Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part 2 Organizing the Course

This is part 2 in a series of posts that explore the questions and issues of preparing a sport history course. The first post introduced the course and discussed selecting books and other materials. This post explores issues of organization and choosing what to include. The series’ final post will appear on July 20, and will discuss designing and creating assignments.

Where do you begin? That’s a question often repeated in academic work. None of us want to recite human history from the big bang, but sometimes its hard to draw a clean beginning to our narratives. It’s hard for us to know how much is too much information, even if it’s just background or context. This is true in both writing and teaching. Thankfully in teaching, there is often dates associated with our courses, such as U.S. history since 1877, or The 1960s. Sometimes, however, there are no such limitations. In today’s post I want talk about how we deal with this freedom and decide on the organizational framework for our courses and what to include.

Tom Molineaux vs Tom Cribb, 1811 (Wikipedia Commons)

Tom Molineaux vs Tom Cribb, 1811 (Wikipedia Commons)

My course this fall, “The Black Athlete,” is one of these open-ended situations. It requires that I impose my own timeline. I get to choose who the first black athlete was. I have to decide where to begin. When teaching, these decisions are important, but often arbitrary. The first black athlete in my course will probably be Tom Molineaux. I made this choice, in part, because he is one of the earliest figures discussed in the Wiggins and Miller reader that I assigned. He’s also an important figure in the history of boxing and helps illustrate the impact of John L. Sullivan’s drawing of the color line.

To be sure, there are other athletes one could choose. You could also start the class by talking more generally about African-Americans playing sports. Some have even posed the idea of beginning at the end. That is, starting at the present and moving backwards through history. Some people like to begin in medias res and the go back to fill in the gaps later. Starting with a familiar story or a familiar person can help connect history to things that students already know, and then you have room to build on that knowledge and move in different directions.

Choosing where to begin also involves making other, larger decisions, such as thematic versus linear organization. As a historian, I often prefer linear narratives. I’m interested in showing change over time based on progression from decade to decade or era to era. I organize my survey of U.S. history since 1877 largely around decades. It makes sense to me and keeps things simple for my students.

In teaching about sports, however, linear progressions and change over time can be difficult on a linear timeline because there are frequently parallel narratives. Sports follow different developmental patterns and face similar issues at differing times. For example, boxing had its first black heavyweight champion in 1908, while Major League Baseball didn’t integrate until 1947. Jumping around from sport to sport within a single decade or era can be hard for students to follow. At the same time, talking about a single sport for too long before pivoting to mention the parallel experience of another sport (or athlete) can create disjointed history. We have to find a balance and strategically think about the best way to discuss multiple sports and multiple athletes that overlap temporally. The parallel histories of sport are in some ways similar to the multiple narratives in political, economic, social, and cultural history that combine to make up a single decade. Yet, sports don’t always interact with each other even if they fall on the same timeline.

Because of these difficulties and the need for strategic planning, a thematic approach is appealing. Organizing a class thematically allows you to pick out important ideas, and then offer examples of how those ideas have changed over time in multiple contexts. It can offer a more compartmentalized way to maintain a breadth of coverage while staying true to specific learning outcomes and concepts. One of the thematic ideas or areas I want to cover in my class is the notion of narratives, myths, and roles. Using a straight up thematic approach, you can highlight issues of stereotypes early on and the narratives used to describe black athletes. Those stereotypes and representations caused some, such as Joe Louis, to mold himself in order to separate himself from Jack Johnson. Louis, and handlers, were reacting to narratives and trying to play a role in so that they could destroy a stereotype. Discussions of Magic Johnson rely on similar myths and images. Prior assumptions and narratives about black masculinity and sexuality dating back to Jack Johnson continue to linger.

One concern with a predominantly thematic approach is deciding what examples to use. Many athletes and sports fit into multiple themes, but it’s important not to overuse them and bore students. The Johnson and Louis dichotomy is ripe for multiple thematic interpretations. So too are the careers of athletes like Wilma Rudolph, Muhammad Ali, or Marion Jones. This I think is the most difficult part of planning a course: choosing the examples and athletes. I realized this when many of you questioned my decision to assign the Arthur Ashe book and offered alternative ideas, these choices are not always cut and dry.

As I wrote in my first post, I’m planning on organizing the class around biographies. Biographical approaches, tend to work well in a variety of sports classes, particularly boxing. You can choose athletes from each era, coaches or promoters with big personalities, controversial figures, team owners, etc. to craft an interpretation of a sport’s history. Building a course on black athletes around biographies, however, invokes many of the problems and concerns I outlined with the other approaches. My hope is that by focusing mostly on individual stories I will be able to blend the best of both thematic and chronological approaches. To be sure, I’ll still have to jump around from athlete to athlete and sport to sport, and those transitions won’t always be smooth. I’ll also have to make several tough choices on who to include — which could be a post in its own (but it wont). Using biographies as the central organizational component of the class, means athlete’s stories will serve as the primary building blocks for understanding thematic developments and issues. My interpretation of their lives drives both the thematic and chronological movement of the course. Athletes serve as the bridges between eras, on which context hangs, connecting them to their peers. This allows me to use discussions of their youth and early lives to contextualize their athletic careers, and transition to other sports or individuals while discussing their legacies.

For example, as I noted above, I’ll start with Tom Molineaux and boxing. Next will come John L. Sullivan and the color line moving through Jack Johnson and the Progressive Era. Johnson’s win is an important development, but his struggle against “White Hopes” highlights the status of African-Americans. Professional baseball was more inline with mainstream thinking, illustrated by its Gentleman’s Agreement. But, like Tom Molineaux, Moses Fleetwood Walker shows that baseball was not always exclusive. Transitioning to baseball provides an additional perspective on the color line and offers an opportunity to delve deeper into concepts of segregated sports.

Many of themes and events in this example overlap, begging the question, how much time should you spend on each topic? In some ways that’s an impossible question to answer. Some of it depends on how deep you go into various themes and how you see them advancing the timeline by providing background for later athletes. Molineaux, Sullivan, and Johnson are all essential figures for understanding Joe Louis, who helps provide context for Jackie Robinson as well as other postwar black athletes. Moses Fleetwood Walker sets up the dichotomy between Major League Baseball and the Negro Leagues which figures prominently in discussions of several generations of black athletes. In sum, these narratives illustrate the rich of culture of African-Americans in sports despite an era of exclusion. They provide the scaffolding for the era of integration that comes next.

Like choosing where to begin, choosing where to end is also challenging. The obvious answer for many is the present, though that makes most of us historians uneasy. It’s hard to analyze current events on the fly or add context to something that’s still unfolding. Yet, students always seem to want to know what we think about a recent game, scandal, or election. That’s precisely why I want to end this course as close as I can to the present. The recent events in places like Baltimore, Ferguson, and Cleveland provide new fodder for discussions on activism in sports. Lebron James and other popular black athletes have engaged with political issues, joining people like Kareem Abdul Jabbar, while Michael Jordan’s generation was eerily silent. Conversations about issues like this one, or Michael Sam, offer an opportunity to connect current events to earlier themes and narratives. They also hint at a new era, one that’s quite a bit different from the one I grew up.

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Rudimentary Brainstorming

One of the things I hope this post makes clear is that choosing how to teach is tricky. And, I don’t think there are necessarily any wrong choices. Whenever I start thinking about teaching a new class or writing a syllabus, I always sketch out lecture topics and themes. I made two lists when deciding how to organize this course. One list was just themes that I want to address. The other was a list of athletes I’d like to discuss. After scribbling out each list, I began considering which athletes connect to which themes, creating a web. This helped me see the multitude of possibilities for teaching what’s essentially the same content. One of the reasons this post is relatively vague is because I’m still in trying to decide which ones to use. Suggestions are welcome.

In a field like sport history there is often more content than lecture time, and we have to decide how to best use that time as well as which content best explains or illustrates the issues we find important. We’ll disagree on which sports or athletes carry more weight. Many of us will also disagree on which themes to emphasize more than others. Sometimes we even disagree with ourselves. Over the course of writing this post, I’ve stared at the lists I made and rethought some of my own decisions, and gone back and forth on others. These disagreement, however, are why I love talking about teaching so much. Someone else always has a different idea, another story, or novel way to tease out a complex theme. I also believe that discussing how we organize and approach our classes helps us reflect and improve each other.

With this last point in mind, I’d love to hear some of your success stories and warnings from your own classes. What organizational methods have worked best for you? How do you decided when and where to jump between sports or athletes? Who are you favorite athletes to teach? Where would you begin?

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. His research focuses on American culture, politics, race, and the history of sports. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter:@admcgregor85

3 thoughts on “Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part 2 Organizing the Course

  1. Pingback: Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part 3 Designing Assignments | Sport in American History

  2. Pingback: Reflections on my “Teaching The Black Athlete” series | Andrew McGregor

  3. Pingback: Choosing Your Own Adventure: Teaching Sport History Online | Sport in American History

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