Toxic: Jim Brown, Manhood and Violence Against Women
In the history of humanity, spouse-beating is a particularly odious tradition — one often employed by men looking to exert power over women. Just as lynching in America is not a phenomenon wholly confined to black people, spouse-beatings are not wholly confined to women. But in our actual history, women have largely been on the receiving end of spouse-beating. We have generally recognized this in our saner moments. There is a reason why we call it the “Violence Against Women Act” and not the “Brawling With Families Act.” That is because we recognize that violence against women is an insidious, and sometimes lethal, tradition that deserves a special place in our customs and laws. — Ta-Nehisi Coates
You are Eva Bohn-Chin. You are an internationally successful model with dreams of the silver screen. Just twenty-two years old, you are from Germany, of German and Jamaican ancestry, giving you a degree of worldliness and exoticism that is catnip to the new fashion movement of the late 1960s. A movie star ten years older than you sidles up and asks you to be “Jim Brown’s girl.” That’s how he says it: “Jim Brown’s girl.” He’s not a smooth, beautiful man, like the models you meet backstage. But he’s handsome and his body puts a catch in your throat. He was some kind of American football star, but you don’t know much about that. Just that he has status, and people — Americans in particular — part when he enters a room. He’s married, but he convinces you that his wife, a woman named Sue, accepts that he will never be faithful. “I believe in the European view of man-woman relations,” he says. You know what that means. You begin a torrid affair, one with heat, fights, and makeup sex that shakes the chandeliers of fancy hotels throughout Europe and the United States.
One night, the fight is particularly bad and neighbors call the police. After the police struggle with Jim just to get through the door, investigators find blood on the walls as well as the floor and “a five-inch patch of hair on a large rug.” You are found semiconscious below the balcony, after a twenty-foot fall onto concrete, the bones in your shoulder shattered. Your famous lover is charged with attempted murder and pins are put in your shoulder. When you revive in the hospital, you don’t press charges, insisting that the entire ordeal was a misunderstanding. You tell Jet magazine, “I fell from the balcony by myself. Jim was nowhere near me at the time. He was just opening the door for the police when I went over the railing. I must have fainted before falling.” Then you light a cigarette and comment cryptically, “That’s not to say it wasn’t a pretty bad fight we were having.” You stay with your man after the “incident” and your asking price as a model soars, as you learn the value of being infamous. People make comments behind your back. You hear that the joke among sportswriters is, “Jim Brown’s got to be the best lay in the world, because he’ll throw you off a balcony and you won’t even press charges.” Let them joke. You’re getting paid. But eventually you part ways, the offers dry up, and life sours as you go into hiding, reliving that night more than you will ever admit. Thirty years later, you speak to Spike Lee for a documentary on this lover from times long past. It’s your first interview in years. The director tells you that Jim has said emphatically that he did nothing to you. You are asked to respond. Your voice shakes. Your confidence in your English has never been great, but you press on. You look at the camera and say, “He pushed me. He slammed me.” You then point out scars on your body and say, “I was young, good-looking, a person who loved life. Why would I jump?”
IN 1994, O. J. SIMPSON WAS ON the run, having fled his home after the double homicide of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her acquaintance Ronald Goldman. The world was abuzz over the ex–football star whose friendly, smiling image was so at odds with someone who may have committed a double homicide. As O.J. and his friend A. C. Cowlings took to the highway in their Ford Bronco, old audio was released of 911 calls featuring a terrified Nicole Brown Simpson asking for police help as a bellowing O.J., his behavior greatly contrasting with his commercial brand, shouted and slammed doors in the background.
One person who was in high demand to speak about O.J. was Jim Brown. For decades, Brown had been a critic of Simpson’s for lacking a social conscience. Also, over the years he had made several statements, which, in the light of the murders, seemed prophetic: that the O.J. the public knew was not the real person, that he “wore the mask.”
In Out of Bounds, Brown wrote presciently, “I never look at [O. J. Simpson] the way I do a Bill Russell, or a Walter Payton. I talk to those guys, see them speak, I know what I’m hearing is the real man. Too often, I can’t say the same about O.J.”
After O.J. was arrested and awaiting trial, Andrea Kremer of ESPN was in Brown’s home to interview him about the Simpson case. The producer of the segment was Jeremy Schaap, who remembered, “It was clear that Brown did not like or respect O.J. Pretty much the first thing he said in the interview, before he could even be asked a question, was, ‘O.J., for once in your life, be a man, and admit what you did.'”
But what has remained with Schaap in the intervening years was something that was said when they were setting up the interview, before the cameras were rolling. “Jim Brown was talking about O.J. and said, ‘Man, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met a man in my life that I couldn’t handle, or that intimidated me or gave me any trouble, even. But women will mess you up.’ That stuck with me.”
It is unclear whether Brown ever actually bought the hype and believed himself to be Superman. But he clearly has always seen women as his own personal kryptonite. Whether women have “messed up” Jim Brown is less important than seeing how he has “messed up” when it has come to these personal relation ships.
Racism and toxic masculinity have deeply scarred our society. Resistance to racism has often meant having to assert very traditional definitions of “manhood.” Yet because the most traditional avenues to masculinity as defined in U.S. culture — economic self-sufficiency and home ownership — were largely denied to black men, the fields of sports and entertainment (two fields with a lottery’s chance of success) have become for too many the markers of excellence and respect. Absent those opportunities, the ways in which a black man could assert that he was in fact “a man” were through that universal cultural marker of male status: the ability to bed and/or control women.
Jim Brown is someone who has used his personal assertion of manhood as a bulwark against racism over the course of his entire life. He is also someone who has gloried in his history of sexual conquest and been accused often of violence against women.
He speaks today and has always spoken about the charges that have accrued over time as a coordinated conspiracy, saying, “My activities can’t be attacked, but with my private life it is different. They can take an incident and blow it up. I’m always attacked. They get you in any area they can. Now, you know there isn’t a man in this country who hasn’t a private life that they could pin some headline on if they wanted to. … A lot of papers [carry photos] of me in handcuffs and chains.”
“I’m no angel,” Brown said to reporter Will Grimsley back during his Cleveland Browns playing days. “If I was a goody-goody, I’d be a psychological wreck by this time. I’d be in a [straitjacket].” But Brown has consistently been adamant that he is innocent of criminal wrongdoing in all instances of violence he has been accused of. “Do you think I could keep throwing girls out windows, knocking policemen forty feet in the air and running down guys on the turnpike without them nailing me for it one day? I’d have to bribe every jury and judge in town. But I’ve never been convicted. I’ve just been harassed. I’ve been hit so much I don’t sting anymore. They can call me a ‘nigger.’ It doesn’t bother me. When a controversy comes up, I take it and look my accuser in the eye.”
For a very complicated man, this part of his life is simple. As Brown lived this post-football life on a terrain that frustrated his ambitions — whether in the world of sports promotions, the Black Economic Unions, or Hollywood — women were often his pastime, his distraction, his proving ground, and at times the repository for his frustrations. The world of Jim Brown’s time was a place that looked the other way, accepted or venerated these kinds of relationships, and never as a rule attempted to hold men accountable for them.
Brown, in his own words, walked “out of football and into the sexual revolution.” While older white sportswriters were awed by “the animal” in Jim Brown and black observers saw their Superman, a layer of younger white male journalists, influenced by the politics of the 1960s, saw a kind of synthesis between the Superman and the sexual: he was this stud who also held the power and promise to smash white supremacy. In Jim Brown they saw not only the potential to inspire the fight against racism, but also an ideal of manhood rooted in strength, sex, and swagger.
Journalist and future filmmaker James Toback wrote in his 1971 book Jim: The Author’s Self-Centered Memoir of the Great Jim Brown that Brown was “a consistent and spectacular warrior … a crystallization of physical potency.” He went on to write, “Jim Brown was without peer in affording insight into the injection of sexuality into every area of American life and learned tales of freaky scenes, brutality, and an ineluctable erotic flow.” For Toback, there was no separation between the joys of sex and violence. This inability to separate the two can be seen as prologue to Toback’s life in Hollywood. In 2017, more than two hundred women came forward with stories of his being a serial sexual harasser.
Oliver Stone, who directed Brown in the film Any Given Sunday, called him a “Superman in the tradition of Nietzsche’s Übermensch. … For Nietzsche, the Übermensch carries a heavy load. Knows how to hit. Can take a hit. Incredible force and strength and stamina. Awesome and beautiful and powerful.”
Former Syracuse All-American football player turned activist and educator Don McPherson rebukes all these formulations, saying, “The Superman myth is a form of protection. It’s protection from having to be examined. One of the ways that power maintains itself is to not be examined. With Jim Brown, his whole thing doesn’t get examined: his problems, instances of violence against women — all of that doesn’t get examined because at the end of the day, Jim Brown’s still a bad motherfucker.”
It wasn’t just starstruck men, fascinated with his combination of sexuality and ability to kick ass, who were giving Brown a pass. An article about Brown by Gloria Steinem published in 1968 only superficially touched on Brown’s stormy personal relationships, despite his arrests for violence against women — without convictions — that had taken place in the very recent past. If Steinem didn’t care and the New Left didn’t care, we should not be surprised that Hollywood and the NFL — only now barely confronting decades of institutional cover-ups of violence against women — didn’t care either. Given the history of accusations, the fact that uniformly it is black women who have brought these charges makes the collective lack of concern all the more disturbing.
As McPherson said, “Jim Brown is going to talk about all the racism that he faced, and therefore black men and many so-called well-meaning white people will not examine all of Jim’s shit. He just hides behind that badass masculinity. And he has street cred with young black men who can see that Jim’s fighting the system. Jim’s fighting on our behalf so you can’t say shit.”
Sex, violence, and power have long walked in lockstep with one another. Whether the man in question is a Kennedy or a camp counselor or a Walmart worker, the same metric of manhood in this area applies: Male heterosexual sex brings a measure of authority when in the company of men, which some crave even more than the sex itself. This idea of sex as a powerful symbol of the black revolution was catnip to the middle-aged men who chronicled the struggles of the time. It is readily apparent in the writings of Tom Wolfe, William F. Buckley, and Norman Mailer. But bell hooks put it in more political terms: “White men were attacking black men in the sixties for not fulfilling the patriarchal role when it came to work and family, and black men were telling white men that sexuality was the only real site where manhood mattered and there the black man ruled. … Black male public discourse about sexuality pointed the finger at white males and accused them of being pussies who were unable to get it up and keep it up. The black male who could not demolish white male power with weaponry was using his dick to ‘bitch slap’ white men and by doing so sexually subjugating them. … No matter the daily assaults on their manhood that wound and cripple, the black male is encouraged to believe that sex and sexual healing will assuage his pain.”
Jim Brown in so many respects represented this synthesis of the political and the sexual. He was an outspoken leader who also had a very public reputation as a ladies’ man, which he was not shy about sharing. It affirmed his cultural weight as someone who was to be respected.
A Black Economic Union official was quoted in 1971: “Jim’s image is founded mainly on sex. His life is supposed to be an orgy from one end of the earth to the other.”
Sex is ideally an act of mutual pleasure. But when Brown described his sex life — and he has done so in great detail over the years — it sounds less like sex for pleasure and more like sex for ego and power. Brown has said that his desire to exert dominance over women stems from his own absence of control that he felt in relation to women in his infancy.
He wrote that his having grown up being raised by women “might make people think I’d have a lot a problems. I don’t know. Maybe I have a lot of problems. But I felt community and I felt loved. Then when I was eight, I went to live with my mother in Great Neck. … They say I’m fucked up. Maybe I am.”
Brown has written and spoken about this only rarely, but his relationship with his mother remained volatile throughout his life — the periods of calm more akin to walking on eggshells. In high school, he could not control who she dated or what she did and it drove him to solitude, silence, and anger until he eventually found escape in the home of his girlfriend Henrietta Creech. In 1981, Brown’s mother was approached by journalist Pete Dexter for a profile on her son and all she would say was, “He’s the only one I got. Things are right between us now and I wouldn’t say nothin’ to upset that.”
Older, or even similar-aged, women never held any appeal for Brown as sexual partners. In Out of Bounds, the fifty-three- year-old Brown talked about his romantic preferences: “Physically, between a young girl and an old one, there is no contest. … I don’t like being told what I’m supposed to want. For instance, I prefer girls who are young. My lady right now is nineteen.”
Whether Brown was twenty-five, thirty-five, forty-five, or fifty-five, that remained his preference. He wrote, “When I eat a peach I don’t want it overripe. I want that peach when it’s peaking.”
He also expressed a desire for women who are physically small: “I don’t mean mousy small. I mean tight. Petite. Delicate. No excess. Thin legs, nice butt … small. When I get into the bedroom, I don’t want to see anything that’s big like me. That includes big breasts. I don’t want big breasts anywhere around me. Keep those big breasts away.” He told Steve Rushin of Sports Illustrated, “I mess with young women. I know it’s bad, but I’m bad.”
Dating a younger woman, of course, also ensures a power imbalance of experience and education that otherwise would not exist.
Brown’s home has been a place of gang truces and fundraisers for political and civil rights leaders across the decades. In the 1970s, it was also a place to party and have sex in imaginative numbers and combinations, where women were shared and the stories of experimental couplings became Hollywood lore.
Brown has said that his house was a place of “Creative Orgies.” These events were mired in sexual and gender roles that sound less than revolutionary. Brown wrote, “It was our way of life and we had certain rules. … The main reason we called them Creative Orgies was that we’d look for women who normally would never even consider going to an orgy. That was our particular quirk. We’d find women who are sweet and seemingly innocent. That’s when I started learning about appearances: Some of these sweet little innocents turned out to be total freaks! … Just between you, me, and the tabloids, I’ve had up to eight girls in my room, maybe four on my couch and four on my bed. I might have sex in one night with four or five of them. But only if Jim Junior was feeling exceptional. Some people think that makes me a pervert. I think it makes me lucky.”
Other memoirists, including Jennifer Pryor, have written descriptions of these parties that include Quaaludes and small groups watching Brown have sex. These stories do not age well. They also sound uncomfortably like something Sweet Sweetback’s “Baadasssss Song” was critiquing, with people crowding around to watch Jim Brown, physical specimen, show his prowess without pads.
Then in 1985, in a sensationalized and widely publicized case, a thirty-three-year-old schoolteacher named Margot Tiff claimed that the forty-nine-year-old Brown beat and raped her when she refused to engage in sex with him and another woman. She said that the violence occurred when she got cold feet before the proposed ménage à trois. Because Tiff gave contradictory testimony, Los Angeles prosecutor Dino Fulgoni dropped all charges, saying, “I would not wish anyone to be forced to stand trial with the contradictory nature of the proof that came forth before this court.”
Tiff also attempted to sue Brown for $10 million — claiming, according to court documents, that Brown had “battered, tortured, physically and psychologically abused and raped and attempted to rape.” This was also thrown out of court. When asked about the incident by Sport magazine, Brown reportedly looked “amused” and said, “You must have read about it in the papers, or I don’t think you would have come here.” Sport describes the woman as having “clearly been beaten,” but the charges of rape, sexual battery, and assault were dismissed after she “gave confused and inconsistent testimony.” This “confusion” included the successful efforts of Brown’s lawyer Johnnie Cochran — who later, of course, defended Brown’s nemesis O. J. Simpson — to challenge Tiff’s assertion of rape since there was only “partial penetration.”
Brown described his arrest: “The next morning when I walked to get my paper there were ten policemen there. They handcuffed me without telling me anything. They had a search warrant. They said there was marijuana in my house. They said my companion was involved. At no time until they set me down at a table with my hands behind my back did they tell me what it was all about.”
Brown’s defense was that he and his partner were the victims, put off by what they called “a lesbian advance” from Tiff, and defended themselves after she became violent. But the charges disappeared. The Los Angeles Times described it as a “dramatic courtroom about-face” by Fulgoni when the prosecution dropped the charges.
It is difficult to believe that Brown and a partner would be put off by “a lesbian advance,” since that element of group sex was central to the West Hollywood scene. Brown has described these orgies as personal and intimate, even tender, but then wrote in Out of Bounds: “At times I desire two girls, or three girls, or one girl — as long as it’s new pussy.”
Brown went out of his way to make sure his readers knew that when it came to his sexual relationships, his libertine approach was a one-way street. “I’m a double standard man my self,” he wrote. “I want to be truly liberated. It’s logical. It’s fair. And I’m not. I want to freak when I want to, but I don’t want my woman to. I want her to be something I’m not willing to be.”
Brown also boasted, “Talk all you want about brain power, but the intellectual gets the secondary women. It’s the physical giant who gets the premium women.”
This pursuit of sexual conquest has been a part of Brown’s public life as long as he has had a public life. In his 1968 Alex Haley Playboy interview, Brown said, “I have a nickname, ‘Hawk,’ which comes from having very good eyesight. Visually, I appreciate anything that I consider beautiful — if it’s a car, if it’s a suit, a painting, a woman or what have you. And the woman I appreciate most is my wife, Sue, who seems to be happy and very much in love with me. I have never denied her and I have never denied those three big babies we have at home in Cleveland. So I’m sure that I’m doing no big damage by looking.”
Of course he was doing far more than looking.
Brown justified his sexual life to Steve Rushin in an article published in Sports Illustrated: “I know this is America and we like to have our heroes, but hell: Martin Luther King was screwing around — people are still in denial about that. The Kennedys, Bobby and John, they womanized. I look at the good and at the bad. Do I like a lot of women? Hell, yeah. What bothers me is when people hold on to the falseness of something.”
He would go on about his love of young women, telling award-winning journalist Pete Dexter, “Young girls, they touch you. They say what they feel, they do their choosin’ from the soul. You come home and pull off your shoes, and she loves you that way, too. I like tight bodies and pretty faces. You bring in Methuselah, if she’s got a tight body and a pretty face, that’s all right, too. I tell all of them, though, nature’s got a plan. There’s a pretty girl turning [sixteen] years old every day. It’s none of this takin’ advantage thing. Marlon Brando said it once, ‘I don’t want my bitch pushin’ me around in my wheelchair.’ I feel like that, too. It’s not forever. When it’s up, it’s up. And when I cut a lady loose, she’s takin’ something away. She’s going away knowin’ how to deal better. I show her that and maybe it makes her stronger the rest of her life.”
In a very odd 1981 article in Inside Sports magazine that looked uncritically at the forty-five-year-old Brown, drinking vodka and apple juice from mason jars and picking up young girls on roller skates, Dexter described an exchange between Brown and a “twenty- or twenty-one-year-old girl.” They talked for ten minutes and then she said, “I’d like to go with you tonight, but if your thing is, you know, beating up women … ” He laughed in response to this. “People meet me,” he later commented, “they don’t know what’s goin’ on. They’re always waitin’ for me to jump up and down and kick some body’s ass.”
His ex-wife, Sue, put it this way: “Everybody’s afraid of that black side of his temper, but who’s ever seen it? He doesn’t go givin’ himself away in public.”
This “black side of his temper” has created these many stories of abuse: all involving very young and mostly black women. There was the aforementioned eighteen-year-old Brenda Ayres, the high school dropout who in 1965 accused Brown of assaulting her in a Howard Johnson motel in Cleveland. There was the rape charge filed in 1965 by an Ohio State student who withdrew the charges before it ever came to trial. In 1971, he was accused of battery of two young women. In 1985, he was charged with rape and assault. In 1986, it was assault of his fiancée, Debra Clark. In 1999, it was a domestic disturbance with his twenty-five-year-old wife, Monique; on the 911 tape from the incident, Monique said Brown threatened her, a claim she later recanted.
Not one conviction of violence against women emerged from any of these charges. Yet in almost all of these cases, Brown was not vindicated by a jury as much as by the women in question, who in nearly every instance refused to bring charges after initially calling the police. It should be noted that these matters were not taken seriously by the court system or even much of the feminist left. Gloria Steinem, writing about Brown in 1968, touched on his reputation of violence against women in surprisingly cursory fashion. She mentioned the cases that were brought in and then dismissed, and approvingly quoted an ally of Brown’s who said, “Any guy with a reputation like that has got to be blackmail-prone.”
Of a high-profile charge of battery, involving a model, brought against Brown in 1968, Steinem wrote: “Movie people either cursed the Los Angeles cops or said he’d be in jail if he weren’t a Negro, depending on their political beliefs. Many assumed, with all that money tied up in unreleased pictures, that the fix had gone in somewhere. Meanwhile, the model, a long time girlfriend of Jim’s, kept right on seeing him. And she still is. It’s the kind of Rashomon story that no one, possibly including the principals, will ever be totally clear on.”
Steinem described Brown as someone who “turns up at Hollywood parties and the world’s best discotheques in a flowing silk shirt open down the chest, brass-buckled belt, hand made boots, pants so tight it takes him a minute to wedge out a $100 bill.”
When pressed about such incidents of violence, Brown said only, “There’s been lies written about me, there’s been some truth, too. I’m no angel, but what I do, I tell the truth about.”
It is not merely that Brown did not take violence against women seriously. Nobody took it seriously. In one interview, Art Modell, former owner of the Cleveland Browns, said with a smile that Brown “got into trouble because of, shall we say, a rough social encounter with a gal, or two, or three.”
The cases against Brown are extensive. He has often said that he has “never been convicted of violence against women,” which is true. He also laughs and says, “Violence against women … shit,” as if he cannot believe this still follows him at this point in his life. Yet the cases span the years from 1965 through 1999. It’s a remarkable stretch that cannot be written off as just an endless series of law-and-order conspiracies, coincidences, or bad luck.
Brown and others have seen these as politically motivated attacks attempting to tear down a strong black man. His defenders conflate all the charges with the two times he was in court for physically assaulting other men. The first time, in 1970, he was found not guilty of assault and battery after a 1969 road-rage incident that ended with a man thrown on top of a car. The second was in 1978, when Brown was sentenced to a day in jail and two years’ probation for choking and striking his golfing partner Frank Snow. After being cleared in the first case, Brown told a journalist, “This was supposed to kill me. It was supposed to take my black manhood and put it on the ground. But when the jury heard the case, they took less than a half hour to find me not guilty. So I know they are singling me out. But it won’t work, because my head won’t drop down to my chest. You’re going to say that I sound bitter. But I don’t sound bitter, man, I’m just real.”
Even without convictions of violence against women, there are enough 911 tapes and testimonials to see that this is not a fantasy created by those trying to destroy him.
Debra Clark was fifty-year-old Brown’s twenty-one-year-old fiancée. In August 1986, he was released on $5,000 bail three hours after being arrested at 5:15 a.m. as a result of an “incident” with Clark. To judge from photographs, Clark, slender and five feet, five inches tall, was exactly one of those very petite women whom Brown found so attractive. On this occasion, she had a bruised arm and a scratch on her face, as well as a cracked rib. She had called the police from inside Brown’s house while armed with a pistol, which she discharged while inside.
A few days later, Clark told police she did not want to press charges. After the incident, Sport magazine called and asked Brown if Clark would come to the phone. “He put Debra on the phone. ‘Hello,’ said a small voice. Brown took the phone back and laughed. ‘I don’t know what that proved,’ he said. ‘That voice could have been anybody’s.'”
Speaking to me today, Clark says, “What most experts say is that a good relationship must have the eighty/twenty rule. What Jim and I shared was more like ninety-five/five. However, that five percent was like an inferno. . . . I choose to forgive, which was pretty easy to do when you loved someone so intensely. … Life is a series of choices, and I choose to get better and not bitter.”
It is very difficult to get people who know Brown to speak about this area of his life. They don’t deny that gender violence is a part of his past, and none will go on the record to say that they believe it all to be lies made up by racist media. They do believe that the reason people care, however, is highly racialized. They insist that if he were white, then no one would want to examine this part of his history. But this is a part of Jim Brown’s narrative. To deny it on the basis of the good works he has done serves to erase Debra Clark. If this part of his history does not matter, then one is also saying that Clark does not matter.
In 1981, Pete Dexter wrote that it is “a fact that Jim Brown scares people. He scares people, and he controls them. The relationships he has — family, friends, women, strangers in the street — are on his own terms. When he says he won’t lie and he won’t change, that is his integrity and it doesn’t shift with the situation.”
At eighty-two, even though he is older, more mellow, and more philosophical, Brown still intimidates. Yet people with a distance from him, like Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, have a great deal to say about how to understand the intertwining of his personal and political selves.
“We do hold Jim Brown personally accountable for his behavior. But we also put that behavior in a larger context,” says Dr. Neal. “In some ways this violence against women in the 1950s and 1960s was seen as normal. The question for Jim Brown is, how does he go forward from that period of time? How does he own up to any criticism of instances of violence against women in his life and how do we find a way to find a common ground between private and public Jim Brown? Whether we’re talking about the musical genius of Miles Davis versus his brutality or a figure like R. Kelly or, today, an athlete like Adrian Peterson or Ray Rice, how do we find that perfect ground that allows us to hold them accountable for their actions but also provides space for redemption that allows them to come back into the black community?”
But Brown has never had to ask for redemption or for reentry into any community. Quite the opposite. He has taken the accusations of assault and used them to paint himself as a victim of a power structure determined to tear him down. The fact that there actually was a power structure that was invested over the course of years in seeing him fall only adds to the confusion many confront when trying to disentangle his private, public, and political lives.
No single case of violence against women has stuck, however, quite like the case of Eva Bohn-Chin, the twenty-two-year-old model who either was thrown or fell from a balcony of a hotel room she was sharing with Brown. After receiving reports of shouting, breaking objects, and screaming inside the hotel room, the police arrived. Two deputies were blocked by Brown, who according to police reports said, “If you’re coming in, you’re going to have to go over me.” Brown later couched what he said to the officers in more political terms, claiming that he shouted, “You big white cops and your goddam system. Everything is against the Negroes. If you’re coming in you’re going to have to shoot me first. Well, come on ahead, but you’re going over me.”
He then, again according to police accounts, straight-armed one officer, launching him seven feet backward into a wall. The police on the scene had to call for reinforcements to push him backward and enter the room.
Bohn-Chin lay semiconscious below, from a twenty-foot fall onto concrete, and Brown was arrested on multiple charges including assault on a police officer and “assault with intent to commit murder” against Bohn-Chin.
Except — and one might be sensing a pattern — she did not press charges. Almost immediately, the story became part of Jim Brown’s legend and lore. The truth of what actually happened behind those closed doors has mattered less than the oft-repeated phrase “Jim Brown threw a woman off a balcony.” Even though Bohn-Chin insisted at the time that she had climbed out on the balcony out of fear of the police and slipped, and even though she continued her relationship with Brown after the incident, the simplest and most violent explanation better fit people’s preconceptions of the type of life that Brown led.
New York Times journalist Judy Klemesrud wrote about his career in 1969 and mentioned the incident with an eroticized fascination: “This Jim Brown is usually thought of in terms of bulging biceps … paternity suits … broken football records … beautiful girls falling mysteriously from balconies …”
Gloria Steinem even predicted that this could “spice up his screen image; give it an edge of real-life scariness. Because he is potentially the Bad Black Man, and both Negro and white audiences enjoy it.”
Once again, Brown was cleared of all charges, including those of assault against a police officer. Brown would comment with mock regret that the incident made him even more of a target of lust, as women sought him out on the basis of the incident. Steinem portrayed him as a victim, writing that because Brown loves women, he “is vulnerable to them.”
Brown also painted the attention he received for it in political colors, telling Klemesrud of The New York Times: “The cops were after me. They tried to tell her I’d thrown her off the balcony. We had had a fight that night, and neighbors called the cops. Eva was always giving as much as she was taking. If the cops hadn’t interfered, she wouldn’t have tried to get away down the balcony. The cops had ransacked her apartment a couple times and they had tailed her car. They were after me because I’m free and black and I’m supposed to be arrogant and supposed to be a militant, and I swing loose and free and have been outspoken on racial matters and I don’t preach against black militant groups and I’m not humble. Besides, most of these cops are Birchers anyway.”
Yet this story has not aged well. Some of that has to do with the changing culture. In 1968 the idea that an abused partner would stay despite the abuse, or refuse to press charges, was neither understood nor explored. The idea, in a world where the police were killing Black Panthers in their homes, that the authorities would go out of their way to frame Jim Brown, was also something that did not seem far-fetched. It rang logical and true.
Sure enough, the balcony incident did not derail Brown’s movie career. It also led to a greater demand for Eva Bohn-Chin in the fashion world, showing that in the decades before reality television, infamy has always sold. Helpful to Brown was that Sue, to whom he was still legally married, said, “The day the headlines broke that he was being charged with attempting to murder Eva, I knew he didn’t do it. I thought maybe he hit her — he has that temper — but I knew Jim wouldn’t try to kill any woman. There’s things in him nobody will ever understand, but it isn’t that he’s mean. He’s just who he is.”
In Spike Lee’s Jim Brown: All American, Brown said, “I am going to say something emphatically to you and the world. I never threw Eva Bohn-Chin off of the balcony. It was totally fabricated … she tried to get out of the apartment. She tried to get down so the cops would not mess with me.”
Yet Lee found the reclusive Bohn-Chin and was able to interview her on camera, the first time she had publicly spoken about the incident. For decades, she had stood by her story that she feared the police, climbed on the balcony, and fell. But when asked by Lee, she says, “He pushed me. He slammed me.” She then pointed out scars on her body and said the harrowing words: “I was young, good-looking, a person who loved life. Why would I jump? To become a cripple or whatever? Why would I do this? I am a damaged person.”
When one attempts to understand why Jim Brown did not receive the Obama White House honors his friend Bill Russell did, this story is often cited. Yet similar accusations have not proved to be a problem for Donald Trump, who similarly writes off multiple accusations of sexually predatory behavior made against him as some sort of conspiracy narrative or “fake news.”
Some of the people closest to Brown, people who have lived with violence and believe his intervention saved their life, do not care. Rockhead Johnson says forcefully, “People say to me, ‘You know he threw a girl off the balcony?’ And I’m like, ‘God damn, you know I went to jail for killing somebody? Or … for pulling out a gun, or … for shooting somebody in the head? Or I was in jail stabbing people? You’re going to tell me that Jim supposedly throwing somebody over a balcony, a small balcony, is more severe than hurting somebody and going to jail for most of my life for it? Y’all are some strange people.'” The difference, though, is that Rockhead had to pay a price for his violence. Not only did Jim Brown not have to pay that price. He has also been protected by friends who look at these charges and dismiss them without any analysis.
His former teammate and dear friend John Wooten said in 2016, “I’m loyal to Jim, and he and a bunch of us from the Browns days remain close friends to this day, so I say this in that context: I don’t get into his personal life. But I do think a lot of the troubles Jim went through were invented by people. They took advantage of the fact he was famous. None of us is perfect and we all make mistakes, but I really do believe a lot of that stuff was bullshit. I’m not going further than that.”
Yet Brown himself, even while dismissing accusations of violence against women, has hinted that there is something to them. He told People magazine in 1991, “I don’t always claim to be the person who’s done the right thing, but the media’s singled me out as the most brutal cat that ever lived. I try to treat women with respect. The ones that know me like me and trust me.”
In a 1994 interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, in response to a question about his treatment of women, Brown said, “I’m not going to go over all that driedup s— about women I supposedly beat up. … Anything I did regarding the law is part of the record.”
It would be one thing if that was all Brown said. But as far as these situations with women, he also speaks about his potential to be victimized and being an easy target. “I’m very vulnerable. I don’t have much chance if someone wants to get me.”
He is a victim in one respect: a victim of the sports world’s inability to own the fact that a big part of jock culture is seeing women as the spoils of gladiatorial combat — “gladiator” being a word Brown often uses for football players.
When we consider the dropping of the charges against Jim Brown, specifically by black women, the words of radio journalist Esther Armah come to mind. She says, “When you’re talking about the period of history when Jim Brown would’ve come to prominence — the 1950s and 1960s — you’re talking about witnessing just the state of hostility, aggression, and violence towards black men in every single form. And that negation of life at the hands of white authority was the primary issue for the civil rights movement. It was dealing with racism as it came at you from white authority. And so the lives of women were secondary. Not even were they just negated, but girls were nurtured to understand implicitly that to turn a black man, and to put a black man in the hands of white authority, was to hand him to certain death, and that’s something you were unwilling to do. … You would more likely be willing to die at the hands of that man than absolutely call any kind of white male authority, because it’s really sort of kill or be killed. And at that time, you’re talking a resistance to white racism that was all-encompassing. Going to authority was also something for which you would likely be condemned by the community as a whole. And that in a space where white men are the other enemy, all you have is your community. It’s not as if you have that other community that you’re ever going to go to. And so you are, in a lot of ways, trapped.”
- Jim Brown in 1961.
The most illustrative example of Brown’s attitude toward this question of violence against women, his stubbornness to admit any wrongdoing, his distrust of the state and the ways in which he would fiercely clutch to the idea of his own manhood as a shield, was the case in 2002, when, after smashing the windows of his twenty-five-year-old wife Monique’s car in June 1999, Brown found himself for the first time behind bars, at the age of sixty-six. He believed his imprisonment to be so unjust that he stopped eating, shedding twenty-five pounds during his six months in jail. Ironically, given his years of work with prisoners, he was kept segregated from the prison’s general population, against his wishes. For all but one hour a day, he was on lockdown in a six-by-fourteen-foot Ventura County Jail cell.
“The prison’s rationale for the twenty-three-hour isolation is that they need to protect me because I’m a celebrity,” Brown said at the time. “But it’s like being buried in a hole. … I have not eaten since I’ve been here. I’m fasting. I’m on a spiritual fast. That way I am setting the terms of my imprisonment. … I’ll fight as long as I have breath in my body. That’s who I am. That’s who I’ve always been.”
It was quite the collision of Brown’s greatness and his flaws. Years of anti-gang work uniquely qualified him to do something positive with his time behind bars and collaborate with fellow inmates, yet he was isolated from this very activity, struck down by his own fame and by a criminal justice system happy to make his time behind bars as terrible as possible.
The awful coda to this story is that if Brown had chosen to accept the original sentence, he would not have had to spend a day in prison. Brown had been charged with making “terroristic threats” against Monique and for vandalism. He was acquitted of the former but not the latter. His sentence was initially not six months of jail time. Instead he was handed four hundred hours of community service or forty hours of cleaning up streets and ordered to pay $1,700 to a domestic abuse charity and a women’s shelter and to attend counseling. But he didn’t accept that sentence, calling it “mean-spirited and vicious,” and chose jail time instead. He said, “I’m going to take six months. You are not going to humiliate me. I’m not going to pick up trash on the freeway.”
Brown again painted this entire situation in political terms, telling journalist Jon Saraceno of USA Today, “There’s no doubt that I’m a political prisoner, but race in America is always under the surface. If I were domesticated, I would be accepted racially. I’d have approval if I stayed in my place. The worst thing an African-American man can do is be as free as those more powerful than he is.”
Then he invoked the leitmotif of his political life: “The last thing I’m going to give up is my manhood.”
Brown told the press that he should be praised for destroying Monique’s car with a shovel, saying, “I went the opposite of domestic violence that night. In anger-management training, they teach you never to hit a person — hit an object. That’s what they teach you.”
Brown also rejected the idea that he had done anything wrong. “The issue isn’t about the safety of women,” he said. “It is about [the courts] making a political point. I can deal with any persecution or prosecution. Your enemy wants you to walk one mile, you walk two.”
The only person who publicly apologized for the incident was in fact Monique Brown, who testified that she had never felt threatened and that she had authorized her husband to attack the car as a therapeutic form of anger management. She said she had called 911 to humiliate her husband, whom she had suspected of cheating on her. She later said, “I challenged him. I shouldn’t have done that.”
Monique commented that she should have thought about his history with police: “It made me realize who my husband is. Not who my husband is inside but who he is in America.” She also said she should have been more sensitive to the fact that Brown was in a very dark place, his dear friend George Hughley having died in a February 1999 motorcycle accident.
Monique’s political explanation for her husband’s conviction only amplified what Brown was saying behind bars. He told Jeff Adler of The Washington Post, “I could have been a domesticated African and taken what the judge gave me. But I chose to be a man of character.”
Brown, very tellingly, does not paint this particular political stand in the traditional language of Black Power. Instead he directs his ire against a powerful cabal of white women, and portrays it as an organized campaign by these women to bring down a prominent man. Brown said, “[Female judge] Dale Fischer is the CEO of a radical and extremist group of white, upper-class women who target men of color, including Jim Brown. Judge Fischer has converted the court into a command post used to wage a war against all men, and black men.” He added, speaking about himself in the third person, “Jim Brown has a duty to his people, Americans, to stop a matriarchal corporation from using the bully pulpit to manufacture domestic-violence crimes when they don’t exist.”
This group he was referring to is the American Inns of Court, a benign legal organization whose mission is to “foster excellence in professionalism, ethics, civility, and legal skills.” The board of trustees is about half male.
Brown chose the six months behind bars because above all else he refused to concede that anything he did was connected to domestic violence.
Upon leaving prison, Brown said, “I served my time … I did it as a gentleman. The conditions of my [initial] sentence were ridiculous. If I had accepted those conditions I would have been condoning something that could have represented the way that the law was administered for many, many years. … The system itself has been corrupted.”
Deputy city attorney Grace Lee scoffed at this characterization, calling the affair “a very ordinary case about domestic violence.”
But Brown didn’t see it as ordinary at all, and his comments at the time bring him back toward using his one-time bulletproof masculinity as a shield. “You cannot take my dignity. You cannot take my manhood,” he said. “Fifteen years, twenty years, twenty-seven years Nelson Mandela spent to fight apartheid in South Africa. Only that man did it. Maybe God made me a catalyst, because I know if I go to jail and spend my six months with dignity and pride it’s going to mean a lot to the young people I work with around this doggone country.”
In court, Detective Brian Gasparian had testified that Monique Brown asked officers not to arrest her husband “after she came to a police station and tearfully told them of a history of abuse in their two-year marriage. … Monique Brown was tearful, trembling but open in discussing what she described as incidents of abuse, some of which involved threats on her life. … She seemed upset. She was crying. She asked me what was going to happen, if her husband was going to be arrested. I said I didn’t know.”
Gasparian later said, “She advised me that she didn’t want him arrested. … She said she wanted me to just take a report in case something were to happen in the future. Her eyes were red. She was kind of shaky.”
Outside the courthouse during the trial, Jim and Monique held hands as he again made this a political issue, speaking about the tearing down of men and the over-empowerment of women. He railed against domestic violence laws that he said give all the power to women to accuse men who are deemed instantly guilty. He said, “Under these laws she is now the boss of my life forever. … She can pick up a phone and call the police and that’s it. … This law forever makes [men] totally unimportant in our home.”
Speaking later, Brown commented, “I can definitely get angry, and I have taken that anger out inappropriately in the past. But I have done so with both men and women. So do I have a problem with women? No. I have had anger, and I’ll probably continue to have anger. I just have to not strike out at anyone ever again. I have to be smarter than that, smarter than I was. What I would say is that with wisdom, I will only use my mentality or my spirit aggressively. I will never use my hands [that way] again.”
The story was not as explosive, invasive, and damaging to the Browns as it might have been today, in this era before social media and the twenty-four-hour news cycle. Yet there was still a great deal of copy written about the case in the country’s biggest newspapers. Brown was also able to control this narrative somewhat by delivering interviews from behind bars to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other outlets. But not every columnist was friendly. USA Today’s Jon Saraceno went for the jugular with the headline “True Manhood and Perspective Elude Brown.” Saraceno eviscerated Brown for his “misogynistic, violent history.” Brown, he wrote, “is not yet the man he wants us to believe he is. … Personal responsibility and self-control are issues at the core of his long-standing activism. Instead, he chooses to hide behind ’60s-style militant rhetoric and black-power salutes, railing against the ‘evils of government.’ He is out of step with society, black and white. He is missing the message of selflessness he has preached over the decades. …
“Choosing jail,” Saraceno said, “was not a selfless act by a wronged man but the epitome of self-absorption and martyrdom.”
Saraceno is most cruel and betrays his superficial understanding when describing Monique Brown: “She sounds brainwashed, or she’s a coverup artist. Either way, her perspective is skewed. Maybe she’s afraid, which is understandable. When she tries to explain away her husband’s actions, she is worshipful.” Calling an abuse survivor “a coverup artist” is shameful, revictimizing the victim in this case. It’s not altogether surprising, however, that this callous way of writing about abuse survivors went unnoticed at the time.
Since the 1999 incident, Brown has not been accused of violence against Monique or any other woman. In the meantime, the power dynamics in his house have changed, as he and Monique have had two children, Aris and Morgan, and Brown has slowed as the years have passed. Monique runs the house. But Jim Brown’s value system, at least publicly, has not budged.
There was a fascinating exchange between the media and Brown in 2013 that also revealed a good deal about Brown’s stance on violence against women. ESPN asked Brown for his thoughts about Kobe Bryant. In recent years, most people in the sports world genuflect at the mention of Bryant, with his two decades in the NBA. Brown did not. Instead he referred to Bryant’s infamous efforts in 2003, after being charged with rape in Eagle, Colorado, to get the local police to investigate his teammate Shaquille O’Neal instead of him. The Los Angeles Times quoted a police report that said Bryant told detectives that “he should have done what Shaq does … that Shaq would pay his women not to say anything” and already had paid up to a million dollars “for situations like this.” (Shaquille O’Neal has never been accused of violence against women and was enraged with Bryant when these reports went public; the rift between the two men lasted for years.)
For Brown, Bryant’s being arrested on charges of violence against women was not what disgusted him. It was the snitching. He then connected the snitching to why Bryant would never have been invited to the Ali summit five decades earlier. On The Arsenio Hall Show, Brown said that Bryant had thrown Shaquille O’Neal “under the bus” and “is somewhat confused about culture, because he was brought up in another country.” [Bryant spent much of his childhood in Italy.] Bryant, Brown went on, “doesn’t quite fit what’s happening in America. In the days when we had a summit and called the top black athletes together to talk to Muhammad Ali about his status with the armed forces, there were some athletes we didn’t call. If I had to call that summit all over, there would be some athletes I wouldn’t call. Kobe would be one of them.” Once again, it’s the snitching, not the alleged violence against women, that makes Bryant unworthy.
Another window into his thinking came in September 2014 when Adrian Peterson, star running back at the time for the Minnesota Vikings, was arrested on charges of abusing his own young son with a stick.
Brown responded to the story by saying, “In this society, there’s a thing called child abuse. Adrian lives in a time with women’s rights and all that shit. You could get run over standing in front of women when they’re talking about their rights, domestic violence and child abuse and shit.”
When asked if he had something more to say about domestic violence and violence against women, given his own history, he said, “Yeah, domestic violence is different to me than child abuse. It’s strange, but child abuse, to me, would be a deep sickness. I mean there’d be some deep shit going on there if you want to whip the hell out of your kid where your kid would have welts and shit, I don’t know what the hell that’s about.
- Photo courtesy Cleveland Memory Project
- Jim Brown’s final game at Cleveland Stadium, 1965.
“Now, here’s my honest feeling about it: Child abuse is one thing that’s very clear-cut and doesn’t carry, in my mind, the same emotion that [abusing] a woman carries. So, I’ll put it to you this way: As I grow older, I would not touch anybody. I will not follow anyone into that hole where they are trying to take me where I could get angry and provoke their satisfaction by succumbing to that anger. You need education to learn not to fuck with some shit like that. When you’re talking about being in love, being emotional, feeling certain ways, that’s some deep shit. And it’s not predictable. All rejection is difficult to take and who rejects you more than a fucking woman?
“And since society says there’s not two sides to the coin, she’ll spit on you or hit you across the knee with a hammer and that’s not an excuse for you to hit her. It really isn’t. But, in that emotional state, you might knock her out, unless you’re at the stage in your development where you’re ready to walk [away]. And if she is not [ready to walk away], then you’re dealing with two people. You’re depending on her to feed you something that’s logical that fixes the argument, right? [But] she don’t give you nothing that’s logical and shit. So then your only alternative is to walk. You have no other recourse but to walk. But then you got ties, legal ties, all kinds of shit that you gotta cooperate with each other on, to work out how to leave each other. That shit’s all fucked up. That will screw with you on another level. …
“I’ve never seen a man that was perfect with his woman. I saw two quotes in the paper today by these teammates of Ray Rice. One guy called him a ‘piece of shit.’ And they put that shit in the damn paper. ‘That piece of shit.’ Like I said, he’s falling into the trap that they lay to assuage the females. … If someone spits in your face, someone slaps you, what’s going to be the reaction? And individuals don’t really want to [talk about what that reaction would be]. They don’t really want to address it because what it suggests and what it does is a form of reality that individuals don’t want to address.”
Brown would not talk about any of the cases that he was involved in over the course of his life. His mind did wander toward speaking about the Ray Rice video. “Did you see that elevator?” he said. “She made some kind of move and it looked like she said something, or spit at him or something. And then she went back and he knocked her out. But the piece of the video that bothered me most wasn’t the blow. Did you see how he treated her outside of the elevator? Kicked her with his shoe. Like a piece of fucking trash. Man, what kind of shit is that? Everyone’s saying the punch [ruined Rice’s reputation]. No, that shit outside the elevator did it for me, from the standpoint of the lack of respect that he showed. She’s knocked out now. I don’t know what he could have done but he sure could have done something different than he did. Yeah, I didn’t see nothing but disrespect. Disrespect don’t appeal to me under any circumstances. … What are the rules in an argument? Leave the fucking house [laughs]. Get out of Dodge. That’s all you can do.”
He then spoke about an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer comparing him to Ray Rice. He was tickled that people still felt the need to attack him on a basis that he absolutely believes is not about his own failings, but is politically motivated. That narrative still holds in his mind: Anything that had been done to him was also done to tear him down.
“I am honestly trying to do what I can do in this society to make it better. And I’m long past the stage of needing anyone to validate me. My thoughts now are about leaving here and my family and my friends and doing what I can do before I get out of Dodge myself. And to have someone taking slaps at you, it’s like, ‘Damn, man. This is desperation time! You’re still fucking with me? You’re fucking with an old man? What kind of shit is that?'”
He obliquely referred to his years of court cases: “How do I come at everybody? I just deal with the evidence. I stood up to my accusers. What you do in this country is you stand up to the accuser and you go through the process, whatever the process is, and then if you got to pay the price, you pay the price, and if you don’t, you don’t.”
Journalist Kevin Powell is someone who has been open, repentant, and deeply analytical about the topic of violence against women. Powell explains why he thinks Brown, despite these rock bottoms, seems so resistant to confront any of this history. “Unfortunately, as black men we feel a particular kind of weight that’s really unexplainable if you’re not a black male in this country,” he said. “Then if you add into it what you might have gone through with your family — a black family in America with residual effects of slavery and segregation and all of these emotions and insanity that come from that — it makes it very, very difficult to look in the mirror because you’re talking about traumatized people. Any group that has been traumatized, I guarantee that you’ll find in that community people who are profoundly successful, but also profoundly wounded.
“But what’s missing is the ability to pause and do some deep reflection and healing. … I think that most men, regardless of race, just don’t know how to stop. Because one of the twisted definitions of manhood is that you always have to be doing something. It does not lend itself to critical self-reflection, healing, and being vulnerable or being honest about what’s hurting you and causing you pain. And I think that’s the case with Jim Brown.”
Attempting to discuss this with “critical self-reflection and healing,” however, gets undermined by the belief that it is rife with racialized double standards. Academic and bestselling author Michael Eric Dyson said, “There’s a racial aspect to the perspective on personal flaws. The magical appeal of black pathology is that the public narrative always ascribes greater power to black misfortune and black misconduct. So now Michael Vick becomes the face of dogfighting. Adrian Peterson, the face of brutal practices of disciplining your children. Ray Rice, of violence against women. And so on … Racism and racial barriers can always be held up when black people are candidates to represent American pathology.”
Dr. Harry Edwards has done remarkable work in recent years on gender issues and has also been a close friend of Jim Brown’s. He stated: “What makes heroes heroic is the fact that they are human and yet are able to accomplish and contribute these extraordinary things. And far too often, because the public in general, and people with a vested interest in certain outcomes in particular — in other words people who want to see African-American men fail — want to find a reason to discount that greatness. They will go to human frailties, and say, ‘See there? He’s not what he claims to be.’ I mean, they said that about Dr. King. The reality is that what is at the very heart of the heroic contribution — someone who comes from among us, walks off into that dark and frightening forest of challenges, and comes back having achieved the height of expectations, of possibilities — is that they came from among us. Jim Brown didn’t descend upon this earth from some alien planet. He came from among us. And the fact of his humanity means there are going to be frailties, shortcomings, and so forth. It’s human beings who are heroic, because they are everyday people just like the rest of us who manage, through some gift, greatness, capability, sometimes through sheer determination, to do extraordinary things.
- Photo courtesy of Blue Rider Press
- Cover from Jim Brown: Last Man Standing, by Dave Ziron.
“I don’t discount or ignore any issues that may have tarnished, or have appeared to tarnish, Jim Brown in terms of wiping out some illusion of utter perfection. I take those as part of his humanity, understanding that it’s probably the case that we don’t even know and completely understand what those imperfections and frailties really were or amounted to. What we have is what was put out there, oftentimes by people who are literally interested in not just discounting his achievements and accomplishments, but in discounting him.”
This can be true and yet we also have to acknowledge that there is a deep degree of enabling that takes place with this kind of response. The contradictory part of these various defenses, however, is Jim Brown’s refusal to publicly recognize any of his own frailties. He does not confront this part of his history, and because he’s a public figure who built his political reputation as someone who fights injustice, this has undoubtedly hurt him. But it also creates a chorus of people who marvel at his indomitability. It creates admirers who have interpreted one man’s refusal to partake in one of the most difficult public acts in American life — admitting political and personal wrongs — to be a badge of honor. But this ignores the fact that part of what made Malcolm X so remarkable — such a role model as a human being — was that he very publicly shifted his views on race, struggle, and resistance. He went from preaching a doctrine of black self-help and self-defense against white devils to a mass international resistance to oppression. A similar argument applies to Dr. King, who shifted his views on the scope of his struggle and publicly stated that he would never again speak solely against southern racism or what today some call “black on black violence” when the root causes of both extended far deeper. He said, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”
Brown never did that, and it’s a weakness, when compared with these other great men. Ossie Davis said, “Malcolm is our manhood.” Jim Brown may be Superman, but being a real flesh-and-blood man is much more difficult. The tragedy is that many will support a Jim Brown more for aspiring to be Superman than for scrutinizing himself. The message from our culture is that real men don’t reflect on anything. Most of us cannot live our lives in such blinkered fashion, so we need that Superman, that exemplar, that symbol that says our own emotional constipation is not only understandable, but even noble. There is an appetite, a craving, for that Jim Brown, and that’s why he is celebrated for being the last man standing.
Adapted from JIM BROWN: Last Man Standing by Dave Zirin, to be published May 15, 2018, by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2018 by Dave Zirin. Click here to purchase.