Sunday, August 28, 2016

Errol Tobias and the Boks

The South African online magazine The Con has published a revised version of my June Weekend Post article on Errol Tobias, the first black Springbok, "25 Years Since Errol Tobias’ Debut Changed the Complexion of Springbok Rugby." This is drawn from one of my current book projects.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Take My Money, Please!

I had an op-ed piece appear in  The Herald, the largest newspaper in South Africa's Eastern Cape, based in Port Elizabeth. It carries the title "How the Kings can take more of our money and be profitable" and looks at ways that the broke Southern Kings, the Eastern Province Rugby Union Super Rugby franchise, might better maximize profits.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Human Rights Day: Reflecting on Sharpeville and Langa

Today, March 21, is Human Rights Day in South Africa, a national holiday. The date is no coincidence. On 21 March 1960 Apartheid police opened fire on a crowd gathered at Sharpeville (by the PAC) to protest apartheid Pass Laws. 69 killed, scores wounded (although the generally agreed upon totals are about 180 the reality is that since people knew that going to hospital might result in their being identified as having been at Sharpeville, those who could avoided any official institution, hospitals and clinics included) most of those shot in the back and side, indicating that they were running away and posed no danger whatsoever. 

Sharpeville shocked the world and helped to accelerate the nascent global anti-apartheid movement, even as the National Party responded with draconian measures that ensured that any opposition to apartheid whatsoever could land people in prison, in exile, or worse. Sharpeville was almost inarguably the single most important event in bringing the realities of apartheid to the world’s consciousness, and the country’s status as a polecat of a nation was pretty well guaranteed from that date forward.

But that is not the only reason why 21 March is such an important date in South African history. 25 years to the day after the events of Sharpeville, 21 March 1981, another horrible atrocity happened the contours of which are gruesomely familiar. On that day a funeral party was traveling between townships of Uitenhage, an industrial city outside of Port Elizabeth (some 130 or so km from where I sit in Grahamstown) known most for automobile manufacturing (South Africa’s Detroit, in effect). Township funerals in the 1980s were most often political affairs and this one -- honoring the deaths of young people killed in protests earlier in the month -- was no different. The state had effectively made funeral processions of this sort illegal. Police showed up on the scene, the funeral marchers -- defiant, but unarmed -- stood their ground, and the police opened fire. Nearly a score lay dead, an uncountable number wounded, shot, you guessed it, in the back and in the side. It came to be known as the Langa Massacre.


There are active debates about the nature of  “the human rights tradition” in South Africa, and these are important arguments. But at the same time, if we recognize that apartheid was itself a gross violation of civil rights and that the anti-apartheid opposition was at least to some degree motivated by a desire for human rights, broadly defined, it is perhaps easier to understand why this date, 21 March, the anniversary of Sharpeville, the anniversary of Langa, is so well chosen. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Jonah Lomu, RIP

Jonah Lomu, former New Zealand All Blacks rugby star, was a beast, a global sporting phenomenon in the 1990s who is just about without comparison. A wing with world-class speed in the hundred but built like someone who would be comfortable in the scrums Lomu could run over people but he was just as likely to run through them. The closest American sporting comparison I can think of is Bo Jackson in terms of the freakish things that he did. The closest football comparisons might be a hybrid of Marshawn Lynch and Chris Johnson, which is to say the ability to run people over while possessing Johnson's "Cop Speed" to run away from them. But he was far, far better at rugby than either of those two very good players ever was at football.

  If you are putting together an all-time rugby XV, the greatest team in the game's history, there might be no more obvious answer at any position than to start by filling in one of the wing slots with Lomu. He first came to the world's attention in 1995 during the World Cup, an event that became famous because of South Africa's home victory, though he had shown signs of what he would become before that. The 1995 IRB World Cup is best known for Nelson Mandela embracing the underdog Springboks who returned from global sporting isolation and helped the New South Africa establish its footing. (And only just "helped," whatever Hollywood and too many journalists would want you to think.) And yet the unquestioned star of that event was Lomu who ran past and around, over and through people. South Africa stopping Lomu was one of the biggest rugby stories of that cup, but he cemented his place in the event's and the sport's history. By the time of his retirement after a too brief career shortened in no small part by the kidney disease that would help take him from us today at the gallingly young age of 40, he held the record for tries at the World Cup with 15,  a number that would only be matched this year by another all-time great, Bryan Habana. (Habana is possibly my favorite player of all time. He would make more than a few all-time squads. And he would start over Lomu on no one on the planet's all-time side.)

Lomu's death is shocking because of his age, and even though it was well known that his disease was serious, hearing about it was stunning, a blow to the solar plexus, like hearing that someone beat up Superman or outran the Flash. Because Lomu was a superhero. A black-clad superhero who could make his enemies quake just by doing the Haka. He is one of my favorite athletes of all-time. If there is an afterlife its rugby team just got a hell of a lot better. And someone on the other team is about to get run over.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

DCAT's First Baseball Game and Childhood Baseball Memories

I was already a huge baseball fan by the time the 1980s arrived. I turned 9 in 1980 and had never been to a Red Sox game, even though at that point I could give you the Red Sox lineup from top to bottom (and yes, I could probably do fairly well in replicating the 1980 Red Sox lineup now. Fisk, Perez, Stapleton, Burleson, probably Glenn Hoffman, Rice, Lynn, Evans, and by this point Yaz at DH)  But we remember teams from our childhood in ways that we don't those from our adulthood. The 1995 and 1999 Sox both made the playoffs, in 1999 Pedro Martinez had the most impressive playoff relief appearance in baseball history, and I just did the 1980 lineup from memory and couldn't do the same for either of those far more recent teams.

It was May 3rd 1980. I used to spend a few weeks every summer with my uncle and aunt, first when they lived in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and then when they lived on Long Island. I loved baseball and so did my uncle. In future years we'd go to Yankee and Shea Stadiums (I hate the Yankees with the white hot intensity of the thousand burning std's that Jessica Alba allegedly received from Derek Jeter) so often that to this day they are the two stadia I've been to most often after Fenway.

In any case, I'd just turned 9 and my uncle was in position to take me to my first baseball game.

I feel as if I remember everything about it. I remember the Vet in Philly, and this being my first time in a Major League stadium thinking it was the greatest thing ever, and not the total shit-show that the Vet was.  I remember seeing the players -- and I'm doing this from memory (I'll link the game somewhere above) -- Ron Cey and Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, and Dusty Baker. Steve Yeager at catcher, right? (I'm missing one.) And I know that former Red Sox player (and unfortunate victim of traditional Red Sox racism) Reggie Smith was part of that team. And the Phillies, who I came to like a lot (only 9-year-olds are allowed to have a "second favorite team," but I was nine and the Phillies were thus mine) consisted of Mike Schmidt, of course, and Bull Luzinski (more on these two later) plus Bob Boone, Pete Rose, Larry Bowa, One of the Maddoxes (Maddoxi?), and I think Bake McBride.

My memories of the game, as opposed to the teams, is a bit vaguer.  I was nine, my brother was six, and I remember explicitly both that Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski hit home runs, and if they weren't back-to-back they were damned close (Note after writing this: They were back-to-back, which only means that 9-year olds think home runs are fucking awesome, because, well, home runs are fucking awesome). Those home runs came off of Bert Hooten, a name second only to "Boobie Clark" (a Bengals running back, as I recall) in the child's name hierarchy. And what was even more memorable is that it was the 2nd or 3rd (Note: 2nd) inning and my brother had to go pee. So my uncle took him to pee, in the childhood-trauma-inducing Vet, and missed both home runs. My brother could not have cared less. My 20-something-baseball-fan uncle cared very much. Never bring children to a baseball game if you care about that baseball game.

But here is the honest truth. I became a huge sports fan, wrote a book about baseball, and care about these things way too much. And yet seeing Steve Garvey and Mike Schmidt from the third deck vertigo seats was an absolute thrill, probably one of the biggest of my life, especially if we compare these things relative to the influence on my life at the time. Yet the thing I remember most to this day? May 3, 1980 was the Phillie Phanatic's birthday. They handed out the sort of fan gift you'd never get today -- a quality stuffed Phillie Phanatic that I kept for a shockingly long time even after I stopped caring about the Phillies (which was sometime around January 1, 1981 even if Tug McGraw jumping up in the air after getting the last out in the 1980 World Series is still etched in my brain).  I did not give a shit about the Phillies by 1981, but I bet I had that Phillie Phanatic through high school.

[Oh, and looking it up, as I did every memory in this post after I wrote it, Boobie Clark died of a blood clot in his brain when he was 39. Fuck. It's a lot better to be a kid.]




Wednesday, March 18, 2015

On Selma, Historiography and Movie Reviews

Be humble before the historiography. Don't make grand pronouncements about a literature you do not know.

That is advice I constantly tell my students. Indeed, I have often argued that while the dissertation is a vital proving ground for doing history, for bringing all of the training into practice and making your own contribution, the general (or comprehensive) exams are the central proving ground for the profession. For it is in that process that graduate students, aspiring historians, learn about the depth of literature and the development of historiographical arguments. And it is in that process that most of us came to learn to be incredibly wary of books bearing the subtitle "The Untold Story Of . . ." because there are few truly untold stories, and even fewer untold stories that sell themselves as such.

I was reminded of this several weeks ago when I saw Chris Nashawaty's Entertainment Weekly review of Selma. Now, I usually like Nashatawy's reviews. He's smart and he writes well. But in that review he argued something silly: "British actor David Oyelowo . . .  miraculously rescues the flesh-and-blood man from the myth. He reveals to us the King who’s not in our history books — his humor, his human failings, and his self-doubt." It is a silly argument made all the worse by the fact that as a pronouncement it reveals Nashatawy's almost aggressive ignorance in which he purports to speak about "history books" he has not only not read, but clearly does not even know exists.

 Far from revealing something about King absent from "our history books" Selma reinforces a King familiar to many. Nashatawy cannot have read any of the many (dozens of? Hundreds of?) books on King and the Civil Rights Movement that have been published over the course of quite literally three decades. King's humor, human failings, and self-doubt are nothing new to more than a generation of historians who have even dipped their toe into a widely published, widely reviewed, and widely praised literature that has hardly been confined to the shelves of university libraries. No one would expect Nashatawy to be familiar with this literature except when he explicitly writes as if it does not exist.

Be humble before the historiography. Don't make grand pronouncements about a literature you do not know.

*******

As for Selma -- I really did think it was a fine, powerful movie. The director Ava Du Vernay did a generally effective job but she made some odd choices with exposition and on at least one occasion decided to fill a largely unnecessary scene with Michal Bay pyrotechnics -- I have no idea why she chose, in an otherwise closely rendered film focusing on the events surrounding the Selma March, to depict the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham except as emotional manipulation -- 1964, which she almost entirely skips over between the bombing and the events of Selma, was not exactly devoid of far more relevant events to the struggle for voting rights. I thought the casting of Oprah was gimmicky and distracting. But otherwise the acting really was spectacular almost across the board and it was in that arena that I believe that the film really did get snubbed during awards season. Du Vernay really did commit historical malpractice in depicting LBJ, and no, I do not believe that filmmakers get to hide behind the cloak of artistic license once they choose to take on historical topics, something Du Vernay and her defenders have tried to do since this criticism emerged. Her depiction of LBJ did not jibe with even the most critical, revisionist interpretations of his role in dealing with the demand for voting rights. Historical liberties in filling in gaps or trying to cover a lot of material quickly is one thing. No film can do justice for history's depth and expanse like a book can (my guess is that the word count for the script probably amounted to that of a longish chapter in a book) but she went beyond this and tainted an otherwise quite faithful rendering of important events, events important enough to warrant an honest, fair rendering. 


Friday, January 23, 2015

The Ambivalence of Forgiveness

I have a contribution to Columbia University's Dialogues on Historical Justice and Memory Network Working Paper Series: “The Ambivalence of Forgiveness: Dirk Coetzee, Eugene de Kock, and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” Please go check it out if you are interested.