Race, Sport, and the Media: Representations and Voices of African Americans and Native Americans in 20th-Century Sports Journalism

AHA Session 280
Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Salon 10 (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Ryan Swanson, University of New Mexico
Ryan Swanson, University of New Mexico

Session Abstract

From the ongoing debates surrounding national anthem kneeling by black players in professional football to the ever-contentious conversations about cultural sensitivity and the erasure of violent histories wrought by Indian mascots, our nation’s fervent sports scene continues to reflect institutional racism and resistance within American society and politics. In studying iterations of these dynamics between the late 1920s and 1960s, this panel recognizes racialized narratives put forth by the white press as an arm of a nation firmly rooted in white supremacy, and recovers the responses and challenges to these narratives that came from the black press at home and abroad, and from Native American commentators across the United States. These counter-narratives celebrated black and Native achievement in a way the white press usually ignored or refused to publish. A public dialectic emerged over color lines and national borders that forced commentators and fans to confront the visibility and success of African and Native American athletes and teams among societal questions of Indian citizenship, assimilation, and civil rights from different vantage points.

The panel’s focus on sports complicates a more general story of representation of nonwhite racial groups in the United States in venues like literature, political cartoons, or even cinema. Sports fans were particularly invested in their chosen form of entertainment and watched it play out in real time. This panel interrogates the loyalties of these sports fans as well as journalists and commentators towards their preferred teams, institutions, and athletes as observers witnessed the success of athletes of color in the beloved realm of American sports in the twentieth century – a realm that journalists and community leaders often tried to rhetorically relegate to whites.

These papers explore some of the most popular sports of the twentieth century. Baseball, football, and marathon running all encompassed white American values pertaining to entertainment and masculinity. Much work has been done on both black and Native athletes in regards to these subjects, but this panel features underutilized source bases, like Indian student newspapers, oral histories of Native historical actors, and transnational sources, to expand the conversation to a broader range of sports and more expansive geography. Some papers also employ the analytical framework of memory to trace these developments into the present, another historical moment ripe with racialized representations of people of color in sports, and ongoing efforts from communities of color to resist their under- or misrepresentation in the highly public and celebrated venue of sports. We hope that this panel will attract researchers and educators who value approaching and teaching race by way of a lens with massive popular appeal. We also recognize the relevance of this history in media that most of us encounter on a daily basis, and want to create a conversation about the misrepresentation of athletes of color in periodicals and online materials that reach millions of Americans, informed by a history of the issue in the twentieth century: the era when many of our sports institutions took their modern form.

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