Critically acclaimed and immensely criticized, the film Selma unapologetically centralizes black people as key actors in the Civil Rights movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Critics of the film argue that the film’s portrayal of the events is not historically accurate, and that the film should have paid homage to Lyndon Johnson. Supporters of the film argue that black people themselves have been erased from the civil rights movement in favor of praise for white presidents (Kennedy and Johnson), and that the film reclaims Martin Luther King Jr’s radical stance on racial and economic injustice – pushing back against the “Disneyfication” or “Santa Claus-ification” of King. While these debates appear to be about artistic license and dramatic styling, they are, at their core, about History.
Who gets to tell what story? How is that story told? Whose version of the story counts? How do we go about collecting and interpreting these stories? In short, what is History?
The field of Sport History is no stranger to these questions, as scholars have been grappling with what exactly (sport) history is since NASSH began meeting over 40 years ago. Feminist sport historians have led the charge, compelling their peers to move beyond the stories of great (white) men and to examine the ways that gender and gender ideology contribute to the institutionalization of sport. Thus, historical examinations should not be about merely reciting facts, but rather about examining the meaning of said facts and historical accounts. This, Tina Parratt and Patricia Vertinsky argue, necessarily interrogates power relationships and exposes hierarchies of value. Generally speaking, (white) men’s writings come to be understood as authoritative accounts of particular events. If we do not examine the ways gender ideology constructs both those particular accounts and our assumption that they are valid, then we are left to believe that this particular version of events is the only legitimate version.
Thanks to the hard work and dedication of feminist sport scholars, sport historians are more attentive to ideology, language, and power. In The Field, Douglas Booth outlines several “types” of sport history:
- Reconstructionist: discover historical materials and interrogate their truthfulness
- MLK Jr did lead a march from Selma to Birmingham. That march was one of 3 organized marches
- Constructionist: contextualize historical materials within a theoretical framework which helps historians “reveal reality” (p. 82)
- Critical race theory helps historians demonstrate the necessity of these marches in 1960s US culture
- Deconstructionist: conceptualize the historical materials themselves as texts whose inherent power relations must be interrogated
- The news reports from Selma & Birmingham are products of ideology and need to examined with race, gender, class, and nationalism in mind
As the field of sport history has changed over these 40+ years, our higher education system has changed too. Corporate business models now pervade the academy, resulting in decreased funding and uneven reallocation of resources. Many disciplines have fought for their very existence, having to continually prove their worth to administrations obsessed with “efficiency.” Humanities and social science disciplines have fought for legitimacy in this academic arms race through “public engagement,” “public history,” or “public intellectualism.”
Combatting the old tropes of academics residing in their ivory tower, this move to the public sphere demonstrates the relevance of academic disciplines which are broadly perceived to be esoteric and/or “worthless.” And yet, these publicly invested methodologies are still emerging and each discipline has its own terminology, resulting in disagreement over the purpose and execution of such public scholarship.
In one model of public intellectualism the scholar writes for an “extra-academic” audience rather than the small circulation peer-reviewed academic journals typically associated with scholarship. Sport scholars & historians have written for The Nation, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, etc. to reach a broad audience about important topics in sport and physical activity. Under this model, however, the scholar is still “the expert” disseminating knowledge to “the public.”
Public engagement, on the other hand, is grounded in reciprocal, collaborative partnerships. Under this model, both the scholar and the public partner(s) have expert knowledge to share with one another in a mutually beneficial way. Of course, this process is fraught with unequal power relationships and cultural norms. It is therefore incredibly important for the scholar to critically examine their power and privilege within their interactions with their public partner(s), potential funding agencies, and academic institutions (among a host of others).
To briefly explore the potentiality of public engagement within sport history, I’ll discuss my involvement as a graduate fellow with the Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy. This week-long intensive institute was designed to help graduate students explore how public engagement can enhance teaching, research, and creative work and to help us begin developing the tools to participate in publicly engaged work. At the onset of the institute, we were expected to have the seed of an idea. I wrote a brief project proposal which aimed to combat the “bro culture” in the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center (CRWC) at UIowa. Throughout the institute, we discussed what public engagement is in relation to our fledgling projects. We gave each other constructive feedback and questions to reflect on:
Who are you and what do you bring to the table?
It became clear to me that I was seeing the CRWC, Iowa City, and physical activity from a very particular viewpoint. As a critical scholar of sport & physical activity I can critique the ways our culture disproportionately encourages some people to exercise and others not to. I also can critique the built-environment of the CRWC, along with many other recreational facilities, as spaces which create gendered and racialized segregation. As a personal trainer, I have first-hand experience with people who do not feel comfortable in gym spaces but are there using the space nevertheless. As an exerciser in the facility, I have first-hand experience of another kind – 18 year old white bros who would like to “help me” with my form & technique. But, how I do distill all of that into a publicly engaged project?
Who is you public(s)? Who is your audience? Who would you collaborate with?
I didn’t really have public partner(s) identified… I’ll work with, you know, the people at the CRWC. As a personal trainer, I have access to employees. As an avid exerciser, I have access to other exercisers. But, who is my public? Which people and what part of the CRWC? Or is it people who participate in physical activity in other recreational facilities in Iowa City? Or is it people who would never step foot inside a “gym”?
What are the desired outcomes of your project? And who gets to decide?
It became clear to me that my agenda to “combat bro culture” needed to be stepped back. While it is a fine desired outcome as part of a larger project, centralizing it leaves no room for public engagement, as I’ve already decided what the outcome should be instead of collaborating with my public partner(s).
Relatedly, how do you “combat bro culture”?
My early thoughts on this went directly to staff and employee led initiatives to change the types and tenor of interactions within the CRWC space (collaborative with the staff, but not with the users of the facility with whom I’d really like to partner). As we continued to discuss our projects over the week, my fellow fellows told deeply moving and powerful stories about their experiences with exercise, physical activity, and their bodies. It was then that I realized the project was actually about History. The (gendered and racialized) history of the facilities on Iowa’s campus. The (gendered and racialized) history of physical activity and exercise in our culture. Our own (gendered and racialized) personal histories of participation and embodiment.
Participating in the institute provided me with the time and space to collaborate with other scholars on my project. While there, we continued to ask ourselves “what kind of scholar do I want to be?” The question, however, really is “what kind of scholar must I be?” If we are going to survive in this age of higher education scarcity, we must demonstrate our relevance and the importance of our work. Reflexive scholarship and “authoethnography” has long been critiqued as “navel-gazing,” however, to participate in truly collaborative projects, reflection on our own positions is necessary. To do good historical work, we must examine the ideological foundations and power relations that locate us, our scholarship, and the historical events we are examining. As both Parratt and Vertinsky warn, we must examine the institutionalization of our scholarly disciplines to ensure that we are not re-inscribing unequal power relationships and valuing certain histories over others.
If public scholarship is part of our disciplinary future, we must ask what we might imagine history to look like if we take seriously “the public” as our collaborators? Which publics? How do they tell their histories? Whose version of history are we telling? And who benefits from that?
Cathryn Lucas-Carr looks forward to continuing this project and to hearing your stories about physical activity, exercise, and embodiment. Cathryn can be reached at email@example.com