Review of (Re)Presenting Wilma Rudolph

Liberti, Rita, and Smith, Maureen M. (Re)Presenting Wilma Rudolph. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015. Pp. xi+338. Notes, bibliography, and index. $39.95 paperback.

 Reviewed by Cathryn Lucas

representingLively debate about epistemology and methodology abound in sport history. Despite being cast as a stick in the mud by other disciplines recently, there are a number of sport historians and sport studies scholars thinking and rethinking what history is and how we do it. Interested in cultural meaning and the processes that solidify certain versions of history at the expense of others, Rita Liberti and Maureen M. Smith provide a delightfully engaging analysis of what can often be a frustrating cycle of collective memory in their monograph (Re)Presenting Wilma Rudolph. They actively reconsider what a biography is and provide an excellent study upon which we can ponder the processes of historical analysis.

Liberti and Smith chose topics specifically to highlight the “range of ways meaning was constructed” (p. 11) around Rudolph’s life. In the introduction, Liberti and Smith lay the foundation for their project through an exploration of obituaries written to “tell Rudolph’s life story, in a brief format, highlighting the stories, the ‘facts’ for which she is worth being remembered and mourned” (p. 6). These facts of Rudolph’s life, some of which are simply untrue, continue to be told today. It is not the facts themselves that Liberti and Smith are interested in, but rather, how stories circulate and come to have meaning, how we collectively remember things, and who benefits from these stories and memorialization. They continue to explore these questions throughout the monograph as they examine the “narrow range of tales that continually re-circulate around the former track star” (p. 3).

From film to autobiography and children’s literature, from news stories to parades and physical monuments, Liberti and Smith explore various sites of memory in the seven content chapters. The chapters are “woven around particular events, themes, or specific source material” (p. 11), and within each, Liberti and Smith engage across scholarly disciples and with wide variety of primary sources. In this way, Liberti and Smith write into being their assertion that cultural history includes interpretation and interrogation of meaning and power relationships.

The first content chapter is about the “Welcome Wilma Day” celebration organized by Rudolph’s hometown Clarksville, TN, upon her return from her triple-gold-medal-winning performance at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Liberti and Smith examine how the news media constructed the events as “active, ever-evolving versions… of the past to fit with the present” (p. 27). Despite Clarksville’s history of Jim Crow laws, segregation, and inequitable wealth distribution (African American women earned just 13% of the income of white men), Welcome Wilma Day was an integrated affair. Black and white people attended a parade and dinner side-by-side. Local and regional news outlets used this as a way to paint Clarksville as a progressive and forward thinking town. In doing so, as Liberti and Smith argue, they “offered up a version of the past that served to mark race relations in nostalgic and benign ways, legitimizing white hegemony as it minimized white culpability for a system of injustice and brutality” (p. 41).

Always keeping race and gender connected in their analysis, Liberti and Smith consistently interrogate interlocking systems of oppression. In the second content chapter, they examine the politics of race and beauty in the coverage of Rudolph as she was paired with and compared to other athletes and black women celebrities. On the one hand, coverage of Rudolph as “pretty,” “graceful,” and “sophisticated” marked a sea-change from dominant notions of African American womanhood which “were continually framed by whites as beyond the bounds of the acceptable notions of femininity” (p. 44). According to several sports writers, Rudolph evolved from an “untalkative speedster” to a press savvy “gracious lady” in the years following her success at the 1960 Olympic Games. This perceived difference in personality elevated her status in their eyes because “Eurocentric beauty standards remained the barometer against which black women were measured” (p. 47). Coverage of Rudolph frequently included descriptions of her physical appearance, and she was often compared to large, African American shotputter Earlene Brown or thin, white “blonde bombshell” swimmer Chris von Saltza. Through these comparisons, and because positive coverage of women athletes was dependent upon their “feminine” physical appearance (read: white, thin, and pretty), it became clear that “Rudolph embodied many of the physical characteristics to enable her crossover appeal with white, male audiences” (p. 47).

The third content chapter follows closely on the heels of the second as Liberti and Smith examine the ways Rudolph’s life story was constructed as a success story that fit neatly into a national Cold War narrative of exceptionalism. Like the Clarksville local and regional news outlets did with did with Welcome Wilma Day, national news outlets and the government itself framed Rudolph’s success as proof of American progress and “its democratic principles in action” (p. 84). The United States Information Agency (USIA) produced a film about Rudolph and her life at Tennessee State University that erased all signs of racialized segregation and its subsequent wealth gaps and unequal life opportunities. Liberti and Smith argue that this sanitized portrayal of TSU “stood in contrast to powerful violent images being circulated around the world of African Americans unable to gain full and unfettered access to higher education” (p. 85).

Like letters to the editor from black Clarksvillians who pushed back against the city’s systemic racism, the black press critiqued dominant narratives about Cold War nationalism and American progress. Outlining the segregationist status quo, many members of the black press argued that the US would have already beat Russia (in both athletics and more abstract nationalistic competitions) if African Americans were allowed to reach their full potential. They argued that America was not what white writers imagined it to be, and could never be with legal racialized segregation. Rudolph went from “Cold War Icon” to “Civil Rights Rebel” when she and several others attempted to eat in a segregated Shoney’s restaurant in 1963. Whether too painful for her to recollect, as Rudolph explained in a sworn court testimony, or for other reasons, this protest is largely and consistently absent from re-tellings of Rudolph’s life. The incident disrupts the simple, rags-to-riches life story of individual achievement that Liberti and Smith examine throughout the monograph.

Chapters four, five, and six all deal specifically with official biographical accounts of Rudolph’s life. Chapter four addresses her autobiography, five addresses a Bud Greeenspan directed biopic, and six addresses children’s books which provide biographical sketches. In these chapters, Liberti and Smith contend with memory and power, asking what is forgotten, what is remembered, and what is obscured in these processes. They argue, “Rudolph’s efforts to produce ‘the self’ are in constant negotiation with any number of cultural assumptions about blackness, femaleness, and other forms of identity” (p. 107). This is clearly evident in chapter five when Liberti and Smith outline the centralization of men in Rudolph’s biopic (chapter five) and the construction of binarized normalcy and disability where Rudolph’s childhood disabilities mark her as abnormal and are ultimately framed as an obstacle to overcome in her quest for normalcy (chapter six).

While each chapter certainly has its own themes and important analytical content, the overall analytic power is somewhat lost in the redundant and predictable collective retellings of Rudolph’s life as a rags-to-riches story of individual success. Of course, it is not Liberti and Smith’s fault that such narrow versions of her life story continue to circulate. That said, it would have been interesting if Liberti & Smith broke with their chapter organization based on each site of memory to consider the politics of autobiography, biopics, and biographical children’s books comparatively.

The final content chapter brings us full circle to Rudolph’s death, examining the processes of commemoration and memorialization through a variety of spaces and material culture such as statues, stamps, state historical markers, and re-named highways. In memorializing her, Clarksville and other governmental agencies had to contend with their segregationist pasts and racialized presents, questioning if they’ve really made the progress they claim. Therefore, the monuments memorializing Rudolph are more about the kind of place Clarksville imagines itself to be than they are about her memory. Ultimately, Liberti and Smith argue that “the process of commemoration marginalizes Rudolph, in both symbolic and structural ways, as much as it pays homage [to her]” (p. 187).

Like so often happens with US celebrities and sporting greats, Rudolph has not been allowed complexity in our collective memory. And yet, Liberti and Smith remind us that memory is never static and that memories often tell us more about the contemporary moment rather than the moment being remembered. They argue, “Memories shift and can signal undercurrents of change in relation to cultural power” (p. 41).

The field of sport history has begun to take its cultural turn, as Liberti and Smith observe, “too slow for some and much too quick for others” (p. 2). Being one of the former camp, I found myself wishing for a bit more direct theory building. But, alas, that is not their intent. They stake out spaces and topics that sport historians tend to ignore, doing the analytical work of interpretation and interrogation while arguing for more of this kind of work. The breadth and depth of their analysis is quite remarkable as they engage with feminist studies, critical race studies, disability studies, and the fields of biography and collective memory. It is in their writing and analysis that they outline exactly why and how cultural sport history might be done.

Cathryn Lucas is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Iowa. Cathryn is interested in historical methodology and research processes. Cathryn can be reached at cathryn-lucas@uiowa.edu or @Cathryn_lucas on twitter.

2 thoughts on “Review of (Re)Presenting Wilma Rudolph

  1. 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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