When I was younger, I remember writing in my journal, that I would not like to participate in any organized sports henceforth. The reason was that sports mimicked war, and as a pacifist, I could no longer support such an activity.
Then, I found sports again, in the form of the most brutal, overtly violent sport on the planet, boxing. Tracking the when, the where and the why I found passion for boxing, I point to the following interview with Angela Davis.
To suggest that there is an option between violence and non-violence in a racialized United States of America is to suggest that an animal can fly without wings. (Just to be clear, no animal can. Without wings, the best you can do is glide). Davis articulates this beautifully to the northern European interviewer.
My self-imposed pacifism as a privileged half-White man was a reflection of my naïve understanding of violence in this country. By the time of the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement of our times, that White myth of pacifism has been thoroughly debunked: Our society experienced violent injustice regularly, and so no revolutionary change can exist with the complete absence of violence. Violence is not encouraged, yet is cannot be denied.
Violence is not encouraged, yet it cannot be denied. Which brings us back to sports, in particular, boxing. Boxing cannot be denied, and the astounding talent and passion and skill that creates champions in the sport also cannot be denied.
I read an astounding book quite recently. It is called Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory and the Black Body, by Harvey Young. One section of the book brings Muhammad Ali into focus in a very powerful way, through the lens of performance studies. As I work on an essay about John Cage, Muhammad Ali, and Stillness/Silence as a transgression, I realize more and more what a profound artist Ali was. I also have understood more profoundly John Cage’s historical context in the U.S., and the country’s replete history of intolerance and persecution of minorities of any ilk. This book helped me understand the black side of things, at least a little better.
So here I am, as a purebred competitive athlete, turned pacifist artist, (re-)turned lover of sport. And here we also have a thing called violence. Violence is the spectre of sport. The Greeks invented our western understanding of sport as a means to train its citizens for war. War existed as a means to violence, and sport existed as a means to violence. The common goal was bloodshed.
But for the oppressed, violence was to the environment what oxygen is to water. The vitality of simply living, at all, breathes into the chemical compound, one for every two.
Elements aside, I would like to conclude with something less basic, more complex. My deeper understanding of violence has reawakened my love for sport. My love for sport, which perhaps initially converted me into an artist, also now profoundly sways my artistic practice. Taking violence out of an artist is like taking the wings out of a flying creature—it’s just not going to happen.
Let us alight, that essential airborne paradise.