My lovely friend Cari kindly picked me up this book at a signing event in New York, before it was available in the US, and had Désir sign it for me: “Liz, I hope this book moves you to action!” See below: I’ve done my best so far …

This is such an important book, detailing life as a Black runner in the US. I would like to find a similar work written about the UK, as I like to concentrate my social justice orientated reading around my own country’s cultures first, however I’ve not been able to find anything. If you know of a UK or Europe-centric book on running while Black, please let me know (I share the results of my search so far below). In the meantime, there was a huge amount of value in this book, of course – and a lot of areas which apply to both countries.

Alison Mariella Désir – “Running While Black: Finding Freedom in a Sport that Wasn’t Built for Us”

(6 December 2022, from Cari)

It’s 6:00 p.m. and I’m getting ready for a run. I add electrolytes into my water and shuffle through my drawer. I toss clothes around, searching for an appropriate outfit. It’s unseasonably warm, so it might be nice to rock a sports bra and shorts, but I shake my head. I want to be seen as a runner, but I don’t want to call extra attention to myself. I settle on a bright, long-sleeved shirt with reflective bands, a shirt that screams ‘I’m running! Don’t shoot!’

As I dress, I debate my route. I could head toward the trail. But then I’d pass the house with the American flag and start wondering if it’s safe, and then I’d be annoyed that white nationalists have somehow claimed the flag, as if the rest of us aren’t Americans, too. Oh, and that street also has the house with the oversized pickup truck. Dammit. I tell myself to stop generalizing but decide it’s not worth the risk or the stress. I’ll go right, down the street that parallels the lake and once I hit the halfway mileage point, I’ll loop back, and easy out and back. Yes, good, that’s it. The route has a pretty view of the mountains and the (white) woman picking up her mail the other day waved at me. (pp. 1-2)

That’s a long quote and I hope the author doesn’t mind me using it. There’s more: she turns on her tracker so her husband can track her (but will that be any use if a white vigilante tries to kill her. She starts her run and someone in a truck with a “Trump won” flag on the back yells abuse at her. Yes, I try to keep aware of intersectionality and the overlap of sexism and racism. But reading this, I found myself having the same reaction one of my male friends probably had when I explained the stuff about not walking down dark pavements, always holding your keys between your knuckles and humming in case you need to scream that women are so used to doing. Sometimes you need to be directly told this stuff, and it hits hard.

This is a generally positive book. Désir is really honest on her feelings about white people and her experiences of both racism from white people and sexism from all sorts of people (the other running clubs in New York are so toxic to her!) as she works hard to build up Harlem Run, her first social action endeavour, going from being the only Black person in some training groups to the only person full stop at her early gatherings. But she persisted and built up an excellent, supportive running club, giving that representation out on the streets that will encourage other Black people to run (she got into distance running after seeing just one Black friend’s efforts: she had been directed towards sprinting at school, as is a common experience in the US (not sure about the UK and haven’t found anything about that yet). She manages to work in all areas of experience, including work and maternity care, but the book is never muddled and doesn’t suffer from having to shoehorn too much in.

The main thrust of the book is the comparison between running history and the human rights movement, with so many things happening in parallel. She also shares a lot of excellent information about Black running forebears (again in the US; Ted Corbitt and others) who have been forgotten or passed over, on the whole intentionally by those who knew, and not researched by those who don’t, by the majority-white running community, running marathons, starting clubs, breaking records … So as well as a personal memoir, an exemplar on how to harness sport for societal good and a call to action, it’s a work of historical record.

Désir is great at relating the personal to the larger picture, her experiences not seeing anyone but white people in adverts and companies being seamlessly related to the white supremacy of society in general. It was wince-making when she talked about the initiative she was asked to be part of to increase diversity in running brands and how much of the work she was expected to do to educate white folks when the books are out there (like this one) for us to educate ourselves. There is no list of what to do but examples all the way through: welcome people, do the work quietly to understand racism, create a space for people to be their true selves and if that’s not in your space, use your white privilege to support them to find their own spaces (quite a lot of the Black running organisations have donation pages, for example) and share and amplify articles and links in your own networks. I had been quite upset to find all these global majority people’s organisations springing up, but to be honest, if you’re done with white supremacy and the exhaustion of educating people, why shouldn’t you have your own space to be freely and frankly yourself?

Of course, it’s a running book, so we get the training stuff, the setting up a running club stuff, and even a weird ultra when Désir and friends ran to the Women’s March in Washington DC from Harlem – although with a twist, as the participants bring their own snacks according to their taste, rather than the white runners’ gels and bars: “Like everything else about running culture, those foods had been selected according to a white palate. It was refreshing to have the rules disrupted” (p. 127).

An important and very valuable book, and as racism is done differently (not less) in the UK and our ethnic mix is slightly different, I look forward to UK books by global majority people in the fullness of time.

You can read Cari’s review here (she has links to Désir’s articles, too). So far in my research I have found this useful article from the UK Runner’s World Magazine which looks at “Why (and how) running and other mass participation sports need to be more diverse” and links to a lot of organisations and research, the organisations including Black Trail Runners, who are active in the West Midlands, and the even more local Saheli Hub, who support British Asian women in cycling and running.