Black Planet: Facing Race during an NBA Season

Black Planet: Facing Race during an NBA Season

3.7 3
by David Shields

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The National Basketball Association is a place where, without ever acknowledging it, white fans and black players enact and quietly explode virtually every racial issue and tension in the culture at large. In Black Planet, David Shields explores how, in a predominantly black sport, white fans—including especially himself—think about and talk about black…  See more details below


The National Basketball Association is a place where, without ever acknowledging it, white fans and black players enact and quietly explode virtually every racial issue and tension in the culture at large. In Black Planet, David Shields explores how, in a predominantly black sport, white fans—including especially himself—think about and talk about black heroes, black scapegoats, black bodies.

During the 1994-95 NBA season, Shields went to the Seattle SuperSonics' home games; watched their away games on TV; listened to interviews and call-in shows; talked, or tried to talk, to players, coaches, and agents; attended charity events; corresponded with members of the Sonics newsgroup on the Web. He kept a journal and over the next few years transformed that journal into this book, which is focused sharply on white spectators' relationship to black athletes, in particular Shields' own identification with Gary Payton, the team's language-besotted point-guard.

Through the apparently simple vehicle of a daily diary running from November 5, 1994 to May 5, 1995, and ranging from a dispute between two fans over the sale of a ticket to the national media frenzy surrounding Charles Barkley's jest "That's why I hate white people," David Shields confronts the nature of racism (including his own)—the otherness in ourselves that we project onto strangers. He takes us via sports passion deep into the American racial divide.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"One of the best books ever written on the subject of sport in America, which is to say a book that is about a great deal more than sport."
-- A. O. Scott, Newsday

"You don't need to be a sports fan to experience this book as a rare, troubling map of the seldom charted, subterranean regions of the souls of white folk."
-- Charles Johnson

"Shields picks apart nearly every illusion we have about race and athletics in America, and the subtly pernicious ways in which they interact."
-- LA Weekly

"An invaluable contribution to the nation's dialogue on race."
-- Sport Magazine

"A risky and brilliant book -- an emotional journey into Jock Culture's heart of darkness."
-- Robert Lipsyte, New York Times

"Black Planet accomplishes a rare feat by tackling race head on, gamely examining what Shields calls 'white people's reverence for, resentment toward, and colonization of black people's bodies.' "          
-- Chicago Tribune

"Black Planet is a funny, wickedly observant, highly intelligent book about Us and Them, I and Thou, black and white, male and female, parent and child, spectator and star."          
-- Jonathan Raban

Bob Shacochis
Extraordinary....A real contribution to the national non-discourse on race.
Harper's Magazine
Sallie Tisdale

In David Shields' new book, Black Planet, the narrative is deceptively simple: a diary of the Seattle Supersonics 1994-95 season. It is the diary of a middle-aged, white baby boomer, a desk-bound man with fading athletic skills and little power in a dangerous world. "Sometimes what being a fan seems to be most about is self-defeat," he writes, wondering at his own willing surrender to the professional game. "What an agony of enthralldom we are in." This world of the sidelined fan is a rich one, but it is only the skeleton upon which Shields hangs his real story, the dark fable he wants to tell.

Dark fable, I write, and there I am, in a world of hidden and exposed fears: "In the NBA black men rule (sort of), so we admire them (sort of); everywhere else in America we're afraid of them." Black Planet is not exactly about basketball -- though if you don't like basketball, you may find the book tough going; the details of the game fill every page. The book's theme is something else -- "white people's reverence for, resentment toward, and colonization of black people's bodies."

Such terrors are vividly portrayed in American professional sports, but to discuss them is largely taboo. It is especially taboo to discuss them the way Shields does here -- in unguarded, private prose, in the world of thought.

Shields doesn't just break rules about what one should or should not say out loud. There are conventions about nonfiction, its territory of fairness and honesty and how writers discover the truth. Shields does not pretend to journalistic objectivity; his focus on race is a focus on David Shields and his own myriad selves. But he pretends to other truths that are not as easy to define.

I am breaking conventions, too -- taboos about readers and book critics and our pretense of objectivity. They fall apart here, as reader and writer and reviewer collide.

The book follows the Sonics' progress, and Shields' diary fills with incidents, a painful racial awareness noted in each small glance between strangers, in chitchat, in how people stand. Shields is hypervigilant; nothing escapes his tainted glance. He sees unspoken racism when the team's Sasquatch mascot shines the shoes of the black referee, in a woman's glance at a black man jogging by, in his own habitual effort to say thank you to black bus drivers but not white ones. During one game's halftime, a Harlem Globetrotter plays with a kid from the crowd: "The kid the Globetrotter dragged out of the stands had to be black: the hoopla of black hoops transcendence needs, first, to erase memory."

This piling up of incident and distrust creates a picture of what happens when we begin to see everything in terms of race. In a world where everything is innately racial, all relationships become artificial -- they are literally constructed from appearances, from surfaces, from image. In that world, nothing can be trusted because surfaces lie. Even skin can lie. No reaction, no feeling, no conversation can be free of the taint. Each moment, one is painfully conscious of those around him or her, and therefore, painfully self-conscious.

We are polarized creatures, aching with separation. In Black Planet, Shields sees polarity everywhere -- not only the poles of race, but endless permutations of Us and Them, I and You, Me and Everyone Else. Race is only a visible manifestation of an existential otherness that keeps us apart.

Black Planet is a book about men as much as race. There are almost no women here, and when women appear, they seem destined to emasculate by virtue of their freedom from the fears men share and never discuss. Here is a tangle of erotic appetites: the hunger of white men for black men's skills; the secret belief that black men are sexually superior to white men. It is a world of terrible insecurities. Shields thinks that white men -- especially those who, like the narrator, fear the rocky shores of political correctness -- love the antics of black athletes because they seem to be bad boys. White men see in the arrogance of black athletic stars their own missing self-confidence, their own lost, youthful freedom. This freedom is so ironic, represents a world so inside-out to many white men, that it is hard to contemplate.

The narrator of Black Planet -- who both is and is not David Shields -- is obsessed with Gary Payton, the Sonics' point guard, and with his own submission to Payton. He finds himself willing to forgive and celebrate everything Payton does and says.

At one point in the season, Payton gives an autographed ball and a pair of his shoes to a 12-year-old kid with cancer. "For some reason, when Payton does things like this, it doesn't seem saccharine or phony or PR-mad; his sentimental side slays me," Shields writes. The difference between them, so obvious, comes down to one thing: Payton is "cool." Shields (partly because he is not black) is not cool. "It's a very strong, very strange, and utterly hallucinatory bond I feel with him. His emotions, what I imagine to be his emotions, move me...I'm not him. I'm really not him. I wish I were him. I love him -- the phantasm of him -- to death."

Shields is a writer, and a teacher of writing and, as it happens, a stutterer. He is particularly interested in language, in how people talk and identify themselves through words. Here, he focuses on how Payton talks: "It's almost pathological how endlessly the language flows from him; he can't stop talking, talking to himself, whispering, singing. (A former teammate once said Payton would stop talking 'about two months after he was dead.')"

The black jock speech of basketball, its irrhythmic patterns with musical undertones, the trash-talking, the fluid syntax, mixed cliches and confused similes all interest him. So does the self-consciously hip slang of the white commentators trying to keep up.

Shields' own writer's voice is telegraphic and fragmented, very much a voice of the TV-saturated late 20th century. A typical construction: "I say I have the flu and can't go to the Golden State game tonight, so she says okay, Miami and Washington -- two more dog-games than which it would be difficult to find." And another: "I wind up screaming so much that by the end of the game I've lost my voice, which Paul is slightly appalled by but which I take to be a good sign: I feel like a fan again, finally." At times such a voice can be irritating in its imprecision and broken phrases, but Shields' is a voice made for self-revelation. It is how a lot of us talk.

Shields-the-narrator is constantly listening to the conversations in his own head, constantly deconstructing the words we share, and this eternal self-examination forces his readers to do the same. It's a sly trick. One cannot simply follow the narrator's personal journey into these painful secrets and petty fears without doing the same. This is a book about the wound of self-consciousness, about the inability to erase memory, no matter how hard we try. When we pay this much attention to each word, almost everything we say comes to seem coded and subtextual. One of Shields' gifts as a writer is this ability to delve into such buried, squirmy things and make it seem unrehearsed.

There is doubling here, tripling and more -- layers of identity not only defined by race, gender, class and physical skill but between the lines of the book. These are the layers between all the lines writers write and readers read. They are the layers, disguises and ghosts that form the territory of literature itself.

Writing requires an acute observation of the inner life; part of what Shields is doing here is exposing his inner life with enough care and craft that it seems naked. How can he say that? the reader asks. How can he admit such things, such petty thoughts? But Shields is interested not just in saying what is not said, but in exploring how it feels to say it. Black Planet is about racial taboos; it is about how we think about taboos. It is also about how writers choose each word and order them so as to guide readers along a path they think they've chosen for themselves. His seemingly uncensored voice, disarmed and careless, is the result of long thought and careful choices.

Shields notes the searing power of black domination. "White people revere and resent this concentration of triumphant blackness," he writes. "Black players, as if charged with the task of getting retribution for black people everywhere, act like the most pampered divas: I will take absolutely no shit from you; the terms will be as follows..." Yet he never confronts what seems to me to be the most interesting question of all: why black men dominate basketball. There are glib answers to this question and there are inflammatory answers, but the fact is that something is going on.

I've been called a racist myself simply for asking the question -- why do blacks dominate certain sports? (Why do whites dominate others?) We live in strange times, exhorted to celebrate diversity and multiculturalism even as we pretend we are all the same, pretend that these differences are merely window dressing. It is a culture-wide cognitive dissonance, bluntly apparent in sports, and only rarely addressed.

There is a dissonance within the book world as well, conventions blithely broken while they are held up as sacred. One of the conventions of book criticism is to put nonfiction books in the hands of reviewers who have experience or expertise in the book's field. I am a white woman and I don't play basketball. Except for the fact that I live in a mixed-race family and also write nonfiction, I am not officially qualified to review this book. I am something else, though: a friend of David Shields. Breaking the convention of reviewing books by people one knows is another upheaval of identity at work here

Shields and I are writerly friends, drawn together because we have both delved into difficult and personal territory. Shields' knowledge of himself and our culture's shared secrets is part of his book; my knowledge of him and how writers write is part of this review. When we first met, he told me he admired my courage in writing about sex in my last book, Talk Dirty to Me. I responded the way I always have responded to that comment. "You don't know what I left out," I said. "The stuff that really scares me isn't in there."

Shields writes of his urge to "conflate" the personal and the political when he looks at athletes. He sees his own inability to separate his fantasy of himself from who he knows himself to be. He sees that he can't separate those layered selves from the players he watches on the court or those images from the people they actually are.

Page by page, the reader is manipulated into a similar conflation -- merging narrator with writer, reader with narrator, reality with fantasy until the boundaries blur. As a writer, I know better than to do this to other writers. But as a reader, I seek this merging, this blurred edge of imagination and possibility. Part of what we seek when we write is this, too -- to become, for a time, the narrator we imagine into being. In the course of exorcising the demons we confront when we write, we make up our own rules. What is fair? What is honest? What is put in and what is left out? What is not said, can't be said? The reader will never know. We write to answer questions, and in the writing become good and evil, petty and saintly people. We live in those bodies and those worlds for a time -- we inhabit new selves who are, actually, the partial selves who already occupy us a little bit. Then we leave them behind.

I asked Shields why, in such a brave book, he didn't confront the question of black dominance. He responded with words much like my own. That question, he said, was the one that was too scary. The taboos he broke are the ones he is willing to be seen breaking. He is a good enough writer to make a narrator who sounds artless, spontaneous -- unguarded. He does this by carefully guarding each word.

David Shields and I are friends, but not close friends. I know him a little, the way we often know each other a little and guess the rest. It may sound odd to say this, but I think only a writer could have written this book. Black Planet couldn't have been written by someone whose primary interest was sports, or race, or even cultural dialogue. It is the book of someone who is most interested in words and how we name things in the world. It is about loneliness and dreams, like good books always are.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Race, the league's taboo topic, is the league's true subject," asserts Shields at the outset of this provocative look at the National Basketball Association and its significance in American society. Composed in diary form and told in an intimate, confessional style, the book chronicles the Seattle Supersonics' 1994-95 season. A novelist (Dead Languages, etc.) and professor of English on sabbatical to cover the Sonics for a local weekly, Shields spent the year attending games, listening to radio call-in shows, reading Internet chat discussions and deconstructing like crazy, "to the point of obsession," the relationship between white fans (like him) and the black athletes who make up the majority of players in the NBA. Filled with intelligent juxtapositions, bold observations and graceful writing, Shields's narrative is highly personal and studded with humor (which almost always comes at his own expense). He draws a connection between his fervor for the team and his latent desire to rebel in society generally, feeling that "I'm some sort of potentially subversive individual and the Supes are my surrogate subversives." More particularly, Shields is fixated on the Sonics' feisty point guard and leader, Gary Payton, reveling in Payton's zest for language even as he reflects on his own insecurities about a stuttering problem. In analyzing the ongoing community conversation, Shields often articulates his perception that the subtext of everything said in or about the NBA is about race, while in public the topic is never broached. Although Shields executes this obsessive dissection with aplomb, it's hard to match his zeal and a little exhausting, in the end, to read every daily interaction as code. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Shields works from the intriguing premise that the national racial crisis plays itself out in the National Basketball Association. Predominantly white fans connect with black athletes, each camp shaping the other through mutual (mis)perception. A well-regarded novelist (Heroes; Dead Languages) and academic (English, Univ. of Washington), Shields shows off what he learned by following the 1994-95 Seattle Supersonics in a city dominated by liberal Caucasians. Despite his sharp reporting on the games--and the spectating experience, which he demonstrates is more about fan interaction and people-watching than floor action--his obsession with point guard Gary Payton (including detailed coverage of his domestic sex life) are turnoffs. The Sonics, a bunch of underachievers at the time Shields wrote, are now an undistinguished club without Shawn Kemp, Kendall Gill, or coach George Karl, the supporting leads in this melodrama. For its prose quality, subtle appreciation of the game, and occasional epiphanies, this book is recommended for public libraries and academic libraries supporting strong sociology programs.--Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Robert Lipsyte
A risky and brilliant book. . . . It compares favorably to Frederick Exley's classic A Fan's Notes. It is an emotional journey into Jock Culture's heart of darkness. . . . Shields [is] willing to write himself naked about the hungers and envies that move across the grandstand like the wave.
—The New York Times
"One of the best books ever written on the subject of sport in America, which is to say a book that is about a great deal more than sport."

— A.O. Scott, Newsday

New York Times
"A risky and brilliant book. . . . It is an emotional journey into Jock Culture's heart of darkness. Shields is willing to write himself naked about the hungers and envies that move across the grandstand like the wave."

— Robert Lipsyte, New York Times

Chicago Tribune
"Black Planet accomplishes a rare feat by tackling race head on."

— Steven Hill, Chicago Tribune

Newsday - A.O. Scott

"One of the best books ever written on the subject of sport in America, which is to say a book that is about a great deal more than sport."—A.O. Scott, Newsday
New York Times - Robert Lipsyte

"A risky and brilliant book. . . . It is an emotional journey into Jock Culture's heart of darkness. Shields is willing to write himself naked about the hungers and envies that move across the grandstand like the wave."—Robert Lipsyte, New York Times
Chicago Tribune - Steven Hill

"Black Planet accomplishes a rare feat by tackling race head on."—Steven Hill, Chicago Tribune

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Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

"Just Win, Baby"

I went to graduate school in Iowa City, at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where the most passionate thing I did was attend University of Iowa basketball games. My closest friend at Iowa, Philip, liked to say his childhood was about Walt Frazier. Every night he'd hear his mother and father screaming at each other in the next room, and he'd just stare at the Knicks game on the little black-and-white TV at the edge of his bed, trying to will himself into "Clyde's" body. In the spring of 1980, when Iowa beat Georgetown to qualify for the Final Four, Philip and I jumped up and down and cried and hugged each other in a way we wouldn't have dreamed of doing otherwise.

Twenty years later, both Philip and I live in Seattle. Our team is now the Seattle SuperSonics, and whenever he and watch I their games on TV, Philip seems to go out of his way to compliment good plays by the other team. I always want to ask him: is it a conscious effort on your part to not succumb to jingoistic cheering, or are you constitutionally incapable of the monomania required? I admire his equanimity, but I can't even pretend to emulate it. Unable to say exactly what the disease is, I want the Sonics to cure me.

Sports passion is deeply, infamously territorial: our city-state is better than your city-state, because our city-state's team beat your city-state's team. My attachment to the Sonics is approximately the reverse of this. I've lived here for less than a quarter of my life, and none of the players is originally from the Northwest, let alone Seattle. I revel in our non-Seattle-ness. My particular demigod is Sonics' point-guard Gary Payton, who is one of the most notorious trash-talkers in the NBA. He's not really bad. He's only pretend-bad--I know that--but he allows me to fantasize about being bad.

You might have to live here to entirely understand why this is of such importance to me. The ruling ethos of Seattle is forlorn apology for our animal impulses. When I castigated a contractor for using the phrase "Jew me down," he returned later that evening to beg my forgiveness, and the next week he mailed me a mea culpa and a rebate. Seattleites use their seat belts more, return lost wallets more often, and recycle their trash more than people do in any other city. The Republican (losing) candidate for mayor is the man who (allegedly) invented the happy face. Last month, an old crone wagged her finger at me not for jaywalking but for placing one foot off the curb while she drove past, and my first and only thought was: this is why I love the Sonics; this is why I love Gary Payton.

Growing up, I was a baseball fan. My father and I shared an obsession with the Dodgers (he was born in Brooklyn and I was born in L.A.), and recently I asked him why he thought the team was so crucial to us. He wrote back, "For me, it comes out this way: I wanted the Dodgers to compensate for some of the unrealized goals in my career. If I wasn't winning my battle to succeed in newspapering, union-organizing, or whatever I turned to in my wholly unplanned, anarchic life, then my surrogates -- the nine boys in blue -- could win against the Giants, Pirates, et al. Farfetched? Maybe so. But I think it has some validity. In my case. Not in yours." Oh, no: not in my case, never in mine. Sometimes what being a fan seems to be most about is nothing more or less than self-defeat.

For me, baseball and the Dodgers have been supplanted by basketball and the Sonics. The basketball high is quicker and sharper. In fact, the oddest thing about it is how instantaneously the game can move me, like a virus I catch upon contact. In a fraction of a second, I'm running streaks down my face. It's a safe love, this love, this semi-self-love, this fandom. It's a frenzy in a vacuum--a completely imaginary love affair in which the beloved is forever larger than life.

I live across the street from a fundamentalist church, and whenever the Sonics play particularly well, I'm filled with empathy for the church-goers. They go to church, I sometimes think, for the same reason fans go to games: adulthood didn't turn out to have quite as much glory as we thought it would; for an hour or two, we're in touch with something majestic.

The psychoanalyst Robert Stoller has written, "The major traumas and frustrations of early life are reproduced in the fantasies and behaviors that make up adult erotism, but the story now ends happily. This time, we win. In other words, the adult erotic behavior contains the early trauma. The two fit: the details of the adult script tell what happened to the child." This seems to me true not only of sexual imagination but also of sports passion--why we become such devoted fans of the performances of strangers. For once, we hope, the breaks will go our way; we'll love our life now; this time we'll win.

From the Hardcover edition.

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What People are saying about this

Stephen Dunn
Black Planet is David Shields' paean to star-player and trash-talker extraordinaire Gary Payton, but as it boldly probes our great racial divide it's equally about language and culture. Shields knows his basketball and has a novelist's grasp of the follies of behavior, including his own. I love how he enacts a passionate fan's engagement with a team and a season, and especially how he blends humor with serious examination.
Rick Levin
Black Planet is a seminal work on a largely ignored topic. . . . a ground-breaking study . . . Black Planet is an important book--one which bravely confronts the seemingly unmentionable workings of race in the NBA, and which also challenges long-standing, and relatively unsophisticated, notions about what it really means to `watch sports.
Charles Johnson
The manufacture of racial Otherness, of differences based on flesh and the white man's fantasies about color, is, at century's end, one of America's greatest (and most tragic) industries. In Black Planet, David Shields honestly (and ironically) uses himself as a test subject to peel away the layers of personal need, sexual longing, cultural sedimentation, alienation, and blatant prejudice that make eve a season of the Seattle SuperSonics a disturbing microcosm of America's 300-year-old Race War. You don't need to be a sports fan to experience this book as a rare, troubling map of the seldom charted, subterranean regions of the souls of white folks--on the court, on the sidelines, and in society at large.
New York Times - Robert Lipsyte
"A risky and brilliant book. . . . It is an emotional journey into Jock Culture's heart of darkness. Shields is willing to write himself naked about the hungers and envies that move across the grandstand like the wave."—Robert Lipsyte, New York Times
Arnold Rampersad
Black Planet offers us a sometimes moving, often funny, and always absorbing account of a season in pro basketball--in which we learn much about one team but even more about those volatile forces, including racism, greed, vanity, and ignorance, that make the NBA such a compelling metaphor for American culture today
Jonathan Raban
Black Planet is a funny, wickedly observant, highly intelligent book about Us and Them--I and Thou, black and white, male and female, parent and child, spectator and star. We're all in it, even if we (as I do) regard an NBA season with total uninterest. This isn't a book about basketball; basketball simply provides the location, or theater, in which the action, or a lot of the action, takes place. It's a book of exchanges, and it's about those exchanges. It's about crossed wires, crossed lines, missed hoops, mangled figures of speech. It's about not getting along, however you play it, white on white, white on black, male on male, male on female, spectator on player, player on coach, coach on commentator, in a zillion permutations. It's a pity that `entropy' has itself fallen victim to entropy and become a faded vogue-word, because there's not a page in the book on which the idea of entropy, in its original communications-theory usage, doesn't spring to life. This is a book about talking; its real (and entirely relevant and topical) subject is talking, language, and the no-man's-land that divides any two interlocutors in this story. There's also, of course, the central figure of David Shields, the Paranoid Detective, the guy with specs, desperately trying to knit back together this unraveled world. There's great comedy in this--I mean serious, rueful comedy. The book works beautifully for me; it's hugely entertaining.
Bob Shacochis
I just finished Black Planet and I'm having withdrawal symptoms. I miss reading it, which speaks directly to how compelling the book truly is, since, frankly, I don't really care all that much about the Seattle SuperSonics. Black Planet is an extraordinary, unique, and utterly fascinating memoir/book. With unblinking honesty and unabashed affection for his subject, Shields makes a real contribution to the national non-discourse on race.
Phillip Lopate
A compulsively readable book. David Shields, as no writer before him, takes you into the obsessive mind of a sports addict: its shames and glories, over-identifications, repetitions, rationalizations, wonderments, and stoical detachment. I recognize myself only too well.
Jay Cantor
Black Planet says it's about basketball when it's actually that rare thing, an honest love song, White Man Loves Black Athlete--you know, the tune with the refrain, `Dear NBA Genie, make me hip, angry, and always, always in control.' A song that's frank, embarrassing, and killingly funny.

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Meet the Author

David Shields is the author of several other books, including the novels Dead Languages and Heroes (available in a Bison Books edition). His essays and stories have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, and the Village Voice. Shields, a recent Guggenheim fellow, is a professor of English at the University of Washington. Gerald Graff is a professor of English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His most recent books are Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind and (with Cathy Birkenstein) “They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.

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