By Brandon R. Byrd, Guest Contributor
What would it mean to live beyond the color line? To live unencumbered by race; by blackness?
Black novelists have tackled these questions time and time again. Passing. Colorism. Tragic mulattoes. These are common tropes in black literature since the nineteenth-century.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man epitomizes this genre. Written by the prolific activist James Weldon Johnson in 1912, the fictional memoir centers on a protagonist who does not learn that he is mulatto until he is eleven years old. After the alarming revelation, he rushes home from school, sprints up to his room, and looks in the mirror. He struggles to see himself, really see himself, for the first time. “I noticed the ivory whiteness of my skin,” the narrator later recalls, “the beauty of my mouth, the size and liquid darkness of my eyes, and . . . the softness and glossiness of my dark hair that fell in waves over my temples.” How could he be colored? He possessed beauty. He had been told so. Confused, the narrator runs downstairs to his mother and, with his head buried in her lap, blurts out: “Mother, mother, tell me, am I a nigger?”
The rest of his life is then spent figuring out his relationship to the colored race, to whites, and the world around him. As the title of the novel suggests, his final decision is to distance himself from blackness. He decides he cannot “go about with a label of inferiority pasted across my forehead.”
The Autobiography is a classic novel. But it is just that: a novel. Johnson explored these themes of passing, racial identity, and the so-called “Negro Problem” in his fictional writing. Like William Wells Brown, Charles Chesnutt, and other black writers, he used his protagonists to complicate racial binaries and explore racial self-identification. In reality, though, Johnson lived very much within the color line. His anti-racist activism was unsurpassed, his archival work in capturing black folk culture rivaled by few. Johnson embraced his blackness and felt a deep responsibility to black people.
O.J. Simpson tried to outrun both.
Perhaps the greatest triumph of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, a stunning five-part documentary that concluded this past Sunday, is its ability to show how Simpson grappled with and then rejected the realities of race in the United States. Unsurprisingly, some pundits (most notably, Stephen A. Smith) have characterized O.J. Simpson as a one-dimensional character despite the incredible lengths that Edelman goes to humanize him. Simpson is an Uncle Tom. A sell-out. Self-loathing black man.
I get it. There are moments in the documentary that make it very, very difficult to shake those ideas of betrayal, incredulity, and shame. In the first part of the documentary, Robert Lipsyte, a journalist at the New York Times, relays an exchange between him and Simpson. It went like this. Simpson told Lipsyte that he was at a wedding where he overheard a woman saying “Look there’s O.J. sitting with all those niggers!” Lipsyte responded with empathy for Simpson. “That must’ve been terrible for you,” he proclaimed. But, according to Simpson, it wasn’t. Simpson assured Lipsyte that “it was great. Don’t you understand? She knew that I wasn’t black. She saw me as O.J.”
That proclamation is repeated in interview after interview given by Simpson and those that knew him. He wanted to be a great man. A post-racial man. Anything but a black man.
The motivations for that attempt at a passing of sorts come across in the documentary as clear albeit complex. By refusing to participate in the Black Power and Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, Simpson was able to become a celebrity. Corporations including Chevrolet and Hertz wanted him because he was not Jim Brown or Kareem Abdul Jabbar or, God forbid, Muhammad Ali. His colorlessness had material benefits. It maybe had psychological benefits, too. Simpson was the product of the frustrated hopes of the Great Migration. His family moved to urban California from rural Louisiana only to find Jim Crow by another name. For Simpson, escaping blackness meant escaping the ghetto. It meant fleeing the pain and shame of being poor and black in a society that valued whiteness and affluence.
But what were the costs of becoming an ex-colored man? Those are less obvious. Perhaps, though, they are best captured in one exchange between Simpson and Joe Namath, the New York Jets quarterback then hosting “The Joe Namath Show.” At one point, Namath asks Simpson, “what does O.J. stand for?” Simpson laughs nervously before replying “Orenthal James Simpson.” Neither Namath nor the audience can control their laughter. As Simpson looks sheepishly at him, Namath teases him, saying “That’s a good name. You never got in any arguments over that did you?” At that, Simpson tenses up. “No,” he asserts, his tone growing franker, “I had some pretty big friends. They were the only ones who could tease me about it.”
Simpson could become O.J. That did not mean that he could leave behind Orenthal. He could star in commercials but there was always going to be the studio executive to coach him on speaking “proper English.” He could become a sex symbol but he would always be considered attractive despite being “African.” At every step of the way, Simpson could—and did—deny the validity of race; he was, in his own words, the man who “walked in the room and never thought I was the first black guy to do it.” That, of course, was a lie. In many ways, the fact that he was black would become more and more conspicuous the more he tried to distance himself from that truth. To become colorless meant knowing precisely what it meant to be colored. It meant knowing that the specter of black militancy created opportunities for a respectable black superstar. It meant being aware that “the negro is always identified with poverty” and hating that so much that returning to the black community let alone embracing a black consciousness was out of the question.
As the documentary series came to an end, I texted my mother. She, like Simpson, was a product of the Great Migration. Her family traveled north from Alabama and eventually settled in Buffalo, New York. She was a public school teacher at the same time that Simpson was re-writing the record books as a running back for the Buffalo Bills. For better or (mostly) worse, I owe my Bills fandom to her.
So I asked her one question: “What did black people in Buffalo think about O.J. during his time there.” The response was straightforward. “Sorry. Not sure.” Maybe memories have faded. I doubt it. Simpson simply did not belong to black Buffalo. Those were—could not be—his people. Why, then, would he have engendered much talk beyond, as my mother phrased it, “the usual sports stuff.”
Ordinariness in the pursuit of exceptionality. Perhaps that is the result of chasing the post-racial dream. It is what James Weldon Johnson’s protagonist felt. At the end of The Autobiography, the ex-colored man questions whether he made the right choice to try to live beyond the color line. Thinking of race men like Booker T. Washington, he admits that beside them he feels “small and selfish.” He was an “ordinarily successful white man who has made a little money;” they were “men who are making history and a race.” Had he thus “sold my birthright for a mess of pottage?” Probably. His potential, his ties to something greater than himself, were now nothing more than “a vanished dream, a dead ambition, a sacrificed talent.”
As Simpson sits in Nevada prison serving out a sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping, I wonder what he thinks of his decision to become an ex-colored man. What does he think of his mess of pottage? I don’t know. I don’t know that he has reached the same point of reflection as Johnson’s protagonist. In fact, it is almost certain that he never will. Just before the credits on the fifth part of the documentary roll, the audience hears Simpson for a final time: “Please remember me as the Juice,” he implores. Remember me as the colorless man I hoped to create, not the black man that I was.
Brandon R. Byrd is an Assistant Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. His research and teaching interests lie in United States, African American and African Diaspora History, with a particular focus on black intellectual history. He is also a regular blogger with the African American Intellectual History Society (www.aaihs.org).