the point. It’s not necessarily that you agree with every reading I give, although I stand by every reading and I actually think I’m right. But let’s say I read 57 racial moments and you disagree with 12 of them; race makes us really crazy in this country. I don’t know who it makes crazier. Sometimes black people think race makes white people even crazier than it makes black people, but it also definitely makes black people crazy in the sense that, you know, literally that you’re a minority and so you’re endlessly calculating how to assimilate in the culture. And on the other hand, black culture is endlessly worshipped in this country as the lingua franca: it’s our music, our youth culture, the rhetoric of coolness, to a certain degree the grammar of celebrity. I’m this middle-class, late-middle-aged professor-writer, she’s going to a private arts school in New England, but our texting sometimes falls into, especially if we’re talking about football, “Whaddup dawg” kind of language. It’s so weird. This is the language of vitality in this culture. It’s fascinating. And I’m the idiot who tries to talk about it.


What’s the Seahawks fullback’s name, Christine Michael? It’s spelled Christine. I think, I know that if it were a white player, announcers would tease him a little bit, but because it’s basically a black family that may or may not be the best spellers in history; were they calling him Christine on purpose? I don’t think so, but let’s just blink and call him Christian because that’s what it was meant as. To me, the poetic explanation is that, basically, post-slavery, black people finally got to name themselves, that for generations if not centuries you were called Bill Smith because your owner’s name was Smith. And so for a very, very, very long time, your name was the same name as your owner. All this playful use of names is a revenge on having to be named by your owners. OK, that’s part of it; part of it is there are some black families that may not be hugely educated and so the names are rather catch-as-catch-can spelling. And so on one hand its just kind of a an arbitrary spelling, but on the other hand it’s kind of, Hey man, letters are there to be played with. Hip-hop, obviously, endlessly takes form and reformats them in a new key. Black language/black expression is often a celebration built atop a graveyard, to put it bluntly. What’s interesting to me is to see the celebration and to feel the graveyard. A lot of people think I oversee the graveyard, but I’ve yet to have a black person tell me that I’m overseeing the graveyard.