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Reviewed by:
  • African American Icons of Sport: Triumph, Courage and Excellence
  • Dan Taradash
Whitaker, Matthew C., ed. African American Icons of Sport: Triumph, Courage and Excellence. Westport Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2008. Pp. xxi+336. Photographs. $75 hb.

This anthology offers a valuable and easily accessible introduction to a diverse collection of African American athletes across a variety of time periods, sports and regions. Though many of the contributing authors are among the most accomplished critical and cultural scholars within the field of sports studies, the approach to each subject, including the length of each essay, style of writing and information provided, makes this anthology a valuable reference tool for a variety of readers. Because the sports and athletes covered are of such a diverse nature, there is enough basic information and analysis to make this anthology accessible to both the average reader and more serious scholars alike.

The greatest strengths of this volume are the diversity and attention to detail of African American athletes as individuals and as collective entities. While there are a collection of "standard" athletes, such as Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Arthur Ashe, Brian Collier's research on the Harlem Globetrotters, James Coates examination of the Negro Leagues, and Elyssa Ford's look at Bill Pickett allow us to see how African American athletes functioned in different times, spaces and places.

Coates' research on the Negro Leagues offers an interesting look at the larger context that shaped Black baseball in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He offers an effective analysis of the specific policies and attitudes that not only drove players like Moses "Fleetwood" Walker out of professional baseball in the late 1800s but also shaped the experience of black baseball players until the 1960s. One feature worth noting was that, while the white major leagues had an unwritten "gentlemen's agreement" to keep black players out of the major leagues, the Negro Leagues did not employ such a practice. Though Coates does not elaborate on the reasoning behind this decision, this allows the reader to consider the motives of both blacks and whites within the world of athletics during this period. Particularly helpful is his brief but thorough description of the racist attitudes and practices that defined the Progressive Era. By analyzing the impact of landmark political decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), we gain a clear picture of the political and social obstacles that defined the African American experience.

Collier's examination of the Harlem Globetrotters provides a similar analysis of the experiences of both players and managers throughout the team's history. What is particularly interesting is the place of the Globetrotters within the larger world of black basketball during their early years. Their coexistence with the Harlem Rens basketball team allows us special insight into the world of race relations within sport during their heyday. As Collier demonstrates, in order for the Globetrotter's to remain successful they needed to craft a brand of basketball that did not pose a significant threat to imagined white dominance in the sport. This resulted in the creation of "trickster" athletics, a combination of clowning and theatrics designed to entertain instead of test true athleticism. Though they claimed victory over the world champion Minneapolis Lakers in 1948, white America viewed the win as a fluke, and the Globetrotters only remained economically viable playing "trickster" basketball. [End Page 186]

One of the most interesting essays in this anthology is Elyssa Ford's examination of the life and accomplishments of rodeo legend Bill Pickett. It does not just provide a detailed account of Pickett's life as a cowboy in a space usually seen as "white"; it allows casual and critical readers to expand or renew preconceived notions about the roles within sport that African American athletes inhabit. Ford's research provides insight into life in the American west in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but also into the experiences of blacks in a changing political and social landscape. The picture of Pickett we are given shows us that blacks were not only significant actors in western culture, but that they continued to push and redefine their place in sport within diverse contexts.



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pp. 186-187
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