Reading the OJ Simpson trial through a novelistic lens.
Image by Flickr user Sarah Sphar
By Martina Fouquet
On July 22, 1994, OJ Simpson pleaded “absolutely, 100 percent not guilty.” After a long, public, and embattled trial, the court would agree with Simpson’s plea. Although I was born the same year the trial took place, I feel personally connected to the OJ Simpson case, as there were often OJ Simpson sightings in my hometown in South Florida. My parents would declare “He did it” whenever his face popped up on the local news television stations. I didn’t know what ‘it’ was, but I knew ‘it’ was bad and something to not be discussed publicly.
A safe twenty years from the “trial of the century”, television networks like ESPN and FX have revived the drama and politics surrounding the case.
Everything from the composition of the jury, the details of the crime, and the visibility of the suspect, gave the impression that the events of the OJ Simpson case were taken from a well-written crime novel with complex character development and all.
In fact, the surreal-ness of the characters and events that occurred in 1994-1995 were not unique to the world of literature. As I experienced FX’s OJ Simpson vs. The People and ESPN’s OJ Simpson: Made in America, I couldn’t help but feel that the factors of the case were eerily similar to the plot and characters of some of my favorite novels. In Richard Wright’s Native Son, the protagonist, Bigger Thomas struggles with the meaning of his identity after he smothers his employer’s daughter to death and is given counsel from a sympathetic Communist lawyer. Much like OJ Simpson, Bigger was permitted entry into the white world, although briefly and on a far more superficial level.
The three books of Bigger Thomas’s life provide a map for understanding the ethos of the OJ Simpson case: fear, flight, and fate. While no one was there to witness the murders, there’s no doubt that if OJ Simpson had committed these crimes (which as you can tell by my tone, is what I assume), then he was no doubt crippled with fear. Flight very much aligns with the Bronco car chase that was broadcast nationally to both horrified and intrigued viewers. And the final book: fate. Fate suggests the loss of agency and the advent of predetermined outcomes. Native Son retells the events of Bigger Thomas’s trial which undoubtedly mirrors how the OJ Simpson case unfolded in a sick parallel world. Had one factor of the OJ Simpson case been shifted, it’s easy to imagine him being remembered as the once admired athlete/actor who was sentenced to life in prison for double murders.
OJ Simpson’s acquittal represents an anomaly in the general relationship of black people and the American justice system.
However, while OJ Simpson was for some joyously and others devastatingly acquitted, fate sentenced Bigger to capital punishment. In 1940, a black man, regardless of how much wealth he had acquired (which was pretty limited at the time), could not dream of being acquitted in the case regarding a crime against a white woman. It’s a wonder if OJ Simpson is the modern Bigger. In another life, could Bigger Thomas been recognized as a talent, gain the attention of football coaches from affluent colleges, and rise the ranks as one of the most talented football players to date? Would he be relentless in his determination to be regarded as a business man, build an empire, and leave his black wife for a more socially elevated white wife? For Bigger Thomas, working as a driver for the Daltons may have always been the best he could do. In 1940, American society didn’t provide a space for black men to be adored, face plastered in association with popular American brands, and made honorary members of white society. For all the faults in his relationship to the black community, OJ Simpson’s acquittal represents an anomaly in the general relationship of black people and the American justice system.
Another striking similarity is how self-absorbed both OJ Simpson and Bigger Thomas are. Wright provides us with a truly despicable character who despite all his shortcomings, remains chained to the racial hierarchy of the country. Bigger describes being black in America as “living in jail.” But OJ Simpson broke free. He could proudly announce that “he was not black”, that he was OJ Simpson, achieving a feat that had been elusive for many of the prominent black figures that came before him: erasing his blackness.
However, his blackness became the instrumental factor of his acquittal. When everyone in his elite circle abandoned him in the midst of damning evidence proving his guilt, Simpson’s only refuge was in the black community which held resentment toward a justice system that consistently devalued the crimes against their community. Simpson was the only black person with the right elements of privilege to get the result that he did. For many, his acquittal was compensation for the injustices against Rodney King and Latasha Harlins. When black people were in pain, seeing a black face become a beneficiary of a corrupt justice system felt like redemption.
To understand the complexity of Simpson’s relationship with his blackness, it will also be important to examine the dynamics uncovered in Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North.
While the novel is set in Sudan, the dynamics of the protagonist, Mustafa Sa’eed, and his world mirror how OJ Simpson experienced his acceptance into elite white society. Early in his career, OJ Simpson had rejected his blackness. While playing at USC he began to develop the philosophy that his race was not a factor that influenced his lifestyle. “I’m not black, I’m OJ Simpson” became the descriptor of his relationship with blackness. Mustafa Sa’eed’s relationship to his race functions in much of the same way. Once accepted into elite English academic circles, Mustafa viewed his African-ness as merely a superficial layer to his intelligence which the English marveled at. He was surrounded by white people who exoticized him so much that when he proved to be a murderer, they deemed him not responsible due to his heritage and its impact on what he perceived to be right and wrong. Although Mustafa was not acquitted for his crime, he was given a sentence less severe than what he had expected as a black man in Britain. Both Simpson and Sa’eed were accused of killing their lovers.
Much like Mustafa, Simpson was liberated from the prison of his race by the grace of white people wanting to bestow good fortune on what they perceived to be a great talent, but for Mustafa it was academic prowess that granted his freedom. An interesting aspect of the similarities is that both Simpson and Sa’eed react to the outcome of their trials with a “homecoming.” Their homecomings are themed with a return to the beginnings which they had once rejected. Where Simpson’s homecoming included visiting black churches and becoming a frequent customer of Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, Sa’eed’s homecoming was a very literal return to Sudan. Mustafa’s secret room full of Western books served as a “mausoleum” to the society he had once been a proud member of. One could imagine Simpson’s Brentwood home served a similar function, which is why it may have taken Simpson so long to remove himself, as leaving the home signaled removing the last vestiges of his acceptance into elite, white society.
Their love for their white peers shook the foundations of how they perceived themselves and what their identity meant to them.
But leaving home for seemingly better opportunities created an unhealthy love for a society that didn’t necessarily reciprocate that love in the same way. Sa’eed’s retort “I swear I’ll kill you” provides a chilling parallel to Nicole Brown Simpson’s prophecy that OJ Simpson was “going to kill me.” Simpson had an unhealthy obsession with controlling Nicole Brown, which was the same motive that pushed Sa’eed into killing his wife. This controlling obsession can be seen as a symbol of the white gaze and white glorification. Their love for their white peers shook the foundations of how they perceived themselves and what their identity meant to them. In order to have more security in their environments, they attempted to control all factors of their lives to ensure predictability of events. They were not simply killing their lovers, they were also expressing the desire the control the uncontrollable aspects of their life, such as the white gaze.
And here we find what Season of Migration to the North identifies best: the lack of agency. Where Native Son calls it ‘fate’, Mustafa’s woes are a clear lack of agency in a world in which he thought he belonged to. But his membership was highly conditional. He succumbs to the fact that he was always fated to live in Sudan, marry a nice Sudanese woman and work a decent government job. For brief moments, Bigger Thomas, OJ Simpson, and Mustafa Sa’eed believed that they could will all the events in their life. But ultimately it was their fate to end up where they did, and that fate was highly correlated with society’s perception of their race.
There are two primary differences between the OJ Simpson case and these literary depictions of race and justice. First, is the medium by which the stories are told. Literature provides the opportunity to explore the different facets of a story that often times television can overlook. While the case was occurring, the media circus that surrounded the OJ Simpson case implicated many factors that may not have been considered without digital advancements. The reason why black people could rally behind the Rodney King beating, was due to video sharing which provided a platform for collective anger and grief. The collective grief was unavailable in the setting of Salih’s and Wright’s novels because it was difficult to depict grievances in a way that was easily disseminated. Wright and Salih probably didn’t come with their stories in a vacuum, but at the time literature was the primary means of disseminating multi-faceted stories, which implicated the need for observations of what might have been considered isolated cases.
Additionally, there is the question of class. As I mentioned before, black people during both Wright’s and Salih’s era were far more limited in their options for economic growth. OJ Simpson’s ‘Dream Team’ was only possible because of the capital he had acquired as a star football player and media giant. The racial dynamics which Wright and Salih so adeptly explored in their novels, were all but dismissed by a society that felt that Simpson was simply a privileged individual instrumentally using his race to get out of serving his time. The ‘race card’ was frequently used to describe the tactics that brought about Simpson’s acquittal, but fewer people talk Simpson’s economic privilege. The instrumentality of the ‘race card’ would not have been possible without Simpson’s ‘rich card’. The way the Simpson case was depicted allowed for people to ignore the racial dynamics that persistently negatively impacted many black people. A black person is far more likely to be wrongly accused of a crime they did not commit than be wrongly acquitted for a crime they did. In fact, 63 percent of all those exonerated by DNA results were black. Had Simpson been any other black man, his sentencing would probably have a much different outcome.
Black agency remains the domain of carefully crafted caution.
So how do these stories factor into today’s racial politics? Many would argue that with the pervasiveness of Black Lives Matter protests, we have yet to leave the Rodney King era of black suffering and white condemnation. Black people still feel as though they are chained to a racial hierarchy that does not permit their freedom. Even though black people have achieved the highest levels of American prestige, including President of the United States, there is the underlying realization that there is a predetermined fate for all those who dare to commit crimes, a space which one cannot cross without alienating and upsetting the sentiments of mainstream America. Black agency remains the domain of carefully crafted caution. Where drug addiction is a health scare for white America, drug addiction of a black person is a menace to all society. Where shoplifting is a low-impact crime committed by white youth bored in suburban towns, shoplifting can cost a life for a black person.
As a black person, can you truly save yourself by declaring you ownership of a gun and a permit? Does raising your hand and saying don’t shoot protect you? Does a black child have the freedom to play with a toy gun as a white man has the freedom to walk into a Chipotle with an assault weapon? What agency is left for black people and the American justice system? How many other black people feel imprisoned by their blackness, hoping for an escape that does not require the complete rejection of their heritage?
In this modern age one can comprehend the anger of black people as a manifestation of seeing the jail that still imprisons us, especially in relation to the justice system. Becoming ‘woke’ as they say, is the realization that took OJ Simpson a lifetime and a double murder to realize. It is easy to consider that OJ Simpson’s case has no relation to Wright and Salih’s depiction of the racial dynamics of justice, but those same dynamics underlie Simpson’s case. Simpson was able to capitalize on his wealth and Los Angeles’s localized series of events to reverse the common racial dynamics of justice. OJ Simpson is not divorced from Wright’s and Salih’s narrative, he is a part of it. His case is evidence that after centuries of built-up resentment, one powder keg moment can provide an out of the ordinary result.
No matter how free a black person claims to be the chains still exists, ready the lock whenever a black person decides to step over preordained boundaries of respectability. Richard Wright and Tayeb Salih saw these dynamics at play and deftly wrote about it in their novels. But it was OJ Simpson who lived it.
Bio: Martina Fouquet is a MFA candidate at Rutgers-Newark Creative Writing Program. You can follow her on Twitter @MartinaFouquet.