The O.J. Syllabus

By Thomas P. Oates, Guest Contributor

I frequently teach about OJ Simpson’s public career. In fact, I have probably assigned Leola Johnson and David Roediger’s classic essay “Hertz, Don’t It: Becoming Colorless and Staying Black in the Crossover of O.J. Simpson” more often than any other reading. The authors interrogate Simpson’s purported “colorlessness,” arguing that Simpson’s celebrity was always based in a racialized appeal, regardless that he had “transcended” race. Johnson and Roediger’s essay is one of a number of superb entries in Toni Morrison and Claudia Brodsky Lacour’s provocative collection Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case. Essays by Ann duCille, Kimberle Williams-Crenshaw, George Lipsitz, Andrew Ross, and others position O.J. Simpson an entry point for exploring complex cultural issues. Nearly twenty years old now, it remains salient. The recent ESPN documentary O.J.: Made in America and the FX miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson demonstrate the enduring and expansive relevance of the Simpson case.

The thought has crossed my mind that it would be possible to build an entire semester-long course around the figure of O.J. Simpson. While narrowly focused, the topic opens avenues to a number of critical issues. Contextualizing Simpson means confronting the deeply racist and patriarchal ideals that dominated as modern sport took shape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It means grappling with threats like that posed by Jack Johnson. Such a course would also require understanding the particular context in which Simpson emerged as a star athlete in the late 1960s. Against black athletes in “revolt” against establishment forces, Simpson was positioned (and positioned himself) as a more palatable, unthreatening alternative. It’s also important to recognize how O.J. Simpson was framed in new ways with the introduction of sophisticated technologies for celebrating and dissecting elite athletes, such as slow-motion replay.

O.J. Simpson retired from professional football in 1979 to pursue a career as a movie actor. By the early 1990s, with Simpson about to dominate national media attention again, the politics of race and resistance had changed in some important ways. Cultural struggles to define the meaning of urban black ghettos and to associate black men with criminality and hyper-sexuality were being played out in cinema, music, television, and sport. Memories of Rodney King’s videotaped and unpunished beating by LA police officers and bad experiences shaped the lens through with different communities viewed the murder trial. The significance of the decision to try his case in multiracial Los Angeles, instead of the mostly-white Santa Monica underscores the crucial interplay of race and space that shaped power in 1990s Los Angeles.

I suggest beginning this course with the recent documentary series OJ: Made in America and the outstanding essays included in Toni Morrison and Claudia Brodsky Lacour’s edited collection Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case. After exploring the issues raised in those texts, I propose closing this course by considering some controversies that have erupted around black athlete/celebrities in the twenty-first century – an invitation to explore how the ideas discussed in the course might help us to interpret them.

Week 1:

Watch: OJ: Made in America, Parts 1-4.

Week 2:

Toni Morrison and Claudia Brodsky Lacour (eds.), Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case.

Week 3: Masculinity, Race, and the Emergence of Modern Sport, Part 1

Michael Oriard, Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle.

Ben Carrington, Race, Sport, and Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora.

Week 4: Masculinity, Race, and the Emergence of Modern Sport, Part 2

John F. Kasson, Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity.

Theresa Runstedtler, “White Censors, Dark Screens: The Jefferies-Johnson Fight Film Controversy,” in Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line.

Week 5: The Revolt of the Black Athlete, Part 1

Harry Edwards, Revolt of the Black Athlete

Amy Bass, Not the Triumph, but the Struggle: 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete.

Week 6: The Revolt of the Black Athlete, Part 2

Douglas Hartmann, Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete: The 1968 Olympic Protests and Their Aftermath.

David K. Wiggins, “The Future of College Athletics is at Stake: Black Athletes and Racial Turmoil on Three Predominately White University Campuses, 1968-1972,” Journal of Sport History 15 (1988): 304-333.

Week 7: Refiguring Race Relations in the Post-Civil Rights Era

OJ Simpson with Pete Axhelm, O.J.: The Education of a Rich Rookie.

Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, “Color-Blind Dreams and Racial Nightmares: Reconfiguring Racism in the Post Civil-Rights Era,” in Toni Morrison and Claudia Brodsky Lacour (eds.), Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case.

Kyle Kusz, Revolt of the White Athlete: Race, Media and the Emergence of Extreme Athletes in America.

Week 8: Televised Sport

Margaret Morse, “Sport on Television: Replay and Display,” in E. Ann Kaplan (ed.) Regarding Television.

Victoria Johnson, “Brand Identity: Monday Night Football,” in Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell, How to Watch Television.

Nick Trujillo, “Missiles, Machines, and Men: Images of the Male Body on ABC’s Monday Night Football,” Sociology of Sport Journal 12 (1995): 403-423.

Week 9: Racial Politics in 1990: Hollywood and music industry

Imani Perry, Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop.

David J. Leonard, Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema.

Week 10: Racial Politics in 1990s Los Angeles

George Lipsitz, “The White Spatial Imaginary,” in How Racism Takes Place.

Elizabeth Alexander, “Can You be Black and Look at This?: Reading the Rodney King Video(s),” Public Culture 7(1994): 77-94.

Mike Davis, “The Hammer and the Rock,” in City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles.

Week 11: Race, Sport, and Intimate Partner Violence

Angela Davis, “Rape, Racism and the Myth of the Black Rapist,” in Women, Race, and Class.

Suzanne Marie Enck-Wanzer, “All’s Fair in Love and Sport: Black Masculinity, Domestic Violence, and the Media,” Communication & Critical/Cultural Studies 6, no. 1 (2009): 1-18.

CL Cole and Harry Denny III, “Visualizing Deviance in Post-Reagan America: Magic Johnson, AIDS, and the Promiscuous World of Professional Sport”

Week 12: OJ’s Legacy?

David L Andrews (ed.), Michael Jordan, Inc.: Corporate Sport, Media Culture, and Late Modern America.

David J Leonard. “The Next MJ or the Next OJ? Kobe Bryant, Race, and the Absurdity of Color-Blind Rhetoric,” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 28 (2004): 284-313.

Jonathan Markovitz “Anatomy of a Spectacle: Race, Gender and Memory in the Kobe Bryant Rape Case,” Sociology of Sport Journal 23(2006): 396-418.

Abby Ferber, “The Construction of Black Masculinity: White Supremacy Now and Then,” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 31(2007): 11-24.

Jaime Schultz, “Reading the Catsuit: Serena Williams and the Production of Blackness at the 2002 US Open.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 29(2005): 338-357.

Thomas P. Oates holds a joint appointment in American Studies and Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Iowa. His scholarship on race, gender, and sport has appeared in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Sociology of Sport Journal, and Radical History Review.

2 thoughts on “The O.J. Syllabus

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