Food, Life, and Leisure: A CBFS Interview

African American youth exercising under the slogan “Victory through good health,” Washington, D.C., May 1943 (LOC)

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Robyn C. Spencer-Antoine with Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. On April 4th,  the CBFS hosted a discussion on “Food, Life, and Leisure.” Today we are highlighting the scholarship of three of the guests, Ava Purkiss, Theresa Runstedtler, and Bobby J. Smith II.

Ava Purkiss’ research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of race, gender, health, and the body. Her book, Fit Citizens: A History of Black Women’s Exercise from Post-Reconstruction to Postwar America (University of North Carolina Press, 2023), explores how African American women used physical exercise to express both literal and figurative fitness for citizenship. Her work places Black women squarely within the history of American fitness culture and challenges assumptions about Black women’s mobility, physicality, and corporality. Purkiss is at work on a second research project on race and gynecology in the twentieth century.

Purkiss earned her Ph.D. in History from the University of Texas at Austin and has received fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia, the American Association of University Women, and the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. She is the recipient of the 2017 Organization of American Historians Lerner-Scott Prize for Best Dissertation in U.S. Women’s History and the 2018 Letitia Woods Brown Prize for Best Article in African American Women’s History from the Association of Black Women Historians.

Theresa Runstedtler is a scholar of African American History whose research examines Black popular culture, with a particular focus on the intersection of race, masculinity, labor, and sport. Her critically acclaimed book, Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation That Saved the Soul of the NBA (Bold Type Books, 2023), examines how African American players transformed the professional hoops game, both on and off the court. She is the author of Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line (UC Press, 2012), an award-winning biography that traces the first African American world heavyweight champion’s legacy as a Black sporting hero and anticolonial icon in places as far-flung as Sydney, London, Cape Town, Manila, Paris, Havana, and Mexico City. Dr. Runstedtler has also published scholarly articles in the Radical History Review, the Journal of World History, American Studies, the Journal of American Ethnic History, the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, the Journal of Women’s History, and the Journal of African American History, and book chapters in City/Game: Basketball in New York,Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance Beyond Harlem, and In the Game: Race, Identity, and Sports in the Twentieth Century. She has written for and the LA Review of Books, and shared her expertise on the History Channel, Al Jazeera America,, NPR, and international radio outlets including the BBC and CBC.

Dr. Runstedtler was the inaugural Chair of Critical Race, Gender and Culture Studies from 2015-2018. In 2018-2019, she was a Visiting Faculty Fellow in the Inclusion Imperative Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Dresher Center for the Humanities. And she won an NEH Public Scholar fellowship to work on Black Ball in 2019-2020. Prof. Runstedtler offers courses on race and popular culture and African American History. She has taught at the University at Buffalo (SUNY) and at the University of Pennsylvania. Before returning to school to earn a PhD in History and African American Studies at Yale University, Dr. Runstedtler started out as a professional dancer/actress and then worked in public relations for a national sports network in Toronto, Canada.

Dr. Bobby J. Smith II is an interdisciplinary scholar of the African American agricultural and food experience. Trained as a sociologist, with a background in agricultural economics, Dr. Smith is an Assistant Professor in the Department of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with affiliations in the Department of Food Science & Human Nutrition and the Center for Social & Behavioral Science. His research program and teaching agenda cultivate an intellectual sphere and public space to interpret how Black people build agricultural and food systems amid inequalities that orbit the Black world. At the same time, Dr. Smith’s research and teaching illuminate how the building of agricultural and food systems by Black people reconfigures pre-existing conceptualizations of agriculture and food.

Dr. Smith is the author of Food Power Politics: The Food Story of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement (University of North Carolina (UNC) Press, 2023). Food Power Politics is the inaugural book of the newly launched Black Food Justice Series at UNC Press. Thinking with multiple disciplines including African American Studies, critical food studies, and agricultural science, Food Power Politics brings into focus how food was used as a weapon against African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, and how they fought back, creating their own food programs and systems. Interfacing archival data, in-depth interviews, and oral histories, Food Power Politics illuminates how the food dynamics of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement provide a pathway for understanding how Black youth today—in Mississippi and beyond—are building food justice movements, grappling with inequalities that attempt to shape their lives. Dr. Smith’s other writings appear in respected academic journals including Food, Culture, & Society, the premier journal in food studies, Agriculture and Human Values, a top journal for agricultural research in the social sciences, and Agricultural History, the journal of record among agricultural historians.

Dr. Smith earned a B.S. degree (summa cum laude) in Agriculture, with a focus on Agricultural Economics, from Prairie View A&M University in 2011. He earned a M.S. degree in Agricultural and Applied Economics in 2013 and a Ph.D. in Development Sociology in 2018 from Cornell University. Dr. Smith has been awarded fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute in partnership with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, among others. Deeply committed to public engagement, Dr. Smith was awarded the 2022-2023 Outstanding Service, Community Engagement, and Outreach Award in the Department of African American Studies.

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS): What led you to write your recent books?

Ava Purkiss (AP): I began thinking about the history of Black women’s exercise in graduate school. At the start of my graduate program, around 2010, I was interested in labor history—particularly African American domestic workers in the early twentieth century. As I was working on this subject, it dawned on me that historians have well-documented the various ways Black women have labored. Scholars have explored Black women’s work lives and labor struggles, examining how their bodies became corporal vessels for low-wage employment. I started thinking that we know less about how African American women “labored” for themselves, how their bodies operated as vessels of salubriousness and care, and how their physicality served non-work purposes. I became intrigued with the less-expected ways in which Black women used and moved their bodies. Obviously, exercise is not the only way to explore counterintuitive histories of Black women’s mobility, but I wondered specifically about Black histories of exercise and fitness because 1) there was no historical monograph written on the subject, 2) the words “fitness” and “exercise” were often used figuratively in African American History texts but not literally, and 3) several pro-exercise individuals and organizations (all of which were Black women or served Black women), like First Lady Michelle Obama, Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, GirlTrek, Black Girls RUN!, etc. were emerging at the same time but were not being linked and historicized. Once I started looking for archival and primary sources, I found a robust history of African American women’s fitness culture that (many years later) became Fit Citizens.

Theresa Runstedtler (TR): Although I never played elite basketball, I have a personal and longstanding connection to the NBA. Back in the mid-to-late ‘90s, I performed in the Toronto Raptors Dance Pak. Those three years (1996-1999) that I was part of the dance team, I saw the behind-the-scenes workings of the franchise. I’m a quiet person by nature, and an observer, so I took notice of a lot of things, especially the racial and labor dynamics of the NBA. In some respects, this book has been several decades in the making as I wanted to unpack what I observed in my early twenties as a college student just trying to pay my bills.

From a scholarly perspective, I originally started researching Len Bias. Bias was drafted second overall in 1986 by the NBA’s Boston Celtics, and less than two days later he died from a cocaine overdose. It struck me how quickly he became a symbol of Black drug crime, used by the Reagan Administration to push through more punitive drug laws. I wanted to know the pre-history to Bias’s story. Why was it common sense to make a Black ballplayer the center of the national moral panic over crack cocaine? As I dug into media reports from the preceding decade, I found that African American basketball players kept popping up in newspaper articles detailing their drug arrests (typically for minor possession) even in the early 1970s. From there I zoomed out to look at their struggles to be recognized and treated as professionals and as men, both on and off the court, and in the courts.

Bobby J. Smith II (BJS): As I wrote in the book, I unknowingly started the research process for Food Power Politics in the Spring of 2016, when I first encountered Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. At the time, I was a PhD student in the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University and in the early stages of developing my dissertation project on the food justice movement in Black communities. I came across Payne’s seminal text while taking a seminar on community organizing and development and I was selected to co-present on Payne’s book and make connections between the struggle for civil rights and my dissertation project. While reading through I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, I stopped abruptly in Chapter 5, specifically page 158, when I discovered a direct thread between civil rights and food justice in Black communities: the 1962-1963 Greenwood Food Blockade. Payne’s account of the Blockade was roughly ten pages and illuminated how food was used as a weapon of voter suppression and a mechanism of Black resistance during the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement. Those ten pages in Payne’s book laid the foundation for what I call the “food story of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement” and set me on the journey toward writing and completing Food Power Politics.

CBFS: Is there a story, person, or organization from your book that you would like to share about?

AP: I rarely focus on one person or a single organization for very long in the book, so it is hard to share one neat, cohesive story. Rather, Fit Citizens reflects what Elsa Barkley Brown describes in her 1991 “Polyrhythms and Improvisation: Lessons for Women’s History” article in which she contends that “history is everybody talking at once.” With this mode of storytelling in mind, the narrative I want to share is about the diversity of Black people who invested in fitness culture across regions, time, and ideological orientations. Some recognizable figures who appear in the book include Alice Dunbar Nelson, Mary McLeod Bethune, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington—they are all “talking at once” by collectively advocating for Black exercise. Other figures like Olivia Davidson (who helped to establish Tuskegee Institute and was married to Booker T. Washington), Mary P. Evans (the editor of Woman’s Era, a nineteenth-century Black women’s newspaper), and Freda De Knight (the food editor for Ebony magazine) are “talking at once” about exercise routines, low-calorie diets, fresh air, and abstention from drugs. There are also many unnamed Black people in the book, some of whom appear in photographs or wrote anonymously in Black magazines who are “talking at once” about their interests in physical fitness. These historical actors held different social and political commitments and varying visions of Black progress. Yet, in my book, they are united by their investments in Black fitness.

TR: One of the least well-known stories about the NBA is that it almost became the first North American professional sports league with a Black commissioner in 1975. However, the NBA’s all-white Board of Governors ultimately passed over Simon Gourdine (then Deputy Commissioner under Walter Kennedy) and appointed Lawrence O’Brien instead. Unlike most African Americans who moved into front-office positions at the time, Gourdine was not a former basketball player. He was an attorney who had managed to work his way through college (City College of New York) and law school (Fordham) and eventually maneuver his way into the executive suites of the NBA in the early 1970s. When he didn’t get the role of commissioner, Black athletes, sportswriters, and politicians expressed their outrage. New York state senator Carl McCall, a Black political pioneer in his own right, even called for a boycott of the league by Black players and ticket buyers, decrying the vertical segregation in professional sport (African Americans could be athletes on the court, but not decision-makers in the board room).

BJS: Mrs. L. C. Dorsey is the first person that comes to mind. Dorsey was one of the most important, yet consistently overlooked Black women activists and leaders in the struggle for civil rights in Mississippi. I begin and end chapter 3 of Food Power Politics with the words of Dorsey who was the only woman to ever lead the North Bolivar County Farm Cooperative which is the subject of the chapter. I want to lift up Dorsey, who passed away in 2013, because I learned so much from her as I wrote about her innovative thinking in connecting food and civil rights through the lives of local people who were carving out their own future in the agricultural economy of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta region of Mississippi. Dorsey’s leadership of the cooperative reconfigured both the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and the politics of food in Mississippi. She used her life as canvas for making social, political, and economic change and I hope that my book contributes to the amplification of her legacy and work. Indeed, Dorsey’s legacy and work continues to shine through the present work of Black youth in Mississippi—and beyond—who are now designing food systems as sources of hope and freedom.

CBFS: How do you think about the relationship of culture and everyday life to Black politics and the Black freedom struggle?

AP: Because exercise requires certain resources or abilities— public accommodations, outdoor space, energy, workout facilities, money, and time—it has often been connected to social and racial justice issues. African Americans have struggled to secure these resources since the modern exercise movement began in the late nineteenth century. Black people framed discrimination in physical education, recreational segregation, and outright exclusion from fitness institutions as civil rights violations and broader encroachments on their freedom. Black women worked to ensure that Black children could access places of exercise and recreation, like beaches, pools, parks, and playgrounds. They perceived these spaces as important sites of health, childhood development, and overall Black survival. Even during the Great Depression, when recreation would appear to be a trivial matter, women like Jane Edna Hunter used the Phillis Wheatley Association in Cleveland, OH, to provide playgrounds and summer camps to Black children. Some of the most contentious and violent civil rights battles in the twentieth century occurred at places where people exercised—pools and beaches. The places where people seek to remake themselves and their bodies, and the exercise activities performed in those places, have been vital to everyday Black politics and larger struggles for Black freedom.

TR: We often hear about sport as an exceptional space of fair play, a space where we can put politics to the side and just play. However, the same power dynamics that structure life beyond the court (race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, etc.), also structure what happens on the court. Just like music, performance, film, literature, and other forms of popular culture, sport provides an important lens through which to examine so many aspects of the enduring Black freedom struggle.

BJS: I think that the relationship between food, culture and everyday life is central to Black politics and the Black Freedom Struggle. In Food Power Politics, I demonstrate how Black communities deployed the strategies and tactics of civil rights to create innovative food systems as sites of economic and food security. Such historic food systems simultaneously reveal how the political realities of Black people shape their foodways and how food configures Black people’s political status and cultural importance. In many ways, I situate the Civil Rights Movement as a litmus test to illuminate how the relationship between food, culture and everyday life can be used to enhance Black politics and move the Black freedom struggle one step closer toward liberatory futures that enable Black people to control their entire lives. Futures that will be sustainable, equitable, and just.

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Lucien Baskin

Lucien Baskin is a doctoral student in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center, a fellow with Conversations in Black Freedom Studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and an instructor of Sociology at John Jay College. Their work focuses on social movements, the Black Radical Tradition, abolition, and education. Much of Lucien’s work is rooted in the City University of New York, including a dissertation project on radical organizing at CUNY in the era following Open Admissions. They are also at work on a project about Stuart Hall’s educational and pedagogical work and the institutional contexts of his radical intellectualism. They organize with Free CUNY and the Cops Off Campus Coalition, and have written about campus policing and abolitionist organizing in the university, including “Looking to Get Cops Off Your Campus? Start Here.” with Erica Meiners in Truthout, and “Abolitionist Study and Struggle in and beyond the University” in the Abusable Past.

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