A conversation with Aram Goudsouzian, author and historian: insights on the Civil Rights movement, Bill Russell, Sidney Poitier, and more

By Ed Odeven TOKYO (Jan. 4, 2017) — Aram Goudsouzian has two very interesting, interconnected jobs. He’s the chair of the history department at the University of Memphis, and he writes books that examine historical periods and figures, important events and iconic personalities. Dr. Goudsouzian has written “Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith […]

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By Ed Odeven

TOKYO (Jan. 4, 2017) — Aram Goudsouzian has two very interesting, interconnected jobs.

He’s the chair of the history department at the University of Memphis, and he writes books that examine historical periods and figures, important events and iconic personalities.

Dr. Goudsouzian has written “Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear,” “King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution,” “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon,” and “Hurricane of 1938.” (He and Randy Roberts are editors of the “Sport and Society” series, which is published by the University of Illinois Press.)

He earned his Ph.D. in history from Purdue University in 2002, and has taught four courses at Memphis: United States History Since 1877, The Civil Rights Movement, The U.S. Since 1945 and African-American History.

The range of material that he has written and lectured about about piqued my interest. Also, I wanted to learn a bit more about how a historian views an author’s work.

What follows is a recent interview with Dr. Goudsouzian conducted by email.

∗ ∗ ∗

goudsouzian-booksellers

What sparked your interest in history and sports and books as a focal point of your career? Was there a defining moment, a seminal moment, or theme from your childhood that you look back on as instrumental in setting you on this career path?

I think that both sports and history were paths to an American identity for me. As an Armenian and a child of immigrants, I am sure that I was seeking ways to fit in among my Irish Catholic and WASP friends. History was always my favorite subject: it brought order to the mess of human existence, and it told great stories. And like a lot of kids in suburban Boston in the 1980s, I loved sports.

I devoured the sports page of the Boston Globe, when the newspaper was in its heyday and the city’s teams were so interesting and successful. I also connected to people through sports – my young days were filled with pickup football, basketball, and wiffleball, and I have played soccer my entire life (I was once adequate and still stubbornly strive for mediocrity.)

But I had no idea that becoming a history professor lay in my career path. When I was in college, I had no clue about my future. I loved my classes, but I figured that whatever I did, I would be happy. I was wrong. When I graduated I took a job as a customer service representative for a mutual fund company. Within a few weeks, I was thinking about graduate school in history. My interest in sport history was a driving force in my life – it was what brought me to study African American history, as well.

What best sums up the role the Sport and Society series, published by the University of Illinois Press, has had in chronicling this vast subject for academics and general readership?

For many years, most academic historians turned their noses up at sports history. They considered it unworthy of study even as it consumed mass attention and shaped important elements of our culture. A pioneering generation that included Benjamin Rader and Randy Roberts – the founding editors of the Sport and Society series – changed that perception through their first-class scholarship. The Sport and Society series now provides the premier outlet for academic sports history. When Dr. Rader retired, I joined as the series co-editor, and it has been a terrific experience to help usher along some outstanding books.

Reflecting on your four previous books — Down to the Crossroads, King of the Court, Sidney Poitier and Hurricane of 1938 — can you offer a basic explanation of the unique challenge of each project? Were these topics in the back of your mind as things you simply wanted to learn more about and felt they would be timely books, as well as subjects that would have a broader, longer value as contributions to the American history?

For my three “big” books, one project has fed into another, in some form. The biography of Sidney Poitier grew out of my interest in how popular culture has fed our political debates over race – Poitier’s super-respectable image was groundbreaking and controversial in the late 1950s, embracing a liberal consensus in the early 1960s, and an object of derision among radicals by the late 1960s. Bill Russell, by contrast, was so interesting because he refused to fit any political category: while leading the interracial Boston Celtics to eleven NBA championships, he was also defying the conventions expected of black athletes. While writing those biographies, I was also reading a lot of the cutting-edge work on the civil rights movement for context, and that fed my interest in telling the story of the Meredith March Against Fear, a 1966 civil rights march that introduced the slogan “Black Power.”

The book on the Hurricane of 1938 is definitely an outlier. In the early 2000s, I had sent my Poitier manuscript off to the press when a colleague offered me an opportunity to write a short book for a local history series. At the time I was scraping together courses as an adjunct at various schools in Boston, and I had no plan for what was next. I also thought the hurricane was particularly interesting – it is largely forgotten, yet at the time it was the costliest natural disaster in American history.

Living history, as some say, is perhaps more vivid in certain places, and maybe that’s true in Memphis, where the music history (Elvis, R&B, soul; and nearby country and other genres in Nashville) and civil rights history and reminders of tragedy (MLK Jr.’s assassination) are omnipresent. That said, do you view living and working in Memphis as ideal for someone who does what you do?

For sure, the past is always breathing in Memphis. It is a city that both banks on its history and is haunted by it. As a birthplace for rock and roll, it possesses an attractive mystique. But like any city that trades on its place in the civil rights movement, that legacy is fraught with ambiguity. For years I lived across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum, which was built into the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated. People arrive at that site from all around the world, and it compels so many different reactions. The city helped draw me into a tale of the “classic” southern civil rights movement. If I did not live in Memphis, I am sure that I never would have written Down to the Crossroads, which tells the story of a march that started in Memphis and traveled through Mississippi.

Is Bill Russell under-appreciated by a majority of Americans for his contributions to the Civil Rights movement, race relations and progress?

I think many sports fans understand Russell as part of that pioneer generation of outspoken black athletes that included Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Curt Flood. But Russell was a particularly thoughtful and complex man, which gets lost sometimes. He can get simplified as a great winner who overcame prejudice. The thickest thread running through King of the Court is Russell’s insistence on his individuality, on his identity as a black person who was both liberal and radical, on his manhood.

In recent years, it has been interesting to see Bill Russell return to the public spotlight more and more, and also to observe Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s growing role as a commentator, columnist and pundit. Indeed, Kareem is seen more on TV and in broadcast media. But what insight and analysis of life and America in 2016/17 do you believe Russell would be most articulate about if he had the same platform?

Interestingly, Russell wrote a semi-regular (weekly) column for the Seattle Times in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after his coaching stint ended with the SuperSonics. He was not the best writer, but he was not bad. He tackled all sorts of subjects, from national politics to marijuana legalization to the lives of prisoners. Some columns were light, others quite hard-hitting. He almost never mentioned basketball. As with Abdul-Jabbar, who has grown into a fine writer, we might understand Russell’s column as a form of resistance – not just against prejudice or political developments, but also against the notion that he is a big black beast, placed on earth just to perform physical feats for our entertainment.

From Russell or those who reported on what he said and did that you came across during your book research, can you recall what was most profound when he spoke about Wilt Chamberlain’s greatness as an athlete?

Russell and Chamberlain had such a fascinating relationship. In the 1960s, when their on-court rivalry consumed the basketball media, Russell struck up a friendship with Chamberlain, often hosting him at his home. While many were vilifying Chamberlain as a selfish egotist, Russell was defending him. But when Russell retired in 1969, he blasted Chamberlain as a loser. It was as if he had maintained the friendship only for a psychological edge that was no longer necessary. The two proud men stopped speaking to each other. And yet, over time, they found peace with each other, and when Chamberlain died, Russell spoke with eloquence about his great friend and rival.

What’s your assessment of the remarkable Russell-led Celtics dynasty? 

Russell is, without question, the greatest winner in American team sport. He won eleven NBA championships in thirteen seasons with the Boston Celtics. We might think of this as one basketball dynasty – I would say instead that it was three different dynasties, linked by Russell. During the first group of championships in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Celtics were an offensive firepower, anchored by Russell’s revolutionary shotblocking. By the mid-1960s, as players like Bill Sharman, Bob Cousy, and Tom Heinsohn retired, the team revolved around its defensive identity. And then, in 1968 and 1969, he won two NBA championships as a player-coach! That is somehow the least appreciated element of his remarkable career.

Also, he won an Olympic gold medal in 1956. And before that, he led an unknown program at the University of San Francisco to two NCAA titles and a record-breaking win streak. There is no one else who even approaches this legacy as a winner.

In your close following of American history, did the rise of Donald Trump en route to the presidency surprise you? What are your general views on the tactics and rhetoric used by him and his team during the campaign and transition period while he’s been the president-elect? And what are your greatest fears and concerns for the Trump administration?

I was as shocked as anyone else that Trump won. Like most people, I trusted the polls and the establishment media. That was a rational response, based on recent elections. It turns out there was nothing rational about the 2016 election.

There is not much I can say about Trump that has not been said. He flouts the principles of the Constitution, exhibits an open racism and xenophobia, lies without remorse, has a brittle ego, and acts more like a pampered celebrity than the leader of the free world.

I have great respect for the American political tradition, for the consistent and peaceful transition of power from one party to the other. I appreciate rational differences of political opinion. But once again, there is nothing rational going on here.

Do you see a natural connection between being a scholar and book author? Is there an overlap in skill sets for the jobs?

For me, the two are intertwined. I always sought to write for an audience beyond my fellow historians, even when I was in graduate school, or still when I am writing articles for scholarly journals. Scholars have to express their ideas in a clear and compelling fashion over an extended piece of writing, which is the mark of a good book author.

Who are some of your favorite writers, regardless of the genre, that you turn to for enlightenment and enjoyment?

In my formative years as a historian, I was most inspired by the great journalists who emerged in the 1960s: David Halberstam, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and others. They all had different styles, but they shared certain skills as writers, in their telling details and compelling characters and narrative arcs. More recently I have developed a great admiration for the work of Rick Perlstein, who is narrating the rise of the New Right in a series of long books filled with insight and humor.

My adviser in graduate school at Purdue University was Randy Roberts, the author of many terrific books, including biographies of the boxers Jack Dempsey, Jack Johnson, and Joe Louis. Randy taught me many things, but especially how to think about narrative history. Right now, in the field of civil rights history, there are a number of academic historians who are writing books that speak to a broader public, including Tim Tyson, Danielle McGuire, Ibram Kendi, Peniel Joseph, Johnny Smith, and Heather Thompson. Check out their books!

How do you consume news and current affairs? Do you read several newspapers, magazines and online articles on a daily/weekly basis? Are you an avid TV news watcher or radio listener? 

I used to read the newspaper over breakfast – then I had kids, which apparently means I cannot sit and read quietly for more than twenty seconds at a time. Now I tend to get my news more in snippets – sometimes over social media, more consistently through the “News” app on my phone.

From a research and scholarly perspective, is there a comparable value in fiction work as a research tool for an understanding an era and its trends to nonfiction work? Can you offer an example of how fiction work has augmented your research and study of subjects to enable you to lecture on it and write about it?

I used to read fiction before falling asleep – then I met my wife, which apparently means that I cannot read in bed any more. I wish I had more time for fiction now. A great novel sweeps you into a story, makes you care about characters, and illuminates important themes. Those are all good lessons for historians.

Writing for QZ.com about Muhammad Ali’s life and legacy, your closing passage was an apt conclusion. In part, it read: “He became a global icon of goodwill, a transformation completed by his dramatic lighting of the Olympic torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. His trembling silence was broken by lightning flashes of the old magnetism. He let us see the best of ourselves in him.” Was that something that you thought about for a long time before writing? Or was it penned more on adrenaline and in the moment?

An editor at Quartz asked me to write the essay upon reports of Ali’s bad health, which was a few months before he died, so I had some time to formulate my thoughts. I had to acknowledge the near-universal admiration for Ali, but more important, emphasize that for much of his life, most white Americans feared and hated him. His image transformation says more about us than about him.

What are vital traits to be a successful historian?

When I teach introductory-level surveys of U.S. History, I tell my students that they are historians. A good historian works hard, thinks critically about the evidence before them, speaks and writes clearly, and learns to approach the world from multiple perspectives. These are the same skills that foster success in any field.

What are you writing about now?

I am currently working on two projects. One is a collection of essays on the African American struggle in for freedom in Memphis, which I am co-editing with my friend, Rhodes College historian Charles McKinney. Memphis is an important and under-appreciated site for black activism – in the national narrative, it often gets boiled down to the sanitation workers’ strike and the King assassination. Charles and I have solicited essays from a number of our colleagues, and we have sent the draft off to the publisher with our fingers crossed.

My other project is writing a short history of the presidential election of 1968. It has been covered extensively, as it includes many dramatic events: the surprising challenge by anti-war Democrat Eugene McCarthy, Lyndon Johnson’s surprise decision not to pursue another term, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the violence at the Democratic National Convention, and the election of Richard Nixon, which signaled the beginning of a slow shift in the political center from Left to Right. My own book is designed to reach undergraduate students; each chapter revolves around the experiences on one candidate, so that they might appreciate how the past informs our current political situation.

In the long history of motion pictures in America, how influential and important would you say Sidney Poitier was? What is his legacy as an actor? In terms of talent, charisma, looks, etc. would he be on any top 10 list of movie actors for the 20th and 21st centuries you would make?

Poitier’s most important legacy is that he was the sole black actor consistently wining Hollywood roles as a leading man from the late 1950s through the late 1960s. He was an actor of prodigious talent, able to convey a wide range of emotions, while emitting a strong presence. But race limited his opportunities. He carried an enormous burden as a representative of black dignity and justice. He often played a liberal fantasy of a black man – sacrificing for his white co-star, containing his anger, sidestepping sexual contact. But the political shifts wrought by the Civil Rights movement changed the meaning of his image. He negotiated these shifts with grace, but no one actor could satisfy all the demands wrought by a race-torn nation. His story still resonates today – if we expect all black people to be as perfect as the Sidney Poitier icon, we are denying the possibility of a more genuinely equal society.

 

A conversation with Aram Goudsouzian, author and historian: insights on the Civil Rights movement, Bill Russell, Sidney Poitier, and more

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Jan. 4, 2017) — Aram Goudsouzian has two very interesting, interconnected jobs.

He’s the chair of the history department at the University of Memphis, and he writes books that examine historical periods and figures, important events and iconic personalities.

Dr. Goudsouzian has written “Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear,” “King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution,” “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon,” and “Hurricane of 1938.” (He and Randy Roberts are editors of the “Sport and Society” series, which is published by the University of Illinois Press.)

He earned his Ph.D. in history from Purdue University in 2002, and has taught four courses at Memphis: United States History Since 1877, The Civil Rights Movement, The U.S. Since 1945 and African-American History.

The range of material that he has written and lectured about about piqued my interest. Also, I wanted to learn a bit more about how a historian views an author’s work.

What follows is a recent interview with Dr. Goudsouzian conducted by email.

∗ ∗ ∗

goudsouzian-booksellers
Aram Goudsouzian

What sparked your interest in history and sports and books as a focal point of your career? Was there a defining moment, a seminal moment, or theme from your childhood that you look back on as instrumental in setting you on this career path?

I think that both sports and history were paths to an American identity for me. As an Armenian and a child of immigrants, I am sure that I was seeking ways to fit in among my Irish Catholic and WASP friends. History was always my favorite subject: it brought order to the mess of human existence, and it told great stories. And like a lot of kids in suburban Boston in the 1980s, I loved sports.

I devoured the sports page of the Boston Globe, when the newspaper was in its heyday and the city’s teams were so interesting and successful. I also connected to people through sports – my young days were filled with pickup football, basketball, and wiffleball, and I have played soccer my entire life (I was once adequate and still stubbornly strive for mediocrity.)

But I had no idea that becoming a history professor lay in my career path. When I was in college, I had no clue about my future. I loved my classes, but I figured that whatever I did, I would be happy. I was wrong. When I graduated I took a job as a customer service representative for a mutual fund company. Within a few weeks, I was thinking about graduate school in history. My interest in sport history was a driving force in my life – it was what brought me to study African American history, as well.

What best sums up the role the Sport and Society series, published by the University of Illinois Press, has had in chronicling this vast subject for academics and general readership?

For many years, most academic historians turned their noses up at sports history. They considered it unworthy of study even as it consumed mass attention and shaped important elements of our culture. A pioneering generation that included Benjamin Rader and Randy Roberts – the founding editors of the Sport and Society series – changed that perception through their first-class scholarship. The Sport and Society series now provides the premier outlet for academic sports history. When Dr. Rader retired, I joined as the series co-editor, and it has been a terrific experience to help usher along some outstanding books.

Reflecting on your four previous books — Down to the Crossroads, King of the Court, Sidney Poitier and Hurricane of 1938 — can you offer a basic explanation of the unique challenge of each project? Were these topics in the back of your mind as things you simply wanted to learn more about and felt they would be timely books, as well as subjects that would have a broader, longer value as contributions to the American history?

For my three “big” books, one project has fed into another, in some form. The biography of Sidney Poitier grew out of my interest in how popular culture has fed our political debates over race – Poitier’s super-respectable image was groundbreaking and controversial in the late 1950s, embracing a liberal consensus in the early 1960s, and an object of derision among radicals by the late 1960s. Bill Russell, by contrast, was so interesting because he refused to fit any political category: while leading the interracial Boston Celtics to eleven NBA championships, he was also defying the conventions expected of black athletes. While writing those biographies, I was also reading a lot of the cutting-edge work on the civil rights movement for context, and that fed my interest in telling the story of the Meredith March Against Fear, a 1966 civil rights march that introduced the slogan “Black Power.”

The book on the Hurricane of 1938 is definitely an outlier. In the early 2000s, I had sent my Poitier manuscript off to the press when a colleague offered me an opportunity to write a short book for a local history series. At the time I was scraping together courses as an adjunct at various schools in Boston, and I had no plan for what was next. I also thought the hurricane was particularly interesting – it is largely forgotten, yet at the time it was the costliest natural disaster in American history.

Living history, as some say, is perhaps more vivid in certain places, and maybe that’s true in Memphis, where the music history (Elvis, R&B, soul; and nearby country and other genres in Nashville) and civil rights history and reminders of tragedy (MLK Jr.’s assassination) are omnipresent. That said, do you view living and working in Memphis as ideal for someone who does what you do?

For sure, the past is always breathing in Memphis. It is a city that both banks on its history and is haunted by it. As a birthplace for rock and roll, it possesses an attractive mystique. But like any city that trades on its place in the civil rights movement, that legacy is fraught with ambiguity. For years I lived across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum, which was built into the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated. People arrive at that site from all around the world, and it compels so many different reactions. The city helped draw me into a tale of the “classic” southern civil rights movement. If I did not live in Memphis, I am sure that I never would have written Down to the Crossroads, which tells the story of a march that started in Memphis and traveled through Mississippi.

Is Bill Russell under-appreciated by a majority of Americans for his contributions to the Civil Rights movement, race relations and progress?

I think many sports fans understand Russell as part of that pioneer generation of outspoken black athletes that included Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Curt Flood. But Russell was a particularly thoughtful and complex man, which gets lost sometimes. He can get simplified as a great winner who overcame prejudice. The thickest thread running through King of the Court is Russell’s insistence on his individuality, on his identity as a black person who was both liberal and radical, on his manhood.

In recent years, it has been interesting to see Bill Russell return to the public spotlight more and more, and also to observe Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s growing role as a commentator, columnist and pundit. Indeed, Kareem is seen more on TV and in broadcast media. But what insight and analysis of life and America in 2016/17 do you believe Russell would be most articulate about if he had the same platform?

Interestingly, Russell wrote a semi-regular (weekly) column for the Seattle Times in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after his coaching stint ended with the SuperSonics. He was not the best writer, but he was not bad. He tackled all sorts of subjects, from national politics to marijuana legalization to the lives of prisoners. Some columns were light, others quite hard-hitting. He almost never mentioned basketball. As with Abdul-Jabbar, who has grown into a fine writer, we might understand Russell’s column as a form of resistance – not just against prejudice or political developments, but also against the notion that he is a big black beast, placed on earth just to perform physical feats for our entertainment.

From Russell or those who reported on what he said and did that you came across during your book research, can you recall what was most profound when he spoke about Wilt Chamberlain’s greatness as an athlete?

Russell and Chamberlain had such a fascinating relationship. In the 1960s, when their on-court rivalry consumed the basketball media, Russell struck up a friendship with Chamberlain, often hosting him at his home. While many were vilifying Chamberlain as a selfish egotist, Russell was defending him. But when Russell retired in 1969, he blasted Chamberlain as a loser. It was as if he had maintained the friendship only for a psychological edge that was no longer necessary. The two proud men stopped speaking to each other. And yet, over time, they found peace with each other, and when Chamberlain died, Russell spoke with eloquence about his great friend and rival.

What’s your assessment of the remarkable Russell-led Celtics dynasty? 

Russell is, without question, the greatest winner in American team sport. He won eleven NBA championships in thirteen seasons with the Boston Celtics. We might think of this as one basketball dynasty – I would say instead that it was three different dynasties, linked by Russell. During the first group of championships in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Celtics were an offensive firepower, anchored by Russell’s revolutionary shotblocking. By the mid-1960s, as players like Bill Sharman, Bob Cousy, and Tom Heinsohn retired, the team revolved around its defensive identity. And then, in 1968 and 1969, he won two NBA championships as a player-coach! That is somehow the least appreciated element of his remarkable career.

Also, he won an Olympic gold medal in 1956. And before that, he led an unknown program at the University of San Francisco to two NCAA titles and a record-breaking win streak. There is no one else who even approaches this legacy as a winner.

In your close following of American history, did the rise of Donald Trump en route to the presidency surprise you? What are your general views on the tactics and rhetoric used by him and his team during the campaign and transition period while he’s been the president-elect? And what are your greatest fears and concerns for the Trump administration?

I was as shocked as anyone else that Trump won. Like most people, I trusted the polls and the establishment media. That was a rational response, based on recent elections. It turns out there was nothing rational about the 2016 election.

There is not much I can say about Trump that has not been said. He flouts the principles of the Constitution, exhibits an open racism and xenophobia, lies without remorse, has a brittle ego, and acts more like a pampered celebrity than the leader of the free world.

I have great respect for the American political tradition, for the consistent and peaceful transition of power from one party to the other. I appreciate rational differences of political opinion. But once again, there is nothing rational going on here.

Do you see a natural connection between being a scholar and book author? Is there an overlap in skill sets for the jobs?

For me, the two are intertwined. I always sought to write for an audience beyond my fellow historians, even when I was in graduate school, or still when I am writing articles for scholarly journals. Scholars have to express their ideas in a clear and compelling fashion over an extended piece of writing, which is the mark of a good book author.

Who are some of your favorite writers, regardless of the genre, that you turn to for enlightenment and enjoyment?

In my formative years as a historian, I was most inspired by the great journalists who emerged in the 1960s: David Halberstam, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and others. They all had different styles, but they shared certain skills as writers, in their telling details and compelling characters and narrative arcs. More recently I have developed a great admiration for the work of Rick Perlstein, who is narrating the rise of the New Right in a series of long books filled with insight and humor.

My adviser in graduate school at Purdue University was Randy Roberts, the author of many terrific books, including biographies of the boxers Jack Dempsey, Jack Johnson, and Joe Louis. Randy taught me many things, but especially how to think about narrative history. Right now, in the field of civil rights history, there are a number of academic historians who are writing books that speak to a broader public, including Tim Tyson, Danielle McGuire, Ibram Kendi, Peniel Joseph, Johnny Smith, and Heather Thompson. Check out their books!

How do you consume news and current affairs? Do you read several newspapers, magazines and online articles on a daily/weekly basis? Are you an avid TV news watcher or radio listener? 

I used to read the newspaper over breakfast – then I had kids, which apparently means I cannot sit and read quietly for more than twenty seconds at a time. Now I tend to get my news more in snippets – sometimes over social media, more consistently through the “News” app on my phone.

From a research and scholarly perspective, is there a comparable value in fiction work as a research tool for an understanding an era and its trends to nonfiction work? Can you offer an example of how fiction work has augmented your research and study of subjects to enable you to lecture on it and write about it?

I used to read fiction before falling asleep – then I met my wife, which apparently means that I cannot read in bed any more. I wish I had more time for fiction now. A great novel sweeps you into a story, makes you care about characters, and illuminates important themes. Those are all good lessons for historians.

Writing for QZ.com about Muhammad Ali’s life and legacy, your closing passage was an apt conclusion. In part, it read: “He became a global icon of goodwill, a transformation completed by his dramatic lighting of the Olympic torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. His trembling silence was broken by lightning flashes of the old magnetism. He let us see the best of ourselves in him.” Was that something that you thought about for a long time before writing? Or was it penned more on adrenaline and in the moment?

An editor at Quartz asked me to write the essay upon reports of Ali’s bad health, which was a few months before he died, so I had some time to formulate my thoughts. I had to acknowledge the near-universal admiration for Ali, but more important, emphasize that for much of his life, most white Americans feared and hated him. His image transformation says more about us than about him.

What are vital traits to be a successful historian?

When I teach introductory-level surveys of U.S. History, I tell my students that they are historians. A good historian works hard, thinks critically about the evidence before them, speaks and writes clearly, and learns to approach the world from multiple perspectives. These are the same skills that foster success in any field.

What are you writing about now?

I am currently working on two projects. One is a collection of essays on the African American struggle in for freedom in Memphis, which I am co-editing with my friend, Rhodes College historian Charles McKinney. Memphis is an important and under-appreciated site for black activism – in the national narrative, it often gets boiled down to the sanitation workers’ strike and the King assassination. Charles and I have solicited essays from a number of our colleagues, and we have sent the draft off to the publisher with our fingers crossed.

My other project is writing a short history of the presidential election of 1968. It has been covered extensively, as it includes many dramatic events: the surprising challenge by anti-war Democrat Eugene McCarthy, Lyndon Johnson’s surprise decision not to pursue another term, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the violence at the Democratic National Convention, and the election of Richard Nixon, which signaled the beginning of a slow shift in the political center from Left to Right. My own book is designed to reach undergraduate students; each chapter revolves around the experiences on one candidate, so that they might appreciate how the past informs our current political situation.

In the long history of motion pictures in America, how influential and important would you say Sidney Poitier was? What is his legacy as an actor? In terms of talent, charisma, looks, etc. would he be on any top 10 list of movie actors for the 20th and 21st centuries you would make?

Poitier’s most important legacy is that he was the sole black actor consistently wining Hollywood roles as a leading man from the late 1950s through the late 1960s. He was an actor of prodigious talent, able to convey a wide range of emotions, while emitting a strong presence. But race limited his opportunities. He carried an enormous burden as a representative of black dignity and justice. He often played a liberal fantasy of a black man – sacrificing for his white co-star, containing his anger, sidestepping sexual contact. But the political shifts wrought by the Civil Rights movement changed the meaning of his image. He negotiated these shifts with grace, but no one actor could satisfy all the demands wrought by a race-torn nation. His story still resonates today – if we expect all black people to be as perfect as the Sidney Poitier icon, we are denying the possibility of a more genuinely equal society.

 

Brin-Jonathan Butler’s adventures and travails in discovering the real Cuba

UNFORGETTABLE EXPERIENCES: BRIN-JONATHAN BUTLER’S
ADVENTURES AND TRAVAILS IN DISCOVERING THE REAL CUBA

Brin-Jonathan Butler's new memoir.
Brin-Jonathan Butler’s new memoir.
Brin-Jonathan Butler near Ernest Hemingway's house in Cuba, circa 2000.
Brin-Jonathan Butler at Ernest Hemingway’s house in Cuba, circa 2000.

By Ed Odeven

TOKYO (May 22, 2015) — Before celebrating his 36th birthday on June 3, Brin-Jonathan Butler has already lived an action-packed life as a young adult. He’d dated Fidel Castro’s granddaughter, produced a documentary “Split Decision” about Cuban boxer Guillermo Rigondeaux and U.S.-Cuba relations, interviewed Mike Tyson at his Las Vegas mansion, and established himself as a writer to keep an eye on with compelling articles for Salon, Deadspin, Vice, SB Nation Longform, The New York Times, among others.

An adventurous traveler, a boxer, keen observer and accomplished interviewer (he’s also found time to interview Errol Morris and Tyson, again, for the Amazon.com’s Kindle Singles Interview series), Butler is making a name for himself as a prolific journalist these days.

His new memoir, “The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba,” is scheduled to be released on June 9. Indeed, a life packed with unforgettable tales and delivered with the determination and confidence of a prize fighter.

Charles Bock, who penned the New York Times bestselling book “Beautiful Children,” gave “The Domino Diaries” a glowing review. He wrote: “In The Domino Diaries, Brin-Jonathan Butler writes like a heavyweight champion: Tyson’s power, Ali’s elegance, and Joe Louis’s humanity, all of them are on display here. Writing, like boxing, is a solitary endeavor, one that gets displayed nakedly, for better or worse, to the world. This engrossing work not only looks at the sweeping world, it delves into the darkness of being alone with your aloneness. A total knockout.”

One of Butler’s mentors, Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price (detailed below), who has written “Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey Into the Heart of Cuban Sports,” wrote this hard-hitting review of the book: “There’s nothing in the world like America’s grasping, oversexed, blunedering, blustery and oft-deadly relationship with Cuba. Charting this fever dream, this illness of love and fear, requires a poet’s ear, an outsider’s eye, a boxer’s clinical cruelty, and an unhealthy attraction to breakage. I give you Brin-Jonathan Butler. Anyone can — and especially now — will tell you what to think about Cuba. But no one can show you better how the places makes you feel.”

I caught up with Butler, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, for this interview a few days before his memoir’s release.

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As a basic inquiry, about how many trips did you take to and from Havana from 2000-05? And was there a typical length of stay per time?

Four trips during that period, all for several months. More visits and for longer durations for the next 6 years until 2011, especially while filming and researching my film “Split Decision” where major interviews were involved.

In the Los Angeles Review of Books interview, you’re quoted as saying, “I think interviews are a bit like photography: what’s left out of the frame is often as important or even more so than what resides in the frame. All photographs are ‘staged’ in that sense. As a rule, I think you learn far more about people from what they conceal than what they reveal.” And then you continued by saying, “It’s not an exaggeration to say that Mike Tyson is one of the most exposed personalities in the history of the world.”

Do you believe your ability to make profound statements is one of your top skills as a writer? Is that an aspect of your writing you try to make stick like Don King’s wild hair became his visual trademark?

I think going back to caveman times, if you’re joining the campfire

Brin-Jonathan Butler (left) and Cuban boxing champion Felix Savon in 2007.
Brin-Jonathan Butler (left) and Cuban boxing champion Felix Savon in 2007.
In Tijuana, Mexico, Brin-Jonathan Butler (center) with fighter Guillermo Rigondeaux.
In Tijuana, Mexico, Brin-Jonathan Butler (center) with fighter Guillermo Rigondeaux.

after the hunting has been done and the food has been prepared, you’d better have a pretty good story and know how to tell it if you’re expecting to be invited back. Most people read anything to find out what’s next. So I try to tell a story where something interesting is promised and in the first read through I can deliver on that promise. In a way you try to find stories that are like difficult rivers for people to cross and find the necessary stepping stones for the reader. Once you’ve done that, you can go back and look after other angles to the story that provide further richness if anyone should wish to return to the story the next day or the next year or 10 years from now. I find the most interesting elements of a story offer the reader an opportunity to look but you don’t force anyone, you just tap their shoulder and they can turn their head as far as they wish to and see what you’ve laid out. It’s the chemistry with a reader that, in my experience, offers the most profound things in a story. But chase stories that are the ones I find the most compelling and rich, so I always hope the reader shares my enthusiasm along the way.

Shifting focus to “The Domino Diaries,” can you share info on a few experiences that were most unique and surprising to you that you describe in the book?

In the first week after arriving in Havana I was sitting with The Old Man and the Sea and training with a two-time Olympic champion in the oldest gym in Cuba. It was completely surreal from the start. In a way wandering around Cuba you feel a bit like the Zapruder film––you just look at what’s in front of you and you have something so remarkable since everywhere you look are people and a culture that defies explanation in so many ways and is just so vibrant and singularly breathtaking. Havana is the biggest small town on earth. So by the end of my travels I’d sat down with many of the sporting heroes of the revolution and had a short-lived fling with Fidel Castro’s granddaughter. I don’t feel anything close to the access I had to prominent people would have been possible anywhere else on earth. Granted, it required taking some ridiculously dangerous chances. But once you crossed that line…

What is the overarching message you aimed to deliver in writing this book?

I wanted to offer a glimpse into what it was like to trespass into the last days of Fidel Castro’s Cuba and offer readers the most profound access I was granted into what it meant, which was through the people I encountered who shared their stories. I’d never been so inspired by the courage and humanity of a people as what I saw in Havana struggling against such difficult and painful circumstances. At the same time, there was such joy and humor and color. A lot of places require talent to capture their essence or meaning… in Cuba it takes genius to take bad photographs. And if you get out of the way of Cubans, they’re the greatest storytellers in the world because their lives exist at the extremes. Nothing I’d read or seen prepared me for what I saw. But they knew where I was coming from from a mile off. That was enormously confusing to encounter and was my first inclining I’d learn as much about America spending time in Cuba as I was about the culture in Havana.

How, or in what way, do you think this book can shed some light, some clarity, on the realities of life, and changes, in Cuba under the Castro regime?

I think “Domino Diaries” allows Cubans and their stories to live their contradictions and paradoxes without resorting to artificial means of reconciling them. Lawrence of Arabia famously replied to why he chose the desert: “Because it’s clean.” Cuba is dirty and complicated and almost unbearably poetic. None of it fits neatly into a box. And for over 50 years America was waiting for Cuba’s economic system to collapse and then, in 2009, Wall Street did such a number on the global economy that taxpayers had to clean up the mess and socialize their losses. Cuba on the other hand had to open up and soften policies to allow for more economic opportunity. Their black market economy was larger than the official economy. Irony after irony on both sides. The moment you’d romanticize Cuba seeing things you’d never seen back home, you’d hear them romanticize American life in a way that was just as selectively cherry-picked. I also think having 11 years there offered enough time to show, contrary to the endless proclamations of international media, Cuba has been changing dramatically. One example of this is that the Cuba inventoried in my book is already long gone. In many ways that’s a good thing, but tourism and an influx of tourist dollars offers a very mixed blessing for many.

If you were granted a one-on-one interview with Fidel Castro, what would be the first question you’d want to ask him?

Perhaps whether, in his heart, he still believes “history will absolve” him. I say in the book, my first impression arriving in Cuba was wondering what Shakespeare would have done with Castro and very quickly the more important question was what Fidel Castro would have done with Shakespeare.

Above all, which journalists and writers have influenced you the most as either mentors or individuals who’ve piqued your interest or inspired you to do this work?

Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” and George Orwell’s work inspired me the most as a journalist. S.L. Price wrote a book that offered me a roadmap when I first arrived in Havana called “Pitching Around Fidel.” His was the first book about Cuba that allowed all the radical ambiguity of the island to flower. I was very moved and fascinated by the portrait he offered and I arrived shortly after he was blacklisted and ended up, in a fashion, picking up his baton to follow up with the same Olympic champion characters from his story in my own book. Price has been a very generous mentor with me and my work and when my book is published, we’re reading together in Washington D.C. and also here in New York. He’s joked our books are, in many ways, companion pieces. I’m very honored he’d make that appraisal since his book meant an immense amount to me and informed a lot of my travels in Havana.

Describe a “typical” work week for you while writing your books. Did you have a number of people critique them along the way?

I signed a two-book deal with Picador USA and worked like a maniac over the next year to deliver about 150,000 words in total to my editor without anyone having seen it prior. It was a pretty furious pace as I was also churning out a lot of journalism on the side to help cover the rent and basic needs for life in New York. I usually get up at three or four in the morning and work until around one in the afternoon. Then a jog through Central Park usually ended up providing the best solutions to all the insurmountable problems and I’d chart out a plan of attack when I got home in my notebook. I had about 20 books all over my desk to help with research and endless notes strewn around or hung up on a clipboard. I’d conducted hundreds of interviews and had the transcripts typed up. It was pretty much total chaos and I was petrified handing in both books to my editor that he’d respond with, “What in the world have you given me?”

Do you see the timing of this memoir as being enhanced by shifting U.S. government policies toward Cuba, and as a result/assumption, more interest in Cuba-related culture and literature?

Obama’s put Cuba on the front page of many papers around the world. Fidel Castro is approaching his 89th birthday. Raul is pushing through massive reforms. A lot of the strife remains for ordinary Cubans. But the Havana depicted in the pages of “Domino Diaries” has already drastically changed and irrevocably so. So it’s a lot more of time capsule to a time and feeling than I envisioned it in the composition. I hope that adds some value to the story.

Are you a voracious reader? What are the last five books you’ve read? Do you have an all-time favorite? If yes, what puts it at the top of your list?

The last five books would be research for a longform piece of journalism I did in Las Vegas: “Bad Bet” by Timothy O’Brien, “The Essential Writing of Hunter S. Thompson,” Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Jonathan Rendall.

I do read as much as I can. I’m probably more of a compulsive re-reader than anything. My all-time favorite books that I return to almost every year include “Invisible Cities” by Calvino, “Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Kundera, Orwell’s essays, Nabokov’s “Lectures On Literature” (Russian, European, and Don Quixote), Borges. Steinbeck. Salinger.

While writing “A Cuban Boxer’s Journey: “Guillermo Rigondeaux, from Castro’s Traitor to American Champion,” did you pepper Rigo with questions about his jaw-dropping number of fights? As you wrote, he had 475 fights as an amateur with just 12 defeats. How frequently was he fighting as an amateur? What kind of condition was he in to withstand the physical demands of 475 bouts?

Every strength and conditioning coach who dealt with Rigondeaux told me he was, far and away, the most impressive physical specimen they’d ever encountered. He fought himself into the ground in terms of how active he was, however his style was such he was hardly ever hit. Watching Rigondeaux at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games, there are performances there that almost defy explanation how magical his precision got to with the craft of boxing. The footwork and balance are so flawless and majestic the accuracy and blurring speed of the punches––he was a once in a lifetime talent. It’s a shame he never got to have his prime on public display in the professional ranks. Yet, as incredible as he was in the ring, I was far more compelled by his impossibly dramatic story outside the ring. The failed defection where Castro personally branded him a traitor. The successful defection by smuggler’s boat to Mexico and finding a way into the U.S. to land in Miami. Chasing the American Dream via a smuggler’s boat is just so eerie and tragic in its dimensions.

In other countries, which sporting figures would you compare Teofilo Stevenson to in terms of public admiration he received in Cuba?

Muhammad Ali is the obvious choice. They look like almost twin brothers only Teofilo was considerably bigger at 6’5 and more muscular. Stevenson was the second-most famous face on the island after you know who. On top of that kind of recognition, he was a highly intelligent, articulate man who offered a great deal of eloquence and compassion behind his reasons for turning down vast fortunes to leave. His legacy was such that even Ali never boasted of what he might have done to Stevenson in the ring. Ali tore down every other claim to his throne, but never Stevenson. On the contrary, Ali brought almost two million dollars worth of money to Cuba to support humanitarian aid in opposition to the embargo. They were inseparable on the island and when I asked Stevenson, shortly before his death, whether he regretted not having the chance to fight Ali to prove who was better he laughed, “How could I fight my brother?” It was very moving to be in the presence of such a spirit.

During your interview with Stevenson — his final interview before he passed away in June 2012 at age 60 — for an agreed upon price of $150 and a bottle of vodka, what was the first thing you asked him? What was your final questions? What was the physical and emotional atmosphere of that interview? Were you surrounded by a lot of people? How long did it last?

I interviewed Teofilo Stevenson in May of 2011. I had one translator with me who was a personal friend of Stevenson. My first question, given how reluctant Stevenson was to be on camera, was whether or not he’d live up to his word to sit with me for an interview that I could film. He’d backed out of countless interviews with myself and many others and he was very sneaky if you got there about delay tactics where you’d end up spending a lot of money on dinner and drinks and end up with nothing to show for it. I didn’t have the money to fall prey to any of that and my circumstances of being chased around Havana by state security made my one opportunity do-or-die. So my first questions were making damn clear our deal was honored. He poured a viciously huge glass of vodka before me after we agreed to the price and had me agree we’d start after I’d down the drink. I don’t drink and I come from a family that has battled a fair share of alcoholism. So I gulped the whole drink and turned the camera on and off we went while he screamed in protest because he’d assumed I’d sip the thing down over the next 30 minutes which he’d count against the time we’d agreed. Stevenson was pretty far gone with alcoholism at that point but he could certainly hold his liquor and he was still immensely imposing both as a figure and physical specimen. And even liquored up, he was very bright with a playful intellect and real moral conviction when he explained his reasons for turning down all the offers to leave. “There are decisions in your heart and soul that can never be betrayed,” he told me at one point, while discussing the defection of Rigondeaux. We talked for a little over an hour. Most Cubans knew of his battles with drink and that his circumstances after his career wound down were better than most Cubans, but still difficult. But I knew after filming him in his condition and hearing the pain in his voice it was likely the end of ever coming back to the island. America had always denied Cuban champions their reasons for leaving beyond them being brainwashed, but Cuba had denied these champions any cost for turning down such vast sums of money. Both stances did damage to these very brave, courageous men. My aim was to allow them to talk for themselves.

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What was the general public reaction, especially in Cuba, Florida and New York, to your Victory Journal article (http://victoryjournal.com/stories/el-duque-la-gran-fuga) on Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez? And how does his story compare and contrast to the narratives of Stevenson and Rigondeaux in the way they were/are treated and perceived by Cubans and the Cuban exile community in South Florida?

Orlando Hernandez’s story is just so impossibly dramatic with endless turns and freakish stakes. Then the character of the man himself, so bright and articulate and contemplative at every step. El Duque was very up front even after he left that had he not been forced to leave, he never intended to defect. There are parallels to his journey with Rigondeaux and Stevenson playing opposite sides of the coin of whether to stay or leave. With all three we have very different times when they were presented with their choice. Stevenson fought when Cuba was still heavily subsidized by the Russians. Duque pitched during the Special Period when times were horribly difficult for the country. Rigondeaux entered his teenage years just as the Special Period was declared but was given a small house and a reasonably nice car for his Olympic gold medals. Rigondeaux differs from Duque and Stevenson in that, largely, he wished to be apolitical. Duque was a strong advocate for the advances of the revolution as was Stevenson. Rigondeaux did what was necessary to follow in step with what was expected of him, but primarily Rigondeaux always contextualized his life as an individual and what he deserved on the basis of his talent. I think that speaks to his time in Cuba as more and more people had abandoned the ideal of a common sense of purpose after so much hardship and instead looked at more ways to advance their own lives by any means necessary. Rigondeaux’s defection split his parents in terms of his father disowning him and his mother strongly supporting his dreams on American soil. One of Castro’s most corrosive legacies is the split of nearly every Cuban family in Cuba and those who left. Very few were left untouched.

From conception to conclusion, how exhausting and exhilarating, challenging and difficult was piecing together your recent SB Nation Longform article (http://www.sbnation.com/a/pacquiao-mayweather-fight)?

How many people did you interview for the piece? And in your words, what is the article’s basic message about Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao and the sweet science in general?

A typical longform article is around 6,000 words with no deadline. My illustrator was contractually obligated to hand in 10 illustrations and I was shooting for 8,000 words on deadline a couple days after the fight. I ended up handing in nearly 25,000 words and my illustrator completed 40 illustrations 48 hours after the conclusion of the fight. But this fight that ended up grossing half-a-billion dollars, both fighters making nine-figure paydays, we knew at the outset was prepackaged as the biggest sports spectacle ever put on. It was once in a lifetime and everyone at SBNation agreed to throw everything we had at it. It was the most daunting assignment I’ve done I was out in Vegas and Los Angeles for two weeks reporting after having spent a month interviewing maybe 20 people. I didn’t know what kind of access I’d get. I ended up trying quite desperate things. I snuck into Pacquiao’s inner circle to run with him up Griffith’s Park toward the Hollywood sign. I staked out Mayweather’s gym after being forbidden access. The thrill and the terror of the piece was trying to shape what it would look like having no idea what the fight would actually be and then having no time to reshape and rework your guesses after it went down to make the deadline.

My agenda with the article was just that we had “the fight of the century” we deserved, a complete one-percent spectacle with $350,000 ringside seats, nearly half-a-billion in pay-per-view sales, bigger live gate than the Super Bowl or all the games of the previous World Series, and, in the end, everyone felt swindled. Well what else is new in Las Vegas? It was farcical and quite frightening in many respects in terms of what it reflected about the values of our society. A society where no child will ever walk into a museum to look at a masterpiece without asking first, “How much was that?” If the fight taught us anything, how much people are willing to pay for something hardly reflects it’s true value.

Like Mike Tyson in his younger days, have you watched countless hour of old fight films? Or read about them in dozens of books? And which fighters from Ali’s heyday and earlier impressed you the most by what you saw and read?

I love boxing’s history and how it always walks in lockstep with American history. Always the perfect champion for his time with so much rich complexity. Spending time with the old fighters does remove a lot of the mystique from more recent champions. Ali owes a tremendous amount to those great champions who came before him: Jack Johnson and Ray Robinson for example. Ali was enormously influenced by both to an almost embarrassing degree. The elegance of Joe Louis. The subdued menace of Rocky Marciano. Joe Frazier’s incredible journey lifted wholesale in Rocky. Just such impossibly compelling characters. And certainly reading the likes of Jimmy Cannon or Mark Kram describing these people and their time has been an invaluable tool to my own efforts covering fighters today.

In conjunction with your upcoming travels to Spain for an in-depth report on bullfighting, tell me this: What similarities are there in writing about boxing and bullfighting? And how does bullfighting prose totally take on a life of its own?

Boxers are one punch away from death or serious, crippling injury. A bullfighter courts death with each pass of the bull’s horn. Where both intersect, I feel, is how willingness to risk everything existentially creates some of the most intense feelings in an audience of anything human beings are capable of. In both bullfighting and boxing individuals are elevated, with tremendous performances, into staining the collective memory of their time. I’m a huge animal lover and from the outset understood there is no defense for bullfighting or even an argument to present on its behalf for anyone opposed to it. I eat meat but I am not willing to kill it. Some say, compared to a slaughter house after a life in a cage where you can’t move, given the choice between that and five years living out in the open on a ranch and then death in a bullring, is bullfighting really less moral? Boxing’s history dovetails with slavery and the symbolism of fighters weighed on the scale before entering the ring to batter one another for the entertainment of an increasingly elite audience does give me pause (barely any seats were sold to the public for Mayweather-Pacquiao and even those were obscenely expensive to procure). With bullfighting and how I want to approach it in an article, mostly I’m curious about where Spain is today from when I last saw it, in 2004, and how the cultural attachment to bullfighting exists mainly for tourist dollars to provide a transfusion to an ailing economy.

Revisiting one of your surreal experiences in Cuba … how old were you when you met Gregorio Fuentes in Cuba? Now did that meeting come about? Was it a being-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time type of interview? What was it like? And knowing that he represented a timeless character, the model for the old man in Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea,” what kind of impression did that make on you as far as being able to speak to anybody at anytime and anyplace?

I was 20 when I first met Gregorio Fuentes. The meeting was something I dreamed about on the plane over and as I mentioned earlier, Havana is the biggest small town on earth. A friend of a friend of a friend had the number, lined up the meeting, and within a few days of arrival I was knocking on his door in Cojimar, the same small fishing village from the story. Meeting Gregorio, and he was 103 years old when I met him, is one of my most treasured memories. He was humble and warm and very charming, still smoking a cigar, and we just had a cozy conversation for half an hour about his life and friendship with Hemingway. You have dreams of such things taking place and if you’re fortunate enough to meet the people who are still living in the world they rarely live up to it. Gregorio surpassed my expectations (which were impossibly high after the book), but then so did his island for me.

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Follow Brin-Jonathan Butler on Twitter: @brinicio

Recommended reading: (on Mike Tyson) http://www.sbnation.com/longform/2015/2/11/7957523/mike-tyson-interview-history-background