A white sports fan wrestles with basketball's racial taboos.

Published December 7, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

In David Shields' new book, "Black Planet," the narrative is deceptively simple: a diary of the Seattle Supersonics 1994-95 season. It is the diary of a middle-aged, white baby boomer, a desk-bound man with fading athletic skills and little power in a dangerous world. "Sometimes what being a fan seems to be most about is self-defeat," he writes, wondering at his own willing surrender to the professional game. "What an agony of enthralldom we are in." This world of the sidelined fan is a rich one, but it is only the skeleton upon which Shields hangs his real story, the dark fable he wants to tell.

Dark fable, I write, and there I am, in a world of hidden and exposed fears: "In the NBA black men rule (sort of), so we admire them (sort of); everywhere else in America we're afraid of them." "Black Planet" is not exactly about basketball -- though if you don't like basketball, you may find the book tough going; the details of the game fill every page. The book's theme is something else -- "white people's reverence for, resentment toward, and colonization of black people's bodies."

Such terrors are vividly portrayed in American professional sports, but to discuss them is largely taboo. It is especially taboo to discuss them the way Shields does here -- in unguarded, private prose, in the world of thought.

Shields doesn't just break rules about what one should or should not say out loud. There are conventions about nonfiction, its territory of fairness and honesty and how writers discover the truth. Shields does not pretend to journalistic objectivity; his focus on race is a focus on David Shields and his own myriad selves. But he pretends to other truths that are not as easy to define.

I am breaking conventions, too -- taboos about readers and book critics and our pretense of objectivity. They fall apart here, as reader and writer and reviewer collide.

The book follows the Sonics' progress, and Shields' diary fills with incidents, a painful racial awareness noted in each small glance between strangers, in chitchat, in how people stand. Shields is hypervigilant; nothing escapes his tainted glance. He sees unspoken racism when the team's Sasquatch mascot shines the shoes of the black referee, in a woman's glance at a black man jogging by, in his own habitual effort to say thank you to black bus drivers but not white ones. During one game's halftime, a Harlem Globetrotter plays with a kid from the crowd: "The kid the Globetrotter dragged out of the stands had to be black: the hoopla of black hoops transcendence needs, first, to erase memory."

This piling up of incident and distrust creates a picture of what happens when we begin to see everything in terms of race. In a world where everything is innately racial, all relationships become artificial -- they are literally constructed from appearances, from surfaces, from image. In that world, nothing can be trusted because surfaces lie. Even skin can lie. No reaction, no feeling, no conversation can be free of the taint. Each moment, one is painfully conscious of those around him or her, and therefore, painfully self-conscious.

We are polarized creatures, aching with separation. In "Black Planet," Shields sees polarity everywhere -- not only the poles of race, but endless permutations of Us and Them, I and You, Me and Everyone Else. Race is only a visible manifestation of an existential otherness that keeps us apart.

"Black Planet" is a book about men as much as race. There are almost no women here, and when women appear, they seem destined to emasculate by virtue of their freedom from the fears men share and never discuss. Here is a tangle of erotic appetites: the hunger of white men for black men's skills; the secret belief that black men are sexually superior to white men. It is a world of terrible insecurities. Shields thinks that white men -- especially those who, like the narrator, fear the rocky shores of political correctness -- love the antics of black athletes because they seem to be bad boys. White men see in the arrogance of black athletic stars their own missing self-confidence, their own lost, youthful freedom. This freedom is so ironic, represents a world so inside-out to many white men, that it is hard to contemplate.

The narrator of "Black Planet" -- who both is and is not David Shields -- is obsessed with Gary Payton, the Sonics' point guard, and with his own submission to Payton. He finds himself willing to forgive and celebrate everything Payton does and says.

At one point in the season, Payton gives an autographed ball and a pair of his shoes to a 12-year-old kid with cancer. "For some reason, when Payton does things like this, it doesn't seem saccharine or phony or PR-mad; his sentimental side slays me," Shields writes. The difference between them, so obvious, comes down to one thing: Payton is "cool." Shields (partly because he is not black) is not cool. "It's a very strong, very strange, and utterly hallucinatory bond I feel with him. His emotions, what I imagine to be his emotions, move me ... I'm not him. I'm really not him. I wish I were him. I love him -- the phantasm of him -- to death."

Shields is a writer, and a teacher of writing and, as it happens, a stutterer. He is particularly interested in language, in how people talk and identify themselves through words. Here, he focuses on how Payton talks: "It's almost pathological how endlessly the language flows from him; he can't stop talking, talking to himself, whispering, singing. (A former teammate once said Payton would stop talking 'about two months after he was dead.')"

The black jock speech of basketball, its irrhythmic patterns with musical undertones, the trash-talking, the fluid syntax, mixed clichis and confused similes all interest him. So does the self-consciously hip slang of the white commentators trying to keep up.

Shields' own writer's voice is telegraphic and fragmented, very much a voice of the TV-saturated late 20th century. A typical construction: "I say I have the flu and can't go to the Golden State game tonight, so she says okay, Miami and Washington -- two more dog-games than which it would be difficult to find." And another: "I wind up screaming so much that by the end of the game I've lost my voice, which Paul is slightly appalled by but which I take to be a good sign: I feel like a fan again, finally." At times such a voice can be irritating in its imprecision and broken phrases, but Shields' is a voice made for self-revelation. It is how a lot of us talk.

Shields-the-narrator is constantly listening to the conversations in his own head, constantly deconstructing the words we share, and this eternal self-examination forces his readers to do the same. It's a sly trick. One cannot simply follow the narrator's personal journey into these painful secrets and petty fears without doing the same. This is a book about the wound of self-consciousness, about the inability to erase memory, no matter how hard we try. When we pay this much attention to each word, almost everything we say comes to seem coded and subtextual. One of Shields' gifts as a writer is this ability to delve into such buried, squirmy things and make it seem unrehearsed.

There is doubling here, tripling and more -- layers of identity not only defined by race, gender, class and physical skill but between the lines of the book. These are the layers between all the lines writers write and readers read. They are the layers, disguises and ghosts that form the territory of literature itself.

Writing requires an acute observation of the inner life; part of what Shields is doing here is exposing his inner life with enough care and craft that it seems naked. How can he say that? the reader asks. How can he admit such things, such petty thoughts? But Shields is interested not just in saying what is not said, but in exploring how it feels to say it. "Black Planet" is about racial taboos; it is about how we think about taboos. It is also about how writers choose each word and order them so as to guide readers along a path they think they've chosen for themselves. His seemingly uncensored voice, disarmed and careless, is the result of long thought and careful choices.

Shields notes the searing power of black domination. "White people revere and resent this concentration of triumphant blackness," he writes. "Black players, as if charged with the task of getting retribution for black people everywhere, act like the most pampered divas: I will take absolutely no shit from you; the terms will be as follows ..." Yet he never confronts what seems to me to be the most interesting question of all: why black men dominate basketball. There are glib answers to this question and there are inflammatory answers, but the fact is that something is going on.

I've been called a racist myself simply for asking the question -- why do blacks dominate certain sports? (Why do whites dominate others?) We live in strange times, exhorted to celebrate diversity and multiculturalism even as we pretend we are all the same, pretend that these differences are merely window dressing. It is a culture-wide cognitive dissonance, bluntly apparent in sports, and only rarely addressed.

There is a dissonance within the book world as well, conventions blithely broken while they are held up as sacred. One of the conventions of book criticism is to put nonfiction books in the hands of reviewers who have experience or expertise in the book's field. I am a white woman and I don't play basketball. Except for the fact that I live in a mixed-race family and also write nonfiction, I am not officially qualified to review this book. I am something else, though: a friend of David Shields. Breaking the convention of reviewing books by people one knows is another upheaval of identity at work here

Shields and I are writerly friends, drawn together because we have both delved into difficult and personal territory. Shields' knowledge of himself and our culture's shared secrets is part of his book; my knowledge of him and how writers write is part of this review. When we first met, he told me he admired my courage in writing about sex in my last book, "Talk Dirty to Me." I responded the way I always have responded to that comment. "You don't know what I left out," I said. "The stuff that really scares me isn't in there."

Shields writes of his urge to "conflate" the personal and the political when he looks at athletes. He sees his own inability to separate his fantasy of himself from who he knows himself to be. He sees that he can't separate those layered selves from the players he watches on the court or those images from the people they actually are.

Page by page, the reader is manipulated into a similar conflation -- merging narrator with writer, reader with narrator, reality with fantasy until the boundaries blur. As a writer, I know better than to do this to other writers. But as a reader, I seek this merging, this blurred edge of imagination and possibility. Part of what we seek when we write is this, too -- to become, for a time, the narrator we imagine into being. In the course of exorcising the demons we confront when we write, we make up our own rules. What is fair? What is honest? What is put in and what is left out? What is not said, can't be said? The reader will never know. We write to answer questions, and in the writing become good and evil, petty and saintly people. We live in those bodies and those worlds for a time -- we inhabit new selves who are, actually, the partial selves who already occupy us a little bit. Then we leave them behind.

I asked Shields why, in such a brave book, he didn't confront the question of black dominance. He responded with words much like my own. That question, he said, was the one that was too scary. The taboos he broke are the ones he is willing to be seen breaking. He is a good enough writer to make a narrator who sounds artless, spontaneous -- unguarded. He does this by carefully guarding each word.

David Shields and I are friends, but not close friends. I know him a little, the way we often know each other a little and guess the rest. It may sound odd to say this, but I think only a writer could have written this book. "Black Planet" couldn't have been written by someone whose primary interest was sports, or race, or even cultural dialogue. It is the book of someone who is most interested in words and how we name things in the world. It is about loneliness and dreams, like good books always are.

By Sallie Tisdale

Sallie Tisdale's most recent book is "Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom" (Harper San Francisco, 2006). She contributes to magazines such as Harper's, Tricycle, and Antioch Review.

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