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 Past, Present and Future of This Novel

I began this journey in January 2013.  I wrote everyday, blogged every week and, to my surprise, finished a first draft in six months. Editing sucked—like really sucked.  But I did it, took writing classes, entered contests and called myself a writer.

In March 2014, I found out I was a finalist in a writing contest, which led me to my first retreat. Whoa!  That was when I realized this didn’t have to be as solitary an experience as I thought.  I discovered a community of people just like me!  It was energizing.  So in May 2014 I started the infamously ego-bursting process of pitching my novel to agents.

A temporary shift in focus

The summer of 2014, something crazy happened.  I landed a job (as a lawyer) that I loved!  At that point, I more or less stopped everything novel related.  I stopped pitching agents, my blog consistency went way down, and I didn’t do much work on my manuscript.  I consciously re-prioritized during that period because I wanted to make a good impression, and it seemed like a natural time for a break (because pitching agents is a waiting game).  The only thing I kept doing consistently was blog for The Write Practice.

Over the next 6-8 months, I received dozens of rejections.  Most agents said nothing, but some of them explained why.  The most consistent feedback I received was a) they liked my writing style and b) they did not know how to sell my book.  Where would it go in a bookstore? (I don’t know)  I really did not want to self-publish (a personal choice for me- self publishing is a great option for others) so I started seriously considering a small publisher that read (and seemed to like) my manuscript.

I think that’s where I was at when I last posted to my blog.  I’m embarrassed to say that was August 2015!

Since my last post…

Since my last post here’s what happened:  while I was talking to the small publisher, one agent was reading my full manuscript.  (Let me explain—after you send a query letter to an agent, they take months to request a portion of your manuscript.  Then they take weeks or months to read that portion and request the whole thing.  At that point they take weeks or months to read the damn thing.  Send. Wait. Wait. Rejection. Rejection. Send. Wait.  So yeah, I was waiting on the agent.)

Ultimately, the agent rejected it and I told the small publisher I was ready to rock and roll.  Maybe the day after I made that known, an agent I had queried ONE YEAR earlier requested my full manuscript.  Fortunately, they got back to me relatively quickly with a friendly rejection where they essentially reiterated the two points above with greater detail.

Moving forward with the small publisher

In March of 2016, I FINALLY received a publishing contract from the small publisher.  I hired a lawyer/agent (ironically, one I had previously pitched) to review it, and she gave me great comments.  The publisher and I discussed the agreement further in person during a meeting in which I was advised to begin thinking of my one-year promotion plan.  He made it very clear that, all authors (self-published or not) need to hustle to sell books and the best thing I could do for myself was to figure out I was going to get my name out there, starting NOW.

Thankfully, I had been invited to a retreat outside of Atlanta hosted by The Write Practice that happened to be taking place that month.  I attended with a goal of finding ideas and strategies to help me formulate that plan.  That was last week and I more than fulfilled that goal!  I left with concrete promotion ideas and ideas  to address some creative issues I just haven’t been able to resolve with my novel.  I was ready to create a 12-month plan.

Step one of that plan? Return to blogging.

So here I am.  Can’t wait to finally turn this dream into a reality!

Oh, btw- like my new header?!

Personally, I LOVE it! It’s a pic of a me drawn on the pages of a Moleskine notebook.  My friend Ross Boone, who I met at The Write Practice retreat drew it for me!  Not only is he an awesome illustratorhe writes too! He also gave really thoughtful advice during the retreat.  Thanks Ross!

View More: http://phillipvn.pass.us/writepractice2016

This is one my headshots from the retreat.  Phillip van Nostrand is an awesome photographer! 🙂