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Is There Something Sinister Behind Our Cultural Obsession With Mike Tyson?

Today, New York magazine ran an excerpt from Mike Tyson’s forthcoming memoir, Undisputed Truth. Much of the excerpt focuses on Tyson’s Dickens-by-way-of-Bed-Stuy childhood, and the way a white boxing coach named Cus D’Amato gave him a sport to focus on. It is a compelling story, even a poetic one. His love for carrier pigeons seems like it must have come from the imagination of a novelist, and all the bad boys in the village cut archetypal figures.
Every incident is like a scene from some movie:

One day I was leaving school at lunchtime to go home and I had some meatballs from the cafeteria wrapped up in aluminum to keep them hot. This guy came up to me and said, “Hey, you got any money?” I said, “No.” He started picking my pockets and searching me, and he tried to take my fucking meatballs. I was resisting, going, “No, no, no!” I would let the bullies take my money, but I never let them take my food. I was hunched over like a human shield, protecting my meatballs. So he started hitting me in the head and then took my glasses and put them down the gas tank of a truck. I ran home, but he didn’t get my meatballs. I still feel like a coward to this day because of that bullying. That’s a wild feeling, being that helpless. You never ever forget that feeling. That was the last day I went to school. I was 7 years old, and I just never went back to class.

And that was his actual life.

But there are, nonetheless, questions about the way this kind of thing gets interpreted and fetishized in the press, particularly when you consider the violent, troubled figure Tyson has cut in his adult life. On Friday, I raised some of those questions in writing about the New York Public Library’s inviting Tyson to speak there, this fall. The Library justified its decision by way of framing Tyson as a reformed figure, or at least one whose conduct is somehow mediated by his honesty:

Having Mike Tyson as a guest at LIVE from the NYPL is in no way a dismissal or an endorsement of his prior actions or his conviction. I do not stand here in judgment and Mr. Tyson is forthright about his life and frailties, in unsparing ways. As Spike Lee said recently about Mr. Tyson’s willingness to delve into his dark past and demons, “he is the most honest human being I have ever met.”

And perhaps he is being honest. But to be honest about his demons also involves admitting that he is still living as an addict, that he continues to bear a grudge against the woman he was convicted of raping in the early 1990s, and that overall in spite of the stain of that conviction he still has the kind of career that will land him prestigious speaking engagements of this kind. That’s just the truth, folks. The next time someone tells you a sexual assault conviction will ruin someone’s life, you can simply say “Mike Tyson” and let the subject drop.

This memoir will highlight, possibly as well as ever before, that Tyson’s violence has a source; the overwhelming feeling you walk away from this excerpt with is that he was doomed from the start. Which feels weird and reductive and dishonest in and of itself — it’s worth asking, for example, if the reason the world loves Mike Tyson has something to do with racist beliefs about the nature of black masculinity, just for starters. The line in the excerpt that I can’t stop thinking about is this one:

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.

Setting any harm Tyson has inflicted on others aside for a moment, there is something profoundly sad about this statement even as it just applies to him. It’s sad that this is the kind of aspiration that we hold out for him; it’s sad that it plays into certain narratives that white people hold close about black masculinity; and it’s sad that there are corners of the world where people will read that statement and cheer on the “animal” in Tyson. He behaves wildly, and he behaves “honestly,” for our entertainment. And one hopes, in what seems likely to be a long fall of wall-to-wall Tyson publicity, someone’s going to ask him whether he minds being the person trotted out to behave “badly” so that we can all write op-eds about it.