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40 Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Last week, Race Scholars at Rice held our bi-annual “Dialogue Partners” event, where we discussed William C. Rhoden’s 2006 book 40 Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete.  This session of Dialogue Partners was unique, as we for the first time had an outside expert join in our discussion.  Bomani Jones, a writer and media personality who frequently addresses issues of race and culture in the sporting world, was kind enough to video chat with the group as we addressed Rhoden’s argument and discussed the issues raised in the book.

In the book, Rhoden argues that from the time sports were introduced to plantations in the antebellum South through the present, black athletes have been exploited and denied a place within the power structure of American athletics.  Whenever black athletes are perceived to have gained too much power or to pose a threat to white cultural values, the rules are changed to detriment of blacks.  In essence, the rules of modern athletics are rigged against black athletes to ensure that they are barred from positions of power.

Much of our discussion focused on the collegiate athletics system, and how it functions to the detriment of black athletes.  One participant asked Bomani if he could discuss how college athletics reflects the “plantation” model that Rhoden describes. Bomani argued that in addition to not being paid for their efforts, the playing field remains the only aspect of college athletics that have been integrated. Coaches, administrators, the press, and the fans, all remain largely dominated by whites.

One of the most interesting aspects of the conversation for me, was the idea that perhaps Rhoden adhered to strictly to a black-white binary.  Major League Baseball, for instance, utilizes a “conveyor belt” system to cheaply cultivate Latin American talent in a manner largely similar to the way the NFL and NBA lure black players from the inner city, with a similar disregard for the well being of athletes (see, for example, the death of Washington Nationals’ prospect Yewri Guillén).

An aspect of Rhoden’s book that I thought didn’t really get enough attention during our discussion (not that the discussion of athlete exploitation couldn’t have lasted far longer by itself) is the unwillingness of prominent black athletes to speak out about racism and other social issues.  While Rhoden may be kinder to historical actors than he is to present-day athletes, I agree with Rhoden that it seems to be a problem that black athletes don’t use their prominent public roles to take stronger stances on issues of social justice.

Nevertheless, the conversation was extremely enlightening for both sports fans and non-sports fans, and was, at least to me, one of the most interesting and successful Dialogue Partners to date. You can find the full video of our discussion on YouTube here:

John Garrison Marks
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History
Areas of Study:  U.S. South, Latin America, 19th Century United States

With the Graciousness that We Pledged

Monday, February 6th, 2012

On Wednesday afternoon, February 1st, I watched Mignon R. Moore walk toward me in the hotel lobby where I waited to escort her to her first activity at Rice University for Race Scholars Program. From that moment forward until the moment I watched her leave by car service to return to Los Angeles, I was persistently grabbed and moved by her constant “graciousness.” Prof. Moore is a sociologist at UCLA. She was brought to Rice University by Race Scholars, a program of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and directed by Prof. Jenifer Bratter of the Sociology Department. Her newly published 2011 book, Invisible Families: Gay Identities, Relationships, and Motherhood among Black Women, was also a pivotal vehicle that generated interest across many faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, Rice staff, and the black lesbian community in Houston. Indeed Prof. Moore’s book was a catalyst to creating dialogue wherever she went, but her gracious presence and ambitious attitude toward her work grabbed hold in a stronger way of anyone listening to her. This I witnessed and appreciated.

The Center for Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies was more than a co-sponsor. The CWGS faculty and staff were our “co-partners” in arranging her visit. Among all the interventions that Dr. Brian Riedel, Assistant Director of CWGS, poured into the planning of this event, his arrangement of Prof. Moore’s interview by Houston’s popular LGBT magazine,OutSmart, is worth mentioning. Not only did OutSmart make her center stage through a dynamic interview for the Houston community to read, but the published interview also served as the deciding factor for some of the local audience to attend the Wednesday public lecture. All of these special welcoming approaches and interventions were much appreciated by Prof. Moore. She kept reminding us, “You all are treating me so nice!” It was certainly evident that she appreciated our appreciation of her work.

My experience in assisting Prof. Bratter in bringing Prof. Moore to Rice to discuss her work was layered and enriched with every activity and interaction. Knowing first hand that there are no academic books in the social sciences that focus upon black gay women to draw upon for my research as a graduate student in anthropology, it was important to witness the affirmation and legitimacy that Prof. Moore and her work received by Rice and by the black gay community in Houston. Prof. Moore began her activities by visiting Prof. Cymene Howe’s anthropology class, “Cultures of Sexuality,” where many students engaged her with enough questions to carry us for 45 minutes! Then, the public lecture at 6pm in Herring Hall 100, received over 70 attendees. However, this number of 70, was special because of the diversity represented including faculty and students (Rice and University of Houston), black gay women and men from Houston, academics and non-academics, and even a black mother with her young son. The very last question from a black gay women in the audience, who’s social networks I am familiar with, asked the most important question of the night, “how can we use your work to encourage more development of resources in Houston to help black gay women to even feel entitled to have a family?” Indeed, Prof. Moore handled, with much grace and enthusiasm, questions that ranged from academic to praxis issues.

The night moved on with dinner at Benjy’s in Rice Village, where a table of nine sparked non-stop conversations and giggles with faculty from English (Prof. Colleen Lamos), Sociology (Prof. Sergio Chavez, Prof. Jenifer Bratter, and Prof. Holly Heard), CWGS post-doc, Jennifer Tyburczy, and Anthropologist Janis Hutchinson from the University of Houston. However, her visit could not had ended sweeter the next day where I might have fallen short in only buying two pizza pies for Race Scholar’s Professionalization Luncheon with Prof. Moore. A whopping 15 or more students and post-docs/residents showed up to engage Prof. Moore discussion on how to turn your dissertation into a book. There was even one student who had a list of questions on her laptop from which she asked several. There were students in their third year and even seventh with lot of interests in this topic. Their questions were addressed with charm and focus from Prof. Moore’s own perspective and publishing experience. For sure I experienced no moment in which Prof. Moore did not make heads nod with enlightenment as well as spark giggles to her humor.

I learned a lot as a result of this experience. I learned a lot about programming, arranging public talks for visiting scholars, working with co-sponsors both on campus and off campus, and outreach. I continue to develop an amazing relationship professionally and personally with Prof. Jenifer Bratter to develop and forge Race Scholars’ mission on campus. It is important to us to have programming at Rice that center’s race as a research topic of discussion and highlights the scholars and students who promote race in their work. It is equally important that dialogue about race is brought in conversation with other themes such as gender, sexuality, class, globalization, and more. Rice should keep their eyes upon this new program because it promised to become instrumental in enriching intellectual community on our campus and beyond. For example, Prof. Moore’s book will be discussed within a public reading group at the Houston Public Library on Saturday, February 11th. I am very proud of these multiple efforts on issues of race.

Lastly, I must admit that it was an honor to escort Prof. Moore during her visit. We share some special college days by pledging the same chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.. I pledged Lambda chapter during the Fall of 1989 in New York and Mignon followed on Lambda’s next line Spring 1991. Though our paths have crossed minimally since, I was pleased to honor her with the sisterly love that my line is still webbed by. I wish her all the best as her career continues to make contributions to black gay women’s lives and more. Then again, I expect nothing less since AKA’s are the gracious ladies.

If you are interested, especially graduate students, in working with Prof. Jenifer Bratter on Race Scholars’ programming, please contact her at Jenifer.L.Bratter@rice.edu.

Nessette Falu
Ph.D. Student
Anthropology Department
Race Scholars Graduate Student Fellow

Ann Morning: The Nature of Race

Monday, October 3rd, 2011