Last week I looked at biographies of Black female athletes for older readers—and was largely disappointed at the way they depicted all females as defined by their looks, and Black females particularly as perennially unable to reach a male-set standard of beauty or female athleticism. This week I am looking at picture books to see how they present Black female athletes. Spoiler alert: books for older readers ought to look to picture book biographies as a model, as they are much less likely to concentrate on the female body in negative ways.
Interestingly, I found that books with photographs rather than illustrations to be more likely to focus on ideas of femininity and what a female athlete should be. Mark Stewart’s biography of Florence Griffith-Joyner (1996), part of the Grolier All-Pro Biographies series, is for a much younger audience than the Venus and Serena Williams biographies that I looked at last week (though perhaps not as young as a typical picture book audience—somewhere in between the two). However, like them, Stewart’s story opens with a focus on his subject’s urban environment: Griffith-Joyner was born “in the Watts section of Los Angeles, California . . . a poor but proud community comprised mostly of African-American families. During the 1960s, its residents protested against racial prejudice, and they often clashed with police” (8). And even more than the Williams sisters’ biographies, Stewart spends considerable time on Griffith-Joyner’s sense of “style,” describing the “explosive colors” of her outfits and “super-long fingernails” (31). There is even a two-page spread entitled “Designing Woman” (32-33), and a quotation from earlier Olympic medal-winner Wilma Rudolph in which she says that Griffith-Joyner “brings in the glamour” (37) to running. Stewart, according to the blurb about him at the end of the book, “is the author of every Grolier All-Pro Biography”—most of which are about men. That the white male author focuses so much of his time on Griffith-Joyner’s fashion sense, rather than her athleticism, is disappointing.
Like the biographies for older readers, the picture books I found in my university and local public libraries (I visited two branches) about Black female athletes mostly concerned tennis players and track and field stars. I’m sure a whole paper could be written on why this is; why Wilma Rudolph or Althea Gibson make better picture book subjects than the French skater Surya Bonaly or the American gymnast Dominique Dawes. However, for now I will focus on what I could find, rather than speculate on what I couldn’t. I want to start with a 2011 biography of Althea Gibson, written by Sue Stauffacher and illustrated by Greg Couch, both of whom are white Americans. The book’s title suggests an attitude toward Gibson that highlights attitudes toward Black female athletes trying to succeed in white society; the book is titled Nothing But Trouble. To be fair to Stauffacher and Couch, the book is exuberant (Couch’s illustrations which place a rainbow of color surrounding Gibson are quite striking) and make a concerted effort to highlight African-American success. But Gibson is portrayed, as were athletes in other biographies I’ve covered, as wanting to be like a man; she wants to be “Somebody big, like Charlie Parker or Sugar Ray” (n.p.). She is too wild to succeed in tennis until she meets jazz saxophonist Buddy Walker, who teaches her to conform to white society’s expectations: “With Buddy’s help, Althea realized she could dress up in white and act like a lady, and still beat the liver and lights out of the ball” (n.p.).
Many of the picture book sports biographies mention the difficulty of being a female athlete, as Stauffacher and Couch do. White author Heather Lang’s 2012 Queen of the Track, about Olympic high jump champion Alice Coachman does at least put gender inequality in historical context; Lang writes, “In the 1930s, running and jumping weren’t considered ladylike” (n.p.). And the rest of the text is relatively gender neutral—as in, if a reader imagines the book is about Albert rather than Alice, the text reads the same. There are no comments about fashion, no diminutive adjectives, no negative comparison of Coachman to either male athletes or “proper” ladies. The illustrations, by African-American artist Floyd Cooper, depict an athlete who knows how to use her body to purpose, whether she is in training clothes running, playing basketball in a dress, or dancing to jazz.
Another biography of Coachman for picture book readers, also by a white author, Ann Malaspina’s Touch the Sky (2011), is similarly structured, with an admonition from Coachman’s father to “Sit on the porch and be a lady” (n.p.) early on, but with no further suggestion that Coachman’s gender got in the way of her dreams. The text mentions Coachman’s long legs, but certainly not her outfits. The illustrations by African-Puerto Rican illustrator Eric Velazquez, depict Coachman as strong and powerful, including in a text-free double-page spread of Coachman at the Olympics. Both authors of these biographies write exclusively stories of strong women and social justice themes, according to their websites (http://www.heatherlangbooks.com/about/ and http://www.annmalaspina.com/bio.html); both illustrators are well-known for their depiction of African-American subjects. Compared with books written for older readers, exclusively by white male sports writers, or picture books written and illustrated by white people only, these books focus on the achievements of female athletes rather than their “too masculine” or “unladylike” bodies or their need for male role models.
I’d like to end my discussion of Black female athlete biographies with a book that is different from those I’ve discussed so far because it is written and illustrated by children—more specifically, multiracial schoolchildren in Manchester, UK. Britain’s Black Olympians (2012), published by the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Centre, contains biographies of male and female athletes, but there is no material difference in the text based on the athletes’ gender. The biography of middle distance runner Kelly Holmes, for example, argues that “Kelly was a very good runner because she trained all the time” (13). The child authors in this book tend to highlight hard work, persistence and training—not gender or fashion or even anything to do with the bodies of the athletes. Kelly Holmes is a good runner not because of her determination to be like a boy, her fashion sense, or even her legs, but because she trained all the time. And that is the best way to teach young readers how to be a good athlete.