U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Stitch in Time

Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier has had a long and varied public career.  He has been, among other things, a defensive lineman for the New York Giants and the LA Rams, a recording artist, a film and TV actor and a perennial “special guest star,” a Black community leader, an ordained minister, a Democratic Party volunteer, a Republican Party volunteer, a public speaker, and a philanthropist.

Perhaps most memorably, Grier was a friend of Robert F. Kennedy and a part of Kennedy’s entourage in California, serving as a bodyguard for Ethel Kennedy during RFK’s 1968 Democratic primary campaign there.  During Kennedy’s speech at the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, Grier was standing behind Robert and Ethel Kennedy; at the conclusion of Kennedy’s remarks, Grier moved forward and put his arm around Ethel to shield her from the enthusiastic crowd and shepherd her through the curtain behind the podium.  When Kennedy was shot in the hotel’s kitchen corridor moments later, Grier, along with Olympic great Rafer Johnson, subdued and disarmed Sirhan Sirhan.

In July, 1968, Ebony magazine ran a feature story, “Robert F. Kennedy and the Negro.” The story opened with the grief of Rosey Grier, a somber synecdoche for the sorrow of African Americans who saw so much hope and promise in Kennedy’s candidacy.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he kept mumbling, as if even the briefest mention of the tragedy would intensify his pain.  Huge pro footballer Rosey Grier was near tears….

The poignancy of the image came from its juxtaposition of two things that were not supposed to go together:  masculinity and sensitivity, football and tears.

A few years later, Grier would lend his voice to a project that sought to challenge and change the culture’s gender norms, including the idea that boys – or men – shouldn’t cry.  For the 1972 album “Free to Be…You and Me,” which Ben has written about on this blog, Grier sang “It’s All Right to Cry.”

Here is a video clip of Grier performing the song.  The camera work, especially in the first few frames, renders Grier as huge as huge can be.  The opening shot is zoomed in on Grier’s giant foot tapping to the music, filling the screen, before panning up for a child’s-eye view of Grier, towering over the camera, smiling kindly.  Here, the camera angle says, is a big strong man; if he says it’s okay to cry, then it really is okay.

In one of a series of articles in Slate marking the 40th anniversary of the “Free to be…” project, Dan Kois writes about Grier’s continued commitment to the message of the song:

Thomas wanted Grier to speak-sing the lyrics, but Grier wanted to croon. He prided himself on his sensitive nature. (The next year, he would release a book called Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men.) Even today, he gets upset when discussing the song. “What right does someone have to tell a little baby boy not to cry because he’s a grown man?” he asks me. “The hurt is just as bad, the pain is just as bad, there’s no feeling different than the girls. So why should he have to hold it in and be sniffing and trying not to cry? Because they’re going to make fun of him? Forget all that, man. If you want to cry, cry.” During the recording, he ad-libbed his final line: “It’s all right to cry, little boy. I know some big boys who cry, too.” “Oh,” [producer Carole] Hart remembers, “after he finished it I just jumped up and gave him a huge hug and said, ‘Thank you! Thank you!’ ”

The language Kois uses here is interesting:  Even today, he gets upset when discussing the song.  What does it mean, I wonder, that Grier “gets upset”?  Does he speak with intensity?  Does his voice crack?  Does he shed tears?  Does Grier seem “upset” because he is trying to hold his own feelings back as he talks about the message of the song, or does he seem “upset” for letting his feelings show?  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something about the wording here struck me as odd.  And the temporal emphasis that Kois gives to this observation – “even today” – is interesting as well.  Perhaps what is upsetting to Grier – and this comes through in the present-tense immediacy of his comments — is that the message of the song he recorded forty years ago still needs to be championed and heard.

Kois also mentions Grier’s “sensitive nature” and alludes to his forays into handcrafts.  Indeed, throughout the 1970s, much of Grier’s celebrity involved playing up and playing upon his needlepoint hobby, playing it against cultural norms and stereotypes of masculinity while (sometimes) reinforcing those very norms.

Some of Grier’s on-screen performances during his “Needlepoint Era” were aimed at continuing the kind of work he had done on the “Free to Be…” album, inviting children to move beyond stereotypes about what kinds of activities and feelings were acceptable for boys and men.  Not only was it all right to cry, Grier showed; it was also all right to be interested in decoration, art, needlecraft, all right to enjoy making pretty things.  So, for example, Grier made a guest appearance on “Captain Kangaroo” in 1974 to talk about his needlework and his feelings.

But Grier also appeared in TV commercials and comedy shows that played upon the trope of Grier as the “gentle giant” – a title Grier would choose for his 1986 autobiography — for comic effect.  This 1975 Miller Lite spot, captioned “Rosey Grier and Friends,” depends for its humor on the very cultural norms it appears to mock.  Grier sits in a rocking chair, flanked on either side by two other men, also in rocking chairs.  All three men are doing needlework.  “When a man retires from football, the worst thing he can do is let himself slow down,” Grier says.  “That’s why we all get together and try to stay active.”  That these men are “staying active” by sitting in rocking chairs and doing needlework is (most of) the joke; its humor derives from the audience’s certainty that, despite the apparent eccentricities of Rosey Grier, ex-football players – heck, just men in general — would never sit around together doing needlework.  Another part of the joke comes from the idea that three big guys, working on needlework, would need to drink light beer in order to keep from “getting filled up,” which would interfere with their “active” lifestyle.  And the punchline comes when each man holds up his needlework project for the camera.  Together the three canvases spell out the brand’s slogan:  “Lite Beer from Miller. Everything you always wanted in a beer…and less.”  While Grier uses his normal speaking voice to recite his part of the commercial’s tagline, the other two men – especially the first guy, with the big handlebar moustache – declaim their lines in deep chest-rumbling tones.  Just as these men can engage in needlework without losing their manliness, the commercial suggests, so the viewer can safely drink a light beer without appearing effete or fastidious. By depicting “Grier and friends” in a “laughable” scenario, the commercial reinforces the very gender norms that Grier’s distinctive hobby presumably calls into question.

There’s something else going on with this commercial, and with Grier’s “gentle giant” persona more generally, that perhaps accounts for some of the ex-athlete’s continuing popularity throughout the 1970s — something besides his undeniable personal charisma and thoughtfulness.  What I’m talking about is how Grier may have embodied or personified a particular idea of Black masculinity for white audiences.  Grier’s gentle demeanor, his soft-spoken tones, his emotional sensitivity – all of these qualities, highlighted in his celebrity appearances, offered white audiences an alternative to the stereotype of the “angry” or “dangerous” Black man.  Above all, Grier’s “feminine” hobby (and nickname) rendered safe his imposing physical presence.  Grier’s powerful build and strength were obvious – so much so that the two white men in the beer commercial had to raise and deepen their voices to appear comparably strong.  But Grier’s power – unlike Black Power? unlike Black anger, as reported on the nightly news? – was not a threat.  Instead, Grier’s public presence was nurturing, comforting, peaceful, protective.

Grier was unthreatening, but he was also unthreatened by showing his “soft” side.  Because of his long NFL career as a fierce and fearsome defensive lineman, because of his fearlessness in helping to disarm Robert Kennedy’s assassin, and because of his massively strong frame, Grier could safely appear in skits and sketches and commercials with a needle and thread in his hands, without having to fear that his masculinity was really being called into question.  Unfortunately, Grier never had to fear that the presumed threat of his Black masculinity would ever cease to be a lingering if muted question for some. A New York Times lifestyle article coinciding with Grier’s publicity tour for his needlework book began with the image of Grier as a “gentle giant, a Ferdinand the Bull with a daisy in his mouth,” setting up an image of a feminized Grier. * But the piece concluded with a section subtitled, “Wife Helps Out”:

He does his needlepoint, he said, on airplanes, in cars (“if I’m not driving”), or at home to relax.  Sometimes when he gets bored with a piece and doesn’t feel like completing it, his blond wife, Margie, a former nurse, will finish it up.

Of course, the reference to “his blond wife” was the newspaper’s polite way of indicating that Grier was married to a white woman — perhaps a discomfiting reminder to readers of the “threat” of Black masculinity, even as represented by this gentlest of giants. Nevertheless, while the racial lines may have been blurred in the Grier household, the Times was reassuring its readers that the gender lines were not blurred.  Grier’s wife “helped out,” as good wives should.  Perhaps that traditional, heteronormative arrangement — Rosey the family man, Rosey the father, Rosey the head of the household — was part of what made Grier a reassuring presence on American TV screens in the 1970s.  Whether he wanted to or not, Grier personified not only various notions of Black masculinity — perhaps either menacing or feminized (and therefore unthreatening) for some, perhaps either admirable or exemplary for others — but also the unassailability of heterosexual male authority.

[Next time:  From Needlepoint to Pajama Boy]

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* “Once a Terror on the Gridiron, Rosey Grier Now Does Needlepoint for Fun and to Relax: Wife Helps Out,” by Judy Klemesrud. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 08 Oct 1973: 45.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’ve read many, many great posts here. But this has to be one of my favorites. It certainly shows that, not surprisingly, there’s a great deal to be said about athletes, recent American history, and the political and cultural roles they’ve played.

    Thanks again for this post. Such a pleasure to read.

  2. Hey Jason and Robert, thanks for the kind words. This was a fun post to write. Even though I ended up leaving my close reading of Grier’s “Sha Na Na” guest appearance on the cutting room floor (!), I’m afraid the post is still way too tl;dr for most people. Not sure when I will get the next installment up, or what it will cover. But I’m glad to know somebody enjoyed this one.

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