(Spoiler warning for Swing by Kwame Alexander and Mary Alexander Hess)
If you search the internet for information regarding America’s favorite pastime, you will likely be treated with unsolicited-yet-indignant endorsements of a sport you do not even watch:
“Baseball is in every way perfect; there are no flaws in the sport. Everything flows together perfectly. It is built around God’s favorite shape, a diamond, and the rest is covered by the most incredible grass on the planet.” [i]
This detectably insecure non-logic introduces a 2011 Bleacher Report article by Micah Chen. Using effective poetic imagery, he evokes baseball’s physical and conceptual dimensions to preface the article’s primary civil service act—defending the honor of America’s Sport against America’s other sports. Specifically, he (wildly) takes aim at football due to its unshakeable cultural relevance, knowing its biggest attraction, the Superbowl, has supplanted primetime baseball’s best offerings in viable commercialism and manufactured intrigue. Threatened by shifting tides, Chen resorts to disputing and dismissing the signs of his loyalty’s gradual obsolescence, describing (un)scientifically why baseball “will always hail over” its Monday night counterpart.
As blissfully commendable the concept may seem, its execution is subliminally frantic, coerced, and delusional. Chen even (unconsciously) uses baseball’s abysmal popularity rating and protracted season schedules to argue that it is more “convenient” to view and attend baseball games over football outings.(After all, if nobody does watch baseball, anyone can watch baseball.) Other misinformed and nostalgia-laced lines claims are fraught with age-blind reasoning: ancient whistle tunes like “Take me out to the Ball Game” are given as big-ticket draws to stadiums. Ultimately, the article reads something like an old man’s fantasy matchup that pits a retired boxer against an active champion, the title card beginning something like this (in my eyes):
“Facing football in a heated [bitter cold] deathmatch [settled dispute] over deserved U.S. viewership, baseball must pull all the stops to show it is more [American] hot dogs than…”
(Note: I do not count baseball out on this ticket, however hypocritical it may sound. Its corner is stacked with fierce pit bulls. I see the fight unfolding in one of two ways: baseball toughs out a redemptive underdog win or suppresses a gut-wrenching affirmative loss. Chen would break word of either outcome.)
Whereas the thrust of America’s political and economic cultural machinery propels baseball to an uncontested (yet unmistakably artificial) mainstream, other activities are put on the nation’s backburner, left to fuel their ascent to prominence. Jazz, for instance, hit its first major growth spurt alongside the advent of Major League Baseball, quickly developing and stabilizing its fanbase by the early 20th century, spearheaded by legendary talents such as Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bichet. [ii] Unlike baseball, the cultural elite was slow (about 60 years) to endorse jazz as urbane, [iii] chastising its brash spontaneity and provocative antiphonies, which exploited complex, elemental rhythms. The components produced a “low-brow” social score in the turn of the century court of public opinion. Still, the music found a stable home in predominantly black communities welcoming of listeners of all-races.
As aforementioned, jazz briefly achieved mainstream appeal in the late mid-20th century, guided by the consistent avant-garde innovation of Miles Davis and others. Looking back and to the future, jazz musicians of the time rejected their genre’s historical racial abbreviations and shortcomings, most shown in Nina Simone’s branding of herself as a producer of “black classical music.” Re-narrating the collective Black musical biography, Nina directly references an abridged past to demand future respect. It is both a powerful and in-character statement of post-civil rights Black sentiments. But soon afterward, jazz ceded its popularity to descendant genres like Soul and Funk, and society clung on to the historical aspects of Simone’s narrative, relishing jazz as past and forgotten intellectual property, like European classical music. 1980’s new school jazz artists fell in line with this interpretation, reverting to an originalist, non-experimental approach to jazz-making. [iv] Once Hip-hop found and reinterpreted defining jazz idioms, the once-dominant genre migrated to academia; a well-respected, sophisticated home, but approaching mainstream obscurity. Neilson currently ties jazz with classical as the second least prolific music genre. [v]
In other words, both jazz and baseball are not as popular as they once were. But whereas society encounters jazz vestigially and through history, baseball is still assisted actively through mainstream advocacy.
Newberry Award winner Kwame Alexander and coauthor Mary Rand Hess offer this key difference as their allegory for race relations in America. They liken the pursuit of marginalized Americans to achieve inclusion under the American ethos to the gendered concept of courting a romantic partner, harping on the idea of a segregated coexistence, as with jazz and baseball. He calls the finished product Swing, a double entendre of a title, which pits the oppositional counter-structure of jazz against such “American” institutions as major league baseball.
The premise of the book—a novel in verse published in 2018—concerns two high-school baseball aficionados that have been cut from the varsity team three years in a row. One of the pair (Noah) accepts the end to his microcosmic American dream and drops baseball entirely, shifting the rest of his attention onto a girl (Sam) who has kept friend zone distance since the third grade. Her current boyfriend on the varsity baseball team keeps her occupied. Stiff-armed by Cupid, Noah decides his only option is to secretly admire his best friend from afar by crafting pretty collages and hiding them in her locker. Cajoled to do so by his companion, Swing, (given name Walt), Noah returns the favor by encouraging Swing to not give up on varsity baseball. Swing begins a strict batting cage regimen (hours every day after school) to increase his averages for senior season. His work pays off faster than he expects: a star player is injured, and the coach, noticing Swing’s ethic, calls him to the big leagues. The excited recruit manages one base hit before the police murder him at the end of the book.
It is worth mentioning at this point Walt and Noah’s friendship is a biracial one: Swing being black and Noah being white. The audience is not made aware of this until just before Swing dies, causing reflection on the authors’ choice to narrate the story from Noah’s perspective. Not telling his partner’s racial identity reflects the authors’ conundrum of a race-blind society. Noah is naive in underestimating his black friend’s reservations about the police, and that ignorance (partly) costs him a friend. But because race bears no obvious impact on the other aspects of Swing’s genteel, suburban plot, one could forgive Noah for thinking in utopia, raising serious questions regarding where, when, and whether lines should be drawn to allow for the race card to be pulled from the precarity of its deck.
Alexander and Hess’s attempts to answer these questions involve the complex symbols of America and decoding the country’s internal struggles and antagonists. He problematizes the American flag from the start as a surveilling, omnipotent device running counter to the individual interests of its people:
this is America
Included in this borderline dystopian depiction of a patriotic image is baseball, “America’s Sport”, which introduces the reader to the major scandal of the book’s setting: a misguided citizen’s ambiguously intentioned pursuit to put flags in unusual places. This is revealed when Noah and Sam (his crush) decline to stand for the national anthem at an early baseball game where her boyfriend is playing. Sam afterward points out that police officers have arrived to remove flags from the warning tracks of the outfield. This prompts Noah to explain to the reader the general firestorm the flag has caused, calling it “the biggest news to hit our town.” The locals have no idea what to make of the display:
Is it something suspicious
It could be a terrorist or extremist group
mocking us before an attack, one of my classmates said
Who cares, another one offered
I say nothing,
Are they really hurting anyone?
I mean it’s the flag.
Alexander and Hess have an answer in mind already to this flag vandalization thought experiment. Although the identity of the vandal complicates things (which we’ll get into later), Alexander understands that the ease with which symbols of solidarity are weaponized and confused with agents of division is illustrative of how America cannibalizes its self-image of unity by relying on such symbols. The problem isn’t refusing to stand for the anthem, even if Noah doesn’t directly understand the reason to politicize sports. The issue is the flag itself.
Swing is skeptical of America’s promises from the get-go, conditioned by years of experience as a black man. Though baseball is implied by his self-title, Benny Goodman, King of Swing, was the true inspiration behind his nickname. That’s because Swing’s love of jazz is just as, if not more, great as his love for baseball. His passion for jazz flows so naturally that the otherwise nerdy details of his character evacuate when he is tasked to give jazz commentary. Confidence swells and expels from his chest at the mere mention of jazz, sweet-talking an antique store clerk named Divya into a romantic relationship after she flexes her (greater) knowledge in the subject.
But consider in this character description the location of jazz music: stored in ‘antique’ shops, mined by crate-digging, and known by a black man and his nonwhite girlfriend. Each of these is a mechanism of “othering” I reference in the introduction. Noah is the (white) authoritative voice of the book and even he is devoid of any knowledge or interest in jazz music, limiting the reader’s understanding of the role jazz plays in the text. Swing attempts to relieve Noah of his musical preconceptions, teaching him how to hear jazz:
Listen to it. Really listen to it, Noah. Let it envelop you
Seep into you. Then, tell me how you feel, my dude.
The very idea of Swing’s second name alludes to the unique circumstances brought by code-switching and disinheriting ascribed social statuses in the name of success and self-determination. But what about the opposite? The minority Americans who cave their cultural uniqueness to fit the collective? The ones who play ball but never go up to bat with the system?
Swing’s older brother Moses stands in this role. Whereas Swing is largely unsuccessful in his attempts to succeed in such “American” pastimes as baseball, Moses is drafted by the New York Yankees, securing a spot on one of America’s most prestigious institutions (and Chen’s favorite team). But he declines his spot in the Major Leagues and enlists in the U.S. Army. At the time of his deployment to Afghanistan, Moses was the most liked, successful, and embraced person ever to come from his small town. But he comes back at the beginning of the book different, to everyone in his presence but Swing. War has stripped Moses of more than his trademark smile and personality: he can’t form coherent sentences and hardly recognizes his family; he screams when provoked and wanders when unoccupied:
It’s like he’s asleep
He looks sunken,
smells of BO,
Every few seconds,
he jerks a little
like his body
are on autopilot
The destruction of Moses by his service (intended to serve his fellow Americans) cuts much deeper as a criticism than the idea of sacrificing self for country. How everybody wants to mourn Walt’s lost personality (except Swing) while shuffling their feet at the idea of helping him in his current state is a scathing indictment of American passivity. Such unwillingness to get uncomfortable and challenge the status quo often perpetuates the very oppressive systems that effect us most. Here’s an example: Moses is the reason Swing dies. Though he is too far gone to ever realize it, Moses is the one haphazardly tossing flags every which way to (not) make a point. Noah and Swing find his unrecognizable silhouette one night in the middle of his flag-dropping routine. Swing doesn’t want to pursue it any further; although he doesn’t know the neighborhood he’s in, he does know the police will be coming shortly to pick whoever it is up. He tells Noah that solving the mystery isn’t as important as keeping his life, but his friend presses on. They identify Moses soon after, and there is a standoff; the police arrive; Moses runs away; Swing is shot and killed.
Again, Alexander invites us to question the flag we pledge allegiance to, to question America and its many symbols and institutions. Moses does everything “right”; the outcome is the death of his brother. The system puppets us into believing we are one, but cultural and personal differences mask and divide us by the whole.
The reconciling of America’s many pieces (unifying baseball and jazz) into one true and beautiful whole is what Alexander terms “the greatest love story yet to be.” The idealism of such a claim seeps through the voice of the person who makes it: a philosophical yet homeless jazz musician. The language of “love” also invites the reader to consider the three examples of romance the text has already provided. All are failures.
Here they are below: reasons to curtail hope for a perfect future.
The first and primary love story revolves around friends Sam and Noah: we knew this was not going working from the very beginning. Noah never stops to think about what either of them wants before naively crafting his sappy yet clever collages. He also treats women like a monolith, visiting generic podcast sites to learn “what women want” and attending sessions with a “love guru”—Swing’s cousin from Dairy Queen—to become better acquainted with feminine desire. This works only briefly when Sam is momentarily wooed by Noah’s secret admirer approach and accepts his offer. The relationship goes nowhere and the two break up, Sam falling back into the arms of her belligerent and incompetent baseball jock.
Swing, on the other hand, finds somebody who aligns with his interests perfectly, without even really trying to do so. They find common interests in jazz and world history, holding extremely titillating, competitive, and intellectual conversations. Their racial backgrounds are diverse and dissimilar, but it feels negligible, never being addressed directly. And despite all their merriments and good fortunes, the last mention of the couple is on Swing’s deathbed when Noah notices that Divya left a relic of their time together, Birth of the Cool, played on continuous repeat. In this case, America intervened. External political circumstances killed sustainable interpersonal affection. Now, who is to say love is only the people involved?
Alexander’s final example of a failed romance again argues against the preponderance. Early in the book, Noah finds a series of love letters written in the 1960s inside a used purse he buys for his mother’s birthday. The sender is Corinthian (yes, like the Epistles of Paul), who wrote to a woman named Annemarie. The heartbreaking poetry of Corinthian’s letters tells the story of an attempted interracial coupling in pre-civil rights America. Their passion leaps from each page with a whimsical fantasy, vast potential energy sweeping the reader’s imagination:
i Just need to carry you in my arms like a
wave carries ships to faraway lands. i Just need to kiss u
inside the daze of my dreams, inside the blue jazz. i Just need u
and your loyalty, ur truth, ur abundance of light
how do i not love wholly and solely when the mere
parting of ur lips swallows me whole. takes all
that is in the chambers of my heart, and soul, captures my
breath? I beg you…
come, swim with me in this deep blue unknown
Having forever bonded over Fats Waller (none other than), the two even wish to attend jazz shows together. But wishful thinking gradually suffocates the beauty and spontaneity of Corinthian’s writing. Throughout four letters (one year in time), combative and disillusioned pleas (Micah Chen anyone?) spoil Corinthian’s grandiose romantic gestures, succumbing to those conspiring forces just beyond his reach: first, her father’s scorns, then the hateful will of a nation. In full circle, Noah uses this fated relationship as a model to pursue Sam, literally pasting the drawings of his secret admirer’s collages directly onto Corinthian’s documents. Sam is never outed to be white or black, but Alexander’s metaphor of Corinthian (and the braids in her hair) may give us a clue to it. The eventually fantastic failure of her and Noah’s relationship give a foreboding report of America’s future.
[i] Chen, M. (2011, April 25). America’s Pastime: 20 Reasons Why Baseball Will Always Hail over Football. Retrieved October 10, 2020, from https://bleacherreport.com/articles/676720-americas-pastime-20-reasons-why-baseball-will-always-hail-over-football
[ii] Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 2011
[iii] Williams, Justin. “The Construction of Jazz Rap as High Art in Hip-Hop Music.” The Journal of Musicology (2010): 435-459.
[v] Neilson Music. “2019 U.S. MUSIC MID-YEAR REPORT.” 2019.
Alexander, Kwame, and Mary Hess. Swing. 2018