Monday, March 15, 2010

Ides of March + Torii Hunter Disses Afrolatino Ballplayers + Basquiat Doc Playing

Today are the Ides of March. So what, you say?  Take heed, take heed...


Torii Hunter
Over the weekend Reggie H. had sent a note around, via Facebook, commenting on the recent comments at a USA Today roundtable by Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim outfielder Torii Hunter that referred to the large number of Afrolatinos in baseball as "impostors." Hunter's specific comments were:

"People see dark faces out there, and the perception is that they're African-American," Hunter said. "They're not us. They're impostors. Even people I know come up and say, 'Hey, what color is Vladimir Guerrero? Is he a black player?' I say, 'Come on, he's Dominican. He's not black.' "

He continued:
"As African-American players, we have a theory that baseball can go get an imitator and pass them off as us. It's like they had to get some kind of dark faces, so they go to the Dominican or Venezuela because you can get them cheaper. It's like, 'Why should I get this kid from the South Side of Chicago and have Scott Boras represent him and pay him $5 million when you can get a Dominican guy for a bag of chips?' ... I'm telling you, it's sad," he said.

Vladimir Guerrero
Now I think Hunter was trying to say that whereas since Jackie Robinson's pioneering season black players in the Major Leagues had predominantly been African American, things have changed considerably over the last 15 years, to the extent that a few years ago, the number of African Americans baseball players at the elite level and even in the pipeline was dwindling, in part because of the leagues' financial cutbacks in scouting, developing and promoting black American athletes. Instead, many teams had chosen to focus their efforts and funds on the much less expensive talent available overseas, especially in the Dominican Republic, such that the only black faces on some teams were Afrolatino.  He clarified his remarks by saying that:

"What I meant was they're not black players; they're Latin American players. There is a difference culturally. But on the field, we're all brothers, no matter where we come from, and that's something I've always taken pride in: treating everybody the same, whether he's a superstar or a young kid breaking into the game. Where he was born and raised makes no difference."
Luis Tiant
Luis Tiant
Yet this is still very problematic.  Hunter did not make clear who the "people" were who asked him if Guerrero was black (he is), but interestingly enough, after several years in which African Americans had begun to disappear from the MLB, the numbers, at least on major league rosters, have risen, and some bona fide stars, like the Yankees' pitcher C. C. Sabathia and the Philadelphia Phillies' recent NL MVP Ryan Howard. Nevertheless, many teams now have Afrolatinos from DR, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela, and a few even have Afrolatinos from Panama and Cuba.

While I understand where Hunter is coming from, I also have to say that he's making a basic, common and problematic categorical error here, that points to ignorance that unfortunately is widespread. Not a single media report I've read has cleared it up, so let me do so now, for him and everyone else, with a simple formula to recall.

All self-defined African Americans are black, BUT
not all blacks in the Americas are African American.

Zoe Saldana
Zoe Saldana
That is, Barack Obama, Mo'Nique, Torii Hunter, Beyoncé, and anyone else who defines herself or himself as African American is black, but black people like Idris Elba, Sophie Okenedo, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Pelé are not African American. The latter encompasses and isn't reducible to the latter. To put it another way: The majority of black people in the Americas are not African American. Those players aren't African American, but they are black.

Now, it's also the case that there are more black Latinos combined in the Americas (though not in the United States) than there are African Americans.  Some of those black latinos, like actress Zoë Saldana, or actor Laz Alonso, stars of the blockbuster Avatar, may and do consider themselves many things: black, latino, Dominican-American and Cuban-American respectively, even African-American.

Manny Ramírez
Blackness is a racial definition, while "African American" functions as an ethnic designation. "Dominican," which Hunter cited in opposition to "black," is a national definition but also an ethnic one in the United States. According to the last US Census and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the majority of black people in the United States are African American, but the percentage of non-African American blacks grows daily, primarily as a result of the immigration from Africa, Europe, and yes, Latin America. And some of these black immigrants decide, as they see fit, to call themselves African American. One category does not elide the other.

Roberto Clemente and his family
In terms of baseball history, Hunter's ignorance is also glaring. Among the major black players in Major League Baseball's history are several black latinos, including Roberto Clemente, who was Puerto Rican and black. Both. In his lifetime he acknowledged this fact, and spoke elequently about the racism he encountered as a result of being both latino and black. Also, among the great pitchers of all time are several Afrolatinos, including Cuban Luis Tiant; another, still pitching, is Pedro Martínez. Yet even if we simply look at the earliest years of integration of Major League baseball, among the first blacks to play after Jackie Robinson's important debut was black Cuban Saturnino Arestes Armas "Minnie" Minoso, who broke in as a 23-year-old rookie with Cleveland (which also fielded the first African-American to play in the American League, Larry Doby) in 1949, two years after Robinson, though he was out of the league for several years until he returned in 1951. Interestingly enough, during the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut, in 1997, the discussion of the role of Afrolatinos in integrating Major League baseball remained muted, despite the raft of scholarship on the subject, including studies of the transnational interplay between African Americans and Afrolatinos in the early years of organized baseball and the Negro Leagues. As Hunter's comments suggest, it unfortunately remains so today.

Brazilian actor Lázaro Ramos
Former President George W. Bush learned, after his now apocryphal query to Brazil's then-president, F. H. Cardoso, that Brazil has one of the largest self-defined black population in the Americas according to its Census, and if we were to use the various US definitions of "black," the number of black people in Brazil would dwarf that of the US by at least a factor of two (100+ million vs. 47-48 million).  The Dominican Republic, the country that Hunter cited, has a far larger percentage of people of African descent (well over 85%) than the US; this is the highest of any Spanish-speaking country in the Americas. In fact, it exceeds that of all other Spanish-speaking countries with identifiable black populations, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, Uruguay, and Panama.

US actor Andre Royo
This brings me to a question I've asked again and again is, mentioning it sometimes on this blog and sometimes in other forums: why don't black Americans know this basic fact? We just concluded Black History Month, which unfortunately functions as a kind of African American Trivia and Recognition Month, with some emphasis--though too little, I think--on Africa itself or its peoples, or blacks more broadly across the Americas.  It's bad enough that we barely hear anything about black people living on the continent where they are the overwhelming majority--can you think of a single dedicated public discussion, for example, on the situation in the Congo, which was part of the region that supplied the most black people to the transatlantic slave trade and which is still suffering as a result of European and regional meddling?--but there is almost zero discussion of the black people in this hemisphere. I even joked on Twitter as to whether there'd be any mention of Zumbi de Palmares, Célia Cruz, and so forth, and certainly there were programs all over that talked about Afrolatinos and Afrohispanic cultures, but no concerted effort during this vital month to open up the dialogue and spread the knowledge, including to people like Torii Hunter. A while ago I reviewed the film Sugar, about a Dominican baseball player, and one of the more interesting moments in that film concerned its treatment of the relationship between the Dominican player and an African-American teammate. What the film portrayed was an attempt to communicate across a linguistic and cultural divide, and considerable nuance in the ways that each player read the other. It also suggested the possibility of a kind of amity and brotherhood, and not the wall that Hunter's comments suggest. I don't know how true the relationships the film portrays are, though what also is clear is that in their home countries, despite the complicated and often racist discourses around blackness in which their identities and consciousness are formed, there are all kinds of pockets of resistance, sometimes inspired by African-American culture (especially black American musical forms and styles), and when Afrolatino ballpayers from outside the US spend any length of time here, their perspectives often change, even if their self-characterization and identifications, and their own struggles around race (cf.  Sammy Sosa, and his skin-bleaching spectacle of last year) do not.

Reggie Jackson
Interestingly enough, Hall of Famer and former Yankees star Reggie Jackson (Reginald Martínez Jackson), who is African American and Latino, defended Hunter, saying:

"Torii Hunter has no malice in his heart. He's a wonderful person of great character and he's done a great deal in communities to prove that and back that up. I think when you make a comment to the media - and I'm at fault at times - you need to be able to read what you're saying at the same time."

"Torii Hunter has no malice in his heart. He's a wonderful person of great character and he's done a great deal in communities to prove that and back that up. I think when you make a comment to the media - and I'm at fault at times - you need to be able to read what you're saying at the same time."

That's all well and good, but now Jackson and others--George Bell? Joaquin Andújar? José Rijo? Bernie Williams?--need to educate Hunter and a lot more people, especially black folks, about the reality of black people in Major League baseball, across the hemisphere, and all over the globe. 


A new documentary about late art great Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of those African Americans who was also an Afro-Latino (the son of a Puerto Rican mother and Haitian-American father, no less), which was nominated for the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize this year, is set to hit screens soon. Directed by his friend, Tamra Davis, the documentary, titled Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, includes interview footage from the period near the end of Basquiat's life when he was living in Los Angeles and already established as one of the hottest young artists to grace the American and international art worlds. The Variety review I link to above praises the intimate portrait it presents of Basquiat while simultaneously criticizing it as perhaps too much a work of hagiography.  As a Basquiat devotee, I can't wait to see it!

The trailer:

No comments:

Post a Comment