Highlighting African-American sports literature
I was recently asked by former colleague Aaron Geiger, the publisher of the literary blog but.if.and.that, to offer my perspective on some of my favorite African-American sports literature that was to be included in a compilation of African-American literature reviews for Black History Month.
While I could have written extensively on the many books I’ve read about the history of Negro League baseball, which many years ago I became passionate to learn more about, I instead elected to narrow my focus somewhat.
Since becoming an editor for Fitness Information Technology, a job that requires a heavy dose of copyediting and proofreading of scholarly contributions to sport sciences such as the forthcoming third edition of Racism in College Athletics, I’ve focused my pleasure reading on light-hearted topics, auto/biographies, and religious books.
One piece of African-American sports literature I read a couple of years ago fits all three categories. Tony Dungy’s Quiet Strength (2007, Tyndale House Publishers), co-authored with Nathan Whitaker, takes readers deep into the mind of one of the National Football League’s most successful, and most respected, coaches. Dungy reveals the principles, practices, and priorities of a winning life, although his journey to the top certainly had challenges.
Prior to becoming the first African-American to coach an NFL team to a Super Bowl championship, Dungy had to break down barriers previously in place for minority coaches. He also shares his emotions after being fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then watching as the team he built won the Super Bowl the first season after his dismissal.
The stories of Dungy’s football career are enough to satisfy the most avid fan of the sport. But Quiet Strength goes beyond football and focuses on Dungy’s faith throughout the book. Dungy didn’t reach the pinnacle of success with the Indianapolis Colts until dealing with the suicide of one of his sons during the middle of the season. Seeing how Dungy and his family were able to lean on their faith in God and remain strong during such a devastating time is an inspiring lesson.
Dungy’s most recent book, Uncommon (2009, 2011, Tyndale House Publishers) is also a quality piece of African-American sports literature and like his first book is also a New York Times bestseller. Also written with Whitaker, Uncommon is focused less on Dungy’s journey in the game of football and more on how he can help young men during their journey in the game of life. In this respect, the book hits the mark, although if readers are picking it up expecting the same amount of intriguing football stories contained in Quiet Strength, they will be disappointed.
For much lighter reading, my favorite African-American sports novel is The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1973, 1993, University of Illinois Press). Author William Brashler, who has written several other books on Negro League baseball, uses fictional names and plenty of humor to offer readers a somewhat accurate historical portrayal of the life of African-American baseball players years prior to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
The novel describes a team’s barnstorming tour throughout the country, the players’ attempt to prove they were equal or superior to white players, and their struggles to be accepted in a racist society. The story, written in 1973, was three years later turned into a movie, featuring a youthful all-star cast including Richard Pryor, Billy Dee Williams, and a skinny James Earl Jones.
Brashler’s novel is equally enlightening and entertaining, and as the back cover states, is set “in the context both of scholarly literature on the Negro Baseball League and of sports fiction.”