If anyone wonders why a book called Running While Black is necessary, author Alison Mariella Désir answers with an 8-page spread before the book even begins: “Timeline: Freedom of Movement.” One column of the timeline is “U.S. Running History”; the other is “Black People’s Reality.”
For example, in 1896 in U.S. Running History, “The first modern Olympic Games and the first running of the marathon are held.” “Black people’s reality” that year: “In Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court (all white men) rules that racial segregation laws do not violate the constitution, a doctrine that came to be known as ‘separate but equal.’”
Another example: as the 1960s and 1970s jogging boom hit the U.S., Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated: “We were being killed in the streets while white people were taking to the streets to run.” (!!!)
The two timelines are emblematic of one of the key points Désir makes: especially with distance running, “Running’s whiteness… (has) permeated the sport.” She notes that Coach Bill Bowerman started running programming in Eugene, Oregon in 1963, but Oregon’s history of Black exclusion and segregation meant that Bowerman was starting a de facto running club for white people.
Yet despite how whiteness and white supremacy have infiltrated running culture—and this is another of Désir’s key points—Black people have been integral to the history and growth of distance running. In 1936 three Black men started the New York Pioneer Club, “a running and civil rights group.” Ted Corbitt was the first Black man to run the marathon for the U.S. in the Olympics in 1952. Désir herself has had major impact on the sport, not least through her founding of Harlem Run, whose history she details in her book.
Désir’s goal in Running While Black—and in her life’s work—is doing what the book’s subtitle says: “Finding Freedom in a Sport That Wasn’t Built for Us.” She writes:
My goal and hope is that we can reimagine running as a sport for everyone, making freedom of movement possible for Black people at all times, in all spaces, where Blackness is seen not as a threat or even a statement, but commonplace and normal. Where Black runners feel welcomed and safe at every race. Where our stories and voices are part of history, part of the universal story of what it means to run. Where we feel like we belong. Only then will the sport live up to what it aspires to be—open to all.
As a white person and as a man (and a big and tall one, at that), I feel like I can pretty safely run just about anywhere and everywhere. At night. On city streets. In neighborhoods with “Police Lives Matter” and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. This has not been Désir’s experience, though, and she heartbreakingly begins the book by describing a pre-run decision to wear a “bright, long-sleeved shirt with reflective beads, a shirt that screams, ‘I’m running! Don’t shot!’” She says, “When I go for a run, I’m not just going for a run. I am stepping outside as a Black body in a white world. …I would prefer to just be me, but my country has not given me this choice.”
I expected Désir to talk about Ahmaud Arbery (whom she describes with a deserved gut-punch as “a man who committed the crime of jogging while Black”), and she does, at length. But what surprised me about Running While Black was just how extensively Désir unpacks her line: “I would prefer to just be me, but my country has not given me this choice.”
Early in the book she talks a lot about “just… me,” her family upbringing, her experience running track as a kid, caring for an aging parent, struggling with depression, training in mental health, and overcoming struggles in the early days of starting Harlem Run. It’s an enthralling narrative.
And woven throughout the book is a history a country that has “not given (her) this choice” to be just herself: through both the whiteness of running, and the persistence of white supremacy in U.S. history. Phrases like “best places to live if you’re a runner,” for example, have racial histories (segregation, redlining, exclusionary real estate policies):
My immediate reaction (to this article) was to think this didn’t happen by accident. Racism created the “good” parts of town (read: white) and the “bad” parts of town (read: Black). White people didn’t just happen to live in the places that were conducive to running, and Black people didn’t choose the “other” areas.
Désir’s book aims to be history, memoir, sociology, cultural study, and it all works somehow. She’s a great writer.
My only critique is of Désir’s criticism of the Boston Marathon, how it is “elitist rather than democratic” because—unlike other marathons with a lottery-based entry system—it is a time-qualified race. I’ve got no pushback on her detailing Boston’s racist history, and how the marathon skips Dorchester and Roxbury and “travels through predominantly white suburbs and finishes in a predominantly white part of the city.”1 And of course she’s right that “exclusion” is a tool of white supremacy. But I wish she had said more about how she sees the Boston’s exclusion as racialized. It surely is! But more than any other marathons? Aren’t marathons, because of their physical and time and financial demands, exclusive across the board anyway? Maybe I’m just being sensitive in defending my hometown, which is (sadly) PLENTY racist, both institutionally and among individuals. But Désir’s writing on the Boston Marathon left me wanting more.
Overall I really appreciated this book and sort of devoured it. For all runners and readers, Désir’s deep dive into Black distance running history is an especially valuable use of time. I learned so much that I had not seen detailed anywhere else, either in writing about running or in Black studies. Running While Black is a powerful book that will inspire and challenge readers who are willing to listen.
Désir’s popular article for Outside magazine offers a conclusion similar to what her full book asks:
If you found yourself uncomfortable reading this, please know that my discomfort writing this far exceeds yours. To what extent am I now a target for speaking truth to power? I don’t know how my words will be picked apart and shredded, and which doors may close as a result of writing this. What I do know is that I am speaking passionately from the heart about difficult things. And I don’t have all the answers but I am willing to do the work. Are you?
You can find Running While Black here.
Thanks to Portfolio & Sentinel for sending the review copy, which did not (at least not consciously) affect how I reviewed the book.
- But weren’t Dorchester and Roxbury “white” when the marathon started, as well as when Hopkinton became the starting point? So is her challenge that they should change the route now so it’s not so “white?” If so, I agree. ↩