- A Spectacular Leap: Black Women Athletes in Twentieth-Century America by Jennifer H. Lansbury
Jennifer H. Lansbury, in A Spectacular Leap: Black Women Athletes in Twentieth-Century America, examines the athletic careers of six African American female athletes: Ora Washington, Alice Coachman, Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph, Wyomia Tyus, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The book’s cover, adorned with Coachman’s “spectacular leap” in black and white, reminds us of just how far black women in sports have come over the last century, with Coachman hurtling her body forward over the bar.
Some athletes and their stories are better known than others; Lansbury has previously written about Coachman in the Journal of Sport History and the high-jumper served as the impetus to the project (which seems to have been Lansbury’s dissertation). Similarly, Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee will be familiar to both sport fans and sport historians. Gibson has received an increased amount of attention over the years since her death, in part because of the successes of Serena and Venus Williams. Only three years ago, Gibson’s legacy was remembered with a statue in Newark, New Jersey. Rudolph’s story is well known to any Olympic aficionado, and perhaps many American school children, as she is the subject of over twenty children’s books. Jackie Joyner-Kersee is also recognizable from her Olympic exploits. As a result, the two chapters on Ora Washington and Wyomia Tyus may provide readers with the most unfamiliar stories and exploits of their athletic careers, as well as their sports during their respective time periods, especially Washington, whose chapter “Queen of the Courts: Ora Washington and the Emergence of America’s First Black Female Celebrity” leads off the book, examining sport in the 1920s, which Lansbury identifies as the time when black women began to participate in organized sport.
In her introduction, Lansbury states that her intent is to focus on race and racism as they influenced and shaped the opportunities and careers of the six women. She acknowledges intersectionality but determines to stay focused on race. Still, throughout her chapters, it is clear how powerful the intersections of race, gender, and class are for all six women, even if Lansbury is not connecting the dots for the reader. It seems that, by ignoring intersectionality, Lansbury may be reducing each athlete to a singular identity, which is hardly the case for any of the six subjects. [End Page 431]
Although Washington and Joyner-Kersee were both known for their basketball talents and Lansbury mentions their involvement with the round ball, the book has a heavy emphasis on the activities of individual sport athletes. It is not clear why black women were more likely to participate and compete in individual sports than in team sports, but Lansbury selects her six all-stars because they represent “a path that many other African American women of their generations used to escape poor, rural, or working-class backgrounds; traveled extensively; secure a college education; and reject the cultural stereotypes of African American women” (10). While she mentions other black female athletes, mostly the competitors and teammates of the six subjects, Lansbury’s focus rests on these women as emblematic of their sport during their time periods. In fact, Lansbury tells her readers from the start that the chapters “are not mini-biographies, nor are they meant to be” (8). One can see, just from reading the titles (which are well phrased), that the chapters are in fact mini-biographies of the athlete, the sport, and the time period for black women in that sport. For example, four of Lansbury’s subjects—Coachman, Rudolph, Tyus, and Joyner-Kersee—made their name in track and field. Each title indicates this trend of subject, sport, and time period: “‘The Tuskegee Flash’: Alice Coachman and the Challenges of 1940s U.S. Women’s Track and Field”; “‘Foxes, Not Oxes’: Wilma Rudolph and the De-Marginalization of American Women’s Track and Field”; “‘The Swiftie...