English, Department of



Gregory E. Rutledge, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Document Type Article

Copyright © 2006 Gregory E. Rutledge.


When Vince Young, with 26 seconds on the fourth-quarter clock, dashed right past swift-footed, diving, flying, and eventually desperate and downcast Trojans, not only did he win the NCAA football crown for the Longhorns, but his actions gave sports writers and enthusiasts across the country an easy narrative closure: He did the impossible, in an epic-scale battle, by defeating the invincible Trojan Horse.

It takes no major leap—with all due apologies to Baseball, The (former) National Pastime—to understand that American football is the incarnation of the American epic impulse, one rooted in the Greco-Roman tradition. American slavery and American culture have elicited parallels with the epics since the early antebellum era. Did the African epic also cross with the enslaved? If so, is the African trickster blended with the African epic, creating a sort of African-American “epic trickster” aesthetic? The “epic trickster” paradigm is useful irrespective of the presence of African epics, for the social epic of slavery, combined with general African aesthetics, would create a unique, African-American epic aesthetic. Race, as in ethnicity and sport, are perfectly fused in American culture, simultaneously implicating intelligence, sublimity (godlike or, in Hebraic terms, angel-like), and physical greatness. American football performs, in literary terms, the ancient Greco-Roman epics, particularly Homer’s Iliad.

Whether Young’s accomplishment helps to end the “epic trickster” dichotomy so troubling and destructive to African-American males remains to be seen. On the one hand, their epic feats would seem to puncture the veil of race in a society in which the epic heroic is as common as football and large and pervasive the images at the local cinema. On the other hand, however, the “successes” of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Althea Gibson, Willie Mays, Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron, and many other larger-than-life African-American athletes show us that the difference between the entertainment world and the real world success is all too entrenched in the America’s racial mythology.