Category Archives: Racial injustice

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Another year, another Boston Marathon. I first published this last year as part of my goal to fight Cheeto flea by getting more involved in racial justice. My progress has been slower than I would prefer, but like the marathoners, I try to stay focused on putting one foot in front of the other. I am reading a book called “Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era.” The author, Ashley Farmer, is a professor at my alma mater, Boston University, and I learned about her and her book from an email from the school — sometimes those annoying emails are actually useful! It is a bit more academic than I’m used to, but that’s OK. She talks about how Black women were working right alongside Black men to gain racial equality, reframing it and adding a female perspective. And she talks about women activists who make the case that it’s not just the big names like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth that we need to think about, but also all of the mothers and grandmothers who held the family together, often by cleaning white women’s houses, and who “found ways to financially and emotionally support [their] family in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and discrimination.”

So in addition to remembering Marilyn Bevans, the first Black woman to run in the Boston Marathon, I am also remembering her mother and grandmother and all the women standing behind her as she crossed that finish line. 

As a side note, I decided to Google “first Black women to run the Boston Marathon” this year again to see if we had made any progress on the topic in the past year. Guess what came up first? This blog post, followed by the same references from last year. If that doesn’t show that we all have something to contribute, I don’t know what does. Step by step, people. Step by step.

Today is Patriot’s Day in Boston, aka Boston Marathon Day. There will be an estimated 30,000 runners who have either a qualifying time, are part of a team running for charity, or are simply a handful of rogue folks who find registering and qualifying a bother, and good for them.

At 122 years, the Boston Marathon is the oldest, and is 26 miles and 385 yards, which reminds me of the Mass Ave Bridge’s measurement in Smoots — 364.4 and one ear to be exact. For some reason we Bostonians like our precision, even if it means adding yards or an ear. Oliver Smoot, by the way, was a 1962 graduate of MIT who stood 5 feet, 7 inches. You can well imagine how he was used as a measuring stick and that there was most likely alcohol involved. Perhaps the 385 additional yards in the marathon came about in a similar way. We can only hope.

Last year they retired the number of the first woman to officially register and run, Kathrine Switzer. In 1967 she registered with only her initials — there was this pesky thing where women weren’t officially allowed to run until 1972, so they gave her a number assuming she was a man. I guess that’s some progress. Mary Ann Evans had to take an entire man’s name of George Eliot to get published. Kathrine was inspired by the 1966 rogue run of Roberta Gibbs, who apparently jumped out of the bushes near the start and ran and finished the race. Wanting to run 26 miles is crazy and hard enough, without having to concoct a surprise way of joining in. A year later, Kathrine may have made more than 26,000 steps for herself, but also she made a giant leap for women athletes everywhere — at least the white ones. Marathon official Jack Sempe tried to take her bib, yelling, “Get the hell out of my race, and give me those numbers.” Her boyfriend, who was running with her, body checked Jack out of the way, but not before the whole thing was photographed and went the 1967 version of viral. There’s a well-done piece about the story in the Boston Herald.

Cool story, right? It made me wonder about other firsts, like the first African-American man and woman to run the Boston race. And that’s where that little ole thing called racism creeps in. Granted, Kathrine’s story was splashed all over the news because of the retired number thing. And there was that 1967 viral photo by a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, no less.

However, it should not have taken as many Google searches as it did for me to get to those other firsts. I mean isn’t that what Black History Month is all about? Digging up historical stuff that we’ve been covering up/not caring about for, like, ever?

I found two sources, and the second one, the National Black Marathoners Association history project gets credit for actually including a — — woman. Both sources say Aaron Morris was the first Black male runner in the Boston Marathon in 1919, 47 years before a white woman. The first and only reference I can find of the first Black woman to run in Boston is Marilyn Bevans in 1977; and she placed 2nd. That’s pretty amazing right? Where are the stories about her? Granted once I knew her name, more came up in the search, including that she is considered the first lady of marathon running. But doesn’t that warrant her coming up in the more general searches of first women/first Black woman to run the Boston Marathon?

Maybe in running circles this is common knowledge, but let’s face it, most of us think marathon running is crazy, unless it’s a big event in your city and you get the day off. Or you do it to celebrate a milestone birthday. I personally try not to be friends with people like that, but one tries to be open and flexible to others’ obvious lack of judgment.

So today, I salute you, Marilyn Bevans and Aaron Morris. I like you, too, Kathrine and Roberta, but you’ve been saluted enough. You all remind me that marathons take time, effort, and preparation. That sometimes people don’t want me to accomplish a goal, so I have to jump out of the bushes or avoid getting my bib grabbed. That sometimes remarkable accomplishments go unnoticed because of skin color or gender or both. That many times I need to remember that and be curious beyond the story of a white woman’s amazing accomplishment.

Happy running.

 

 

 

Tell Them We Are Rising

I had decided last year to fight the Cheeto flea and his chaos by working on racial injuctice — the lack of Black faces during the women’s march more than a year ago and the idea that white women have left Black women to fend for themselves still haunts me. But last year turned out busier than I thought, and I needed to educate myself before I try to help. Ain’t nobody want a white woman to show up with her guilt and then have to help her figure out her racial junk. That’s on me to learn about my own biases and what I do consciously or unconsciously that keeps systemic racism alive.

Interestingly, a mere 6 hours after writing the above, I got a mini lesson. I was at a Museum of Fine Arts event and got called out for having white privilege. As in, a Black woman came up to me, put her arm around me and said, “Congratulations on your white privilege.” Being a bonefide member of the snowflake, lefty liberal club, I was confused and stunned. My transgression was walking between her and her friends while they were trying to take a photo in front of a bank of elevator doors decorated with art from one of the exhibits. I had kind of noticed before that people were doing that. But it was a loud event with a lot of people, and Mike and I were just making our way to a set of stairs by the shortest route available. So, sure, I would describe it as being clueless, rude, and not paying attention to my surroundings. I would have walked in front of a bunch a white people, no doubt, because I am pretty clueless. I am, after all, the woman who did not notice when her college roommates short-sheeted her bed. The comment upset me, so I turned around to her group, said I was sorry and did a bow with namaste hands. Maybe that offended them too, I don’t know. Mike dragged me off and wisely said that I don’t know what her experience was that lead her to that comment. I remember one diversity training I took that explained how all the small micro aggressions that people of color encounter on their way to work can add up so that when they do get to work, one small thing could set them off. We’ve all been there, but as white people we don’t have to go there every day like people of color do. So maybe I was the 4th, 10th, or 20th that day. It did show me that I need to be prepared for that kind of response as I get deeper into this. Buckle up buttercup, lower the defences, keep your piehole shut, and listen.

So with that auspicious start, I present to you what I hope to be a series of reports and observations as I go through an organic DIY project. I’m trusting I will find the resources and teachers I need, and I already had my first lesson, so I must be on my way.

February being Black History Month helped bring a few things to my attention, except that I got annoyed by the whole, “let’s only pay attention to this once a year” thing. I watched and recommend a documentary on PBS called “Tell Them We Are Rising.” You can stream it on the website until March 21. It chronicles the history of what are known as HBCUs — historically Black colleges and universities — from their formation shortly after the Civil War ended through today.  My only previous experience with HBCUs was Spike Lee’s movie from 1988, “School Daze.” It’s a good movie that presents a full range of Black personalities and the disagreements Blacks can have among themselves about their destiny — I recall that at the time it received some criticism from the Black community that it showed too much internal “dirty laundry.” But I agree with Spike Lee that’s exactly what we need to see. Black people just being people, fer cryin’ out loud in their own safe space, which many of the students interviewed in the documentary commented on as reason why HBCUs are still essential.

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow review of the documentary, but I wanted to share a couple of things that struck me. The first colleges started as industrial arts type schools to teach the newly freed slaves skills. Remember before this, teaching slaves, especially things like reading, was not just illegal, but was also somewhat lethal. By the late 1800s there were more than 80 schools founded by the American Missionary Association, the African Methodist Episcopal church, and the federal government. Of course, the white landowners didn’t especially appreciate that, so between 1866 and 1872, they ran off countless teachers, set schools on fire, and killed more than 20,000 students and teachers. For having the audacity to learn and teach.

Fast forward to WWI, and the Black soldiers who went to Europe and fought were thinking they could come home and reap the benefits of the freedom they had just fought for. Not quite. They were often beaten by white mobs, including white veterans, at the train stations coming home from the war. The summer of 1919 was called the red summer because 28 cities burned in a series of what the documentary calls “small-scale race wars.” The difference between this time and the school killings previously is that these Blacks had been to war and learned how to fight back. Part of that fighting back is taking more control over their education. At the time, the HBCUs were primarily run by white men. So this is a period where Blacks try to get control of their schools.

The schools prevailed and the graduates and students of HBCUs help take control of their destiny, not to mention create a middle class. The 50s and 60s bring us the first lunch counter protests, thought of and executed by Black college students at HBCUs. And then guess what happened? Pissed off/scared white people commit acts of violence against the protesters, etc., etc. Are you seeing the pattern?

This one step up, two steps back thing, feels very much like what we’re in now, don’t you think? We had the audacity to have a Black president for 8 years and now, we’ve got the similar violent reaction against it. Cold comfort, but the documentary reminded me there are ways to address this, fight it, and keep moving the ball forward.

Another highlight for me was learning that Howard University specifically started a law school in 1869 to train black lawyers to legally challenge the system of segregation and discrimination. And guess what they ended up achieving? Among the students was Thurgood Marshall, and the first vice dean of the law school was Charles Houston, who was a graduate of Harvard Law School and the first Black person on the Harvard Revew; they and others created the legal precedents that eventually led to Brown v. the Board of Education: On May 17, 1954, the US Supreme Court struck down racially segregated schools as unconstitutional in a landmark ruling. That is some kind of kick ass long-range planning.

There’s plenty more interesting information about these still important schools.

Watch Tell Them We Are Rising  on PBS, available until March 21.