In 1991, Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson revealed to the world he had contracted HIV. This moment was historic for more reasons than one because many had viewed the disease as the “gay cancer,” a disease only homosexual men could contract. Johnson’s contraction through heterosexual sex was a milestone in the study and fight against HIV.
Johnson himself admitted in a 2013 Oprah interview that in retrospect that his engagement in a promiscuous lifestyle was what he called “part of the game.”
Today, Magic Johnson is revered as one of the most influential Black athletes of our time. His status assigned to him by white America allowed him to seamlessly remain an icon in popular culture. Triggering an unintended legacy many contemporary Black male athletes have followed.
We live in a time where both the NBA and the NFL have been and continue to be dominated by African American men. Athletes from LeBron James and Dwayne Wade to Terrell Owens and Cameron Newton, for over two decades sports has been the host for contemporary Black masculinity. However, what lies beneath this legacy in the making is a heritage of the objectification and animalization of Black men.
Author and professor of anthropology Stanley Thangaraj, in his 2017 article “Danger and Desire: The Black Sporting Body,” writes “inhabiting sport and excelling at it is also the process by which black bodies are implicated as ‘dangerous persons’ to be controlled. The very body that is the spectacle and site of hero worship for many, also becomes indistinguishable in the larger social realm of the ‘dangerous’ black male.” He argues that the culture in which we assign the sanctions of status in terms of Black athleticism, it in fact blurs the lines between racial ‘othering’ and sexual objectification.
From sexual assault charges surrounding Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens in 2014 to the controversial “all white girl” yacht party held by Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, the cultural representation of Black men is a loaded one. These men being respected by their physicality and stature is not a new phenomenon but rather a recycled one.
“Mandingo” is a term used to describe a hypersexualized Black male. Emphasis is placed on the physical features as a personification of an animal. Black men who fall under this category are admired for their physical stature as means of sexual prowess.
Originally a tribe in Africa, the term surfaced in a 20th-century controversial novel and film about a male slave who has sex with a white woman. In reference to the early movement surrounding “eugenics,” scientists hypothesizing people of color having similar biological features to animals became widely used as rhetoric to justify slavery and discrimination against African-Americans. The image of a Black man with a white woman both enraged and frightened White America, thus becoming widely seen as taboo.
But in contemporary popular culture, it has become a subject of farce. Johnson referring to his engagement in unprotected sex as “part of the game,” represents the impact that the “Mandingo” archetype has on Black athletes. An impact that still holds true today.
Over time, this taboo was translated into other forms of popular culture. As African Americans men such as Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens found success in sports, these places rather subconsciously perpetuated age-old images of hypersexual masculinity. By placing emphasis on physical features, such as fast legs, big arms, developed chests, these men were becoming seen as sexual deviants.
By labeling these men as sexual deviants, it suggests that we as Black America have become desensitized to the images of Black hyper masculinity in sport culture, prolonging the unintended legacy for generations to come.