From Cows in French Banlieues to Pigeons in Popular Culture | Fahim Amir | Tuesday, 04.08.2015

Godfeathers and Ghetto Doves

In my previous blog post, it was a pigeon fancier that exonerated the innocent ex-convict Leon Tate, and a bite that exposed the wannabe music producer Malik “King” Harris as the wanted sexual predator who used the New York rooftops as his hunting grounds. The narrative dreamwork of this episode ofLaw & Order: SVUshows an even deeper bite mark of reality if we follow the zootropes at play even further – they lead to another “Malik”: Malik Abdul Aziz, the legendary box champion and pigeon fancier better known as Mike Tyson. Tyson, a former undisputed heavyweight world champion, was disqualified in 1997 for biting his opponent Evander Holyfield on both ears. Five years before that, Tyson was sentenced for the rape of Desiree Washington in one of the most publicized U.S. court cases of the 1980s and 1990s.1 The other three court cases involving black men with varying circumstances leading to their legal plight were: former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, cab driver Rodney King, and O. J. Simpson.

In course of his trial, the 25-year-old and his victim became media allegories ofThe Beauty and the Beast.2 This also meant the rearrangement of gender positions: as Tyson became darker, Desiree Washington became whiter. The discourses of promiscuity and primitivism that surround African American women gave way to the “subject position of a college student and Sunday school teacher, she is enabled to become sexually naive and innocent, whitened to such a degree that Tyson’s inevitable rape is both more predictable and all the more unforgiving.” John M. Sloop, “Mike Tyson and the Perils of Discursive Constraints: Boxing, Race, and the Assumption of Guilt” in Aaron Baker and Todd Boyd (eds.), Out of Bounds: Sports, Media, and the Politics of Identity (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997), 102-122; 112.

For an analysis of the Beauty and the Beast trope in the Tyson trial, see the chapter “Will You Let the Tiger Loose? The Rhetoric of Race in American Criminal Trials” in D. Marvin Jones, Race, Sex, and Suspicion: The Myth of the Black Male (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 87-102.
Persecution, media, and his own defense created “a discursive situation, in which Tyson, as boxer, as African American, and as himself, is constructed rhetorically as naturally angry, persistently dangerous to all who enter his domain.”3 John M. Sloop: “Mike Tyson and the Perils of Discursive Constraints: Boxing, Race, and the Assumption of Guilt” in Aaron Baker and Todd Boyd (eds.), Out of Bounds: Sports, Media, and the Politics of Identity (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997) 102-122; 107. Tyson became a sign that even began to circulate across genres to represent the old racist myth of the animalistic black male body. Reports on the trial appeared often in the sports section of newspapers, and some of the most ferocious attacks came fromTimemagazine editor and film critic (!) Richard Corliss: “This is atavistic manhood, stripped of all weapons but fists, guile, and will. A man-beast-machine: hunter, warrior, conqueror, terminator. Even lover. … A fight with Tyson at his physical and emotional peak is like a brisk courtship that ends in slaughter.”4Quoted in Sloop, “Mike Tyson and the Perils of Discursive Constraints,” 108.

In disregard of the immense discipline Tyson had in order to achieve the body of an athlete, his body was now used against him to prove the uncontrollable, animal-like stature of his soul – a “pitbull.”5 David J. Leonard, “African Americans and Sports Television: Symbols and Signs, Dollars, Decay, and Dysfunctionality,” in Todd Boyd (ed.), African Americans and Popular Culture [Three Volume Encyclopedia], vol. 2 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008), 67-96; 83.

For connections between dogfighting and boxing in the U.S. context along the axis of masculinity in general and Mike Tyson specifically, see Rhonda Evans, DeAnn K. Gauthier and Craig J. Forsyth, “Dogfighting: Symbolic Expression and Validation of Masculinity,” in Sex Roles, vol. 39, nos. 11/12 (1998): 825-838; 831 ff.

See also Tony Jefferson, “Muscle, ‘Hard Men’ and ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson: Reflections on Desire, Anxiety and the Embodiment of Masculinity,” Body & Society, vol. 4, no. 1 (1998): 77-98.
At the end of the trial, the question was no longer if he was guilty, but if white America feared him. The trope of the animal played an ambiguous role in the career of the baddest man on the planet: “As my career progressed and people started praising me for being a savage, I knew that being called an animal was the highest praise I could receive from someone.”6 Mike Tyson and Larry Slowman, Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2014), 56. As a young boy, Tyson ran with a New York gang called the “Puma Boys,” fighting with adversary groups like the “Cats.” He was a gopher for some young criminals in his neighborhood running a pigeon coop, and started indulging in this sport himself. “Flying pigeons was a big sport in Brooklyn. Everyone from Mafia dons to little ghetto kids did it. It’s unexplainable; it just gets in your blood,” Tyson recalled.7Tyson, The Undisputed Truth, 21.He was still a passive, podgy, lisping child, when a bully killed one of his beloved pigeons in front of his eyes and tossed the decapitated head at his face. To avenge his pigeon, Tyson engaged for the first time in a physical fight – and won. It was pigeons that marked the start of his career as one of the most famous “animals” in the sport of boxing, and it would be pigeons that would help foster his new image after his years in prison and the close of his boxing career with the seriesTaking on Tyson(2011) by U.S. cable network Animal Planet, as well as the animated television seriesMike Tyson Mysteries(2014) by the cable network Adult Swim.

Taking on Tysonaccompanied Tyson becoming involved in the world of competitive pigeon racing with his friends from the old days. The moral of the series is summarized by a younger friend of Tyson featured in the series as caretaker and part of Team Tyson: “When I was younger I got in trouble and left the pigeons. But when I came back to my pigeons I got things back on track.” Indeed, pigeon racing seems far less testosterone-ridden than dog fighting, especially since pigeon tending is generally more associated with elderly people in the park than with thugs on rooftops. While Tyson now seems calmer and more mature, he has also become a popcultural icon, and withMike Tyson Mysteries,a cartoon parody of himself. Here, the audience can watch him solve mysteries with the help of, among others, an alcoholic pigeon. Commenting on what it means to solve the mystery of Tyson himself, the pigeon says: “You got what you wanted. He’s no fun, he doesn’t party, he doesn’t beat up random people.”

Law & Order: SVUmade its peace with Mike Tyson in a controversial episode titled “Monster’s Legacy,” with guest star Tyson playing (for the first time) not himself, but the character Reggie Rhodes. The police investigators help Rhodes, a convicted murderer who was abused as a child, to prove the prosecutorial misconduct evident in the original murder trial and help him to free him from death row.8 “Monster’s Legacy” aired on February 6, 2013 by HBO. When word of Tyson’s involvement in the TV show got out, several public discussions on the legitimacy of his involvement were sparked and even an (ultimately unsuccessful) petition against his involvement was launched.

Another U.S. series,The Wire,was called “one of the most poignant and forceful texts about the American city ever produced.”9 Katharine Meehan, Ian Graham Ronald Shaw and Sallie A. Marston, “Political Geographies of the Object,” Political Geography, vol. 33 (2013): 1-10, 3. As its title suggests, the show takes a keen interest on surveillance technologies and how they help produce policeable space, while portraying diverse aspects of life in Baltimore, Maryland. Marlo Stanfield, played by Jamie Hector, is a ruthless drug kingpin who challenges both the dominant criminal Barksdale organization and Baltimore police detectives, is considered by many viewers to be the “most evil being” on the series. For some, he is the character that best epitomizes the show: “He is, in effect, the ultimate bureaucrat, one who plays the system without empathy or fear. His sole aim is the increase of bureaucratic power – both his own power within the bureaucracy, and the power of the bureaucracy itself. Although he is certainly a person without a moral backbone, it is not really a question of good and evil at all, but of efficient success. … The system itself is the evil, Marlo is just another player, albeit more successful than most.”10 Quoted in Steve Busfield, “The Wire Re-Up: In Defence of Marlo,” The Guardian, December 1, 2008, Marlo “is a model of sublimated desire and controlled aggression, a fact accentuated by his slender physique and almost feminine grace.”11 James S. Williams, “The Lost Boys of Baltimore: Beauty and Desire in the Hood,” Film Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 2 (Winter 2008): 58-63, 61. In fact, the only time Marlo allows himself tender feelings is while he tends his pigeons: the most evil person in Baltimore is a pigeon fancier. While he is repeatedly under police investigation, Marlo successfully outwits the surveillant gaze by staging a false drug exchange, the excessive use of prepaid “burner” cell phones, and once even by stealing the expensive high-tech surveillance camera equipment. While holding the camera itself hostage, Marlo takes control of his medial representation and has the camera transmit footage of his carrier pigeons. This is a joke at the expense of the police, but also more: when a policeman asks Marlo about the whereabouts of the missing camera, Marlo tells him that he will keep an eye open for the camera, “But you know cameras. Kinda like pigeons in the storm. You know what I’m saying? Sometimes they come back, sometimes…”12 Corner Boys,” Episode 8, Season 4, The Wire, aired November 5, 2006 by HBO.

Pigeon fancying was a collective hobby for the German miners of the Ruhr Valley, from the end of the 19thcentury into the mid-20thcentury, involving more than 100,000 working-class practitioners. Hans-Georg Soeffner tried to solve the mystery of this passion: “[The miner] disciplined his soul bird as he had to discipline himself. What he experienced in pigeon breeding and the birds’ flight as his liberation were his own constraints, which he brought like a dowry into his connection with the pigeons. He created a realm of freedom that not only reflected all these constraints, transfiguring them into their positive counterparts, but also embodied them.”13 “Training, Disziplin und Arbeit im Zeittakt sind die Leistungen, die der Bergmann selbst zu erbringen hat und die er auch seinen geliebten Tauben abfordert. Er diszipliniert seinen Seelenvogel so, wie er sich selbst zu disziplinieren hat. Was er in der Taubenzucht und im Flug der Vögel als seine Befreiung erlebt, besteht – auch – darin, dass er die eigenen Zwänge als Mitgift in seine Verbindung mit den Tauben einbringt: Das von ihm geschaffene Reich der Freiheit spiegelt all diese Zwänge nicht nur als deren ins Gute verklärte Gegenbild wider, es enthält sie leibhaftig” Hans-Georg Soeffner, “Der fliegende Maulwurf (Der taubenzüchtende Bergmann im Ruhrgebiet) – totemistische Verzauberung und technologische Entzauberung der Sehnsucht” in H.U. Gumbrecht and K.L. Pfeiffer (eds.), Paradoxien, Dissonanzen, Zusammenbrüche (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1990), 431-453 (my translation).

The link between black male bodies and pigeons as part of visual culture is something rather new. It is also at the heart of Jim Jarmusch’s filmGhost Dog:The Way of the Samurai(1999). Ghost Dog, played by Forest Whitaker, is a hit man employed by a New York mafia syndicate, who takes care of carrier pigeons on the roof of his apartment building. While the cartoon Tyson solves mysteries using pigeon post, Ghost Dog’s pigeons are harbingers of death. And like Marlon Brando’s character Terry Malloy in Eli Kazan’s filmOn the Waterfront(1954), it is the killing of his pigeons by the mafia that incites his betrayal of them.

Pigeon fancying is the art of taking care of others, without putting them into the prison of the family, the romantic relationship, or the correctional facility. The ubiquity of genuinely mundane pigeons in any given city and neighborhood makes connections possible that are not utilitarian, but which embody the hope for a mode of being that allows you to be something different than your given self – without the necessity of giving yourself up. Perhaps this was part of the decision by rap artist Nas14 For a treaty of Nas’s poetic style, see Imani Perry, “‘It Ain’t Hard to Tell’: A Story of Lyrical Transcendence” in Michael Eric Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai (eds.), Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2010), 195-212. to portray himself with a pigeon – a “ghetto dove” – as commentary on life in the post-911 era on the cover of his albumStillmatic(2001): immanent transcendence.