Our high school boasted one of the best basketball teams in the country. Our football team was always at the top of local standings. Our freshman class was a tribe of young men whose father's, uncles, and mentors had coached and pressed them towards the field and court for most of their lives. Many of us were already heroes in our own right. We had played on teams where people yelled our names and looked at us with that you gonna be somebody smile. If there are stairs to the professional leagues, our school was one of the middle steps. To make the team said one was worthy of distinction.
When I think of Alabama, I usually think of bombs in churches. My second thought is Civil Rights Marches. Alabama is a step down from Mississippi. The earth there is scattered with fragments from bloody stories; but there's also football. Unfortunately, I am not intoxicated by the rivalries there. My third thought: when I imagine Alabama, I think of older white coaches, born before Alabama was desegregated or right on the cusp of segregation, coaching young black men who will never ever go to an HBCU. It is desegregation's last great win-win for folks who once deposited black labor in their bank accounts. The NCAA, that money making machine that doesn't pay its money makers, gets the best of black talent; and in Alabama's case, does so in spite of its racist past.
The long hallway that led towards the administration office in our school had walls that were lined with pictures of all the graduating classes of the school since inception. If one walked up and down the hallway, it became obvious, we were a part of the larger history of the country. The first few decades boasted no visibly black students. Though religious, the school was religious in the way most of America was religious; belief in Jesus rarely stopped segregation or white supremacy. Arguably, there was something about Jesus, or added to the Jesus narrative that gave white supremacy engine.
I'll make a sacrificial lamb of him.
Of course, it's unfair.
Lattimere was slightly disheveled: canvas pants, with the tails of the shirt constantly forcing themselves out above the waistline. When he spoke, he possessed an air of wisdom that didn't ring right. Too often it sounded like he was either disengaged, drifting, or trying hard to guess at the profound. His red hair lapped over his eyes and his teeth were slightly buck. The bounce in his walk was half lie. If you saw him walk, you would think he was upbeat, which is only partially true.
His eagerness and words came from the realm of play, the edge of a court. There he was an assistant leader.
Always, he seemed to wander around the important. Often in class, he would purse his lips, pause, and tilt up as though he were looking at the heavens. It's a gesture I've seen many times since. It rings of self-importance with a certain measure of disengagement. It is a luxury and fringe benefit for those in positions of power who are not equipped for the task. I usually missed the point. Though, in his defense, he was not full of himself. There was a strange humility about him. The problem wasn't really a problem. He was used to respect, reverence, and served as a guardian of chance.
He was a coach.
While we speak of the integrated whole, there is something absolutely demoralizing about only seeing people who don't look like you in power. Psychologist have put in good work in this regard. White coaches are part of this demoralizing apparatus. No doubt, the world is changing. Dungy and Tomlin are good examples of it; but it is also clear the notion of being coached by someone white is a practical reality for many young black athletes.
Race is an anomaly of knowledge. If knowledge is involved; it is also subverted, questioned, and confused. Like the world of sports it belongs to a subcategory of knowledge. In sports knowledge is regulated to the "lower realms" where it links with physicality. It is mind, or brain, connected to the body. The athlete is intelligent; but not necessarily superior when it comes to mind. The brain or superior mind of the team, is not the star athlete, but rather the coach.
The coaches possess a longevity that often outlasts the athletes. They get paid good money for thinking and running organizations, while the athletes "play". What we often find in the realm of athletics, especially in the post-segregation world is a band of "superior" black athletes "coached" by the "superior" strategic mind.
But coaching is not simply knowledge and strategy; it is also about positioning. Coaches are part of an infrastructure and empire of ideas-about who is capable of being in charge and strategic, about who has the capacity to lead the team.
If Mr. Lattimere, as an assistant coach, was a demi-god; Mr. Harris, the head coach, was God. Everyone in the school already knew he was part of history. He had led the school to multiple national and regional championships. One young man from Boston who attended the school while I was there lived alone in a house in Maryland purchased by his father. The home away from home was donated towards the pursuit of the young man's basketball dreams. Harris was a bit plump, not to tall, and seemed to walk slowly everywhere. Students revered him for his power to change and shape their careers. I can only imagine how they felt. The list of students uploaded to the NBA was long and impressive. He must have looked like a physical incarnation of opportunity. How could they not revere him? The large trophy case in the main hallway underneath the pictures was testament to his power.
Harris taught world history, and every class seemed to be a repetition of some odd fact of wisdom that had been trampled upon like an old rug. Back then, I was rebellious in a restless way and unable to fathom why I felt betrayed almost every time he opened his mouth. Only in reflection, many years later, did I realize, his primary audience was a group of young people he thought would one day play for him. His ethos was connected to his courtside manner and power. The introduction of that ethos in the class functioned like a hidden talism. Wherever intelligence did not suffice, knowledge of his power and influence quickly filled in the gaps. I imagine twenty young men, muscular and agile, on the edge of a court half dreaming, listening intently to his speeches on the fundamentals of the game. At the points where he veers off into the world of nostalgia or absolute bullshit, the young men disengage and imagine what they will be if they play for him. Those gambling odds of going somewhere and being somebody kick in, mixing with the knowledge, washing away whatever confusion arises.
What we got in the classroom was a facade of sorts. The great teachers, Mr. Russell and Mr. Land, were the notables who somehow managed to save the day. Sitting in their class produced the indictment by contrast. To reference Elijah Muhammad one only has to put a clean glass next to a dirty glass to produce clarity.
It's not really fair.
For many young men their sport's coach is next to god. The power is the ability to "put you on". Coaches are symbols of authority. When it comes to their team, they are in charge without contest. "Nobody tells me what to do on my team." And now, come to think of it, I didn't know of a black coach at my high school. All of them, like all of our teachers-except two, were white.
My sacrificial lamb, Mr. Lattimere was a coach; and I was his student. We were caught in the strange intersection of intelligence, work ethic, and competition, that moves through educational institutions under the cover of the world of sports and academics. My problem was, I wasn't trained to look up to him. At the time, I was so young and rebellious, I thought he had to earn my respect with his knowledge.
Lattimere sticks out for me in a personal way, because after winning a speech contest, he took the time to write me a note. The speech was a Dr. King speech. Dr. King, after all, is not basketball. Though the great man serves as a cultural icon, few students entered the speech contest. Mr. Lattimere's note said, "I am happy to hear that you won the speech contest. It is a good thing to learn and practice ones oratorical skills. I only wish there had been more competition in your contest, for what is a victory without competition."
It was "Victory without competition" that struck me the most. The statement is almost proverbial. I had already been victorious in his class, where I received an A and distinguished myself among my classmates. My work ethic towards speeches and writing was similar to that of many of his athletes. Though, I managed to pass through his class; I can't remember a real relationship with Lattimere. The fact that he cared about the speech or my minor victory caught me off guard. I got his point, and it made me hesitate for a second. My preparation for the speech had been much like his preparation for a tournament where the competition didn't come in as strong as he anticipated. One didn't train any less for competition simply because in the end there was little competition. The training preceded the competition. I had trained hard.
In the end, I imagine he was simply trying to "coach" me. Unfortunately, within the realm of his class, he lacked the ability to develop a relationship with me where his "wisdom" would flow. The casualness of the comment, the handwritten note, unsettled me.
It was as though he cared, when all my interaction with him, in class and as a student suggested he really did not.
It's the difficult challenge up the hill of confusion that makes life worthwhile.
Though race is essential to this story, Lattimere was not really a racist. He was simply a coach. Our views of racism and it's confusion rarely suggest a deficiency within those who assume positions of power. It stands to reason, I encountered Lattimere in the English classroom because there is no more debatable category of knowledge in the empire. Most likely, the administration knew what I learned, choosing English over Calculus for Mr. Lattimere's job assignment. He was really there to coach, not teach.
After all, language is an empire of its own whose power is tangental the physical organization of the world. I am thinking about the lawyer sitting in the hull with the accountant in the beginning of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Those two men-the money counters and the master's of word, carry the empire to distant lands. The lawyers personify the utility of the language's power in relationship to other worlds. The law in a foreign land is a different thing than the law at home. There it is literally language at war. At home, the language is light and casual. Internally, it is the notion of humanity; externally it is the notion of power. However, Lattimore shows how casual he took the development of language's role in an "internal" relationship. No doubt, his power as coach taught him to do this.
Those who work in the language are it's stewards and soldiers. The writer's work the language, the lawyers execute the language in relationship to social order. The English teachers impart the skill of reading, interpreting, and creating language to young people.
Within the empire, the power to make someone else speak one's language precedes the notion of speaking or writing it well. It is easy to take this for granted. The debate over the validity of the humanities is as much an internal argument for "those operating within the cultural of the English language", as it is a response to external forces. One arrives on the continent thinking gold, land, trees, fish, tobacco, and riches. Staring into the vast horizon, language is of little concern. What is more important is that one knows the power relationships or has the gumption to establish them.
Perhaps, I have discounted Lattimere too much. Maybe, he is smarter than I thought. Maybe, he knew this.