by Robert Lipsyte
THE LITERARY WORK
A young-adult novel set in Harlem in the mid-1960s; published in 1967.
Alfred Brooks, a seventeen-year-old living in Harlem, overcomes the negative forces of the ghetto to become a “contender” in the anaging boxing World.
Robert Lipsyte began his writing career as a copy boy on the New York Times sports section at age nineteen. After working several years for the Times, Lipsyte earned the privilege of writing his own sports column for the paper in 1967. The inspiration for his first novel came from his coverage of the heavyweight boxing title fight between Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson in Las Vegas in 1965. During the fight, Cus D’Amato, an aging boxing manager, told Lipsyte stories about his gym on New York’s Lower East Side. As soon as he returned to New York, Lipsyte began building on the conversation with D’Amato to write The Contender, which would become a major stepping stone in Lipsyte’s career as a young-adult novelist.
Growing up in Harlem
By World War I, the black population of New York City was centered largely in Harlem, an area in the northern part of the city. Harlem had been overbuilt, abounding in new structures, but the city’s transportation systems had not extended into the area at the same pace. Partly as a result of this situation, inexpensive housing suddenly became plentiful, and the growing black population of New York settled the area. In time whites left Harlem completely, and property values dropped. Landlords either sold their buildings at a loss or simply refused to maintain them, allowing the structures in the area to fall into disrepair. The relative poverty of the black community propelled a further decline in the area. In 1961 six out of every ten black families had an income of less than $4,000 a year. In white families, the statistic was reversed—six out of ten white families had an income of more than $4,000 a year.
Poverty was simply one of numerous difficulties facing residents of ghettos such as Harlem in the 1960s. Adolescents growing up in these areas were surrounded by gambling, excessive drinking, drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, violence, crime, and broken families. In the novel, Alfred encounters almost every one of these situations. His circle of friends engages in the burglary of the Epstein store and steals a car; Alfred drinks and smokes marijuana while at an illicit hangout known as the clubroom; he is beaten by Major and the other boys; and his parents are both gone, leaving him to be raised by his aunt. Even though Alfred is intelligent, hard-working, and honest, the conditions have taken a toll on him. When the novel begins, Alfred has dropped out of high school and really has no plans for the future. The question that arises is whether Alfred can overcome his surroundings through the positive influence of Donatelli and the other men from the gym.
The black family and the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty
The number of young blacks living in poverty was on the rise in the mid-1960s, when The Contender takes place. So was the number of young blacks living in female-headed households, as Alfred does in the novel. Yet contrary to reports of the time, the black family was not in danger of disappearing altogether. The majority of black young people still lived in two-parent households, as they would continue to in the 1970s and ’80s. Those who did not belong to this majority were often supported by friends and relatives who joined forces to replace the nuclear family. These friends and relatives formed “domestic networks, making it their business to help out mothers, stand in for fathers, and share their resources with those in need” (Mintz and Kellogg, p. 213). The existence of such networks is portrayed in the novel by Alfred’s aunt, who raises him after his mother dies and his father leaves, and Alfred’s brother-like concern for the fate of his friend James. Despite such support systems, though, many people’s lives were adversely affected by the rising poverty rate and the increasing number of broken homes.
Like Alfred in the novel, boxers begin their careers as amateurs, receiving no money for fighting. Amateur boxing matches have only three rounds, which can be either one, one and a half, or two minutes long. Each round is scored on a point system, with victory going either to the fighter who wins two out of three rounds or to the fighter who is able to knock out his opponent. The fighter decides when he wants to move on to the professional level, usually waiting until he has gained experience and several victories before doing so. Alfred’s amateur career lasts for only three fights before he retires, realizing that he doesn’t have what it takes to move on to the professional level.
The government made an effort to tackle the growing problems. President Lyndon B. Johnson began a “War on Poverty” in 1964, committed to strengthening the family in America. One of the first efforts in this war was the opening of an Office of Economic Opportunity to furnish education and training to unskilled young people so that they could break out of the cycle of poverty. Under Johnson, Congress established Medicaid to provide health care for poor people under sixty-five years of age; it passed a housing act that gave rent supplements to the poor; and it increased the federal money for education from about $1.5 billion in 1960 to close to $7 billion in 1968. Young people benefited from such projects as the building of new schools, for example. And by the decade’s end the War on Poverty had scored some successes. The 20 percent of the population that the government classed as poor in 1960 dropped to 12 percent of the population in 1969. Also there was a decline in the number of families living in substandard housing—that is, housing without indoor plumbing—from 20 percent in 1960 to 11 percent by the end of the decade. But problems persisted. One was the high-school dropout rate, which continued to rise, swelling with the increase of young minority dropouts such as Alfred in the novel.
Boxing and its hopes
For many young men growing up in America’s poorer neighborhoods in the 1960s, boxing seemed to be one of the few possible escape routes. Newspaper headlines describing the massive paychecks of champion boxers encouraged members of lower-income communities to try their hand at the sport.
In reality, boxing offered little chance of escape. One nationwide study, spanning the years 1938 to 1951, showed that only six hundred fighters actually earned enough money to sustain themselves and only sixty became headline fighters. Succeeding years offered little improvement. Close to the time of the novel, the experiences of Malik Dozier of Washington, D.C., are representative of the false hopes and broken dreams common in the sport. Earning only $150 per fight, Dozier’s purse on one occasion was not even enough to cover his medical costs for a broken jaw and chipped teeth. Like many other boxers, Dozier had to supplement his boxing income with money from a full-time job. In many cases, such fighters would drive several hundred miles for a $75 or $150 fight, sleeping in their cars to limit expenses.
Even the more successful boxers seldom found long-term prosperity in the sport. Generally speaking, prizefighters were mostly from low socioeconomic backgrounds and had little education; thus, they were easily victimized by dishonest managers and promoters. Because the average boxing career only lasted six to eight years, it was nearly impossible for fighters to establish a sufficient amount of money for retirement. With few practical skills, many boxers had to return to menial professions even after attaining near-celebrity status. Beau Jack, a famous fighter, became a shoeshine man following his boxing career, and Kingfish Levinsky, another former great, became a traveling tie salesman.
Another aspect of boxing that its eager entrants failed to acknowledge was its physical dangers. After automobile racing, boxing is the next most dangerous sport. There are an average of 3.8 deaths in boxing for every 1,000 participants, a statistic that dwarfs college football’s 0.3 deaths per 1,000. Furthermore, deaths and serious injuries in the ring reveal only a small percentage of boxing’s potential for danger. The repeated blows to the head that are part and parcel of boxing can cause brain damage as well as increase the risk of neurological diseases. In the novel, Alfred realizes these dangers during his second fight when he refuses to finish off his opponent out of fear of hurting the weakened boy, and during his last fight when he realizes that Hubbard is strong enough to injure him severely.
The Black Muslim movement began as a small religious sect, the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, established by Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad’s central message was black redemption, and his followers were called Black Muslims. He preached that the black man’s poor condition in the United States was due to white oppression, and that improvement could only come after blacks relinquished the white man’s ways and adopted the true religion of Islam. Muhammad believed that the degradation of blacks could be stopped if blacks would rediscover their African heritage. They should unite and maintain strict separation from whites. Progress would depend, he believed, on the thrift, business enterprise, and economic independence of his followers. The motivating force behind all of these ideas was the belief that blacks were superior to whites and that they would eventually be restored to their rightful place of predominance in the world. In the novel, Major, Hollis, and even James hold attitudes that resemble this idea. While trying to convince Alfred to help in committing a robbery, James tells him, “Whitey been stealing from us for three hundred years. We just going to take some back” (Lipsyte, The Contender, p. 5).
The Black Muslim movement gained momentum with the rise of a new leader named Malcolm X. Born Malcolm Little, Malcolm X was introduced to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad while serving a prison sentence for burglary. Malcolm studied Muhammad’s ideas, and by the time he left prison in 1952 he was fully converted and had pledged to serve Muhammad and the movement. As was customary in the movement, he replaced his surname with an “X” to mark the abandonment of his “slave name” (Little) and the renunciation of his earlier way of living (Blair, p. 31).
Malcolm rose quickly in the Black Muslim hierarchy and in December of 1954 was given the ministry of Temple No. 7 in Harlem. It soon became the most prominent Black Muslim congregation in the country, and Malcolm became one of Muhammad’s most trusted disciples.
Malcolm declared to his congregation that African Americans were descended from an original Black Nation whose members differ completely from, and are superior to, the Caucasian race. By trickery, Malcolm claimed, the Caucasians had conquered the Black Nation and transported its people to America as slaves. The Christian religion had further reduced the status of blacks through treachery and falsehood. Malcolm preached that blacks must give up the Bible, take up the Koran—the Muslim holy book—and embrace Islam, “the black man’s religion” (Blair, p. 33). Malcolm taught that blacks could benefit from their suffering by following Muhammad’s teachings and giving up the evil ways they had learned from white people, such as eating unhealthy food, drinking, smoking, carrying weapons, using drugs, and gambling. By exacting retribution for past abuses in the form of land and reparations from the U.S. government, they could start a new life under the leadership of Muhammad.
MUHAMMAD ALI AND THE MUSLIM MOVEMENT
The heavyweight boxer and 1960 Olympic gold medal winner Cassius Clay met Malcolm X in 1963. Malcolm convinced Clay that he could become a powerful tool for the movement, and Clay converted to Islam shortly after his involvement with the group became public in 1964. In 1965 Elijah Muhammad gave Clay the Muslim name Muhammad Ali in recognition of his faith. Robert Lipsyte spent much of his career for the New York Times covering Ali and actually became a member of All’s entourage. The author’s experience with the fighter and his own conversion to Islam provided background experience for the fictional character Alfred’s encounters with the Black Muslims in The Contender.
In the novel, Alfred and his Aunt Pearl are confronted by Black Muslims on their way to church. Alfred is ridiculed for going to a Christian church and encouraged to join the movement. One of the Muslims says about Alfred, “Ain’t that sweet? On his way to pray to Whitey’s God, learn to Tom and turn the other cheek … (The Contender, p. 30). Despite their intention of conveying a feeling of empowerment to blacks, the Muslims in the novel make Alfred feel even more alienated and confused, presenting another hurdle he must overcome on his path to success.
Alfred Brooks, a seventeen-year-old African American, lives with his widowed Aunt Pearl and her three young daughters in a small Harlem apartment. Alfred is an orphan; his father deserted him when he was ten, and his mother died of pneumonia when he was thirteen. After dropping out of high school, Alfred began working as a stockboy at a local grocery store run by a white family, the Epstein brothers.
After work on a Friday, Alfred waits for his friend James to meet him so they can go to the movies. When James fails to show up, Alfred realizes that he must be hanging out with some local troublemakers at their “club” in a neighborhood basement. Alfred finds James there and tries to get him to leave, but James refuses. The other club members—Major, Hollis, and Sonny—make fun of Alfred for working like a “slave” for the Epsteins, calling him “Good Old Uncle Alfred.” When Alfred defends the Epsteins, he inadvertently mentions that they leave the money in the store over the weekend for religious reasons (they are Jewish and do not handle money after sunset on Friday, when Sabbath begins). Major immediately wants to rob the store, and the other boys, including James, follow him. They ridicule Alfred when he refuses to go.
Henry, a teen crippled by a childhood case of polio, whose family lives above the clubroom, finds Alfred alone in the club. Alfred is distracted and barely listens as Henry tells him about his new job working for Mr. Donatelli, the owner of a nearby boxing gym. Worried about James, Alfred leaves the club. On the street, a police cruiser passes by and Alfred suddenly remembers the new silent alarm the Epsteins have installed in the store. He starts to run, but sees the police respond to a call and realizes it is too late. A crowd has gathered outside the store, and Alfred learns that James has been arrested, though the others got away. Walking home, Alfred runs into Major, Hollis, and Sonny, who beat him unconscious for not telling them about the alarm. Henry and his father find Alfred and carry him home to his Aunt Pearl.
The next day, after recovering, Alfred walks around the neighborhood and sees Donatelli’s gym and remembers Henry talking about it. Remembering his father saying that Joe Louis had worked out there once, he decides to enter. Inside he finds Mr. Donatelli alone in the darkened gym. Alfred tells him he wants to box, that he wants to become a champion, to which Donatelli responds that he has to become a contender before he becomes a champion. He has to be willing to work hard, even knowing that he may never reach the top. Alfred leaves feeling inspired by Donatelli’s words.
Monday morning, Alfred follows Donatelli’s advice and gets up at 5:30 a.m. to run through the park. After his exercise, Alfred goes to work at the grocery. Lou Epstein, the oldest Epstein brother, asks Alfred if he knows who the other boys were who tried to rob the store. Alfred says he knows nothing. Still liking Alfred, but wary because they know he is James’s best friend, the Epsteins no longer let Alfred take the deposit to the bank in the afternoon.
After work Alfred begins his training at the gym. One night Donatelli gets him a ticket to a fight at Madison Square Garden so he can watch one of their fighters box. After several weeks of training, Alfred begins to doubt his ability to become a boxer. He goes to the clubroom to see if he can find James, who has been released by the police because robbing the store was his first offense. Major and the other club members treat Alfred with more respect now that he is boxing. James hasn’t yet arrived, but Major says he is coming and invites Alfred to stay. Eventually Alfred is coaxed into drinking, and he also smokes marijuana with the others as the party lasts through the night. James shows up late in the evening and Alfred is shocked to learn that he has become a heroin addict. The next day, feeling terrible, Alfred again lets himself be persuaded by Major and the other boys to forgo his boxing and go with them in Major’s white Cadillac to Coney Island. When it turns out that the car is stolen, Alfred and the others run from the police and escape.
Alfred finally makes his way home by himself, feeling more depressed than ever. He visits Donatelli with the intention of clearing out his locker and giving up. When he asks Donatelli if he thinks Alfred could have become a contender, Donatelli responds that only Alfred can answer that question. Newly inspired, the boy decides to continue his training.
Over the next few months Alfred works diligently and finally gets his first amateur fight. Supported by Donatelli, Henry, and Bill “Spoon” Witherspoon, a former fighter turned schoolteacher, Alfred wins this first fight. During his second amateur fight, he wins but shows that he does not have the killer instinct necessary to become a champion. Despite his two victories, Donatelli wants him to give up the sport. Alfred refuses; he needs to fight again to see if he has become a contender. When he is matched against a heavy-hitting amateur in the next bout, Donatelli again wants him to stop, but Alfred is determined to fight. During the three-round fight he is thoroughly beaten and loses, but proves to himself that he has finally become a contender and can now give up the sport knowing he has succeeded.
Inspired by the example of “Spoon,” who has used his discipline in boxing to become a success as a teacher and mentor, Alfred decides that he wants to help his community as well and thinks about working at a local recreation center. When he gets home after the fight, Aunt Pearl tells him that James broke into the Epsteins’ store again, this time on his own, and that the police are after him. Remembering a hiding place they shared as children, Alfred finds James there and convinces him to turn himself in. Now stronger than he has ever been, Alfred assures James that they can overcome anything together. Alfred is indeed a contender.
Negativity and peer pressure in the ghetto
One of the greatest difficulties faced by Alfred as he struggles to succeed is the negative influence of people around him. The primary negative influence faced by Alfred comes from other boys in his neighborhood. Out of the five boys in the group, Alfred is the only one who has a job. For working and responsibly giving the money to his Aunt Pearl, Alfred is teased by the other boys. Major mocks Alfred by saying, “You such a good sweet boy. Old Uncle Alfred” (The Contender, p. 3). When Alfred refuses to go along with the other boys to rob the Epsteins’ grocery, Major scorns Alfred for his loyalty and for working, saying “You just a slave … You was born a slave. You gonna die a slave” (The Contender, p. 4). Alfred’s best friend James also pressures him to go along, telling him, “Look, Alfred, you don’t owe them anything” (The Contender, p. 5).
The boys from the neighborhood plan to rob the store a second time, again trying to enlist Alfred’s help. But he refuses to disconnect the burglar alarm for them, so Major threatens him with a knife. When that fails to persuade Alfred to help them, Major tries to impress his own perception on the boy: “The Epsteins don’t care about you, you just a black nigger slave to them” (The Contender, p. 73).
Once Alfred starts boxing in an attempt to better himself, he receives negative feedback from other people around him. Even Reverend Price from his church fails to see the positive side in Alfred’s quest. The reverend talks with Alfred about his boxing and tells Aunt Pearl, “This is a passing phase. He’ll soon grow tired of this meaningless pursuit” (The Contender, p. 81). Although the people in Donatelli’s gym provide positive role models for Alfred, the rest of the neighborhood offers no support. Alfred becomes discouraged when he looks around the neighborhood and realizes that everyone else is out cruising and having fun while he is training. Losing his resolve, he goes to the clubroom where he drinks wine and smokes marijuana. While this is a major lapse for Alfred, it is the normal routine for the rest of the neighborhood teens. Though Alfred does eventually achieve success, he must first overcome the negative influence of people around him. The novel’s depiction of Alfred’s struggle shows how difficult it is to become successful while living in a negative environment.
The basic premise of The Contender came from a conversation Robert Lipsyte had with Cus D’Amato in 1965 while the two men were in Las Vegas for the heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson. Lipsyte was particularly fascinated by D’Amato’s story of how he used to sit in his gym on New York’s Lower East Side, waiting to hear the sound of footsteps on the three flights of steep stairs outside. Lipsyte recalled D’Amato saying, “If a kid came up those dark, narrow, twisting flights of stairs alone and running scared, there was a chance he might stay with it, hang tough, find himself through dedication and sacrifice” (D’Amato in Cart, p. 1). D’Amato also told Lipsyte, “Fear is like fire. It can bum you or keep you warm; it can destroy you or make you a hero, a contender in the ring and in life” (D’Amato in Cart, p. 2). Lipsyte recalls that after this conversation, “I sat up the rest of that night aflame. To me becoming a contender meant writing a novel” (Lipsyte in Cart, p. 2). For Lipsyte, who had spent a great deal of time in the boxing world as a sportswriter for the New York Times, the creation of The Contender was a natural process. D’Amato’s gym became Donatelli’s gym in the novel, and D’Amato’s philosophies inspired the words of wisdom that Donatelli imparts to Alfred in the story. Lipsyte’s own experience and journalistic attention to detail became further sources used to make The Contender a complete novel.
Critical reception of the novel
There were two predominant critical responses to The Contender. Many critics praised the novel for its uplifting portrayal of Alfred’s struggle for success, but others argued that Lipsyte is too heavy-handed in his presentation of moral issues, which detracts from the characters and story of the novel. Edward B. Hungerford commented that “Lipsyte writes from deeply within the boy’s self and the life of the ghetto. The reader suffers with Alf s humiliations, is stirred by his strivings. Mechanics disappear, and between reader and struggling boy no obstacle stands. A fine book in which interest combines with compassion and enlightenment” (Hungerford in Senick, p. 207). In contrast, journalist Nat Hentoff maintained that while there are flashes of inspired writing, much of the novel is overly didactic. Hentoff wrote: “Far too many writers of fiction for the young seem to believe their primary function is to teach rather than to create textures of experience which are their own reasons for being” (Hentoff in Senick, p. 207). Despite this initial criticism, Hentoff continued that “in several of its parts, however, didacticism recedes, and lo, there is life! In particular, whenever Lipsyte writes about boxing itself he indicates how intensely evocative he can be and he moves the reader beyond maxims into participation” (Hentoff in Senick, p. 207). Despite this and other remarks that The Contender was too moralizing in tone, most reviewers agreed that it succeeded in telling a moving story of one young man who overcomes the challenges of his surroundings to become a true champion.
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