The Unlevel Playing Field

In Days of Grace (1993), tennis star Arthur Ashe writes of momentary panic when he realizes his young daughter Camera might be seen on national television playing with a doll a white friend had just given her—a doll with blond hair. After averting a racial gaff, this highly intelligent black athlete felt anger “at the force that made me act....out of pure practicality, not out of morality.” So seemingly slight an anecdote appears just ahead of the last, and most pertinent segment of The Unlevel Playing Field: A Documentary History of the African American Experience in Sport, a sixty-page commentary composed of essays by eminent black writers on the state of African Americans and sports entering the twenty-first century. Theirs is a bleak consensus.

That Ashe, a crusading black tennis champion who disliked great athletes who grow demure when politics, not trophies, are at issue, who detested the imbalance between sports and academics that young black athletes face, and derided the cult of African American icons as race saviors—that Arthur Ashe should acknowledge his own proneness to slip into category thinking—white vs. black—is evidence of the unease that lies beneath the surface. In his “Performance and Reality: Race, Sports, and the Modern World,” Gerald Early writes of white “double-consciousness,” the paradox that while young whites admire black athletic figures, they are afraid to play sports that blacks dominate.

Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. decries the hero- worshipping of the Michael Jordans, Tiger Woods, and Serena Williams, reminding his audiences that there are far more black doctors, dentists, lawyers in the United States than black athletes. Sports—so often a dead end for those who don’t succeed—distract many African Americans from more practical opportunities and careers.

Co-authors David K. Wiggins and Patrick B. Miller have brilliantly packaged and edited an anthology that traces the engaging by blacks in American sport from the days of slavery and Jim Crow. Gratitude must be expressed to the University of Illinois Press for bringing out this superb book.