One of the more interesting (and memorable) books I read while I crashed and burned in my doctoral program was Saltwater Slavery, written by historian and professor Stephanie Smallwood.
In the book, Smallwood described the process by which slaves, captured on the Gold Coast (present day Ghana) of West Africa, were systematically stripped of their humanity and “commodified” by their European captors and slavers while traveling on the “middle passage” between Africa and the Americas. Smallwood used the official documents of European slavers, which tracked slave inventories (and losses to that inventory), as well as documents that listed ship cargo as well as rations for both crew and the enslaved, to show how Europeans perfected the art of simply keeping slaves alive so they could be sold for good prices. In addition, Smallwood explored how a loss of sensory engagement with the real world stripped a captured African person of his or her ability to discern their surroundings, communicate with their fellow captives, and participate in traditional practices, and in turn, forced a transformation from human being to commodity. If the cargo survived — and the slave successfully was transformed from human to commodity — it could then make the final transformation into a slave. Smallwood’s discourse analysis, which dove into the language of the slavers who gloated over the “lusty bodies” of slaves, highlighted how deeply engrained the practice of human commodification was in the transatlantic slave trade. It was a compelling argument, and despite its minor flaws (African historians are supposed to distrust work that makes heavy use of European sources to describe a particular African experience), the book (and its author, whom I TA’d for twice) influenced me greatly in my abortive career as an academic.
I am finding myself thinking about this book at a strange time: in the hours leading up to the 2012 NBA draft.
Each year, sixty young men — basketball players from all over the world — are selected by thirty NBA franchises to start the process of crafting a career in the league. Over half of the players chosen will never suit up for the team that drafted them, let alone play a minute of professional basketball in the NBA. Many of them will last mere minutes in the league, and will instead earn the bulk of their money overseas, playing in far-flung leagues, thousands of miles away from their families. Many will never shake injury bugs, and will fall prey to the scorn of media-types and fan-boys who’ll never have any idea what it takes to perform unthinkable physical feats for a living. Yet, for these gentlemen, this is a pinnacle moment in their lives: when a childhood talent becomes a major payday, and when their stories of “hard work” and “sacrifice” help secure the financial futures of their family, friends, and business associates.
For the college basketball fan, this is a moment of celebration for a group of student-athletes who are making good on a dream, and cashing in on an incomplete portfolio of hard, imperfect work. The college game attracts a very particular kind of basketball fan; one who sees charm and promise in imperfection, and concentrates on the players’ youthful flashes of brilliance, as well as their untapped potentials. They appreciate the pressure that comes with the first national exposure of these players’ lives, and can look forward to the fact that those players will go forth and grow into better players, professionals, and human beings. This narrative keeps Dick Vitale relevant, and has created near cults of personality around figures like Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari, who churn out heralded players (“and men”) year after year.
However, for the non-college ball fan, this is a far more sleazy time. For folks like us, this is when these young men, most of whom we’ve honestly never heard of, or ever seen play (and if we did, probably can’t remember it) cease to be young men, and instead become commodified. We assess their performance in college, which in our eyes, represent professional basketball’s Middle Passage. We see what they learned, how they grew, and most importantly, what condition they arrived in once they got to the auction. Names like Anthony Davis, Thomas Robinson and Bradley Beal cause our eyes to widen and our mouths to moisten. Names like Jared Sullinger and Perry Jones III produce frowns and a slow shake of the head. We are all, in a sense, at an auction, selecting which players will fall into our narrow gazes, and which players will fail to make a mark.
This is not to say that an NBA fan is not humanistic; far from it. We certainly care about interest stories, and the personal lives of players are well known. But we know that feelings are for kids, and this isn’t a league of kids. This is a league of men, where crying is hyperanalyzed and the players foul like they mean it. We are interested only in the ways the player will translate from college to the pros. It is that middle passage that concerns us — we need to know these players can survive the transition from college amateurs to bona-fide professionals — and causes us to lick our chops, lustfully eyeing a promising combonation of stats, size, wingspan, “star power”, and overall character. Past mistakes and health issues are “red flagged”, and players plummet just as fast as they ascend. In a final analysis, we are left with a strange event, equal parts pagaent and auction, where we look forward to players delivering disappointment and failing expectations just as much as we look forward to players providing brilliance and succeeding in their new career. It is a meat market in a strange sense.
In many ways, tonight is the moment when talented young basketball players cease to become human. It smacks of Saltwater Slavery. They are stripped of their humanity, and instead become the sum of their stats; another workhorse to add to the stable, wherever that stable may be. Some will blossom and grow into franchise cornerstones, but most (yes, most) will fail to make a lasting mark in the league. Most will remain on the fringe, logging time with NBA Developmental League franchises in Sioux Falls, Austin or Boise, or embarking on long trips to Belgrade, Beijing, or Barcelona. They will be forced to leave their families and support networks behind, and face a wild, unforgiving world by themselves. And if and when their services become expendable, they will be discarded and forgotten by the general populace, forced to return home and confront their inability to become the professional they (and others around them) always imagined them eventually being.
Perhaps the most important argument of Smallwood’s Saltwater Slavery is that “the inexorable one-way trajectory of African dispersal via the transatlantic slave trade” carried significant ramifications for identity formation and individual action while in transit and upon arrival in “the new world.” A captive’s inability to fully comprehend the nature of being enslaved — the ship, shackles, conditions of the journey — combined with a sense of “social death” that forced a captive “to deny his natal kin ties and acquire certain fictive kin bonds to the master and his family”, and in turn, led to poignant examples of resistance. In a particularly memorable example, Smallwood analyzes the account of a slave ship captain who laments the loss of a “lusty healthy slave” who jumped overboard and refused rescue. Smallwood chooses not to see this account as simply an “idiom of the market” (that is, a purely economic loss), but rather, a “decisive act” that “undoes what the market quite deliberately had sought to produce” and in turn, “robbed” the owner, and the slave economy “of the considerable quotient of labor power embodied in his person.” This defiant death, in a strange way, helped return the slave “to a place of personhood,” and allowed him some agency in mitigating what was a totalizing and usurping “social death” at the bottom of a slave ship, and hopelessly separated from natal ties and kinship networks. At that point, Smallwood argues, death was preferable to the trauma of captivity, and the slave knowingly prevented the slaver from turning him into a commodity that could be exchanged, overworked, or discarded.
When I read about the commodities that we gleefully discard — players like Korleone Young, who was profiled by ESPN yesterday — I wonder if we, in turn, are continuing a form of chattel slavery that colonial entrepreneurs established nearly 400 years ago on the Gold Coast of Africa. As we look over variously lusty bodies, wondering if Thomas Robinson’s shoulders are good indicators of an NBA-ready big man, or if Jared Sullinger’s red-flagged back will spell the death of his career before it even begins, my mind goes to these faceless subjects of analysis, whose voices are only contained in the cold, calculated ledgers of their masters. This is serious business happening tonight: the stakes are high, and lots of money is at play. Vocational futures for many people — players, scouts, general managers — are on the line.
But despite this, we should remember something very important: these are human beings we are watching on the stage, preening in thousand dollar suits, flashing shit-eating grins with The Commish. They are not commodities; indeed, they are certainly more than the sum of their stats. If we forget this — even when they’re succeeding, even when they’re earning millions, even when they’re receiving unconditional adoration from scores of distant fans — we are doing these men, and ourselves, a great disservice.
Why? Because Smallwood is correct in her assertion that when a man or woman is forced to become a commodity, an object of exchange, the person become “physically atomized as to silence all but the most elemental bodily articulation, so socially impoverished as to threaten annihilation of the self, the complete disintegration of personhood.” Or, simply put: they just cease to be themselves.
So tonight, as we consider the strange way history repeats itself in vastly different economic conditions, let us cherish humanity, and be ever conscious of the way we commodify these beautiful, lusty bodies.