TO BE A BLACK ATHLETE who takes up the political cudgels in her or his moment is to live, after a fashion, an entropic life. In Jankélévitch’s terms, it is to commit, unknowingly and yet assuredly, to conducting a political struggle. This does not mean that every generation of black athletes will be called upon to speak against racism. It means, rather, that every generation of black athletes—as a collectivity, as a singular figure—must live in expectation of such a demand. It is also to know that the more protracted the discontinuity, the more difficult and challenging it will be to establish, if only for a moment, a reconnection to what-was, and thereby to renew continuity. It is to know how onerous it will be to mark, if only barely, its own distinction. To interpose the black athlete between racist sociopolitical realities and the position of relative possibility—a place from which to articulate against, to speak for—allows it to draw on the previous continuity. It will, however, never quite seem as if every act of resistance, of speaking against, has not been created anew. Yet again. The peculiar science of black athletic entropy is such that the black athlete’s political resources always seem on the verge of depletion. Because even when the long discontinuity provides the chance for replenishment, the resources to hand never seem to rise above the level of what is absolutely necessary. And sometimes, by which one means “all too often,” there is less on hand than what is needed. This is how the art of making-do and the technique of digging deep is renewed.
Jankélévitch understands this political demand as relentless. The black athlete knows, as a matter of course, that the road ahead will always be marked by the repeated need for “an indefatigable starting-over.” To secure even the smallest gain, the black athlete must be inexhaustible in her political commitment. There can be, if not from one moment to the next, then certainly from epoch to the next, no respite, no letting up. (In the NBA, it can be argued that there was less expected from Michael Jordan and the Dream Team generation than has been the case for the likes of current superstars such as LeBron James, the inscrutable Kawhi Leonard, and the sweet-shooting Steph Curry).
However, what must not be lost sight of is that “indefatigability” is, before itself, a recognition of the capacity of the black athlete to “start over.” The reserves of energy, political commitment, sheer will, and the unending—if the term is understood episodically rather than literally—determination to return, Sisyphus-like, to the scene of the crime to take up the battle anew. To take up the cudgels again, the foreboding odds against the black athlete notwithstanding.
It is, as it were, to at once stand on the shoulders of Gibson, Ali, Carlos and Smith, and Arthur Ashe, and to know that sometimes all that is to be gained from such a historic invocation is the name itself, the memory of the name, and, as such, the name as a potential point of political convergence, and solace or hope, at best. It is also to accept that all the remaining energy—because, we can agree, no political movement has ever been, or will ever be, fueled by an inexhaustible supply of energy—must draw from the future as well as the past.
No wonder that Jameson declares revolution the work of the young.
Sometimes it is, literally, a matter of gathering what is to hand—the moment, a reserve of energy that is running low, a formidable adversary, an entirely unsympathetic racial climate—and struggling with those resources.
Even Sisyphus, for all his courage, allowed his shoulders to droop. Just now and then. In the hope, of course, that replenishment would emerge from one place or, if not that one, perhaps another.
It is to choose Sisyphus’s capacity—enforced, one acknowledges—for dogged return over respite. Even, that is, as we acknowledge Ella Baker’s own brand of dogged determination that is lodged in her clarion call for persistent struggle: “We who love freedom cannot rest.” Baker, who worked in the Civil Rights Movement for some five decades, all of it away from the spotlight, was her own brand of “indefatigability.”
However, the logic of entropy, as offered here, is based precisely in the need to know that “rest” is that political stillness—stillness, at-restness, not quiescence or quietude—which can be imposed from without, which imposes its own rules, which follows its own schedule. (That is to say nothing of the restorative qualities of “rest.” It is to know “rest” as the condition, spoken or unarticulated, that sustains “indefatigability.”)
It is not so much that entropy and “indefatigability” stand opposed to one another. It is rather that they are, if the contradiction can be understood as a matter of political timing, complementary.
Every moment, as we well know, is prone to exhaustion. Every moment, however, is also entirely capable of replenishing itself. If not in that exact moment, then certainly soon enough to summon up all that is needed—or, sometimes maybe just a little less or even a little more—in that conjuncture.
As Paul Simon phrases it in, appropriately, “Boy in the Bubble,” “It’s everybody jumpstart / Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.”1 Sometimes it’s the journeyman shooting guard, the guy who can makes threes but is not going to make the All-Star team, that gives you the “jumpstart.” He gives you just what you need. Doing that makes him the “hero.” You never know who the “pop charts” is going to “throw up.”
Sometimes the “hero” is just the solid professional with a racial conscience. Sometimes it’s just the guy who has had enough. The journeyman who says, simultaneously, “No más” and, in the spirit of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, “Sí, se puede.”
“Enough,” itself a tired cry, a cry wrought out of exhaustion, “I have had enough of this.” (Or, “We have had enough of this brutality.”) Sometime such a cry is sufficient to produce the courage demanded by the moment.
Sometimes George Hill is the form that generational responsibility assumes.
Being able to rely on this, that is what emanates most loudly from Cornel West’s plaintive, worn out by death, gratitude to his “brothers in the NBA.” It is always good to know that as a black person you can count on someone other than yourself. Too often black people are left out on their own, left to their own devices, made to rely on their historically depleted resources.
Arthur Ashe felt this acutely as he made his way from the segregated courts of his native Richmond, Virginia, to the manicured lawns of Wimbledon.
In his first lonely years in MLB, as we know from Roger Kahn’s magnificent love letter to the Brooklyn Dodgers, The Boys of Summer, and from the many biographies and histories on Jackie Robinson, as we know from his widow Rachel Robinson’s testimonies, Jackie Robinson’s singularity was something on the order of a crushing burden. We know this from Lewis Hamilton’s several public addresses on the issue before and during the 2020 Formula I (FI). The only black driver in FI, Hamilton called the 2020 season, which he has dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement, a “lonely journey,”2 a fact that he attributes only partly to the absence of crowds at the various FI circuits because of Covid-19. As he successfully chased a record-tying seventh championship (which tied him with Michael Schumacher) and as he streaked past Schumacher’s record of ninety-one Grand Prix wins (at the time of writing, Hamilton has won an unprecedented ninety-nine races), Hamilton was also in the forefront of compelling FI to speak to racial injustices and to diversify a sport that is, and has been until Hamilton’s emergence, overwhelmingly white. (Hamilton’s efforts have included getting drivers to take a knee before every Grand Prix. Most, if not all, of his fellow-drivers have done so, a testament to Hamilton’s standing among his peers.) The effect of such a “lonely journey” clearly weighs on Hamilton, even as he continues to dominate the sport like no other FI driver before him.
Like Hamilton, NASCAR’s Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. finds himself the racial outlier in a historically white sport, backed by an overwhelmingly white fan base (80 percent white, 37 percent of whom are southerners)3 who—until June 2020—seemed to wave the Confederate flag4 and other such racist paraphernalia with gusto, and without any self-reflection. (In fact, many threatened to boycott NASCAR once the organization took the decision to ban Old Glory.) It took Wallace’s declamation of racism, his decision to wear a shirt that read “I Can’t Breathe” (a critique of police brutality), backed by the “Black Lives Matter” decal he displayed on his car, to bring attention to the matter. (Wallace has, in his most difficult moments, found support from both inside and outside of NASCAR. Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, white, sent a message of encouragement via social media, as did the likes of LeBron James and Chelsea Clinton.)5 And, to effect action, once more it falls to the black athlete to initiate the discussion, to lead the movement, and to ensure that change, no matter how minimal or superficial, takes place.
Reformism is a lonely business.
Wallace’s success in highlighting NASCAR’s racism is especially noteworthy because, in 2015, a white man, Dylan Roof, walked into a Bible study meeting at the Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine black people who had welcomed him into their midst. Urged by some in its ranks, most notably, Dale Earnhardt Jr., a star in his own right and the son of the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr., to ban the Confederate flag at its meetings, NASCAR made a half-hearted attempt.6 This after the Confederate flag was taken down at the South Carolina State Capitol, but Old Glory remained part of NASCAR’s culture, its adherents declaring themselves loyal to their Southern heritage. Earnhardt Jr. was of a different opinion: “It belongs in the history books and that’s about it.”
Wallace and Hamilton are both the sons of racially mixed parentage. Wallace’s father is white and his mother is African American. Hamilton’s father is black (of Caribbean origin) and his mother is a white Englishwoman. Aside from their singular status within their motor sports, they do not have much in common. Hamilton, prior to the pandemic, enjoyed a jet set, cosmopolitan lifestyle. The Englishman hobnobs with movie stars—Hamilton dedicated his 2020 Belgian Grand Prix (GP) victory to Chadwick Boseman, who died that weekend. He pals around with fashion moguls (he took a day off to attend Karl Lagerfeld’s funeral). His ex-girlfriend is a pop star. Hollywood types, that’s where Hamilton is to be found. He dominates a sport that is increasingly international in its reach, with GPs in China, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Brazil, to say nothing of the European, Asian and rest of the North American circuit.
NASCAR, with its Southern (U.S.) roots (some of which can be traced to a bootlegging past), is a fiercely nationalist motor sport. No traipsing around the world, no race in Japan followed by one in Malaysia. No, one Sunday its Darlington in South Carolina and the next Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama followed by a race at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. Even Wallace’s very moniker, “Bubba” (often understood as a reference to a white southerner), would make him seem of a piece with NASCAR. Of which he isn’t, at least not completely. And much of this has to do with the motor sport in which he races. Unlike Hamilton, seven-time FI champion, Wallace is not the top performer in NASCAR. An ocean (in truth, oceans, given FI’s global reach) separates the two black racers.
They are linked, however, by being the only one in their sport.
It is for this reason that Hamilton’s sober reflections remind us, if reminding were needed, of the price that Serena Williams has had to pay for her outspokenness. Williams has won twenty-three Grand Slam titles—comprising the four major tournaments: the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens, as well as Wimbledon. Only the Australian Margaret Court, with twenty-four, has won more. Like Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, and Steffi Graff before her, Williams—more commonly referred to simply as “Serena”—has redefined the game. With her power (her serve and her ground strokes are formidable), her strength, her speed and agility, combined with a fierce determination, Serena has dominated women’s tennis for much of the last two decades. If King gained fame not only for her game but also for advocacy for women’s tennis, and Navratilova became a champion for gay women players, then Serena’s burden has been—as much, if not more than her predecessors’—singular. While earlier black women’s players, most notably, as we said, Althea Gibson, were pathbreaking in their accomplishments as it pertained to race and racism, they were not as aggressive, public, and outspoken in their critiques of racism in the women’s game or of racism as the lived reality of black people in America. Serena has forged her own way. Bold, unrepentant, and the dominant player of her era to boot, Serena has completely reconceived the way in which tennis can be played and, as importantly, she has laid down her marker as a proud black woman champion.
In Serena’s case, only the funkiness of James Brown will do: “Say it loud / I’m black and I’m proud.”
And for this she has paid a price, singled out for critiques and sometimes even for her game. As if that were not enough, in addition to being critiqued for speaking in favor of social justice, Serena has had to endure the denigration of the black (female) body. On at least one occasion, Serena was ridiculed by the white Belgian player Kim Clijsters.7 Before one match against Williams, Klijsters stuffed towels into her shirt and skirt to mock Serena’s physique. Whether or not she was aware of it, Klijsters was evoking the “Hottentot Venus” imagery that has been used to demean black women since the 19th century, at least. All the while, as she was doing this, Klijsters smiled, smug and self-satisfied. Indifferent to the racist stereotypes she was summoning to life, once more. As if this were her first time with the joke. As if it were now her turn to indict the black body. And to laugh while doing it.
However, as Serena’s career enters its twilight years, Williams finds herself surrounded by a new generation of black women tennis players. The most notable among this new generation are Coco Gauff, Madison Keyes, Sloane Stephens, and Taylor Townsend, the last of whom is less well known the others. By some measure, the most prominent among this generation, and the player who seems most likely to dominate the game in the next few years, is Naomi Osaka. Born in Japan to a Haitian father and a Japanese mother, Osaka has lived in the United States since the age of 3. (Osaka has spoken forcefully about the racist challenges she has faced, and continues to face, as a black Japanese woman in Japanese society. For Osaka this is a critical issue since she plays under the Japanese flag. Osaka has spoken about race/racism in Japan and the ways in which the late-L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant,8 who was named after the famous Kobe beef, mentored her.)9 Among the black women of her generation on the international tennis circuit, Osaka has been the most outspoken on racism.10 On the evening of August 26, Osaka announced that she would not play her scheduled semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open. Osaka had intended to quit the tourney, but she agreed to continue in the event after play was canceled on August 27.
Taking a different, but nevertheless complementary, tack during the 2020 U.S. Open, Osaka wore at least five distinct black facemasks during the tournament. Across each of the facemasks emblazoned, in white, was a name: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, Trayvon Martin, and George Floyd. Because of the popularity of tennis, and because she is the presumed heir to Serena Williams’s throne, Osaka has pronounced it her responsibility to keep the reality of police brutality in the forefront of the sport’s consciousness.11
The discontinuity, the path that leads from Venus and Serena Williams to the Osakas and the Gauffs, is abbreviated. The distance between them shorter. Consequently, there is—in this instance—less need for an absolute “relaunch.” In this case, it would seem, it is not really necessary to “start over.” At least not as we knew it in its past incarnations. Sometimes the logic of entropy is insufficient to the exigencies—the eruption of life into pure political possibility—of the moment. Sometimes, as in the case of Osaka, the effect of “indefatigability” is such that there is no real need to “start over.” Sometimes, after the briefest of pauses, things simply keep going. Sometimes it is “continuity” that holds sway, and one movement, moment, one iconic or even unexceptional figure, mutates into the next. Sometimes the handing off, or over, of political responsibility, from one generation to the next, is barely detectable. Differently phrased, it becomes discernible only as we find ourselves turning today to this figure, rather than that one, the one we relied upon just yesterday. Or maybe it just seems that way.
As importantly, and here the political emergence of George Hill offers itself as an object lesson, in some instances a journeyman (professional)—a decent but not exceptional—athlete will do just as well as an icon.
The NBA, we can say, may be not only the most progressive force in American politics, it may also be the force with the deepest bench, so to speak. At the very least, it possesses the political bench from which, seemingly, any—one dare not say “even” in this context, such is Hill’s signality—backup (point guard) can emerge as the player most appropriate for the hour. Cometh the hour, cometh a George Hill.