Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Duel of the (Anti)Hero Iron Mics: Mike Tyson versus Jack Johnson



Last weekend we talked about Brothers Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali--two elder Gods whose teachings resonate into the present even though one is passed on and another has learned through fate's cruel irony that sometimes our greatest gift is stolen from us such that we learn to communicate in different ways. Indeed, Crom can be so cruel in his teaching.

Moving forward, the classic fantasy match up for Brother Ali is/was Mike Tyson. While the stuff of barbershop griot exchanges, I never found this fight very compelling. Ali would have destroyed Tyson because the latter, while gifted, never had the ring sense and acumen of the former. And being even more provocative, this fantasy bout would have ended early with Tyson laid out, face down in the fifth round, leveled by the prettiest fighter to ever enter the ring.

The more compelling pairing--at least for this student of the sweet science, that brutal sport of pugilistic beauty--was Mike Tyson versus Jack Johnson. Here the real fight would not be in the squared circle (again Johnson would have easily beaten Ali), but rather in how each embodied different types of impenetrable black masculinity. I would suggest that Jack Johnson, he who put gauze in his trunks to intimidate white fighters, and publicly caroused with many white women when such deeds would mandate him becoming strange fruit both below and above the Macon-Dixon line, was in fact irrepressible and unforgivable blackness that could not be equaled.

Tyson was more a force of nature. While Johnson was born of Jim Crow white supremacy, Iron Mike was a product of Moynihan's sharp observations on the black family, the failures of the neo-liberal order, and post-Fordist economies of scale and deindustrialization.

Both were bad black men and the bugaboos of the white imagination as they embodied the myth of the black rapist--all the while their bodies provided voyeuristic pleasures as simultaneous objects of the white gaze and black triumph in sports (with its obligatory intersections with national manhood).

Random thought: how do you like that Oscar Wilde run-on Homi Bhabhaesque wordplay?

A set of propositions.

Mike Tyson was an anti-hero and tragic figure, a symbol for the failures of black masculinity as caricature. Jack Johnson was a hero and trickster figure pushing outward the boundaries of black respectability all in the service of an expanded and more fully evolved black manhood.



Two questions.

Whose blackness is more powerful and compelling? And which figure, Tyson or Johnson was more hero than anti-hero?

So then, let's playfully enter the duel of the iron mic(s)...

17 comments:

CNu said...

Jack Johnson was a hero and trickster figure pushing outward the boundaries of black respectability all in the service of an expanded and more fully evolved black manhood.

Johnson was a caricature of evolved manhood and an exemplar of conspicuous consumption and barbarian culture. Perhaps in the realm of the "sport" - 20th century America simply has no deeper paradigm to offer? Perhaps the stakes haven't been high enough, or final enough for far too long.

CNu said...

Puts me in mind of 16 years ago when I witnessed first hand Ron Van Clief's NYC showboat style goju reality-corrected by Royce Gracie's northern Brazilian high-stakes ju-jitsu.

It was obvious what would happen.

Tanya said...

Duel of the Iron Mic is the greatest song in the history of mankind. Yes, I realize that's not the point of the post. =)

I personally can't comfortably compare the two in my own mind simply because I feel too "close" to Mike Tyson's life story having been a part of the generation who witnessed it unfold. Maybe history will have a different skew on his behavior.

Jack Johnson's behavior sounded reckless to me when I saw the doc last year so I can't imagine how cringeworthy it must have been to be black and see his antics as it occurred. While I admire those who live their lives without social constraints and in the manner they see fit, we all pay a price for it in the end.

chaunceydevega said...

@Cnu--"Johnson was a caricature of evolved manhood and an exemplar of conspicuous consumption and barbarian culture."

And isn't that in part why he was so grand?

@Tanya--I remember buying Liquid Swords when it went on sale. What joy. Semirelated, there is a fetish quality to buying an "album" that is lost now with the intangible of downloaded songs and leaked music. The big event album was special, and GZA's masterwork is a complete album from start to finish something that just isn't seen anymore.

CNu said...

CD,

siriusly?!?!

Conspicuous consumption and barbarian culture will challenge my children to survive a die-off/cull of nearly 90% of the current human population.

Hell, it may even run its course into a species Great Filter event.

I wouldn't wish any of that on a broke-dick dog (or even an unclesmrgol).....,

fred c said...

I don't know much about Jack Johnson, except for the vague sense that it was good for people back then to see a strong, confident Black man at the top of his craft. Mike I understand a little better.

A friend of mine, a writer (sometimes sports writer and big-time fight fan), met Mike a couple of times back in his hayday. He told me that Mike is a very, very smart guy, and not as in "for a boxer," but as in great powers of memory and understanding. Mike is still one of the most complex, interesting people on the culture scene. He has my respect, the tigers and that unfortunate conviction notwithstanding.

chaunceydevega said...

@Cnu--What would soon be the iron cage of national masculinity as we understand it today (and I am riffing here as this period of gender construction is not my expertise...so please correct me) --consumerism; male head of household; rise of corporations; more fixed gender norms around heterosexuality and masculinity--were already coming to the forefront, if not in existence at the turn of the century.

Is Jack Johnson's pushing back against the white gaze even as he modeled a black manhood not so different from white manhood (and the celebrity performance) problematic?

@Fred--Do you see him as a victim? I too find him fascinating and cannot make up my mind.

Tanya said...

There is something meaningful in enjoying a CD to the point that it scratches and you have to buy it again. On the other hand, I was relieved when I bought Liquid Swords and The Chronic on iTunes for hopefully the final time.

CNu said...

CD, what's good about the "iron cage of national masculinity" as we know it today?

Modelling a pattern and praxis of manhood fundamentally unworthy of emulation is obviously problematic.

What deliverable has resulted from widespread modelling of the dominant modalities of respectable and notorious negros of the 20th century?

Do you see a strong people with a distinctive culture, character, and capability - well prepared to survive and thrive in what's around that signpost up ahead, or, do you see a fractured, utterly, and parasitically dependent basket-case minority with 70% out of wedlock births and a bitter and implacable enemy looking across from its cellblock and just waiting for an opportunity to jump?

fred c said...

Victim, Professor? Maybe to the extent that a more "likeable" celebrity (read Coby B.) might have gotten out of that particular incident with no prison time.

But really I resist any awarding of victim status. We are all victims of our temperaments, personalities and experience. And if power exploits our weakness, that's just life as we know it.

CNu said...

CD, what's good about the "iron cage of national masculinity" as we know it today?

Modelling a pattern and praxis of manhood fundamentally unworthy of emulation is obviously problematic.

What deliverable has resulted from widespread modelling of the dominant modalities of respectable and notorious negros of the 20th century?

Do you see a strong people with a distinctive culture, character, and capability - well prepared to survive and thrive in what's around that signpost up ahead, or, do you see a fractured, utterly, and parasitically dependent basket-case minority with 70% out of wedlock births and a bitter and implacable enemy looking across from its cellblock and just waiting for an opportunity to jump? (reposted - I originally put this comment up at 4:32am sunday morning)

Oh Crap said...

Johnson was a caricature of evolved manhood and an exemplar of conspicuous consumption and barbarian culture.

What deliverable has resulted from widespread modelling of the dominant modalities of respectable and notorious negros of the 20th century?


:/

CNu, I think your operating system might need an upgrade to New Negro 2.0, or even New Negro 3.0, beta.

In this age, we take our historical figures for what they are/were at the time, warts and all. Role modeldom is diy. Not unlike Johnson and so many others of his generation, you are your own role model, but unlike them, you get the benefit of history to let you know what worked and what did not, or what might be tried again and could possibly work this time.

I do not see Jack Johnson as a tragic or one of those infamous black pathological figures. My personal research is Black entertainment 1929-1970, so I see him as a prototype casualty of showbiz, before Roscoe Arbuckle, before the studio system, during vaudeville, before payola; and then you get the uses of interstate commerce against him.

Hero/anti-hero...false dilemmas. Culture, commerce, entertainment, politics, international stardom, technology (e.g. the train, film) Johnson mixed it and served it up to the public in a way that was unprecedented. The taller the are...that made the fall unprecedented, also.

And yet, some of the dumb stereotypes lodged against him are still being held against Black men today, especially Obama.

It was what it was.

CNu said...

CNu, I think your operating system might need an upgrade to New Negro 2.0, or even New Negro 3.0, beta.

rotflmbao...,

In this age, we take our historical figures for what they are/were at the time, warts and all. Role modeldom is diy. Not unlike Johnson and so many others of his generation, you are your own role model, but unlike them, you get the benefit of history to let you know what worked and what did not, or what might be tried again and could possibly work this time.

If you only.even.dimly. guessed at the unintended magnitude of your irony, what's actually about to be reset, and what that specifically portends for you..,

Oh Crap said...

If you only.even.dimly. guessed at the unintended magnitude of your irony, what's actually about to be reset, and what that specifically portends for you..,

Sound/fury.

Did you have a point?

CNu said...

No sound, no fury, just the facts Crap...,

chaunceydevega said...

@Ohcrap:

We are bound by blackness...in so many ways.

"Hero/anti-hero...false dilemmas. Culture, commerce, entertainment, politics, international stardom, technology (e.g. the train, film) Johnson mixed it and served it up to the public in a way that was unprecedented. The taller the are...that made the fall unprecedented, also.

And yet, some of the dumb stereotypes lodged against him are still being held against Black men today, especially Obama."

Flesh this out a bit. And please share some more about your research as it seems we are fellow travelers.

fred c said...

Congratulations, Mike, for the Boxing Hall of Fame thing. What gracious comments he made!

But revisiting the "likeability" thing, who is more likeable than Wesley Snipes? Three consecutive years for three inconsequential misdemeanor tax charges. Maybe likeability isn't enough, if one is, you know . . .