Black History in March? No Good Casting The Common Reader, and recalling old heroes


Gerald Early

March has become my Civil Rights month, or the month of my Civil Rights memories. First, My Washington Post review of Penniel Joseph’s biography of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Chairman, Black Panther Party Founder, and Pan Africanist activist Stokely Carmichael, Stokely: A Life, appeared on Sunday, March 9. When the WP editor approached me, I was more than a little eager to do the review. I cannot say I always feel that way when I cannot choose the book myself. But this project intensified the disconnect one begins to feel to the world when figures of some considerable importance in one’s own life are nearly forgotten by younger people. My daughter did not know who Carmichael was. That was why I did the review. I wanted to know exactly what I knew from experience that was worth remembering, that I even could remember anymore. Not for anyone else, but simply for myself.

It was hard to imagine my youth without Carmichael, so powerfully did his politics and charisma exercise my imagination and that of the nation itself. When he gave us the slogan, Black Power, and Black Power as an ideology in his book with Charles Hamilton (Carmichael was right: he was not a good writer), it galvanized the thinking of many of us at that moment. In 1967, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America was the first political treatise and the hardest book, to that point in my 15-year-old life that I had ever read. It was the amazing majestic and audacious commitment of his youth—for, in my eyes, it was his youth, and his blackness, of course, that made his politics possible—that so underscored my own youth and my own blackness. (My family—all Episcopalians then but some failing and falling fast under the sway of a new dispensation– saw Carmichael speak at the Church of the Advocate, the activist black Episcopal Church in North Philadelphia back in the summer of 1966 and could not stop talking about how life-changing it was. They were all young then too, younger than I thought they were at the time because I was the youngest of all. My oldest sister joined SNCC that same year and started the Black Student League at Temple University.) Doing the review did not induce nostalgia for me. I did not look at the days of Carmichael’s popularity and notoriety with either regret or longing, certainly not fondness, but with a sort of resignation that life, after all, comes to this: that a life, your own or anyone else’s, doesn’t mean what you want it to mean and a life doesn’t stay where it might be convenient for those who have an emotional or psychological investment in it. Privately, I was almost sorry the book had been written; for it was not the fact that Carmichael had been nearly forgotten by younger generations that bothered me as much as I feared his rediscovery by those same generations whose views of his life and, by default, my own, will supersede my own insistence on the supremacy of my own witness. I guess they call this understanding the consciousness of mortality. It is the first piece I ever wrote that made me very aware of the fact that I am an old man.

It was not the fact that Carmichael had been nearly forgotten by younger generations that bothered me as much as I feared his rediscovery by those same generations whose views of his life and, by default, my own, will supersede my own insistence on the supremacy of my own witness. I guess they call this understanding the consciousness of mortality.

Second, I moderated a panel for the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, D. C., on March 10 about a film by Stanley Nelson called Freedom Riders, about the Freedom Ride movement of 1961 that galvanized the nation as young (and some older) people, black and white, took Greyhound and Trailways buses to the Deep South to test new federal statutes and court decisions that desegregated public restrooms, ticket counters, and restaurants at bus terminals. We saw a 15-minute clip of a two-hour documentary. After seeing this “teaser,” various still photos were shown to the audience. (Awkwardly we panelists, facing the audience, had to turn around to see the stills and then turn back to comment on them.) I was a last-minute addition to the panel, completely unprepared for it, and didn’t fully understand what the organizers at the NEH or New York University, who was the true sponsor of the event, actually wanted to achieve with the panel. I know nothing about pictures of any sort. Thank goodness that Deborah Willis, the noted photographer and photographic historian, was one of the panelists. I substituted energy and wit for knowledge and perhaps fooled the audience a little. I was nobody’s idea of a good moderator, as I hardly knew how to draw out the other people on the panel. In truth, I really did not even know who they were beyond their intros. It was another one of those instances where while I was in the middle of an event I kept asking myself, “What the heck as I doing here?” And it wasn’t even Black History Month when I might have felt this sort of fumbling was at least in the name of a good cause or what seems to be a good cause. In the academic world, this sort of thing happens all the time, blunderingly moderating panels on the fly, serving as a respondent to a paper that one receives right before the person is about to deliver it, reading a paper before an audience and then realizing that it is the wrong audience for that paper. Fortunately, as most of us in this business are never paid for doing this stuff, I suppose there is no reason to feel embarrassed or remorseful about a less than stellar performance.

Why Liston did not throw a fight

February 25, 2014, marked the 50th anniversary of the first Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) championship fight where underdog Clay beat champion Liston in seven rounds (Liston refused to rise from his stool for the eighth round) and “shook up the world,” as the new champion shouted. Everyone who was anyone in the fight game thought Liston was going to destroy Clay as he had destroyed former champion Floyd Patterson in two fights with first-round knockouts. On the occasion of this anniversary, CNN and other news sources reported that FBI surveillance records of the fight reveal that agents thought gangsters forced Liston to throw the fight to make a killing on the extraordinary odds that favored Liston by betting on Clay. Gamblers and gangsters like a sure thing, as the saying goes. It has always been a fairly common belief that Liston did indeed throw this fight as he certainly did the rematch in Lewiston, Maine in 1965.

But here are five reasons why it is unlikely that Liston threw his first championship fight with Clay:

  1. It took Liston many years to earn a shot at the title, in part, because he was an ex-con, and was considered by many sportswriters and guardians of boxing to be bad person to have as champion. It was because of this struggle even to get a shot at the title that made being champion even more precious and important to Liston than it might ordinarily have been. (And under ordinary circumstances, it is a remarkable accomplishment for any boxer to become champion and would virtually have to be threatened with murder to throw the title away in a fixed fight. The title simply meant too much to Liston to throw it away in a fixed fight against a fighter like Clay for whom he had no respect.
  2. When a great deal of money begins to flow to the underdog in the prizefight, the bookies, sensibly, change the odds to avoid taking a bath. After all, if a lot of money starts appearing for the underdog, the bookies begin to get suspicious. If anyone would know that a fix was in, it would in fact be the bookies. Therefore, the mob wise guys simply couldn’t get the gorgeous 7-to-1 odds against Clay once they started betting heavily on Clay.
  3. Having Liston with the title was worth more to the gangsters than having Clay win it, even if the gangsters could make a killing on the odds. Controlling champions has always been what the mob wanted in post-World War II boxing and it had the biggest prize of all with Liston holding the heavyweight belt. Besides, with news of Clay affiliations with the Nation of Islam emerging in the press, the mob would hardly think it could gain control of him. A bird in the hand is worth any number of such creatures in a bush.
  4. The boxing experts simply did not think clearly about the fight and thus distorted it in the public’s mind.  Clay always should have been given a much greater chance of winning than he was. First, he was bigger, stronger, and faster than Patterson. Second, Liston was so sure he would win that he did not train seriously for the fight. Third, Liston had fought less than two rounds of actual competitive boxing in the two years prior to the Clay fight. Clay had fought nine times during the same period. Fourth, it was very likely that Liston was 40 years old, not 32 as he claimed. So, an undertrained, aging champion was fighting a 22-year skilled fighter who had the fastest hands and feet of any heavyweight in modern times. Any rational analyst should have given Clay at least a decent chance of winning.  Hindsight is 20-20 but what good are experts if they can’t see the obvious in the moment.
  5. Liston claimed he could not continue the fight because he injured his shoulder, which required surgery after the fight. Also, Liston had a huge victory party planned for after the fight with signs welcoming “the champ” and a multitude of friends and well-wishers. Why would someone prepare this sort of celebration if he planned to throw the fight—to exacerbate his own embarrassment?

Why The Common Reader is not something like a still life

The Common Reader is progressing, not nearly as rapidly as we would like but progressing nonetheless.  In addition to managing editor Ben Fulton, we have added Jian Leng, former associate director of the Center for the Humanities, as a production coordinator. She brings knowledge of ancient human life, fluency in Chinese (not too surprising for a native of China, don’t you know), and a work ethic that far exceeds in its moral fervor any such inclination that the chief editor may possess. We hope to be adding a few interns once we move to our permanent space, which we hope will take place sometime in May. In the meantime, we hope you will enjoy this temporary website of the journal where, in this postmodern age, the journal is self-aware and knows that it is “about” only itself. And so the journal, using the chief editor as its instrument, will tell in its own words how it is coming into being. That is to say, the chief editor will provide a running deconstruction of the journal’s ontology avoiding, as much as the journal will allow me, any sort of triumphant neoliberalism when The Common Reader finally becomes itself instead of adumbrations of itself. In short, The Common Reader, through its chief editor, will THEORIZE about itself, about its being and non-being, about “journalness” and “journality,” about the essence of content, and about the “essentializing” of content.

Recently, I visited relatives in Philadelphia and began to use the sort of language that appeared in the previous few sentences, as they were curious about the nature of my workplace environment. My mother told me the words sounded nasty—worse than felatio and pederasty—expressing disappointment that she had not raised her son any better than to sound more decadent than a common rapper!