Recently, I heard a college student talk about how she completed her high school physical education (P.E.) requirement online. I want that to sink in for a bit. Her requirements for the class was to “be active” and submit a report on a weekly basis of what she did. This isn’t a problem for a naturally active child. But, the way she told her story she used phrases like, “I just turned in something to meet the requirement”. I try not to assume. But, there’s a chance that she wasn’t doing her homework. I found myself frustrated with our dualistic system of education that views physical education and intellectual education as separate and unequal. At the same time I heard this, I was writing a paper for my Sport History class based on my Aunt’s experience as a black female athlete in the 1960’s. I wanted to share the paper with all of you that still see the benefits of afterschool programs for kids. Please travel back to the 1960s and read on as I share the An Oral History According To “Jet’s Auntie” (her real name is not printed here for privacy reasons).
In 1962, a black girl the age of nine took off like a shot in her first foot race. That girl was my aunt. The way she tells the story, she was just “playing around” until she felt the high that came after winning her first race. It wouldn’t be her last race she was hooked. The track coach noticed and recruited her on the spot. This was happening at a crucial time for racial perseverance in her native Detroit. Just one year later, June 23, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would lead a march of 125,000 people down Woodward Ave. in a rally for racial equality. She was maturing in a social climate on the precipice of change. Her commitment to track & field and the necessary conditioning workouts helped to keep her on a positive path. That was in the 1960’s. When my aunt recently told me that she wanted to participate in track & field events again, I was happy to hear that she still had a desire to be physically active but I had some questions. I began to wonder what motivated her to get back on the track at the age of 61. So many questions raced through my mind as I began to wonder about her experiences during her younger years as a track & field athlete. I had a frank discussion with her about racism, sexism, classism, and her opinion on what’s changed about track & field over the years. This interview with a black female athlete from the 1960s hopes to make a strong case for young women of today to train harder and the importance of physical activity programs for inner city youth of all genders as a means to keep them off of drugs.
During our interview, I asked about Auntie’s experience as a black athlete competing against predominantly white schools in the 1960s. I expected the conversation to be about racial prejudice in the civil rights era of her term. On the contrary, the differences in competing with predominantly white schools were subtle. “…[white schools] seemed to have more equipment. They had better facilities. The track seemed to be in better shape as well as the asphalt. So, the big difference in competing against white athletes was that they had better equipment than we did.” Auntie recalled. She went on with more specifics, “For instance, they had well maintained grassy fields and if there was someone that threw shot put, we might have two and they had twelve. If they did javelin, we might have two javelins and they had twenty. You know so I always remembered that the facilities and equipment were nicer.” There were some racial stereotypes that were perpetuated during training. Auntie pointed out that blacks didn’t run the longer distances. When I asked her thoughts on the reason this was her reply, “I think that it was the culture. I think the assumption was that black athletes just didn’t have stamina to run longer distances. We didn’t practice [long distances]. I remember running in my track club for over 10 years and I never knew anybody who really practiced anything above 880 meters. Never anything like a mile. We never practiced that. It was always something that we didn’t have the stamina and endurance for the longer races. We were speedy! We did well in the shorter races and that was the assumption. So the coaches of our day didn’t really spend a lot of time training us for longer races.” Racial prejudice was a contributing factor. However, as our conversation continued she was unable to recall any stories of blatant racism in her athletic experience. This goes against the common assumption of the decade. Via television and film, popular culture recalls a decade of ubiquitous racism in 1960s athletics. The images painted for us by films such as “Pride” or “Glory Road” point to some high profile cases of blatant racism in 1960s organized sports. Auntie’s experience, while limited to her own scope, tells a different story. I’m not going to argue that racism isn’t alive and thriving in our society. Racism was a problem for athletes then and now. However, it was not a problem for all athletes. Auntie’s story is proof of that.
Training as an athlete in the pre-Title IX era, I asked Auntie about her experience with sexism on the track. Title IX (bringing equality to female sport programs in schools nationwide) passed in 1972. By 1972, Auntie had already been running track for 10 years. There were some unique attributes to training in a time when schools weren’t required to provide the same opportunities for boys and girls. “I think the training for us [as opposed to white schools] was tougher. Because the white girls trained with white girls and boys trained with boys. We trained all together. The girls had to train with the fellas. We had to keep up with them.” Auntie laughed as she answered my questions about sexism. When I asked if she dealt with any explicit deliberate sexism she had this to say, “No. As a matter of fact, the guys that I ran with were encouraging. They made us work! They made us keep up with them! I couldn’t slack off. The only sexism [that we encountered] wasn’t when we were competing. The sexism was more off the court. Our uniforms were [supposed] to be kept clean as well as our shoes. If we were out to eat we were expected to serve [the men] or that kind of thing. But, when we were competing I always felt like they wanted us to be equals when running together. So, if it meant that they had to help us then they would. And we had to keep up with them in everything that they did so I didn’t feel like they were sexist in terms of competition.” While Auntie’s experience doesn’t debunk sexism, again this was only one person’s story, her answer does force us to look at two important things. If all sports were played with mixed gender teams, treating each athlete as an equal based solely on individual skill there would have been no need for Title IX. A societal change as significant as that is only wishful thinking. The second societal shift that we’re forced to consider is the end to the feminine frailty myth. “Remnants of the frailty myth continue to cast a shadow on women’s involvement in athletics. In the late-20th and early-21st century the female athlete triad, which consists of disordered eating, amenorrhea, and the onset of osteoporosis, deluged the medical discourse on female athletes.” In the film “Dare to Compete”, it was said (in reference to the last place finisher of the women’s marathon in the 1984 Olympics) that women were finally allowed to be exhausted in public. The concern was that if women were perceived as frail, the myth would hold. Auntie’s words should help to encourage women that subscribe to the patriarchy and believe themselves to be frail.Auntie spoke more about training with the men and being challenged to keep up, “…for me that actually helped me in my strengthening because I had to keep up with the guys. But, the soup up they would give me was the biggest thing that I remember being so distinctive in competition outside of Detroit when we had to run against white schools.”
In addition to her high school, Auntie ran for the Motor City Track Club. I wanted to hear about any issues of classism that Auntie may have encountered. I asked if there were any assumptions that came along with people from inner city Detroit that were competing against groups (high schools or private track clubs) outside of Detroit. “There were assumptions that the black athletes would win the shorter races. I think it was the 400 meters. It was assumed that the white athletes would win races that were longer distances and it was always assumed that you wouldn’t see very many black athletes entering the longer distances. It actually wasn’t assumed, that was actually so.” As Auntie mentioned earlier in the interview, the coaches only trained the black athletes for the races they would most likely win, the shorter distances. Because of that mentality a cycle occurred that created a class system amongst runners. Blacks were known for running short distances fast while whites were known for their ability to maintain stamina. Thus was born the endurance class and the sprint class. These two classes existed in the 1960s and continued to live on until coaches changed their manner of training their athletes. In some cases, I’m sure coaches still train to their athlete’s strength. At the very least we know that the old class is no longer the common assumption. On the contrary, in every major (Boston, New York, Chicago) marathon most fans of track & field expect a Kenyan to win.
Growing up in Detroit, and running track briefly, myself I saw the benefits of training and commitment first-hand. I saw how important it was to have a positive means of biding my time during my teenage years. Auntie had a similar occurrence on the East side of Detroit and it began with positive coaching experiences. “I had a great relationship with the coaches. They kept me from falling into the cracks of where we grew up in Detroit. I think that if I didn’t have track I wouldn’t be where I am now. You know if I hadn’t had track I’d probably be a drug addict or an alcoholic! I just think that it does so much for self-esteem, motivation, the spirit of competition, and good sportsmanship. The coaches were like father figures. They were like big brothers. They were the ones who really pushed me and it brought out things in me that I didn’t know that I had. Not just in my track career but in my personal development. So, it was a good relationship with my coaches. I remember each one of them fondly. I think that they have a very special place in my life to this day.” Auntie went on to tell about other teammates of hers that did fall victim to drugs and crime. “When I was younger, around 10th grade. I think that a lot of them (friends) when we got to high school started dealing in behaviors that were conditioning them to do crack. By the time we’d reached high school, we had already been running track for 10 years. So, some of them were tired and they started participating in a lot of activities that worked against their track careers. A number of them were pulled away in to drugs and alcohol. If they did the same level of conditioning they did when we were younger they might not have had the same desire. Track can be very grueling! I really wanted to run in college and most of them didn’t see their careers going forward into college or they didn’t think that they would make it.” Using the discipline that she learned from track, Auntie was able continue running for the Motor City Track Club even during her time in college. She never began any destructive habits that would sideline her career goals. Her example could be used to illustrate an example of not being a product of one’s environment. Her example could also be used to point out the importance of after school fitness programs for children.
After years of dealing with racism, sexism, and class systems within track & field, it was track & field itself (and the discipline of the conditioning) that made Auntie a strong woman both physically and mentally. The racism she encountered was in the form of ignorant racial prejudice. While that’s not to be condoned, she was able to shake it off and move forward. The sexism she encountered happened off the field and was countered by the support and sense of family cooperation she received on the field. The class systems were self-propagating instead of a societal imposition and have faded over time. So, after a 52-year love affair with track & field, what’s changed? “It’s hard to watch it now because of all the incidents of dope. I never thought of dope before. Now it breaks my heart because I can’t really trust it when I see an athlete running. I can’t trust that they’re doing it because they’re really that good or they’re that good because they’ve done some dope. That’s what breaks my heart about it. I can’t trust it. But, I often hope that they’re not. I never thought that folks would say that about track and field. That’s what’s changed.”
This interview should shine as a beacon to all women that have ever believed they can’t do something strictly because of their gender. Use Auntie’s example and train with someone that challenges you to keep up the pace. I’ve recently heard stories of high schools that have online Physical Education classes. The class offers PE credit if the student submits activity reports in lieu of actually attending a physical education class. Auntie’s example can be used to highlight one of the many reasons that style of physical education is problematic. Find an athletic endeavor that you love so much your passion spans decades. When asked about her current desire to compete, she had this to say, “You know just this year I have thought about that. Dekalb County had a senior track meet that was put on by AARP. So, this year was the first year that I thought about actually doing that. But, I don’t know. I think that I’d want to get myself in shape before going out there. These seniors out here are really serious. These are old athletes. Just this year was the first time that I thought about getting back out there and being competitive.” When asked what the appeal would be for competing at the age of 61, Auntie had this to say, “I love track. As soon as I step on a track and watch kids compete I get that same feeling I had long ago. I love the smell, feel, and excitement of it. I just love the environment so much. I know that I love running. I love the freedom and the sense of accomplishment after all of the hard work that I put into it. But, of course I love the track meets. So, the appeal is that it’s something that I still love doing. I even love the conditioning for it.” The message is simple, do what you love, love what you do, get stronger in the process.