November 4th 2015, I became the father of baby boy. My first initial thought was, how do I turn this boy into a man? Then that question turned to how do I raise him to be a black man in America?
Fast forward 8 months
ESPN has released a 5-part documentary detailing the rise and fall of football legend Orenthal James Simpson, aka O.J. Simpson, titled “O.J.: Made in America” directed by Ezra Edelman. Edelman produced other documentaries such as “Requiem For the Big East” - another ESPN 30 for 30 documentary - , Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, and Emmy-award winning Brooklyn Dodgers: Ghosts of Flatbush, which both aired on HBO.
This could be his best piece of work, at least for me it is. "O.J.: Made in America" exposed me to a different side of O.J. Simpson that I knew nothing about. It exposed me to the celebrity that was O.J. Simpson and the “Uncle Tom” that was O.J. Simpson. While uncle tom may be an unfair judgement of O.J., this documentary portrayed him as such.
O.J. Simpson was loved by all people during his NFL career but he was not a man of the people, and by that I mean his people; black people. While he is a ghetto boy, raised in projects in San Francisco, by the time he was a superstar running back with the Bills, he had already forgot where he came from. When Hertz called O.J. to be their spokesperson in the early 1970s, placing him in commercials where he would run through the airport while white people yelled “GO OJ GO!”, it made him a likable figure within the white community. They didn’t recognize him as “one of them” instead he was viewed as a man of no color. Some even said he had “white” features.
O.J. helped change the perception of a black man and showed white america that we are more than niggers that run fast and jump high. We are also well-spoken businessmen. O.J. helped bridge that gap between white america and the black athlete. OJ was as big as Muhammad Ali but much more popular and likable. Contrary to today's perception of Ali, during the prime years of his career, Ali was not an "American Hero". Because he was loud, because he was confident, and because he spoke about the inequality in America, he wasn't received to well outside of the black community.
The difference between the two is Ali was a man of the people, O.J was a man for O.J.
Some may think I call O.J. an Uncle Tom because he spoke well and dressed nice but that’s the furthest from the truth. Throughout the documentary, friends and acquaintances explains how O.J. did not recognize himself as black man first, rather just man. He credits that ideology to playing sports, where color means nothing, which I can agree with. Off the field, O.J. still chose to stay in that mindframe. O.J. didn’t want to be involved with black america issues because he thought it would “hurt” him and his image. He did not feel obligated to use his platform and voice as one that could help bring white america and black america closer. Instead, he used his voice to bring O.J. closer to white america.
The documentary does a great job of correlating O.J. Simpson to the racial climate of Los Angeles. Los Angeles - while it is not in the deep south - may be one of the racist cities in the country when it comes to the systems that controls the city. LAPD was notorious for treating black people unfairly, and the justice system was never in favor of them. O.J. was the biggest black celebrity during that time in the 80s and 90s and had deep roots in LA, starting his legend at USC. He never showed much interest in being an activist for the community or speaking out on the injustice such as 15-year old Latarsha Hardings who was killed by a Korean store owner - owner only receiving 5-years of probation but no jail time - and Rodney King who was beaten on camera by LAPD but all officers were found not guilty, which sparked the LA Riots in 1992. O.J. while being loved and admired by that same community, said nothing or did nothing to show that he was for the people.
In 1994, O.J. found out the hard way that he was a black man. After he became the main suspect in the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, white america began to turn their back on The Juice. The world found out that he was a womanizer and abused Nicole throughout their marriage. He admitted to his then friend and LAPD officer, Ron Shipp, that he had “dreams of killing Nicole” but stuck to his story that he didn’t do it. As the evidence continued to show that he was "guilty", white america no longer saw him as "colorless".
O.J. was the black man fighting against the justice system that has shown no love towards black men or the black community, and for that the black community jumped on his side. The case no longer was about who murdered Nicole or Ron, it turned into black vs. white. The black community in South LA wanted to believe that O.J. didn’t do it and they wanted to see a black man finally beat the system. Thanks to his “dreamteam” of attorneys and a sub-par case by the district attorneys, he did beat the case. After he was found not guilty though, O.J. was still viewed as a murderer. All the wealthy A-List friends he had made, he thought he was apart of, had abandoned him. The country club friends no longer wanted to be seen with him. He became the black man with baggage.
What bothered me most is how the black community celebrated O.J.’s victory as if it was a win for “us”. We were so blinded and hurt by the years of injustice that we became desperate and looked to a wife-beating murderer to represent our struggle against the system. O.J. never wanted to be apart of our struggle, O.J. didn’t want to represent our struggle, he wanted to protect his image and stay out of prison. We protected and defended a man that was never there for us. O.J. didn’t make his way to Compton, Long Beach, Watts or any of the urban communities during the tumultuous 80s and early 90s. He didn’t try to connect with his inner-city roots, instead he sheltered his life and his family in the rich and white Brentwood community in West LA.
He only wanted to represent it when it became beneficial for him during his case. Johnnie Cochran and the rest of O.J.'s attorneys did a great job of using the race card and the credibility of the LAPD. Of course that gameplan worked, as the juror and the community felt that it was possible for the LAPD to frame O.J., a black man in America. Some jurors even looked at this as payback for the Rodney King case, that allowed 4 cops to walk freely after beating a defenseless black man. O.J was smart enough to understand the climate of the city and community and ran with it.
So I go back to the question, how do I raise my son to be a black man in America? How do I teach my son to be a well-spoken black man that is still in tuned with his culture his people? O.J Simpson could not connect the two. Like I said he was loved by all people, but he forgot to identify himself with his culture. He tried to adopt something that he didn’t grow in, he wasn’t manufactured in, something that wouldn’t have accepted him if he did not run fast. He seen that no matter what, his people would defend him, even when evidence show that he was the culprit. Even when he was not concerned with defending them. He used it to his advantage not cause he could lose relate but because it was right for O.J.
It was already too late though, he was already lost. When he attempted to reconnect with his people, taking on this gangster godfather persona, his fall from grace just became more and more epic. The death of Muhammad Ali proved that his fight for his people was real and people hatred turned to love. Ali is now as an American Hero, which was not the case during the 1970s.
O.J's image now is not the one that he had prior to 1994. His story has become the greatest American Tragedy.
So to my son I will say, “Never forget where you came from. Never let where you came from stop you from going somewhere else. Stay in-tuned with your culture but always embrace others. And most importantly, no matter how much they love you, you're a black man in America.