Introduction: African Americans and the History of Sport-New Perspectives

Article excerpt

The importance of sports to American society is evident when watching television or reading popular magazines. Companies hire athletes to endorse their products and services, while masculinity and femininity are represented by athleticism, hard work and sweat, normative ideas of attractiveness, and fit bodies. While most people understand that the probability of a child becoming a professional athlete is remote, the dream of becoming a professional football, basketball, or baseball player is common for youth across race and class, particularly for males. Often, this dream is one of several youthful dreams that eventually fades, but, for many African Americans, dreams of professional athletic stardom are not so easily abandoned. (1)

Black athletic achievement has often been excluded, downplayed, infantilized, or pathologized. Sadly, this has led to little scholarship historically on African Americans and sport. In 1939 Edwin B. Henderson's The Negro in Sports offered a mosaic of black athletic heroism, the strong work ethic and personal struggles, which he hoped would illuminate black success in sports and serve as evidence of black progress and increased acceptance by whites. A. S. "Doc" Young's Negro Firsts in Sports, published in 1963, documented the pioneering efforts of black sportswomen and men and the ups and downs of black inclusion in sports in the United States. In both of these works, a wide range of sports is coveied, rather than going into any depth to document the length of time African Americans had been involved, or their ability to master and excel as athletes. (2)

The most recent historical account of the African American experience in sports is David K. Wiggins and Patrick B. Miller's The Unlevel Playing Field, a compilation of writings and commentary from leading African American athletes and intellectual figures over time from Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois to Rafer Johnson. Wiggins and Miller's selections document the achievements of the most famous black athletes in their time and their experiences with white racism in their fields of competition. With the inclusion of expert commentary, this work shows how black leaders viewed athletics and African American athletes' contributions to the "advancement of the race." (3)

Robert Peterson and the late tennis legend and civil rights activist Arthur Ashe, Jr. added depth to the study of sports by investigating the experiences of African American athletes in numerous sports. Peterson covered African American experiences in baseball and basketball in two volumes. Only the Ball Was White and Cages to Jumpshots. (4) Each book details the beginning of African Americans in baseball and basketball and the development of all-black leagues and teams, and ultimately the integration of African Americans into the major professional leagues. Arthur Ashe extended Peterson's task by writing a three-volume history of African and African American involvement in sports from 1619 until 1991 in A Hard Road to Glory, and then added five more in-depth studies of the black athlete in boxing, track and field, baseball, football, and basketball. For each specific study, Ashe offered a lengthy reference section that includes the names of black athletes who first competed in the sport and their dates of involvement, how black college teams performed in the sport, and lists of noteworthy players (all-stars in most cases) for each college and professional organization through 1991. (5)

Some other works have contributed to a greater understanding of African Americans' participation in sports and their impact on particular sports. Ron Thomas's They Cleared the Lane: The NBA's Black Pioneers profiled the first black professionals in the National Basketball Assocation and their athletic style, contributions, and fortitude in dealing with ongoing racism. In Bob Kuska's Hot Potato: How Washington and New York Gave Birth to Black Basketball and Changed Americas Game Forever, "blackness" is considered an aesthetic, demonstrating athleticism and creativity. …