Review of: The Culture of Sports in the Harlem Renaissance

Anderson, Daniel. The Culture of Sports in the Harlem Renaissance. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017. Pp. 220. Notes, bibliography, and index. $35.00 softcover.

Reviewed by Andrew McGregor

The Harlem Renaissance is frequently described as a flowering of African American social, cultural, and artistic expression. It also reflected an important intellectual moment, marked by radicalism and the influence of Caribbean immigrants, that fostered debates about “culture” as a concept and tool of social uplift. The leading figures of this period comprised a somewhat elitist intelligentsia, often connected to W.E.B. Du Bois “talented tenth.” Although in recent years scholars have greatly expanded the purview of the Harlem Renaissance, Daniel Anderson argues that they still “overlook the popularity and influence of sports.” (9). His new book The Culture of Sports in the Harlem Renaissance attempts to correct this omission by exploring what many of the period’s leading thinkers and writers thought about athletics and how the black press used sports to communicate to a broad audience about political and economic issues. The book seeks to position sport within notions of “culture” prevalent during the period and show that it was far from absent.

McFarland, 2017.

Anderson divides the text into two parts. The first half sets the stage, looking at sport’s place within the African American intellectual tradition. Titled “Literature and the Harlem Intelligentsia,” the section’s four chapters focus primarily on prominent writers of the period as well as a few influential intellectuals, whose work remained relevant. This includes the likes of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Claude McKay.

The first chapter explores the dialectic between work and play and how it affected views of sport and its value as a form of proper “culture.” Anderson frames much of this debate within the context of larger disagreements between Du Bois and Washington, particularly in regard to education and discipline. While both saw work as a central component of culture, Du Bois saw “play” and the amusement of sport as complimentary whereas Washington considered them a distraction. To be sure, Du Bois did not fully embrace the sports. He was interested in the character of athletes and their achievements, but less so in sport more broadly. Anderson uses this debate to frame the attitudes of many Harlem Renaissance era intellectuals, who largely ignored athletics and struggled to take them seriously. In later chapters, this dichotomy underscores the difference between the approaches of certain African American newspapers.

Chapter two uses the Negro Leagues to further explore the elitism of the era’s intelligentsia and parse out Du Bois and Washington’s ideas. Anderson notes that despite much of the Harlem Renaissance’s purported goals to reflect and describe the experience of the black middle class, sports are surprisingly absent. He points to Alain Locke’s seminal anthology The New Negro as one such work that notably overlooks the Negro Leagues. This was endemic of the mood of the era where some players eschewed the fame of athletic careers because they lacked respectability. Here, Anderson analyzes Franklin Frazier’s writings and suggests that a muddled elitism reflected Du Bois’ call for a balance of work and play and only embraced sport based on the context, purpose, and character of the competition. The Negro Leagues squirmed uncomfortably within this outlook, though Negro National League founder Rube Foster seemed to incorporate a seriousness grounded in professionalism aimed at educating his players that would have pleased both Du Bois and Washington.

Next Anderson shows how writers, such as Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman, who wrote about “Black Bohemia,” largely ignored sport despite its overwhelming presence in the social life of Harlem, particularly basketball. He argues that this absence and their trace references to sport are significant. The bulk of the chapter, however, focuses on the writing of Claude McKay. Using the Weberian “iron cage” metaphor, Anderson shows how McKay struggled to locate the value of sport. Reflecting his early Marxist views, he frequently saw sport, particularly boxing, as a means of exploitation and often as a tool to emphasize racial difference. Yet, in its informal elements, such as seedy gambling parlors, McKay believed the sport could offer freedom and pleasure. For McKay sport could serve as both the cage and the escape for African American athletes, depending on its context.

Unlike many of the writers Anderson analyzes in the early chapters of his book, James Weldon Johnson frequently wrote about sport. It is a subject that he incorporated in his columns as well as his longer works, such as Black Manhattan and Along This Way, which are explored in chapter four. Johnson positioned sports alongside the theater as similar popular amusements, and much of his writing focused on distinctive African American style and performative elements of play rather than the outcome of contests. Like McKay he linked sport to a subculture that connected athletes and artists. Yet, he preferred boxing (and other individual sports) to baseball because it seemed to more clearly pave a path toward integration rather than mimic white structures at the expense of unique black playing styles (which was his critique of the Negro Leagues).

Johnson serves as a smooth transition to Part II, which looks at “Sportswriting and the Harlem Press.” The four chapters in this section discuss the era’s leading sportswriters and publications. Anderson offers an overview of what sportswriting looked liked during this period, connecting it to the explosion of sports coverage in the white press during the “Golden Age of Sports.” Yet, while the white press began to specialize with sport-centric journalists who no longer had to work another beat, the black press could not afford that luxury. Sports and theater coverage often fell under the purview of the same editor, who might also report on other local matters. This meant that sportswriters remained conversant in many social and political issues and incorporated them into their columns. Anderson outlines these features in chapter five, noting the importance of sports to the popularity of black newspapers. This resulted in both more attention paid to sports than by intellectuals and other writers as well as a more serious approach to sports and a discussion of their cultural importance.

Anderson digs more deeply into the Harlem press in chapter six, surveying several of the major newspapers, such as the New York Age, Amsterdam News, and The Interstate-Tattler. He identifies their perspectives, arguing that the sports page frequently debated the role and importance of sports using the intellectual and political traditions of figures like Washington, Du Bois, and Garvey. This created several rivalries and frequent squabbling among the papers and their sports editors. The Age was the least radical, publishing mostly game stories rather than editorials and praising the character of athletes and admonishing the vice commonly associated with sports. The Interstate-Tattler, on the other hand, was the most radical frequently reflecting Garveyite principles. Anderson focuses on Bennie Butler and Al Moses, who both served as sports editor for the paper. He contrasts their writing with sports editors of other papers, such as Sol White, James Weldon Johnson, and Romeo Dougherty, providing a snapshot of how their sports coverage fit into the cultural milieu of the Harlem Renaissance.

The final two chapters discuss Romeo Dougherty, who was considered the “Dean of Negro Sports Writers,” and had a forty-year career working for a handful of publications (141). Chapter seven explores his early career and connects him with other Caribbean born figures that had an outsized influence on the Harlem Renaissance. Early in his career, Dougherty seemed to move with relative ease from paper to paper without regard for intellectual perspective. Anderson characterizes him as a “race first” writer, who saw sport as a community institution, and seldom wrote on class. His ambition caused him to be somewhat of a chameleon, writing a novella while working for the Crusader and then partially embracing Garveyism to work for the short-lived, the Negro Daily Times.  

He spent the bulk of his career, however, at the Amsterdam News where he frequently served more as a promoter than a critic, which later clouded his judgment and got in the way of his “race first” mentality. Dougherty was close with Bob Douglas, the owner and manager of the Harlem Renaissance Big Five, and favored basketball as an African American pastime. As Anderson shows in chapter eight, his promotional efforts got him into trouble as he feuded with Cumberland Posey about basketball and interjected himself into a Negro Leagues dispute between Rube Foster and Ed Bolden. Still, Dougherty had significant influence and helped shape sportswriting, making it more serious. Unlike others during the period, he saw a transformative value in sport and popular culture.

Anderson concludes the book with a brief epilogue. In it he debates the endpoint of the Harlem Renaissance and explores how Arna Bontemps and Sterling Brown both assert the importance of sports to “culture” and African American life shortly after the period ends. Like the era’s sportswriters, they saw “that writing and sports, like literature and popular culture, were intrinsically linked rather than diametrically opposed” (186).

For such a short book, Anderson covers an impressive amount of ground. The narrative flows naturally, building on previous concepts and referring to their saliency in later debates. The text also includes lots of names, ideas, and networks, painting a picture of how sport was viewed and treated by intellectuals and sportswriters alike during the Harlem Renaissance. This can be confusing, however, especially to those without a strong command of the intellectual traditions and perspectives of many of the era’s writers. Furthermore, because the book places sports within the cultural milieu of the Harlem Renaissance and explains where and how various columnists, editors, and newspapers fit within its ideological framework, it requires careful attention to the broader historiography of the period.

While the book certainly engages in sport history, it most clearly fits within the interdisciplinary African American Studies tradition in how it directly engages and situate sports within African American thought, broadens our understanding of the black experience during the Harlem Renaissance, and provides a thorough survey of the black press. Considering that Anderson is a professor of English and director of the American Studies program at Dominican University, this should come as no surprise. He admits in the preface that the work’s “primary focus is literary,” which foregrounds his focus on writers and thinkers rather than athletes and teams (1).

There are parts of the book, however, that may be frustrating to sport historians. Anderson rarely describes games, eschewing the details of sports competitions, leagues, and personalities during the Harlem Renaissance. Some of this is due the lack of box scores, particularly for out of town games, but it’s mostly a product of his focus on sportswriters in relation to the perspectives and positions of other thinkers during the period. In this way, much of Anderson’s book attempts to position and connect sports to the intellectual ideas and aesthetics of the Harlem Renaissance rather than discuss the sports culture of Harlem. For example, while he mentions the Harlem Renaissance Big Five and a few New York based Negro League’s teams, he does not talk about the atmosphere they created within the city or the thoughts and impressions of their fans. Moreover, because of Anderson’s literary focus, some of the works he analyzes do not deal with sport, though they contribute to the understanding of specific writer’s perspective.

Still, The Culture of Sports in the Harlem Renaissance is an important book that connects the fields of English, African American Studies, and intellectual history with sport history. It shows how black sportswriters facilitated intellectual conversations that considered the value, role, and place of sport in African American life and made the Harlem Renaissance accessible to more people, shaping the outlook of black Americans for generations to come. Anderson succeeds in demonstrating the influence of sports during this period and highlights the need for more serious study of the relationship between sports and intellectual culture.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African American studies. He is also the founder and co-editor of this blog. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter: @admcgregor85.

One thought on “Review of: The Culture of Sports in the Harlem Renaissance

  1. Pingback: Reviving The Big City Sports Page: Sports Biblio Digest 7.23.17 | Sports Biblio

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