Running While Black by Alison Mariella Désir

Subtitle: Why Don't We Feel Safe?

Timeline: Freedom of Movement, Introduction

Posted on January 31st, 2023

By Olivia Baker

"Runners know that running brings us to ourselves. But for Black people, the simple act of running has never been so simple. It is a declaration of the right to move through the world. If running is claiming public space, why, then, does it feel like a negotiation?" - Alison Mariella Désir

Désir shows us what she means by a "negotiation" in the introduction to Running While Black, as she recounts the considerations that go through her head when she's going for a run. From the clothes she wears—a long sleeve shirt with reflective bands for her 6pm run, making her visible to cars, but notably avoiding running in only a sports bra so as not to call any unwanted attention to herself—to the route she takes—nearly the same one each time when by herself, lest she wander into a space in which she is unwanted because of the color of her skin, taking precautions to minimize the threat of racism is an engrained part of her routine. She learned at an early age a lesson that many black people are taught growing up which is that we must always be aware of how whiteness sees us (pg#3).

The precautions she describes in the introduction may seem excessively cautious to some, but when you look at the juxtaposition of black history with the growth of running in the United States, as Désir lays out in her "Timeline: Freedom of Movement", as running has grown in popularity, black people have struggled to carve out spaces in which we can feel safe participating. Whether that was due to segregation and the threat of lynchings during the mid-20th century or more recently the threat of harassment (or worse) by emboldened racists or the police, throughout history black people have had a hard time finding a place in the running community. For a sport that claims that anyone can do it with just a pair of shoes, we still have a ways to go to make this activity accessible and inclusive to all. That being said, I think we are well on our way and headed in the right direction as a running, walking, and jogging community.

For the 13th installment of Runners Who Read, I chose Running While Black by Alison Mariella Désir because I believe that this book presents us with the opportunity to reexamine the institutions upon which this sport is built and come away with ways to make real substantive change in favor of the betterment of running for us all. For anyone who wants to advocate for equity in the running community but isn't sure where to start, I have confidence that this book and the subsequent conversations we'll have will serve as a great place to begin.

Discussion Questions:

1. What (or who) encouraged you to read Running While Black? What are you hoping to learn from this book?

2. "And yet I kept hearing how running was democratic and a sport 'for everybody' kept getting repeated: The world's most democratic sport! All you need is a pair of shoes! Just show up! It was both annoying and funny because it was clear the message came from white runners in a white sport inside a white country, and they had no idea what it was like to be a black body in such a climate." (pg# 4) Is running the world's most democratic sport? How do you feel about Desir's sentiment here?

Subtitle: Fitting In or Belonging? (mini-blog #1)

Part One: Chapters 1-5

Posted on February 9th, 2023

By Olivia Baker

What does it mean to truly belong? Throughout Part 1 of Running While Black by Alison Mariella Désir, growing up as a Haitian and Colombian American in predominantly white spaces she contends with this question constantly. In the beginning she worked hard to fit in—rising to the top of her private high school class to prove she deserved to be there but also bending to the stereotypical expectations that many of her white classmates and teachers held for her—as though belonging was something she could earn. As the de facto representative of the black race in her school, she felt that she had to "put on a good show" (pg#39). When classmates would approach her singing rap lyrics she didn't know and dancing, she would join in and fake her way through, but be sure study the lyrics later on that night. When Tupac was murdered, everyone turned to her as though she would be an expert on the case, so she studied it. However, instead of gaining any sense of belonging, she was only treated as a "Black person" rather than herself. In her own words "There was the appearance of fitting in, but I had no sense of belonging." (pg#46)

This feeling that Désir describes is one that many black people experience in mostly white spaces. The first step to combatting this problem is to be aware of it, the second is to actively seek to make those in the spaces you occupy feel safe to be themselves. To truly belong is "…being yourself, being accepted for yourself regardless of the space you are in or the people you are with. Belonging is being embraced and valued as your authentic self." (pg#46) Between the hallways and classrooms where she simply sought to fit in were pockets where Désir did feel a sense of belonging. A math class, in which her teacher, Mr. Anderson nurtured her academic gifts and saw her as an individual and conversations with some of the maintenance staff members that made her feel seen made her feel a little more welcome. Sometimes creating space for others on the individual level involves deep personal investment, other times it can be as simple as dropping our assumptions and digging a little deeper than small talk with the person who lines up next to us at the road race. However you go about it, this week I encourage you to be aware of the barriers to belonging that may exist in the spaces through which you traverse and, if you have the opportunity, take a step to make someone else feel more welcome.

Discussion Question:

1. What does it look like to make a running, walking, and jogging space in your life more welcoming (the local road race, your running club/group, etc.)? What other places in your life do you think there could be barriers to belonging?

Subtitle: Movement as a Means of Protest (mini-blog #2)

Part Two: Chapters 6-13

Posted on February 15th, 2023

By Olivia Baker

Have you ever wondered why marching is a primary choice of those organizing non-violent protests for change? Why not simply "gather" on Washington instead of march? Well, in part two of Running While Black by Alison Mariella Désir she explores both historically and in present day why marching, and by extension movement in general has been such an effective means for creating change. "The goal of social justice work is to open the doors of access and opportunity for everyone, particularly those in greatest need…" (pg#106). Here are some of the ways movement can do that:

It creates greater visibility. Practically speaking, moving allows a group to take up more space and the more space a group occupies, the more likely they are to be seen and heard. In the early 1940s when the New York Pioneer Club, which was founded by three black men, decided to become one of the first integrated athletic clubs in the nation (pg# 137), their presence running through the streets and excellence at the elite level forced those in the spaces through which they moved to contend with the idea of integration in a mostly segregated country. The resulting impact helped push the sport out from under the power of the AAU, (Amateur Athletics Union) which refused to desegregate, and found the RRCA (Road Runners Club of America) which did away with age and gender restrictions, and eventually became what we know as the New York Road Runners today. Désir's own Harlem Run club similarly challenges the status quo of distance running in the United States by creating an opportunity for increasing numbers of African-American distance runners to move through that space.

There is a symbolic significance. "Scratch that, this is not a moment it's the movement." (Lin-Manuel Miranda, My Shot, Hamilton [the musical]). Symbolically movement, and especially movement over great distances expresses the sentiment that those seeking change are in it for the long haul. Change often takes time. While a single protest may only take a moment, the way in which it is completed is representative of the work that will be done beyond the singular moment.

It lowers barriers to participation. In the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to ensure African-American's right to vote, tens of thousands of people joined the 54-mile walk over the course of 5 days. Not only its purpose, but its distance over the course of several days allowed for more people to take part even if they could only join one leg of the journey. With the civil rights marches in mind, in 2017 Désir organized a continuous run over 250 miles and several days from Harlem to Washington D.C. to raise money for Planned Parenthood and support the Women's March (at which she planned to arrive as it was beginning). She invited people to donate and to join her anywhere on the journey. Moving through multiple states opened doors for people all over the northeast to more easily get involved and the awareness it raised eventually garnered national attention.

Something as simple as movement has great power when we use it for the good of others. As Désir says "We are not powerless in the face of injustice; there is always something you can do. I didn't have lots of money, political power, or tons of followers on social media, but what I did have were running shoes, two feet to put them on, and enough passion and drive to organize." (pg# 125). Not all of us are organizers, but all of us have the power to use our movement to create positive change.

Discussion Questions:

1. In what ways have you used your movement for the good of others either on a personal level or as a part of a bigger group?

2. In chapter 13, Désir writes "But Boston's 'specialness' stems from its exclusivity. The race is open only to those who can run fast enough to earn a spot, unless you run for charity and can fundraise thousands of dollars. Speed makes you "worthy" of Boston. I had no interest in participating in an event that valued exclusion…If Boston is the pinnacle, what does that say about what we value?" (pg# 153, 162). She criticizes Boston's use of time cutoffs for entry as exclusive in a sport that should be inclusive to all and suggests that it move to a lottery system like the other 5 major marathons. Do you agree? Is the Boston Marathon exclusive? Should they move to a lottery system for entry?

Subtitle: Reimagining the Run (mini-blog #3)

Part 3: Chapters 14-21, Epilogue: Reclaiming

Posted February 23rd, 2023

By Olivia Baker

The way a story is told and passed along is nearly as important as the story itself. As we've read throughout Running While Black by Alison Mariella Désir black people have always been present and played important roles in distance running, yet their stories have largely been left in the footnotes of history. While names like Bill Bowerman, Frank Shorter, and Joan Benoit Samuelson are well recognized within the running community and beyond in many cases, the equally important accomplishments of Ted Corbitt, Marilyn Bevans, and Moses Mayfield are hidden gems that we must work to find. The parts of history that we choose to remember and preserve shape the way we understand our present and imagine our future. History shows who belongs, who was there, and who running is for (pg#242), so when we look back and see that parts of black history have been suppressed, it is no wonder that black people have not always felt included in distance running. We have the power now to widen the circle of inclusion in this sport, but we need to reckon with the past to do so.

We must learn and celebrate the role that black and brown people have played in American distance running. Both Ted Corbitt and George Spitz deserve to be acknowledged for their roles in expanding the route of the New York Marathon to go through all five boroughs. Marilyn Bevans and Katherine Switzer were both trailblazers in women's marathon running and should be celebrated as such. "When we include more Black people and other marginalized groups in the larger story of running, a narrative emerges that opens the sport to more people." (pg#243) This is in part why knowing and sharing black and brown history. Through consistent and intentional effort, one way that we as both individuals and organizations can make the spaces we occupy more inclusive is by taking some time to educate ourselves about the richly diverse history of our sport.

Discussion Question:

1. This week, let's simply leave this space open to share a black running history or people of color running history fact with the group or take a moment to learn one.

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