Changing The Game: Why I Never Learned About Black Female Athletes

Long Photography/USA TODAY Sports

Basketball great Cheryl Miller at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in the 1980s.

In honor of Black History Month, espnW is running a weekly personal essay about the influence of black female athletes. 

A people's pride and prejudices are deeply entwined with the presentation of their pasts. This is what distinguished black author Carter G. Woodson understood when he created Black History Month in 1926, which was originally called "Negro History Week." He noticed that the contributions of African-Americans to history were being overlooked, ignored and even suppressed. So Woodson decided that a documentation of blacks in history was the best way to preserve for a better future. Black History Month became a time for the accomplishments of African-Americans to be recognized.

But even the best visions have their blind spots. While Black History Month provides us with the opportunity to acknowledge the many ways in which black bodies embody excellence, all bodies aren't equally recognized. This is especially true when discussing black female athletes.

Growing up, I was never expected to know much about black women athletes. I was never expected to know that Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. I was never expected to know that Alice Coachman in 1948 was the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Nor was I ever expected to know that Cheryl Miller -- sister of Hall of Fame Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller -- set a national high school record for scoring 105 points in a game. Or that it was Cheryl who schooled her brother in the game of basketball, forcing him to develop the high-arching shot he became known, loved, and hated for -- depending on who you ask -- during his career.

Photo by John Midgley

Yahdon Israel

In my mind, sports was a "man's thing." And since the days of Jackie Robinson -- one black body having to prove to white bodies that they could play -- had long been over, and since nearly every major sport is dominated by black male bodies, sports became by de facto a "black man's thing." Knowing the stats and accolades of black male athletes was, then, a rite of passage. It was a way of inserting yourself into the conversation of black men who often relegated us, boys, to the passive act of listening. That no, it wasn't Game 1 of the 1995 semi-finals, that Reggie Miller taunted filmmaker Spike Lee with the pantomimed choking gesture, scoring 8 points in 9 seconds to win by 2; it was Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, where he scored 25 points in the 4th quarter. By proving you knew more than the men, this is how you were heard.

It was only after writing this piece that I realized the debates and conversations that colored my understanding of sports, I had never been listening to the men speaking -- I was only waiting for my turn to talk. Had I been paying attention, I would've observed how many hours were spent hashing out the greatest black athletes without ever considering a woman.

But maybe, if I'd been expected to know how black female athletes contributed to sports, I'd appreciate them more. Maybe I'd know Flo-Jo for more than her illustrious manicures. And Laila Ali for more than the fact that she's Muhammad Ali's daughter. I'd remember her impressive 24-0 record, without Googling it. Maybe I would have fought as hard for black female athletes off the court as I've done for men, but I don't.

This is the point and the problem.

Yahdon Israel writes about race, class, gender and culture in American society. He has written for Avidly, The New Inquiry, Guernica and LitHub. He runs a popular Instagram page, which promotes literary culture as style with the hashtag "#literaryswag."

For the first week's essay about growing up idolizing Flo-Jo, click here.

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