When Dennis Rodman visited North Korea in late February and became chummy with its leader, Kim long Un, as the first American known to have met with him, and then popped up in Rome in mid-March to try to influence the papal selection in favor of an African cardinal, the U.S. media almost uniformly derided his form of "basketball diplomacy."
U.S. diplomats and the White House denounced Rodman for remarks suggesting that the North Korean belligerence toward the United States was a mild misunderstanding and that the country's leader just wanted President Barack Obama to dial him up on the phone.
The outrage and the sarcastic tones expressed by the media and U.S. officials about this saga suggested that the very idea of a mere basketball player injecting himself in world affairs was something novel and incongruous.
But the U.S. government itself for decades deployed countless Black athletes throughout the world to counter widespread criticisms of its own failures to end discrimination and segregationist violence against African-Americans. That is the history captured in Globetrotting: African American Athletes and Cold War Politics, by Damion L. Thomas (University of Illinois Press, September 2012).
During the Cold War, as the Soviet Union churned out propaganda to capitalize on other nations' distrust of the United States because of the way it treated its darker people, our country waged a war "to win the hearts and minds of the world's people of color" and countries it wanted to keep out of the communist sphere, Thomas recalls.
Thomas, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland, gives a clear and compelling account of this era, drawing on an exhaustive list of government reports, news accounts, books and studies.
"The unpunished lynching of African-Americans, segregated schooling and rampant obstruction of Black voting rights were increasingly becoming problematic for American efforts to assume a leading role in world affairs after the onset of the Cold War," Thomas writes. "By the late 1940s, reports from diplomatic posts made it clear to the U.S. government that segregation was having a negative impact on foreign policy."
As the author carefully details, the U.S. Department of State countered these attitudes by sending African-American athletes --Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens and especially the Harlem Globetrotters--abroad on goodwill tours to give speeches, participate in international competitions and give workshops demonstrating athletic skills. The Harlem Globetrotters were among the first enlisted in this effort to depict Black athletes as exemplars of the "American Dream. …