An elevation through the body

The body has long been the point of crystallization of racial hatred. Nicolas Martin-Breteau shows how African-Americans were able to pull themselves together to make it a place for asserting collective strength.

This is an expected book that Nicolas Martin-Breteau publishes with the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. With Political bodies. Sport in the struggles of black Americans for equality since the end of the XIXe century, the historian makes accessible the materials and conclusions of his thesis (2013). This work takes its place, with a few others (we think for example of the recent work of Yann Descamps or Hakim Oualhaci and of course Loc Wacquant), in a French-speaking bibliography which nourishes the knowledge of American bodily practices. This is necessary to understand what sport represents in contemporary times, as the United States plays a key role in this area. Based on the case of Washington, the federal capital, Nicolas Martin-Breteau contributes in three directions: he gives a long-term perspective to the question of the place of sport in social struggles, too often addressed from the 1950s-1960s; he is interested in the making of a black sport, where the historiography focuses rather on cases of discrimination in major competitions; finally it questions the history of African-American sport via the strategies of racial elevation and the quest for respectability, in other words by situating it in the political debates which structure and polarize black minority words. The book progresses in three stages: 1890-1930 (the first African-American programs for elevation through sport and the advent of New Negro), 1920-1950 (the invention of a specific sporting tradition and the evolution towards militant positions), to finally question the second half of XXe century, when a materialist and structural reading of forms of domination redirects the investment in sporting practices (sparatism, but also attenuation of the role of sport in political struggles).

Ending the domination of bodies

Nicolas Martin-Breteau exposes the initial crux: the bodily dimension of the racial hatred suffered by Africanses-Americanes. Elsa Dorlin showed it: groups defined as minorities, prohibited from resorting to violence, undergo a domination which exerts primarily on the body. For Black Americans, the answers are multiple, from nonviolent resistance to the choice of self-defense. Nicolas Martin-Breteau shows how in this context a strategy of bodily elevation is born, making virility, femininity, and more generally the vitality, beauty and dignity of the black body crucial issues in their liberation struggles (p. 15). Thus sport and, more broadly, physical performance contribute to the affirmation of a body worthy for stigmatized populations, excluded from legitimate public conversation. the opposite of stereotypes about qualities natural of the black body which would explain the place of choice occupied by African athleteses-americanAt the highest level of competition, Nicolas Martin-Breteau recounts their slow conquest of the sporting field in a racialized framework, a priori designed for the triumph of the white athletic body.

Overflowing upstream, after Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, the chronologies which generally question the civil rights movement from the mid-1950s (Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education1954, and the Montgomery bus boycott, 1955-1956), Nicolas Martin-Breteau offers a convincing perspective that seeks the end of XIXe century the roots of African-American sporting engagement. His investigation is based on a significant analysis of archives, which allows us to understand the establishment of specific supervision and education structures, such as black Young Men and Women Christian Associations, and to understand the evolution of conceptions and representations of sporting practices within African-American elites. Because from the 1890s, a fascinating debate emerged, which this book presents. In response to racial prejudice thought of as a psychological trait, it is, for African-Americans, about demonstrating black dignity and thus hoping to educate the white gaze. Body attire is a non-verbal form of speakingsport a new way of elevation of the race, making it possible to incorporate a character and to aim for moral, physical, intellectual perfection. In short, self-transformation appears at the time to be the surest way to change, in return, the outlook of others. This strategy of racial upliftresponse to the racist and supremacist counter-revolution of the end of the XIXe century, was shared by reformists like Booker T. Washington or Martin Luther King, but also by radical activists, like WEB Du Bois or Marcus Garvey.

An athletic black body

Political bodies highlights activistses and the numerous structures educational establishments, universities, newspapers, clubs which occupy the sports field from the end of the XIXe century, carving a story focused on the stars of the stadiums. The author can be criticized for his biographical reflex, which pushes him to detail the lives of shadowy actors and actresses in African-American sport, without always aiming for synthesis. Central, the figure of Edwin B. Henderson is mobilized throughout the demonstration, which allows the historian to measure the evolution of the debate, within the African-American elites, on the place devoted to sport, its learning and its practice. The book also focuses on gender divisions (chapters 2 and 3) and the way in which the strategy of racial elevation more readily grants a place to women around that on the fields. The interwar period was thus the era of beauty queens and beautiful matcheswhile a new education is being developed, which combines correction and self-elevation for young girls: ways of walking, going up and down stairs, bending, sitting like actresses, but also taking care of hair, forehead, eyes, mouth, chin, ears, teeth, neck , shoulders, arms, hands, bust, stomach, waist, hips, thighs, skin (p. 119). The correct posture is everyday work can affirm Maryrose R. Allen, director of the department of physical education for women at Howard University, the Black Harvard of Washington.

In line with the social and memorial practices which ensured the perpetuation of the first Anglo-European athletic structures, black sport manages to invent its own tradition, with its flagship meetings. Opposing Howard and Lincoln, the African-American University of Philadelphia, the Football Classic became a highlight of the African-American sports calendar after the First World War, attracting tens of thousands of spectatorsices. Some criticisms are already appearing, which will echo positions more widely shared in the second half of the century: thus for WEB du Bois, competition, a heartbreaking spectacle, distracts black elites from real struggles. But for Judge William H. Hastie and professors of physical anthropology and medicine W. Montague Cobb and Charles Drew, three black intellectuals at the forefront of the civil rights movement, self-fortification is necessary to become a leader of the breed. The trajectory of these men, trained in different physical practices, proves how sporting success is a major asset in the rise to the forefront of African-American figures.

Sports desegregation

If Washington is a particularly interesting area, it is because both the capital of the free world and the federal capital, the city concentrates and reveals the political tensions of the country. Truman (1945-1953) and Eisenhower (1953-1961) confirmed the desire of the federal state to make the city the showcase of peaceful race relations (p. 198), but the municipality, against the intentions of Congress, seeks to preserve the segregation of leisure spaces. At the outbreak of World War II, Washington's recreational system was split in two, between places accessible to all and others racially segregated., managed by the municipality. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) engages in a fight against segregation, compared by activistses to Nazi practices. Nicolas Martin-Breteau shows how this struggle which culminated in 1954 with the desegregation of these spaces made it possible to free ourselves from the usual chronologies of the fight against racial segregation, which on the contrary made 1954 a starting point, when the unconstitutional character of segregation was admitted. school.

After the Second World War, a consensus was established in American society, which considered sport as a means of social democratization, with a few black athletes as ambassadors. Adored by the African-American middle class, the great baseball player Jackie Robinson opposed the social separatism advocated by Malcolm desegregation of the local professional football team, while the major leagues opened up to racialized players (1947 for baseball, 1950 for basketball). The sport, total democratic performanceallow to think concretely about the advance of racial progress (p. 263). But the years 1960-1970, with the growth of the movement Black Power, offer a renewal of the terms of the debate. For the most radical and the most radical, the politics of elevation of the race is considered reactionary, considered as a accommodation white supremacy. This is because racism is now thought of as a structure, and the attraction of the black middle classes to sport as a trivial artifice to integrate the white world at all costs. Our proof (that racial prejudice is false) accomplishes nothing concludes Marxist sociologist Oliver C. Cox, the issue is the control of power. Therefore, what place should be given to sport in the struggles? Campuses appear to be major places of expression of protest, with, as reinforcement, leading figures such as Mohammed Ali, invited for a conference at Howard University in 1967. The year is that of a athletic revolution, and student athletes oppose their white administration and coaches to demand an end to discrimination on campus. The following year, the debates took over the international sporting scene.

The Mexico Games are marked by famous actions, such as the giant fists raised by John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the 200 meter podium. The question of sport as new slave trade and space of symbolic domination of Africanses-Americanes, is posed, as is questioned myth consisting of using sport as a means to educate racialized youth from poor neighborhoods. Here we find terms which fuel the debate on the question of sport and minorities in the years to follow.

The work of Nicolas Martin-Breteau shows how the sequence 1890-1960, largely obscured by historiography or swept aside by later militant movements, helps decisively transform the question of sport among It also offers, through the sporting question, a synthesis of scholarly approaches which have made it possible to think about the body and the black question (Oliver C. Cox, Nathan Hare in particular), little used in French-speaking work on bodily practices. We understand the inversion which gradually occurs in social representations: first judged unfit for the stadium, the Brown Supermenas soon as they excel on the field after a long-term collective investment, are judged intellectually inferior.

Since the publication of the book in 2020, the sports movement has been won by the wave Black Lives Matter. The work of Nicolas Martin-Breteau allows us to grasp these recent events over a long period of time and to understand the great variety of forms and conceptions of sporting commitment. Here, sport appears as a material of unprecedented richness, and as a place of first-rate observation for those who want to understand the struggles for emancipation and the political imagination that constitutes the black athletic body.