New Dawn: The Journal of Black Canadian Studies

http://aries.oise.utoronto.ca/dawn/journal/

 

 

 

Who Da Man? Black Masculinities and Sporting Cultures

Gamal Abdel-Shehid

Toronto, Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc., 2005.

198 pages ISBN: 1551302616

 

Reviewed by: Samantha King, Queen’s University

 

 

In Who Da Man? Black Masculinities and Sporting Cultures, Gamal Abdel-Shehid makes two central arguments: First, he posits that nations and sporting cultures are structurally homologous. Both formations are organized by an overdetermined demand for conformity and sameness and are thus permanently troubled by the spectre of social difference. Like other sites through which normalizing power operates, nations and sporting cultures must constantly manage, disavow, or punish those subjects who threaten to expose the fictions of sameness, equality, and inclusion upon which the integrity of these realms rests. Abdel-Shehid’s second key proposition is that the category of the “nation” is profoundly limiting for understanding the social significance of contemporary sport. Instead, he proposes “diaspora” as a more politically and intellectually useful analytic tool. Unlike the nation, which allows scholars to think about black male athletes (the author’s primary focus) within the “Manichean” or dualistic terms of inclusion and exclusion, diaspora makes clear that identities are formed across territorial boundaries and that structures of domination be they cultural, social, political, or economic are never simply co-extensive with national borders.

 

The result is a troubling account of the ways in which hegemonic Canadian culture, and the realm of sport in particular, serve to marginalize and demonize blackness. Abdel-Shehid explores Nigerian-Canadian wrester Daniel Igali’s “neurotic” approach to his gold medal win at the Sydney Olympics in which he spoke of his devotion to Canada at every opportunity.[1] He shows how the virulent demonization of Ben Johnson after his positive drug test in Seoul served both to reassert the whiteness of the Canadian nation and to situate Donovan Bailey as a white “cleansing” agent, even as his body indeed all black bodies were at once conflated with Johnson’s. In a chapter on black public masculinity in Toronto, the author traces links between public forms of racialized masculinity and global capital accumulation through an analysis of the arrival of the NBA’s Raptors in the city. Rather than reading the presence of the team as a vehicle for cementing a positive blackness on Canada’s sporting terrain, Abdel-Shehid argues that it brought with it a particular kind of American conservative morality epitomized by the fiercely individualistic, socially mobile “Hoop Dreamer” that serves to overlay localized Canadian black masculinities and political resistance. In another section of the book, the author suggests that analyzing the presence of black quarterbacks in the CFL through the lens of the “black Atlantic” (borrowed from Paul Gilroy) might trouble the U.S.-centric history of exclusion of blacks from this position and its denial of the connectedness of black lives across national boundaries.[2] The concluding chapter lays out some preliminary thoughts on how to write a black queer theory of sport that would move scholars beyond the dominant framework, which is, Abdel-Shehid argues, currently constrained by an equation of sport, blackness, and heterosexual masculinity.

 

In making his arguments, the author contributes to cultural and postcolonial studies writing on race and nation that seeks to question the discourses of multicultural harmony and white benevolence that define hegemonic Canadian national identity. This is a literature that has thus far not contemplated in any depth the role of sport a central and potent aspect of popular culture in reproducing and at times resisting these discourses. In addition, his analysis introduces the potentially disruptive notion of diaspora to the field of sport cultural studies and sociology.  Although scholars of sport have long worked with a notion of the nation as a social fabrication and identified the ways in which the organization of sport through the nation works to marginalize and exclude particular subjects, less attention has been paid to thinking about how the experiences of marginalized athletes and their symbolic weight are constructed across official borders how, as Abdel-Shehid writes, “blackness is illegible if read solely within the frames of national boundaries”.[3] This is a particularly important consideration given the popular impulse to differentiate Canada from the United States through reference to its allegedly more tolerant and harmonious history of race relations. While this particular mode of binary thinking removes Canada from its place within an ongoing history of global capitalism and colonization, Abdel-Shehid’s mobilization of the black Atlantic firmly returns it to that context and does so in a way that highlights black movement, performance, and permanence both inside and outside national frameworks.

 

Abdel-Shehid uses as a springboard for his analysis two books which are of “foundational importance” to the questions he pursues: Harry Edwards’s The Revolt of the Black Athlete and C.L.R. James’s Beyond a Boundary.[4] While reading these seminal texts together marks a unique and long overdue contribution to the study of race and sport, some scholars may find themselves searching for a deeper engagement with other relevant work in the field, particularly that which is concerned, like much of Who Da Man?, with contemporary athletic culture. Abdel-Shehid argues that “work on black male athletes in the United States…has not moved beyond his [Harry Edwards’] original formulations, that “literature on ‘race and sport’ remains a discussion of racism facing black male athletes,” and that it neglects questions of sexuality, hybridity, and performativity, among other things.[5] This may be true of a strain of more traditional sociological research that is focused quite narrowly on racism within particular athletic institutions, but it does not accurately characterize the work of cultural studies researchers such as David Andrews, Ben Carrington, C.L. Cole, Grant Farred, Douglas Hartmann, C. Richard King, or Mary McDonald. Taken collectively, the insights of these scholars have moved the study of race and sport far beyond taken-for-granted institutional boundaries and a focus solely on the experiences of black male athletes to a place where sport is conceptualized as a significant force in the reproduction of a racialized culture and in which it is impossible to speak of racial formations without attention to the ways they intersect with sexual norms or capital accumulation, for example. While, to my knowledge, Farred is the only scholar in the group who uses a notion of diaspora, the persuasiveness of Abdel-Shehid’s argument and the potential of his book to move the field in new directions--might have been fortified had he read the analyses of this group of writers and their strengths and weaknesses through the approach he advocates. Without this step, it occasionally feels as if the author is arguing with the wrong people. This is not to say that Abdel-Shehid’s research will fail to make an impression on the field — it already has. And the publication of Who Da Man? will help ensure that scholars of race and sport continue to think beyond the intellectual and political boundaries that he has so adeptly identified.

 

 

Samantha King is an Assistant Professor in the School of Physical Health and Education department at Queen’s University.  She is author of Pink Ribbons Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy

 

 

Works Cited

 

James, C.L.R. Beyond a Boundary, Durham, NC: Duke University

Press, 1993.

 

Edwards, Harry. The Revolt of the Black Athlete, New York: Free

Press, 1970.

 

 

 

 



[1] Gamal Abdel-Shehid, Who Da Man? Black Masculinities and Sporting Cultures (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc., 2005): 4.

[2] Most black quarterbacks in the CFL moved, as a result of racism, from the United States to Canada where the racist environment did not extend in the same way to an unofficial prohibition on black quarterbacking.

[3] Gamal Abdel-Shehid, Who Da Man?, p. 38.

[4] Gamal Abdel-Sheid, Who Da Man?, p. 17. C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993); Harry Edwards, The Revolt of the Black Athlete, (New York: Free Press, 1970).

[5] Ibid: 20.