Professor Harvey Young has a background in film studies, media study, women’s study and theatre. He currently teaches in the Northwestern University School of Communication. “Between the Ropes” is a chapter taken from his book Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010). Though this chapter does not directly address in any detail the fight between Ali and Foreman that is the subject of the documentary film "When We Were Kings," I've selected it because it ably accomplishes two things. First, provides background information about Ali and about boxing in the United States that will help you to understand more fully the importance and range of meanings at work in that fight and in the process raises issues that will return at other points in our course. Second, it addresses directly and indirectly some of the complexities involved in portraying the past, suggesting that most portrayals tells us as much about those doing the portraying as about the past they aim to portray.
Even the title of the book from which this assigned reading is taken can begin to give you some idea of the themes and critical concepts that will influence his approach to Muhammad Ali and the history of boxing. I think the reading will make the most sense to you if, as you work your way through the details of the histories he recounts, you pay special attention to these key terms: body, black (or blackness), stillness, performance (and perform, etc.). In addition, since the history of boxing in the United States is deeply shaped by the history of slavery and so of race, you should be considering how the sport intersects with issues relating to freedom and captivity (in various and broad sense of both terms).
"The Ropes": Some Notes and Advice on Reading Metaphors
You might notice a key to tracking these dynamics in the title of Young's chapter: "Between the Ropes." "The ropes" obviously literally refers to the ropes that boundary of a boxing ring. These ropes separate inside the ring from outside the ring. Within these ropes, a human being becomes a boxer, which is to say, an athlete and, as an athlete, simultaneously, a competitor and a performer, perhaps an entertainer and an artist. In our minds, we can imagine that human being in any way we like: male or female, large or small, light or dark skinned, of different ages. Similarly, in our minds we may imagine that human being to have a range of motivations and feelings entering the ring. But here, in this course, we are challenged to tether the imaginative workings of our mind to certain specific historical realities. We are to imagine that the boxer is male and black and that his decision to enter the ring has, to varying degrees, been influenced by the decisions, words and actions of others; the decision, in other words, has not been entirely freely made.
In the context of these concrete realities, the word "ropes" starts to carry additional meanings. Some of these are literal. You might think, for example, of the ropes that were used by white men to lynch black men. Other possible meanings are metaphorical. In fact, you're probably familiar with the expression "on the ropes" used to mean that someone is on the verge of defeat or collapse and helpless. Other metaphorical meanings derive from different ways that ropes are used such as, for example, as a means of binding a captive. Of course, ropes can also be used to provide assistance to someone in trouble (as with someone on a mountain or in danger of drowning.
What do you think Young means by characterizing this history or these individuals as between the ropes? In other words what are the ropes between which these figures move or are caught, whether literally or figuratively? And what do you think is the significance of those ropes?
It's not that ropes means anyone of these things (though Young may intend any one of these meanings at any given moment). It's that ropes mean all of these things and that every usage of the word, whatever its intended meaning in that instance, carries with it inevitably all the other meanings as well (and more that you can probably think of). In this context, Young may be encouraging us to view the history of boxing in the United States as a history that involves all of these meanings. In other words, it is a history of what happens to (and what is done by) black men in the ring, but it is also a history shaping and shaped by what is happening to (and what is done by) black men outside the ring; a history of different forms of captivity and confinement, and also of different forms of struggle within and against these.
Now, Young could have simply called the chapter: "A Short History of the Lives of Four Black Boxers". That he didn't do that not only shows that he is sensitive to and adept in making use of the multiple meanings of language (technical word is "polysemy"). But it may also show that he considers history (meaning both the events of the past and the narration of those events) as something whose richness and importance is better conveyed by working with the polysemous character of language (rather than, say, by battling to eliminate the possibility of metaphorical interpretation so as to make his language as much like a clear and transparent window onto the past as possible).
It's likely that you may have preferences in this regard. Most of us are trained to think that non-fiction should be like that clear window. Not fancy. Straightforward. Just the facts. If that's your situation, then you might find this reading somewhat challenging, and even irritating. Instead of using these feelings as a reason to reject the reading or even to criticize it, try to recognize that they are simply telling you something about your own experiences and expectations and try to stretch your mind to accommodate and absorb what Young is telling you about boxing history and race, certainly, but also about the nature of history and of portraying the past in language.
The Challenges of Portraying History
To emphasize this point, look at the numerous places where Young, sometimes just in passing, signals the unreliability of our knowledge of the past. He speaks of rumors, disagreement among scholars, uncertainy about particular events. But even in discussing more contemporary figures, like Joe Louis, for which there is a public, historical record, he emphasizes the difference between the public (and publicly available) persona and the private human being. All of this should lead us to question how much we really know about this history. Or, at the very least, it may cause us to reconsider how we define historical knowledge. Historical knowledge may not be, at least in this case but perhaps also in others, an objectively true record of the facts, but rather a story, crafted and passed along by individuals with biases. These individuals may or may not be aware of their biases and, if they are aware, they may or may not acknowledge them. But in either case, their biases will lead them not only to tell the story a particular way (emphasizing certain facts, omitting others, even structuring their narrative one way rather than another); but it will also lead them to perceive the past and the historical documents through which it is preserved in a particular way. This doesn't have to be a problem, so long as we are aware that it is the case and can read with a critical eye and a grain of salt.
In fact, in some ways, it puts historian in a position similar to the boxers whose stories Young recounts. Like historians making more or less conscious choices about how to perceive and portray the reality of the past, these boxers, especially beginning with Jack Johnson also made more or less conscioius choices about how to perceive and portray the reality of themselves (not only their personal pasts, but their personalities in the present). This is what Young calls "performance" to emphasize the fact that the outcome of these choices unfolds in public, before audiences that have their own stakes in how reality is portrayed. In this sense, understanding the reality of the past (or the present, for that matter), may not be so much a matter of measuring a potrayal against some unfiltered reality (because Young, it appears, doesn't think we can get reality in an unfiltered way, and I agree with him on this point). It is instead a matter of sifting through the different, conflicting and competing portrayals, attempting to excavate the agendas, motivations and purposes they may be serving and to try to understand where we ourselves stand in relation to those agendas.
Specific Themes to Track as You Read
Which brings me to Young and the issues he highlights (no doubt inspired by his own relationship to the agendas he has discerned in the various sources he has reviewed) in his chosen portrayal of these histories. I'm not going to take you through this painstakingly, citing every single appearance of these issus in the text. But I will encourage you to go through the text and, in addition to marking what is of interest to you personally, note down how these issues surface in the Young's article. Always, always, always: jot down specific quotes, make a mark in your text or write down page numbers. In class we're going to ask you to be specific and this will help you to do so.
And now that you've looked at all of this, spend some time reconsidering the two issues with which I began these notes: metaphor (the metaphor of the ropes, but also metaphor more generally) and the complexity of portraying history. What connections occur to you between these four themes (which I could call the "content" of Young's chapter) and these issues of style (or what I might call its "form")? Do they seem to work in harmony? Do they seem at odds? Both at different moments? In your notes or in class, be prepared to explain what you mean and to cite specific passages in the text that illustrate your view.
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