Forty Million Dollar Slaves

Many books have been written on the history of the African American athlete, chief among them the tennis star Arthur Ashe’s scholarly The Hard Road to Glory (1987). In Forty Million Dollar Slaves, William C. Rhoden takes a different approach, filled with poetic brio and passionate argument. Rhoden’s book has received endorsements from such well-known academics as Cornel West and Arnold Rampersad, and the book alludes to music, literature, and religion as well as history and politics. Its intent is as much prophetic as analytical. Creative figures within its pages range from novelist Ralph Ellison to trumpet player Miles Davis.

In the chapter on athletic style, Rhoden contends it was through the development of a distinct and unmistakable style that African American athletes leveraged their status within the sports industry. The book is also deeply autobiographical. Rhoden himself was an athletehe played football at a historically black college, Morgan State University in Baltimore, in the late 1960’s. He uses his own life experience as a prism through which to interpret events. In one of the most engaging moments of the book, he relates how an elderly resident of the largely African American neighborhood of Harlem, where Rhoden lives, told Rhoden that Babe Ruth, the great white baseball star of the 1920’s, lived at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, where Rhoden now lives, walking on the viaduct over the Harlem River to go to Yankee Stadium, where he played. Forty Million Dollar Slaves is a personal meditation as well as a social tract.

Rhoden argues that while black athletes are among the most famous and highest remunerated salaried individuals working today, this fact does not mean that they are in control of their own destinies. Rhoden is aware that his title, which suggests that even an athlete earning forty million dollars can still be a slave, is provocative. Indeed, he gives space to individuals such as black entrepreneur and Charlotte Bobcats owner Robert Johnson, who are unwilling to accept fully Rhoden’s analogy. Rhoden’s larger pointand it is a point about race in America, not just race in sportsis that the journey to full emancipation for African Americans is not yet complete. Using the analogy of the biblical Exodus frequently used by African Americans to describe their own quest for freedom, Rhoden sees the black athlete as still wandering in the desert, still finding a way in the wilderness nowhere near the promised land of autonomy and equality.

Rhoden traces African American athletic activity back to speculative roots in African culture and verges on suggesting that the intensity of sporting culture in the United States may hinge on this African American influence, although by using comparable situations in Australia and Canada one might argue otherwise. Rhoden gives a somber conspectus on how sports were used on slave plantations to give African American men an outlet for aggressive impulses that might otherwise have been turned against their oppressive masters. Even though sports, especially boxing, became a major avenue for black male empowerment, Rhoden argues that the roots of these athletic practices in the context of slavery should lead historians to think twice about whether athletics are automatically empowering and liberating for black Americans.

Rhoden makes another point relating to the history of race in America, noting that the path to racial equality has not been one of seamless progress; even after the Civil War there have been times when racism and white social control increased rather than decreased. (The political scientist Ira Katznelson made a similar statement in his 2005 book When Affirmative Action Was White. For instance, in the late nineteenth century, most horse jockeys were African American; particularly prominent was Isaac Murphy, the most famous jockey of his day, who died at thirty-five. In Murphy’s day, black jockeys were the norm, and had been for decades. Apparently, slaves had excelled as jockeys. White anxiety led to the...

(The entire section is 1657 words.)