Val James: The first African-American to play in the NHL

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Photo from ESPN.

You might recognize the names Willie O’Ree and Herb Carnegie but what about Val James?

Val(more) James became the first black American to skate in the NHL for the Buffalo Sabres in 1982, twenty-four years after Canadian, Willie O’Ree would officially break the “colour-barrier.” For the majority of his career he was an AHL enforcer for the Rochester Americans. His autobiography (Black Ice: The Val James Story) is a quick and easy read with short chapters that kind of read like hockey shifts. He talks about his youth, the significance of his father, and shares some interesting anecdotes from his playing days about his extra-curricular-sextivities. Other than hockey, the only consistent thread that runs throughout the book is the racism he faced as a black man in a white man’s game. His stories about racism are intermittent, just as they appear in real life. He doesn’t present “race” in one chapter as an isolated facet of his life, rather it is woven into his larger hockey story as a persistent factor. On the first page he writes:

…Val James had become the first black American to ever play in the NHL. There had been no ceremony, no public address announcement. But Val knew. And if his dad were still alive, he would have known too.

Still, the tears were not born of the joy of finally making it to the show. Nor were they from the pride of being the first African American to do so. The tears that slipped past his scarred fists were tears of shame. And rage.

Through his tears, Val could see the angry mob that blocked the path of the Buffalo team bus. He saw the spider web splintering the front windshield. the result of a hurled beer bottle. And he heard the shouted demands of the mob:

“Send out the nigger!”

61kaHCk3z4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_And so his story continues through 28 chapters of hockey tales and racism.  An interesting reflection that James has is how some of the worst racism he experienced was in Canada, presenting another chink in the nation’s multicultural armou. While mobbing a team bus with such a chant would be largely unacceptable in the 21st century, our racism merely presents itself differently but serves the same purpose – to create difference.  What many people don’t realize is that as a person of colour you are constantly reminded that you are different. It is not just one comment that causes a reaction, it is the accumulation of comments and actions, both big and small. The spectrum ranges from supposedly innocent questions such as “Where are you really from?” to the more volatile and violent incidents that James details in his book. It is something that is learned externally.

I knew I was black, of course – my skin was darker than all my white neighbors and friends on Long Island. But, up to that point, I had no reason to challenge what my parents told me. I had no reason to think that my skin colour made any difference in who I was. This was the first time I learned that being black meant, in the eyes of some people, that I was different, that I was less. I’d never seen this guy before. I’ve never done anything or said anything to him but, to him, I was a nigger. Something to be mistreated, to be hated.

There is definitely a sense of loneliness that runs throughout the book, a loneliness that exists despite constantly being surrounded by teammates. This leads to another poignant reflection that James has about how a hockey team is limited in the ways that it can protect and support its individual members.

Of course, when I was subjected to racial abuse on road trips, I could count on the support of my teammates. They always said the right things but, try as they may, they couldn’t really sympathize with what I was going through. An old Midland teammate recently brought up an incident when opposing fans threw bananas at me. What the hell could my fellow teenagers on the Flyers ever say to make that better? They would be offended on my behalf but, not being black themselves, they just could not relate to the pain and humiliation and anger that I was experiencing. In that sense, I was very much alone.

Later on, James reiterates the invisible division between him and his teammates: “unlike the rest of the team, I was the only one subjected to these words. The words themselves were hurtful only to me. Even amongst my brothers in the locker room, I was made to feel alone.”

This point James makes resonates well with racial politics in North America today. He very eloquently explains that all lives do not matter in the same way and that even in one’s sympathy there are certain experiences in this world that reinforce and reproduce the idea that some people are not equal in the eyes of society. Not even the best teammates can protect someone from taunts that cut to the core of someone’s identity whether they be racist, homophobic or otherwise.

After being forced out of professional hockey with a shoulder injury James didn’t watch hockey for ten years. He never told his wife about his experiences until it was time to write the book. Co-author, John Gallagher, explained to ESPN that it was difficult for James to unearth all of the stories that he had repressed for so long, “They cut coming out just as they did going in…” James describes the writing process as a form of much-needed therapy.

I find the title of that particular ESPN article somewhat troublesome: “Val James not bitter about abuse.” It is a play off of something that Gallagher says about how James was able to forgive but not forget. With the stroke of a few keys it almost makes it seem like the abuse he suffered was okay because James is okay now.  Yet, in the book, in James’ own words he writes, “While I was not prevented from playing hockey because of my race, it did make the path harder, angrier, and lonelier.” It is important that we recognize which people get to be ‘honoured’ with the label of resilient and/or forgiving because usually they are the ones who have suffered the most.

And for that, I give James the last word:

“While my opponents knew very well that I was not one to turn the other cheek, I had no choice but to swallow the abuse hurled at me from their fans.”

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