8 Ways OJ Simpson’s Story Makes Me Think

I’m often told by people who have read my fiction, that it made them “think.”  I was hoping to make them “feel,” but it’s OK. I see how they get there.  The fact is, when I write I do see it as a vehicle to comment on society.  I think about what it all means constantly, and I guess that comes out in my writing.

Given all that, it’s probably not surprising that I am fascinated by stories that reveal something meaningful about society as a whole.

Like the story of OJ Simpson.

(I don’t think I need to say this, but OJ was a famous football player turned actor/mogul.  In the 1990s, his ex wife, Nicole, and her friend turned up dead—brutally murdered—and OJ was the main suspect.  The nation watched every second of the trial.  He was acquitted.)

I watched “The People v. OJ Simpson,” a fictionalized mini-series about OJ (incredible!) and now I’m catching up on the ESPN documentary “Made in America,” also about OJ. OJ’s story can be interpreted as a commentary on everything from racial politics to domestic violence to sports.  No matter how you consume his story, it definitely makes you think.

made in america

Courtesy of ESPN.go.com

The OJ Simpson story makes you think about:

Sports

We f-ing worship athletes.  Schools worship football programs.  That helped make OJ feel entitled.  It also made him feel non-black, as he claimed sports was the one area where were people in the 1960s could be judged by their abilities rather than their color.

Los Angeles

In a lot of ways, “Made in America” is a story about Los Angeles.  OJ wasn’t just an athlete, he was a movie star.  The police loved him and so did everyone else—so much so that they let him beat his wife.  Meanwhile, people barely cared about poor Ron Goldman, killed the same night as Nicole Simpson, why? Because he wasn’t famous.

Glitz and glamour also made its way into the court room during OJ’s murder trial—while the prosecutor Marcia Clark acted like a lawyer, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran knew to put on a show for the cameras.  Guess who won?

Of course, the outcome of OJ’s trial was also heavily influence by the racial tensions in Los Angeles. I knew about Rodney King, but I didn’t know about Latasha Harlins (a teenage girl shot in the head by a cashier on camera yet never received justice because the cashier did not get any jail time) and the Dalton Ave raid (where the police raided people’s homes searching for drugs, leaving the houses looking like they had been hit by a tornadoes).   Together, these events brought LA to a boiling point.

USC football, the history of the LAPD, the great migration of southern blacks to LA and more—all this LA history comes out in the telling of OJ’s life.

Racial politics

Racial politics was huge during the trial, but they came into play way before then.  At the height of his fame, OJ made it clear that he did not want to be viewed as black, but rather as an individual.  Just OJ.  He rose to fame in 1968, which happens to be the year Martin Luther King was killed and two black American medalists raised black-gloved fists on the podium during the Summer Olympics.  Muhammad Ali and plenty of other athletes were using their platform to speak out against racial injustices.  OJ wanted nothing to do with it.  His goal was to assimilate into a white world, and arguably he did (for a while).

When most people think  of OJ and racial politics, however, they think about the trial.  The defense’s entire strategy was to use the tensions between blacks and the LAPD to make it plausible to the jury that the police set OJ up.  It worked, because that was plausible.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, the country was severely divided.  Most of black America wanted OJ to be not guilty.  Most of white America wanted him to be found guilty.  This divide had nothing to do with the merits of the case and everything to do with racial politics.  Decade upon decade white people were able to attack, murder, and assault black life and get away with it (see section 2).  A lot of black America saw a poetic justice in OJ’s acquittal.

The justice/legal system

It failed everyone.  Nicole Simpson, Ron Goldman, Rodney King, Latasha Harlins, blacks in LA, everyone.

Domestic violence

When I say the system failed Nicole Simpson, it really did.  She called the police on OJ at least 8 times.  Unfortunately, OJ’s stature was more important than the fact that he was beating his wife.  Nicole literally said “he’s going to kill me.”  Still, she had to die before the police would even put him in jail.

Gender politics

This is what I loved most about the fictionalized version of the trial—Marcia Clark, played by Sarah Paulson.  The People v. OJ did a good job depicting the sexism she endured.  The judge, for example, would call her Marcia and Cochran “Mr. Cochran” or counselor.  The media scrutinized her hair, her clothes, her commitment to her children and her relationships.  Marcia Clark’s abilities, and by consequence the evidence against OJ, were severely devalued because of her sex.

people v. oj

Courtesy of fxnetworks.com

LGBT issues

OJ’s father was gay.  It was something he didn’t talk about, and was clearly ashamed of.  He lashed out when he saw Nicole hanging out with gay people.  How much did this unnecessary shame contribute to his anger?

OJ

I see so much captured by the telling of OJ’s story, and yet I still wonder about him as a person—as a character.  The fact is that most of the images of OJ are rather nonthreatening and pleasant.  He mastered that public persona.  The only time we really experience the other side of him with our own eyes (or ears) is during the 911 calls Nicole makes to police.  Even today as OJ talks from his jail cell, he comes across as calm, accommodating.

So, again, I wonder- what made him snap? Was it years of smiling in the face of white people in the midst of the civil rights movement?  Was it pent up rage at his father?  Jealousy?  Getting old and losing relevance?  Where did the murderous side of this ambitious, dying to please person come from?

 

Muhammad Ali: An American Story

“I am America.  I am the part you won’t recognize.  But get used to me – black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own.  Get used to me.” – Muhammad Ali

I wasn’t going to blog about Muhammad Ali.  I didn’t feel like I was enough of an authority. I hadn’t followed his life closely enough.

But then I read the above quote in the Obamas’ statement on his death and I felt moved to write.

If you’ve followed this blog in the past, then you know how frustrated it makes me when publishers, movie studios, etc. operate under the assumption that while everyone can relate to a white person’s story, a non-white person’s story is niche, trendy, and simply not as universal.  The suggestion being that true humanity can only be portrayed through white characters, while everything else is a unique spin with limited appeal.

Well, I feel the same way about Americanness.  I think too often what is considered as typically or classically “American” is something white and Christian, while everything else is less American, or an “other.”  That notion is completely inaccurate, and I love that Muhammad Ali forced the world to face that truth.

Ali

Andy Warhol via rocor

The reality is that Muhammad Ali was not just an American, but an embodiment of American history, values and ideals.  He was, as he says “America.”

This was not despite being black, but because he was black (and blacks have helped shape every aspect of American history and culture). Because he was Muslim (and this nation was built on the concept of religious freedom).  Because he criticized the country and spoke out about what he believed in (and freedom of speech and assembly are fundamental American principles). Because he was an Olympian and represented America on the podium.  Because he was a father.  A husband.  An icon.

But beyond all that, Muhammad Ali represents America because he was a person and he was born in Kentucky (yes, I know there are other ways to become American, but that’s where his status came from). Equally as simple, is that minorities can tell relatable stories about life because we are people.  With the increase in self publishing and small publishers, minority stories are going to be both told and read, whether the industry recognizes their value or not. World, get used to it.

The Dangers of Writing Through a Strictly White Lens

After a brief vacation from blogging, I had planned to give you an update on the trying to get published process- and I do actually have an update.  BUT I’ll have to tell you next time (next week, I promise!) because, as happens sometimes, I read something yesterday that I feel compelled to discuss.

NYT Article Renders Suicides of Asian American Students Invisible

A couple of days ago the NYT wrote a story about mental health issues and suicides among college students.  Yesterday a writer at Reapproppriate, a site dedicated to Asian American activism, noted the glaring omission of any discussion of the Asian-American students.  She writes:

“Asian American students are more likely than their non-Asian peers to report experiencing [depression or anxiety]. Asian American women have the highest suicide rate of women of any race. Asian Americans are also among the least likely of patients to seek and receive medical help for depression or related symptoms… [the NYT] had ample opportunity to mention this Asian American disparity — and the impact of racial identity in general — with regard to on-campus mental illness and its treatment; but she repeatedly and disconcertingly fails to do so.”

She asks, why did the NYT make Asian-Americans invisible in a story about an issue that deeply affects that community?

The NYT Article Shows the Dangers of Writing with a Strictly White Lens

I talk often about how most movies or books about life or humanity (i.e., not about race or difference) by default feature white characters, as if white people are the only ones who feel love or loneliness or have issues with their parents or a blinding ambition.

The consequence is that the world sees and internalizes a very limited portrayal of people of color.  Even Obama said that, growing up, his understanding of what it meant to be black in America was primarily based on what he saw on TV.  In other words, the way minorities are depicted in the media not only affect how others see us, but also how we see ourselves.

This is what makes the NYT’s omission of Asian-American students particularly troubling.  She’s writing about an extremely sensitive topic and people who feel marginalized and invisible, but she’s doing so through a completely white lens.  As a result, not only does she contribute to the limited portrayal of people of color, she contributes to the very problem she’s trying to address by suggesting that the death of students of color (and therefore the lives of student of color) aren’t as meaningful as those of white students.

On Twitter, the writer acknowledges there is an issue in the Asian-American community but that “one story can only do so much.”  She then points out that she didn’t discuss men either. I understand the impulse to defend herself, but I think she’s missing the point.  The racial component isn’t a separate story.  It’s a crucial part of any discussion of suicide on campuses.

I don’t think her omissions were malicious.  I don’t think the writer is racist.  But her perspective was limited, and therefore so was her ability to write the story.  Writers, publishers and newspapers- especially the NYT – should hold themselves to a higher standard.