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Body and soul

Forty Million Dollar Slaves The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete William C. Rhoden Crown Books: 288 pp., $23.95

July 09, 2006|Susan Straight | Susan Straight, a professor at UC Riverside and a former sports editor for USC's Daily Trojan, is the author of six novels, mostly recently "A Million Nightingales."

BACK in 1978, after graduating from high school, about 20 of my friends went off to be college athletes. Some went with full scholarships, some went as walk-ins. Almost all were black. That fall, I visited two of my best friends, who were playing football for a Riverside County junior college. They'd been recruited by a celebrated coach and promised that they would be part of a great team.

It was cold the night they played and won. Afterward we went back to their place, a drafty wood-frame farmhouse in a fallow field. My friends shared it with three recruits from Florida. All they had to eat was powdered soup stirred into hot water in mugs. The guys from Florida could barely read or write. Two of them shared a single pair of dress shoes -- only one guy could go out at a time. But they helped their team win. They were fast and powerful, desperate and cold.

I've seen this scenario repeated over and over with my African American friends from childhood, from college; even now, I watch my friends' children place all their hopes for the future in the hands of athletic directors and their sports scholarships.

So it was with great curiosity that I picked up William C. Rhoden's "Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete." But the African American sportswriter's new book is an enlightening, thoughtful and sometimes sentimental look at black males in sports from the early 1700s to the present. His thesis is that black athletes for hundreds of years have used superior physical ability as well as "soul and style" not only to thrill and entertain their fellow Americans but also to make money for white owners, yet they have been unable to control their own destinies.

The title may be off-putting -- an allusion to the 40 acres and a mule promised to freed slaves after the Civil War -- and the analogy of big-time sports as a plantation may seem to be a stretch, but Rhoden, a sportswriter for the New York Times since 1983, has done his homework. Indeed, those who follow sports have seen countless black athletes lay bodies on the line for teams, universities and professional organizations that reap large financial rewards, while the players too often get little, sometimes not even a college degree or a long career. The huge signing bonuses and contracts celebrated in the media go to only a tiny percentage of black athletes; many more make do at subsistence level, especially in college.

Rhoden, who played football at Baltimore's Morgan State University in the late 1960s, includes the historic football game between Morgan and Louisiana's Grambling State University played in Yankee Stadium in 1968. He was watching as a freshman from the sidelines as the all-black teams from two historically black colleges thrilled a national crowd. That game is the springboard for his meditations on how integration at the college and pro sports levels has dissipated black solidarity as expressed through sports.

He makes readers see and feel boxing matches and football games and outfield catches of the past. And he casts scene after scene of sporting contests in their larger historical context to show that black athletes have always had a unique place in American society.

Rhoden begins with Tom Molineaux, a former slave whose boxing career took him to England in the early 1800s to fight the British champion. Before he was an internationally known athlete, he was a plantation slave. "The most talented enslaved athletes not only earned respect among fellow slaves, but also garnered favor among owners, who saw their prowess as an outward extension of the owner's own strength. For those in bondage, the image of the strong black body engaged in competition was a positive one, and a powerful symbol. The black athlete's strength and grace presented a powerful counter-image to the prevailing stereotypes of blacks as slump-shouldered, shuffling bondsmen with heads bowed and knees bent."

Rhoden writes about the Negro baseball leagues and about Jack Johnson, who became the first black to win the world heavyweight title in 1908. He recounts the fascinating and little-known history of black jockeys in America. He also traces the rising influence of top black athletes on modern American culture at nearly every level, through their performance, attitude, dress and sense of style.

Johnson, Rhoden writes, drove a cold realization through white America -- that a black athlete had surpassed a white one, and that he desired to show fellow African Americans his triumph in all its glory. Rhoden includes a quote about the boxer from a white writer of the era: "With money in his pockets, physical triumph over white men in his heart, he displayed all the gross and overbearing insolence which makes what we call the buck nigger insufferable."

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