In his excellent critical biography, Presenting Robert Lipsyte, Michael Cart repeats Lipsyte's account of how the sports journalist first got his idea for The Contender. Lipsyte was in Las Vegas to cover a heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson, scheduled for November 22, 1965. The night before the fight, he had a conversation with legendary boxing manager Cus D'Amato, then in his late fifties. D'Amato reminisced about the days when he worked in his gym on New York's Lower East Side. As with Donatelli's Gym in the novel, a prospect had to climb three flights to present himself. D'Amato had a special interest in the kids who, like Alfred, came running up the stairs afraid and alone. He compared that fear to fire, which can "burn you or keep you warm; it can destroy you or make you a hero, a contender in the ring and in life." The metaphor inspired Lipsyte. In his own life, he says, "becoming a contender meant writing a novel."
A Brief History of Harlem
To get the most out of reading The Contender, the student should have some understanding of the historical and cultural context in which the story takes place. History and culture are one in the Harlem of the 1960s, and some knowledge of that setting helps in appreciating Alfred and his world.
In 1658, a Dutch governor named Peter Stuyvesant named a village on northern Manhattan Island "Nieuw Haarlem" after Haarlem in the Netherlands. Africans, slaves of the Dutch West India Company, built the first road into the area in the seventeenth century. African American slaves worked the land for Dutch and, later, English farmers for nearly 200 years. In 1790, one third of the area's population was made up of slaves. The village developed as a fashionable white suburb of New York City in the 1800s. Real estate prices soared but later collapsed due to excessive speculation in the early 1900s. The Lenox Avenue subway line connected Harlem with lower Manhattan at about the same time, and blacks began moving in. By 1930, the African American population of Harlem had soared to 180,000.
Black Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s was a cultural Mecca, home to the center of an intellectual and cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. As Jim Mendelsohn points out in an essay for Africana.com, many of the residents were reasonably well off financially, in neighborhoods like Stridel's Row on West 139th Street. They supported churches such as The African Methodist Episcopal Zion and newspapers such as the Messenger. W. E. B. Du Bois, a founder (in 1910) of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), edited the organization's magazine, Crisis, along with Jessie Fauset.
Social life and the arts flourished, sometimes together, as the Lincoln and Apollo theaters, the Cotton Club, and the Savoy Ballroom provided first-class entertainment. Paul Robeson was known worldwide for his singing and acting as well as his controversial politics. Tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was called "The King of Harlem." Writers such as Langston Hughes, artists such as Jacob Lawrence, and musicians such as Fats Waller and Duke Ellington contributed to the explosion of creativity.
However, many blacks were struggling even in the 1920s, and whites owned most of the businesses. The Great Depression, beginning in 1929, hit hardest the poor. Employment improved during the United States' involvement in World War II (1941-45), but Harlem's economy sank in the next twenty years. By the 1960s, when The Contender takes place, housing conditions had deteriorated; there were extensive slums. The African American middle class, made up of people like the novel's Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Wilson, left Harlem for suburban areas like Queens. The repressive mood of Lipsyte's first chapter is justified. It is the Harlem that Alfred first wants to escape and then wants to change.
The "nationalist rally," which Alfred and his family pass on their way to church at the beginning of Chapter 4, and whose supporters Alfred later encounters, further reflects the culture of the time. During the century from the Civil War (1861-65) to the setting of the novel (1960s), African Americans struggled with the question of whether to try to live with whites or separate from them. Marcus Garvey, who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1916, led one of the first popular black nationalist movements. However, it was Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam (NOI) and Malcolm X's Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) that dominated the black nationalist scene in Harlem in the 1960s.
The roots of the NOI were in Detroit, where a salesman named Wallace D. Fard (pronounced fa-ROOD) founded the Temple of Islam in the early 1930s. In just a few years, Fard developed the Temple into a force for economic independence and racial separatism. He advocated the rejection of white society and warned against the evils of the "blue-eyed devil." Fard taught strict adherence to religious principles through his University of Islam and the Muslim Girls Training Corps. White authorities came to distrust Fard as a violent subversive. Fard disappeared in 1934 when he was offered a choice of leaving Detroit or going to prison. Elijah Muhammad, Fard's top lieutenant, took charge of the Temple of Islam and was the most powerful black nationalist in the country for the next forty years.
Elijah Muhammad moved the NOI's headquarters to Chicago where he built the Temple of Islam Number 2 in the latter 1930s. Under Muhammad's leadership, there were eventually more than one hundred temples nationwide. He further emphasized financial growth for the NOI, sometimes drawing criticism for the Nation's leaders' accumulation of worldly possessions. The disciplined lifestyle of the black Muslims made them attractive employees, and the workers donated freely to the NOI.
The NOI glorified women but severely limited their freedom. Their role was domestic and parental, and their purity was to be above reproach. However, critics pointed out that NOI leaders sometimes used women as sex objects; Elijah Muhammad himself allegedly fathered several illegitimate children.
The NOI flourished in the late 1950s and 1960s even as it stood in contrast to the Civil Rights Movement, which was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and sought peaceful integration. During this period, one of the NOI's most charismatic leaders was Malcolm X, head of the Harlem Mosque; he was a former prison inmate and brilliant speaker who was especially effective in large groups and on television. One of his catch phrases was that the movement should fight white racism and violence "by any means necessary." Despite the popularity of Malcolm X, the NOI censured him in 1963 for his notorious remark that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was tantamount to "the chickens coming home to roost." Malcolm X left the NOI in 1964 and formed the OAAU. Many blamed the NOI when he was assassinated the next year.
The question of race was complicated in Harlem in the 1960s, and Lipsyte does not dodge the issue. Certainly we see the results of white racism against blacks in The Contender. But in the first chapter of the novel, we also see Major and his gang using racial slurs in an attempt to intimidate and manipulate Alfred. Even more blatant is their prejudice against Jews. Consistent with racial stereotypes, they accuse the Jewish grocers of indulging in greed ("They go pray for more dollars") and a modern form of slavery, exploiting black employees for mercenary purposes. When Alfred tries to defend the Epsteins, he only causes more problems. Major and his undisciplined gang would be a disgrace to the NOI, but many of the racial issues are the same.