Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss
In February 2015, Serena Williams surprised the world when she announced that she would return to the Indian Wells; a tournament she had boycotted permanently. In 2001, a predominately white crowd booed and harangued the then-nineteen-year-old the entire match because they believed that her sister, Venus, had pulled out of a match at the last minute to avoid playing Serena in the semifinals. Distraught and traumatized, Serena, then 19-years-old, wept in the locker room for several hours and vowed never to return. For years the Indian Wells officials begged her to return. For thirteen years she declined, but in February of 2015 she had a change of heart after reading Nelson Mandela’s auto-biography, Long Walk to Freedom. She learned that victims are expected to extend the sentiment and gesture of reconciliation.
Andrew Maraniss’s Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South seems to follow a similar pattern as it outlines the traumatic journey of the first African American to play in the South Eastern Conference (SEC). In this narrative, Wallace resolves that bitterness would only earn him scorn. The contemporary reader who annually watches the University of Kentucky trot out five blue-chip African-American freshman basketball players in hopes of capturing a national title may be astonished to discover what Kentucky used to be and Wallace’s pioneering efforts. The Kentucky of Perry’s era would never have considered starting five freshmen—and certainly not a [End Page 101] single African-American player. Few contemporary players realize that they have Perry Wallace to thank. Wallace’s inner strength and resolve to withstand unimaginable strife, vitriol, and abuse to break racial barriers deserves more notice.
In Strong Inside, Maraniss, a former member of the Vanderbilt University athletic department, tells the story of Perry Wallace’s historic effort to successfully break the SEC color line. Maraniss is perhaps the best person to write about Wallace’s historic trials and tribulations and his journey to desegregate SEC basketball because he wrote about Wallace while he was an undergraduate at Vanderbilt. He interviewed Wallace, and, at one time, he was director of media relations for the Vanderbilt Athletic Department. Thus his knowledge of the institution and its culture, along with his access to key archival material, prepared him to tell as whole of a story as possible. The book falls within the trajectory of recent books about race and sports like Kenneth L. Shropshire’s Sports Matters: Leadership, Power, and the Quest for Respect in Sports, Jennifer H. Lansbury’s A Spectacular Leap: Black Women Athletes in Twentieth Century America, and the James Conyers, Jr. edited book Race in American Sports, among others.
A strength of Maraniss’s Strong Inside is that it is several connected stories. Not only is it about Wallace, but also about his teammate Dillard, the South, Vanderbilt University’s racist past, the civil rights struggle in the South led by James Lawson, and Chancellor Heard’s struggle to uphold his belief in universities as spaces where one’s plea for fuller freedom can be calmly debated and heard.
The narrative gets especially interesting once Wallace’s black teammate, the proud Godfrey Dillard appears. Maraniss is to be commended for making Dillard such a significant part of Wallace’s narrative. Dillard, who signed with Vanderbilt seven days after Wallace, is often a forgotten figure. A native of Detroit, Dillard was not your typical African-American recruit of the 1960s. He attended an integrated Catholic school in Detroit, and unlike Wallace he wanted to go to the South. His “reverse migration” was about becoming “the SEC’s first black ballplayer” and it “was the only reason [he] wanted to head south” (107). His presence confirms Maraniss’s impetus throughout the book that change is not an isolated event and there is never a singular individual or moment that produces change.
Godfrey Dillard, the reader learns, had grown up seeing “accomplished blacks and whites living side-by-side in what was increasingly becoming a very integrated, progressive neighborhood” (108). These experiences make him the perfect pairing for Wallace who knew the South and its rules. It also made Dillard a nightmare for the racist South. Dillard lived in a neighborhood where he knew black men that “could succeed” thus “the idea that the Afro American could not succeed was not an issue to [him]” (108). What Vanderbilt and Skinner did not fully realize is that when they signed Dillard they were getting more than an athlete; Dillard “considered himself a political figure” in high school and at Vanderbilt it became the thing that was his ruination. He saw himself as being in the vanguard of the movement to break racial barriers, while his friend Wallace reluctantly assumed this position. But, together, Dillard and Wallace were a good balance, teaching one another valuable strategies.
Maraniss leaves the question of the discrimination against Dillard for readers to interpret. This approach is a flaw in the text because Maraniss is reluctant to harshly critique Skinner’s treatment of Dillard, despite conceding that the player chosen over Dillard, Rick Cammarata, was “no basketball star” (308). An assistant coach admits that Godrey was “run out of the program” in a “passive-aggressive way” and that the demotion “was a way of Skinner showing Dillard an early exit from Nashville” (310). Wallace also agreed that the factors working against Dillard were political and racial discrimination. [End Page 102]
There is little question that the most powerful chapters in the book are the final four. In these final pages Wallace’s voice in all its thoughtfulness, sadness and anger, command the page. In these chapters Wallace publicly reveals his pioneering experience at Vanderbilt in his own words––he controls the final narrative of his four years at Vanderbilt. For the first time, Wallace reveals, in his own words, “less of the good, quiet, obedient, Negro” (356). The usually stoic Wallace tells the world that things were horrible dealing with racist teachers, fans, and students.
While there has been modest progress, post-race America is not. The truth is that there are no isolated acts of idiots but the acts of idiots are too often supported and cultivated by systemic and institutional policies and rules that discriminate on the basis of race. Racism still has life in modern society. Just ask the Los Angeles Clippers players that refused to play unless their racist owner (Donald Sterling) sold the team in 2014. Professional athletes Wayne Simmonds (hockey), Maris Balotelli (soccer), and Val James (hockey), who in this epoch have suffered racial abuse from fans would, concur. In Strong Inside, Perry Wallace shows that heroic barrier breaking efforts can make change—it just takes time and the steps are small. Ironically, the SEC has benefitted more than any other league from integration—the very institutions most hostile to Wallace have capitalized the most. Nonetheless, Wallace’s return to Vanderbilt at the close of the book to be honored, like Williams’s return to Indian Wells, is an unsettling reminder that the rules for the abused need to be rewritten: no longer should the victims be asked to show guts, ignore, let go, display honesty, honor, and integrity. Conciliatory expectations of the victims leaves this reader wondering if a day will soon come that the victims of racism-induced traumas will not be burdened with forgiveness and forbearing. Despite some missteps, Strong Inside is a robust tale of a man who rises above negative circumstances and refuses to let people make him hate.