A NOTE FROM JON ENTINE
Shortly before his death, I had the pleasure of talking with Arthur Ashe, Jr., one of the most gentlemanly of athletes. The former Wimbledon champion was finishing A Hard Road to Glory, his sweeping history of the black athlete. Inevitably, the subject turned to the controversy of why blacks dominated running, basketball, and football. His book had provided endless anecdotes about the very American dream of bootstrapping oneself to success. Still, Ashe did not find that explanation totally convincing. "Sociology can't explain it," Ashe sighed, frustrated at the political incorrectness of his own beliefs. "My heart says 'no,' but my head says 'yes.' I have to believe that we blacks have something that gives us an edge. I want to hear from the scientists."
Taboo is a response to Arthur's challenge. Sportsórunning in particularóis a perfect laboratory. Athletic competition offers a definitiveness that eludes most other aspects of our life. The favored explanation for black athletic success, a dearth of opportunities elsewhere and hard workójust do not suffice to explain the dimensions of this expanding monopoly. The decisive variable cannot be found in modern culture but in our genesóthe inherent differences between populations shaped by thousands of years of evolution. Physical and physiological differences, infinitesimal as they may appear, are crucial in competitions in which a fraction of a second separates the gold medalist from the also-ran.
This is of course dangerous territory. Fascination about black physicality, and black anger about being caricatured as a lesser human being, have been part of the dark side of the American dialogue on race for more than a century. Taboo respects these justifiable concerns. Yet, pretending there are no slippery questions does not prevent them from being asked, if only under one's breath. The challenge is in how we conduct the inquiry so that human biodiversity might be cause for celebration of our individuality rather than suspicion about our differences. For all our differences, we are far, far more similar. In the end, that's my only real message.
Pub date: 12/20/00
Price: $17.50/20.50 Canada
Selling Territory: WORLD
Pub history: PublicAffairs hc