Review of Jennifer H. Lansbury’s A Spectacular Leap: Black Women Athletes in Twentieth-Century America

University of Arkansas Press, 2014.

University of Arkansas Press, 2014.

The “ghetto Cinderellas” of tennis, Serena and Venus Williams, were to face one another in the semifinals of the 2001 Masters Tournament in Indian Wells, California.[1] Yet, mere minutes before the match start-time, Venus suddenly pulled out. According to officials, the last minute decision stemmed from knee problems. The abruptness and unexpectedness of both her injury and scratch bolstered suspicions that the Williams sisters’ father and coach, Richard Williams, predetermined his daughters’ victories.

Serena remembered the day differently. She recalled that her older sister suffered from longstanding tendonitis and had requested to forgo the match long before its designated start time. Tournament organizers, hoping to keep the crowds happy, refused her appeal until the match was set to start. They hoped that the façade of a hasty departure would allow the spectators to blame the Williams family for the cancelation. It worked. When Serena, Venus, and Richard Williams appeared on court the following day, the crowd booed. Some mouthed racial epithets while others threw out suggestions of violence.

In A Spectacular Leap: Black Women Athletes in Twentieth-Century America, Jennifer H. Lansbury uses the Indian Wells incident to highlight the ways in which the treatment of black female athletes has remained consistent since the early twentieth century. As was apparent in the disparate treatment of the Williams sisters—which was not isolated to the Indian Wells episode—she explains that “the confluence of race, class, and gender that surrounded black women in sport during much of the twentieth century remains, invoking similar and revised images on the athletes in today’s mainstream society” (p. 243). Using six athletes as case studies, Lansbury illustrates how successful black sportswomen were perceived by both black and white communities. Although Ora Washington, Alice Coachman, Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph, Wyomia Tyus, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee exceled in different contexts and experienced different obstacles, they all faced similar stereotypes, seeped in racial, classed, and gendered ideologies.

Lansbury opens with the plight of Washington, a star basketball and tennis competitor in the 1930s. During Washington’s initial rise to fame in Philadelphia, white women frequently avoided basketball due to its working-class and masculine connotations. Consequently, black women, unbridled by such classed and gendered constraints, excelled. Yet, as Lansbury notes, in the 1930s, questions about femininity surfaced within the black community as many suggested black athletes should align with white norms to facilitate integration. Therefore, even when Washington later dominated tennis, which was deemed a more respectable pastime, she nevertheless experienced criticisms stemming from her affinity for basketball and working-class background. Lansbury uses Washington to showcase the questions of femininity that plagued the black community, a theme that also surfaced in the careers of the other five athletes.

For example, upholding femininity underscored Coachman’s career. A member of the legendary Tuskegee Tigerettes track and field team, she stepped into a different arena largely abandoned by white women. As Lansbury points out, “‘decent’ white women did not participate in such a masculine, competitive sport,” leaving a void that was eventually filled by black athletes (p. 60). To combat the ensuing stereotypes about masculinized competitors, Tigerettes track and field Coach Cleve Abbott required his athletes demonstrate social etiquette and display femininity at all times. For example, he suggested the Tigerettes don lipstick and curl their hair immediately following workouts. The black press also emphasized the athletes’ femininity to counter stereotypes; however, these efforts inevitably reasserted certain preconceived notions about black women’s hyper-sexuality. Coachman’s life and career, then, illustrates her celebration in the black community, which was bolstered through her subscription to feminine norms.

The strongest chapter of A Spectacular Leap covers the career of Althea Gibson, the individual responsible for breaking the color line in tennis. Lansbury clearly identifies the three communities that assisted Gibson’s remarkable success. First, the patronage of middle-class doctors Hubert A. Eaton and Robert W. Johnson guaranteed Gibson financial stability and, perhaps more importantly, lessons in social etiquette. In other words, the two men diminished Gibson’s working-class background. Second, the American Tennis Association, the African American tennis circuit, provided a path for Gibson to follow to desegregate the United States Lawn Tennis Association, which she accomplished in the 1950 U.S. Open. Third, the black press supported Gibson in her desegregation efforts. Yet, when journalists demanded she accept her position as a “race hero,” in line with Jackie Robinson, Gibson refused. She shied away from this tremendous responsibility and, consequently, the black press responded by focusing on her supposed negative attitude and working-class roots.

Although Gibson desegregated tennis, Wilma Rudolph was the first black female athlete truly embraced by white society. According to Lansbury, the celebration of Rudolph developed for two reasons. Foremost, the Cold War increased the importance of track and field in the United States. Competitions against the Soviet Union also allowed Americans to transfer the muscle “moll” ideology onto the U.S.S.R. women. In addition, Tennessee Tigerbelles Coach Ed Temple ensured his athletes, including Rudolph, subscribed to feminine mores. His mandate was based on the premise “that ‘real’ women could participate in track—women who were good looking, liked dresses and high heels, put on lipstick, paid attention to their hair, and easily captured boyfriends” (p. 149). The feminine Rudolph thus defeated the Soviet women, won three gold medals in the Rome Olympics, and earned the adulation of the U.S. public.

Fellow Tennessee Tigerbelle Wyomia Tyus upheld Temple’s femininity demands but also witnessed a new crossroads. Winner of the 100-meter race in 1964 and 1968—the first to accomplish such a feat—Tyus attained athletic success in the midst of both the Black Freedom Struggle and Women’s Liberation Movement. While the “Swiftie from Tennessee State” shared experiences with each group, neither openly embraced her, an exclusion shared by many black women during the time. For example, the Tigerbelles’ thoughts on the proposed boycott of the 1968 Games were unrecognized, just as they remained sidelined in conversations about women’s fight for equality in sport.

Black women may have been excluded from gender- and race- focused conversations in the 1960s and 1970s, yet, black female athletes continued to triumph in track and field, as seen in the career of Joyner-Kersee. To discuss the treatment of Joyner-Kersee, Lansbury incorporates and contrasts the rise and reception of her sister-in-law, Florence Griffith-Joyner. According to Lansbury, Joyner-Kersee refused to highlight her femininity while on the track, instead preferring to focus on her athleticism. Conversely, “Flo Jo” overtly—and at times controversially—flaunted her femininity and sexuality through one-legged leotards, colorful nails, and flowing hair. As a result, Griffith-Joyner received endorsements; Joyner-Kersee did not. To Lansbury, this misbalance of sponsorships seems to demonstrate the unwillingness of U.S. companies, and thus of fans, to embrace a non-feminine black athlete. However, femininity did not save Flo Jo from accusations of drug use. After the Ben Johnson scandal in 1988, suspicions plagued both of the sister-in-laws’ careers. Notably, the allegations raised against Joyner-Kersee and Griffith-Joyner focused on their looks and muscularity, reifying stereotypes about black female athletes.

In A Spectacular Leap, Lansbury explores the lives and careers of prominent black female athletes, a topic that too often remains ignored. The work not only provides important insights into the changing dynamics of race, class, and gender in sport, but also offers notable contextual information. For example, she details the fractions that existed within the Project for Human Rights (PHR), and highlights the various responses to the PHR’s call for a boycott. As an additional example, Lansbury explains the divergent reactions to John Carlos’ and Tommie Smith’s “salute” in the 1968 Summer Olympics; not all within the black community looked favorably upon the actions of the two athletes. Finally, the book is accessible and very well organized.

While an important addition to sport history, some scholars might worry that the use of six mini biographies falls into a “compensatory” historical paradigm. By covering the careers of a handful of phenomenal athletes, Lansbury attempts to add women back into the story. Nevertheless, A Spectacular Leap does an excellent job extending the conversation beyond gender, explaining how race and class intersected in women’s sport history. Sadly, as Lansbury shows with the Williams sisters, black women in sport continue to face stereotypes based on all three social identifiers.

[1] Richard Williams coined the nickname and frequently referred to his daughters as “ghetto Cinderellas.”

Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College. She can be reached at pieper.l@lynchburg.edu.

8 thoughts on “Review of Jennifer H. Lansbury’s A Spectacular Leap: Black Women Athletes in Twentieth-Century America

  1. Interesting to read this after just reading some background on Venus Williams op-ed in the London Times several years ago being the catalyst for equal pay for women competitors at Wimbledon. All women who compete there benefited.

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  2. This is great review of Lansbury’s book. I’m a lawyer starting a Ph.D program in Sociology in August and I’m also working on an article on Black Women’s gender in professional sports. Your review made it clear that this book must be a part of my research, particularly considering the dearth of research on Black Women athletes.

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  3. Pingback: Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part I Choosing Course Materials | Sport in American History

  4. Your review is very interesting. I found myself intrigued upon you mentioning Wilma Rudolph being the first black female athlete truly embraced by white society. I am currently taking a history course on sport history and the topic we are currently discussing is race and ethnicity in American sport. When I read from your review, “the Cold War increased the importance of track and field in the United States”, and the following from the book, “here was someone who not only satisfied the requirement to be feminine and attractive but also raced hard and could easily beat the Russians (Lansbury, 2014, pg. 136), referring to Wilma Rudolph. I was wondering, do you think it could be possible that African Americans could have been identified and selected to compete in the Olympics in order to meet the demands for the United States political purpose against the Soviet Union during the Cold War Era?

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  5. This blog was very interesting to read because of the feminism found in sports. Race was distinguished by toughness found in black athletes and white athletes for the same sport. There were many stereotypes that followed black female athletes for their muscularity presented during a sport. White athletic women were considered too decent to be participating in a sport like track and field. These assumptions are followed after evaluating black female athletes and their which made them stronger to be a part of any sport. That is why there were the two William sisters who participated in a sport like tennis which for some was considered to be a feminine sport compared to basketball, track and field, and other sports. Do you feel that black women would be seen this way in the near future?

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  6. I found your blog very insightful and think it gave a clear picture to what “A Spectacular Leap” is about. I was most drawn to the story about Serena and Venus Williams, as they are very familiar names in our culture. Although I have heard about the sisters through news and popular culture I never realized the poor treatment they endure due to their race and your review really opened my eyes that this problem still exists. In a time in America where people are coming together and becoming more accepting to “minority groups”, the LGBT community coming to mind for me, I find it shocking that African Americans, who won their battle decades ago, are still having difficulties being seen as equals. It makes me wonder how long these battles will really last in our country for true equality and fair treatment. Do you think we will see this problem repeat with other minority groups that have more recently been accepted into the sports world such as the LGBT community?

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  7. Pingback: “The Fulfillment of a promise of that has remained unrealized”: From Wyomia Tyus to Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce | Sport in American History

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