Asian Americans and the Color of Christ - Derek Chang

Today's post on Asian Americans and the Color of Christ comes from Professor Derek Chang of Cornell University. He is the author of one of my favorite books on 19th-century American religion, Citizens of a Christian Nation: Evangelical Missions and the Problem of Race in the Nineteenth Century. Apropos for "March Madness," his entry includes thoughtful considerations from the world of sports and perceptions of athletic messianism.

Derek Chang

Basketball Jesus:  Triangulating The Color of Christ

Jesus Shuttlesworth: “You named me Jesus after Earl Monroe, and not Jesus of the Bible?”

Jake Shuttlesworth:  “Not Jesus of the Bible.  Jesus of North Philadelphia; Jesus of the playgrounds.”

He Got Game (1998)

When Ed Blum asked me to contribute to a forum on Asian Americans and The Color of Christ, I was intrigued, but a bit nervous.  In my scholarship, I focus more on race than on religion, so it wasn’t clear to me that this was an assignment that I could pull off.  Plus, I couldn’t think of a moment when I’d seen an Asian (or Asian American) representation of Christ.  As my colleague Allen Carlson reminded me, Hong Xiuquan, who led the Taiping Rebellion in mid-nineteenth century China, claimed to be the younger brother of Christ, but that was as close as I was getting.  However, after a lot of thought it occurred to me that every once in a while Christ hits the hardwood …

He first arrived in the guise of Earl Monroe.  Most basketball fans probably remember Monroe best as “Earl the Pearl,” helping the New York Knicks to their 1973 NBA championship.  But as a playground legend in Philadelphia, a standout at Winston-Salem State, and a dazzling backcourt magician with the old Baltimore Bullets, Monroe made himself known as “Jesus” because, as Denzel Washington’s Jake Shuttlesworth explains to his son in Spike Lee’s 1998 He Got Game, “he was the Truth.”

Plagued by a bad knee, Monroe retired in 1980, but by then Christ seemed to have taken the form of Larry Bird, who was named rookie of the year during Monroe’s final season.  Bird was better known during his playing days by other monikers:  Larry Legend and the Hick from French Lick.  But especially to a core group of the Boston Celtics faithful he is “Basketball Jesus.”  Perhaps the most ardent promoter of this invocation is sportswriter and Boston homer Bill Simmons.  According to Simmons, after Bird’s performance in Game 5 of the 1984 NBA Finals, “All we knew was that Bird was God …”

Bird retired in 1992, and it would be 20 years before another Jesus sighting in the NBA.  In February 2012, Jeremy Lin, an undrafted, second-year point guard, seemed to come out of nowhere to lead the New York Knicks on an astonishing run.  In his first 10 games as a starter, he averaged 24.6 points and 9.2 assists per game.  Not bad for a guy who had been waived by the Golden State Warriors only two months earlier.  It was most certainly newsworthy that a recently-cut point guard was leading a storied franchise to success while his marquee teammates – Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire – recovered from injuries.  But what caught the attention of most people was that Lin is Asian American.  For Asian Americans, this was Basketball Jesus.

So what do we make of these various incarnations of Christ?  As Blum and Harvey remind us so compellingly in The Color of Christ, the different iterations, like Jesus jokes, must be understood within their own historical contexts, and race is always part of the equation.

“The Truth” of Monroe’s game seemed to embody the struggles of the civil rights era, of black liberation and black expression.  Monroe honed his silky smooth moves, especially the spin that became his signature, on the asphalt courts of a black part of town called North Philadelphia – a neighborhood that may have been a seat of poverty, segregation, and riots but also had a history of black activism and community action.  (In Philadelphia, claimed Monroe, this community focus was most apparent:  “In the playgrounds down there, we pride ourselves on teamwork, on passing the ball, whereas in New York, most of the guys made a move to a basket, one-on-one.”)  He went south for college, and it was at historically-black Winston-Salem State that he was given the nickname Jesus.  It was also at Winston-Salem State where, writes New York Times sports columnist Harvey Araton in When the Garden Was Eden, “exposure to campus protest helped open his eyes to the bigger picture of America’s inequities and outright oppression.”  Monroe’s team scrimmaged all-white Wake Forest, but the game had to take place behind closed doors and the result kept a secret.  He was invited to try out for the Pan American team – a kind of collegiate all-stars – but the tryouts were segregated.  “The whole experience of the time, what it was like for a black person to live in America, shaped the way I felt,” he remembered. 

When he moved to the NBA as a Baltimore Bullet, Jesus – soon to be Black Jesus – was known mostly among black fans.  He was a “transcendent showman” who, as Araton writes, had become “an anti-establishment cult figure in a sport fast becoming a bastion of black expression.”  For black fans, the Truth lay not just in his willingness to speak his mind (about black players being paid less than white players or against the Vietnam War and in support of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted, for instance), but also in his game – a game that he – and many observers – linked to that most venerable African American artistic form, jazz.  And, to extend the metaphor, when Monroe moved to the New York Knicks in 1971, he sacrificed himself – his expressive play – to the Knicks’ concept of team.

That Boston’s (white) Basketball Jesus emerged in the 1980s along with the Reagan Revolution, that his career is so entwined with one of Monroe’s basketball descendants, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and that the modern NBA was built on the marketing foundation of this bi-coastal, bi-racial rivalry is no mistake.  It is hard to pinpoint just when Bird became Basketball Jesus – one suspects that the nickname has had more currency after Bird’s playing career.  But even if he had been known better as “Larry Legend” or “the Hick from French Lick,” few Celtics fans would deny his salvific influence.  The franchise of Red Auerbach and Bill Russell – of 11 championships in 13 years – drafted Bird out of Indiana State in the wake of two of the worst seasons in Celtics history.  In Bird’s first season in the NBA, he was named rookie of the year, the Celtics went from winning 29 games and losing 53 to a 61 and 21 record, and they finished atop their conference. 

But the color of this Christ mattered.  He wasn’t just the savior of the franchise.  Whether he liked it or not – whether he cared or not – he was the face of a team and a city associated with whiteness.  Just two years before Bird was drafted, the iconic image of black attorney Theodore Landsmark being stabbed with the sharp end of a pole flying an American flag by white anti-busing demonstrators in front of Boston’s city hall captured the white racial backlash over integration and school busing, and crystalized liberal Boston as a symbol of white working-class ethnic reaction to the civil rights movement.  Jackie MacMullen, in When the Game Was Ours, co-authored with Bird and Johnson, writes of how African American players and fans – even before Bird’s arrival – disliked the Celtics.  MacMullen quotes Cedric Maxwell:  “Plain and simple, black people didn’t like the Celtics.  They were too white – or at least that’s how they were presented.  You had John Havlicek, who was white, so you never heard about Jo Jo White, who was black.  You had Dave Cowens, so you never heard about Paul Silas.  And then later you had Larry Bird, who was the Great White Hope in a white town that was perceived by black people as the most racist city in the country at the time.”  Readers are left to infer what the same image of whiteness meant to at least some white fans.  But one can imagine that the arrival of Larry Bird – following in a line of white Celtic greats such as Cousy, Havlicek, Heinsohn, and Cowens – seemed to white Boston fans as a kind of moment of salvation.  Indeed, if the NBA was becoming “a bastion of black expression,” the emergence of Larry Bird was greeted by whites in Boston not just with a sense of hope but with a sense of relief and perhaps of redemption. 

Jeremy Lin’s emergence as Basketball Jesus seems less straightforward, particularly if on-the-court achievements are the central measure.  Lin, in contrast to his more accomplished predecessors, is known primarily for a remarkable string of games during his second-year in the NBA.  Unheralded as a college point guard and struggling to find that magical form from a year ago, Lin may never ascend to the dizzying heights of his Christ-like forerunners.  At least in part, this is because Lin’s playing career is still a work in progress.  As a cultural phenomenon, perhaps it is this possibly fleeting and most certainly sudden aspect of Lin’s advent that is so noteworthy.  Yet, even more so than the meteoric nature of his success, Lin’s appeal is bound up with race and context.  In part, he surely captured the imagination of the broader public because, as an Asian American, he is unusual.  Although Yao Ming, the 7’6” center from Shanghai, preceded Lin by almost a decade, Lin was the first identifiably Asian American ball player to grace the NBA since Wataru Misaka played three games for the Knicks during the 1947-48 season.  And, in part, Lin’s appeal echoes that of Yao’s:  as the NBA looks beyond the U.S. to the expanding market of China, he has been perceived as a key to the league’s global brand.

But what makes Lin more than merely a racial oddity or a global marketing strategy is his meaning for Asian Americans, and it is here that the broader sensation of “Linsanity” takes on Christ-like properties.  It was in the blogosphere and in on-line forums that hints of Lin the savior and Lin the liberator first appeared.  On, for instance, a thread popped up called, “What JLin means to me.”  “ChuckBuck” posted a video from Youtube called, “Linsanity Defined” and prefaced it with the comment that “JLin is like basketball Jesus, Buddha, and Gandhi in a 6’3” Asian American frame.”  The video itself, interestingly, contains fan interviews.  For black and white Knicks fans, he was raising a moribund franchise:  “Jeremy Lin has meant the world to the New York fans.  We haven’t had this much excitement at the Garden since John Starks, Patrick Ewing, and Alan Houston were here!”  But for Asian American fans, he is the embodiment of liberation.  Another Youtube tribute articulates this idea most movingly.  Spoken word artist Giles Li’s “Lin. Sanity.” begins with a kind of catalog of racially motivated insults, injuries, and injustices Li experienced as a child, and he describes how these experiences have created a deep sense of insecurity and inferiority.  “But, at home, I don’t know any of that.  At home, I sit with my kids, amazed, and watch my same narrow eyes, my same down-turned mouth, playing ball under the bright lights in New York.  And I imagine he had the same doubts, same fits with insomnia, same sinking in the stomach that he fuels himself on the court by remembering flailing fists, remembering ‘ching-chong’ seranades, jokes about his family, who has probably lost count of all of the voices who said he shouldn’t be here.  His rise to stardom doesn’t fix the world for my daughter and son.  But maybe the load on his shoulders lifts the one off theirs a little.”

To be sure, understanding how and why these basketball saviors were imbued with sacred meaning by their fans provides insights about race and about their particular historical moments.  But this seems to me to be just the beginning.  Seeing the relationships among these Christs might help us to understand how race is constructed, deployed, and experienced relationally.  It is telling, for instance, that, as Jake Shuttlesworth explains the origins of his son’s name (“Not Jesus of the Bible”), he notes that Monroe is a Jesus who is “raced”:  “Then the white media got ahold of it.  Then they gotta call him Black Jesus.  You know he can’t just be Jesus; he gotta be Black Jesus.” 

It is equally telling that Bird’s Basketball Jesus isn’t explicitly raced.  It is assumed that he is the universal savior.  Yet careful observers will understand that his whiteness is implied – in his symbolic position in relation to the Celtics and to Boston and in his contrast both to the generation of black ballplayers represented by Monroe and to Bird’s career-long foil “Magic” Johnson.  The NBA is the merchandising machine that it is today in no small part because of its ability to play on – and market – the contrast between (white) Basketball Jesus and (black) Magic.  (It may be reading into things too much to note that “Magic” was also another of Monroe’s nicknames, the joining of Jesus and Magic in Monroe perhaps symbolizing the syncretic religion of Afro-Christianity.) 

And adding Lin to the mix complicates the black-white binary that dominates discussions of race in America and provides evidence that even Christ-like figures are racialized differentially.  In part, the chronology matters.  Like Monroe’s relationship to civil rights and black power and Bird’s relationship to the white reaction to that era, Lin’s emergence is linked to the ways in which the nation’s ethnic and racial make up has been utterly transformed by immigration from Asia.  But beyond historical timing, Lin’s particular racialization reveals the tensions at the core of the model minority stereotype of Asian Americans. 

Black Jesus’s urban Philadelphia roots, his time in the segregated South, and his flamboyant and improvisational game all symbolized African American experiences and aesthetics.  Bird’s small-town, Midwestern origins, his southern Indiana drawl, and his blue collar demeanor represented white, working-class America.  Lin, in contrast to both of these figures, is the immigrant success story:  the child of immigrants and a graduate of Harvard, he worked hard, didn’t complain about being passed over by better basketball universities or not being drafted or being cut by Golden State or paying his dues in the developmental league before his break with the Knicks.  A devout Christian, Lin bore these hardships with grace and succeeded.  In this sense, he, like all those who seem to bear the marks of the model minority, can be held up as an example of the virtues of hard work and (Christian?) forbearance and as evidence of the absence of racial barriers to success.  Yet Lin has remained racially marked.  “Chink” jokes, fortune-cookie references, other insulting and culturally essentialist comments proliferated to such a point that the Asian American Journalists Association issued guidelines about Lin for mainstream media outlets.  Significantly, the first “fact” for this media advisory reads:  “Jeremy Lin is Asian American, not Asian (more specifically, Taiwanese American).  It’s an important distinction and one that should be considered before any references to former NBA players such as Yao Ming and Wang Zhizhi, who were Chinese.  Lin’s experiences were fundamentally different than people who immigrated to play in the NBA.  Lin progressed through the ranks of American basketball from high school to college to the NBA, and to characterize him as a foreigner is both inaccurate and insulting.”  The AAJA recognized that Lin, despite being born in Los Angeles, raised in northern California, and educated in the Ivy League, has been marked, like generations of Asian Americans that have preceded him, as a foreigner, an alien.

The stories of Monroe, Bird, and Lin demonstrate how, as Blum and Harvey so eloquently – and elegantly – argue, Americans’ “hopes, fears, dreams, and conflicts” take “racial and religious form” when the sacred becomes raced.  But they also show us that the meanings of Truth, Redemption, Salvation, and Liberation – the meanings of Christ – are never absolute, are always relative, and are always linked to social formations