You may have seen some of Bruce Davenport Jr.’s work at the recent Outsider Art Fair in New York City. For this current show at Louis B. James, the ground floor consists of pieces dedicated to Davenport’s childhood hero, Mike Tyson. In the basement-level gallery there are a number of pieces dealing with the culture and history of New Orleans.
The Tyson pieces, to me, not only document the pride that Tyson engendered in a young African American man living in a poor, segregated community in Louisiana, but also provoke questions about the role of the black athlete, and especially the black heavyweight boxer, as a source of pride in a community which still struggles for equality in America. Is there something about a successful African American boxer that gives him special status, above and beyond other types of athletes, as a sports star for his community? What have these great heavyweight boxers (Johnson, Louis, Ali, Tyson et al.) meant to a struggling African American community through the years? How have the roles of these boxers for their communities changed as America has changed? To what extent is pride engendered through the heavyweight champ’s background and personality, as well as his race? Finally, have these boxing idols been more of a force, ironically, for pacification or, instead, perhaps, for motivation to face and overcome hardship?
Despite the fact that issues of poverty are generally kept out of the news, and racial discrimination and prejudice are often dealt with only after personal tragedy and social protest, many black folks in America clearly still seem to be suffering greatly. 70% of black children are born into single parent homes, black unemployment is twice that of white unemployment, about 9% (1/11) of African American men are in jail, 27% of black folks live beneath the poverty line (46% of black children under 6 live in poverty), the high school graduation rate for African American males is only around 50%, and cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are much higher in the black population than among white folks (just to highlight a few disparities). Under such harsh and adverse circumstances, black role models regularly become a source of pride and hope for those who struggle in the city. In his pieces Davenport regularly writes about the importance of Tyson as a hero. In one piece he writes that Tyson was a blessing. In another he was the black knight on a white horse. Every African American kid in the neighborhood wanted to be like Mike Tyson.
In one of his pieces at Louis B. James, Bruce Davenport Jr. writes below an image of a boxing ring that when a Mike Tyson fight was on TV, the housing project where he grew up became as silent as a church. I loved that Davenport would reference a church and a Tyson fight in, as it were, the same breath. The so-called ‘inner-city black church’ experience has often been maligned by sociologists who claim that it is merely a pacifying and coping agent in the lives of oppressed and suffering people – they argue it reassures people that things are not as bad as they seem, when , in fact, things are actually worse than they seem. Other sociologists cite positive and motivational aspects of this church experience and claim that the church benefits its members greatly – a source of pride and hope is necessary to one’s survival in adverse and oppressive circumstances. By, however, loosely and subtly equating a quiet housing project during a Tyson fight to a church, Davenport helps also call into question the effect the black athlete has had in the African American community during a time of struggle. The question is asked: Is the black athlete the potential double edged sword (pacifier and/or galvanizer) that the black church might also be? Does the black athlete merely reassure and mollify, or does he motivate and inspire?
Through his writings on the paper on which he has created his pieces, Davenport puts Tyson within the tradition of the very great black heavyweight boxers. References are made, among others, to Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Mohammed Ali. Jack Johnson, one of America’s first pop culture superstars, flaunted convention and was ultimately maliciously arrested and imprisoned for a year for allegedly taking a prostitute across a state line for immoral purposes. Joe Louis grew up in the Jim Crow South, during some of the worst years of lynching, moved to Detroit and became a type of All-American anti-Nazi propaganda weapon. Ali refused military service in Vietnam (‘The white man wants to send the black man to kill the yellow man.’), was nearly thrown in jail for this and was stripped of his heavyweight championship belt for three years during various legal wranglings. Tyson, abandoned by his father, bullied mercilessly as a child, living in a neighborhood of violence and crime, had been arrested over 30 times by the time he was 13.
These various “outsider-art” drawings of Tyson in various bouts throughout his career are affecting and meaningful to me in that they show the need those of us who struggle have to find proof that the system can be beat. The whole game is rigged, but a black guy from Brooklyn who would otherwise be in jail is now on TV with the whole world cheering for his victory. In a situation that could otherwise be hopeless, and lead to despair, the Tysons who defy all odds can raise our spirits and keep us going. The world had abandoned Tyson. But for one kind social worker (Bob Stewart) and one warm-hearted trainer (Cus D’Amato), who saw humanity in someone otherwise abused and discarded, Tyson would be dead or in a cell now. So it’s not just Tyson who is celebrated here. It is the belief that we can’t give up on each other and that we have to forgive and overlook the past and that in this very act of faith in ourselves and each other, we can overcome and transform ourselves and the world.
Article by Daniel Gauss
Photography provided by the gallery and the artist