Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com, a sports correspondent for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday and author of multiple books:The Last Hero, Shut Out, and Juicing the Game. In his latest book The Heritage:Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism,Howard does an outstanding job at exploring the world of sports and how its tie into social issues in america. It will lead the reader to provoke thought about past and current athletes and question their morals as a human.I had the pleasure of emailing Mr.Bryant a few questions about his writing process and African American athletes presence in conversations that are connected to social inequality.
Can you explain the title of the book?
The original title of the book was “War Games,” but my publisher, Beacon Press, didn’t like the title for two reasons. The first was that while it was appropriated for the 9/11-police-militarism sections of the book, it did not address the historical legacy of black athletes and activism, from Robeson to Jackie to Ali to today. As I interviewed subjects, whether Dusty Baker or Rev. Al Sharpton, each kept referring to this special legacy as “our heritage.” The 2nd reason was that war games reminded them of the 1983 film “War Games” with Matthew Broderick. I liked it.The publisher liked it. And here we are.
Did you approach this book differently from your other written work
I did. The original tone for this book was intended to take on more polemical style, more closely to my essays in ESPN the Magazine. It was to be a meditation on the collisions between 9/11 America and the post-Ferguson black athlete. Really, it was supposed to sound and feel more like my forthcoming book, FULL DISSIDENCE: NOTES FROM AN UNEVEN PLAYING FIELD, which Beacon will be publishing in January 2020.
However, in working on the manuscript, I became convinced that the foundations of the black athlete journey did not feel as universal. I didn’t think the public knew enough about Paul Robeson or about the black body being used as the ostensible pipeline to integration and education. It required more history, more digging, and thus the essay form of the book had to be shelved in favor backfilling the story with a little more history. The essays would have to wait until the next book.
What was your biggest challenge while writing this book?
Pinning down a moving target. It was the same issue I had with my second book, JUICING THE GAME: DRUGS, POWER AND THE FIGHT FOR THE SOUL OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL where every day of writing came with a new allegation of steroid use. The story kept changing while I was writing the manuscript. With THE HERITAGE, the headlines were moving faster than the deadlines, and thus it was difficult to gauge with headlines deserved emphasis, which stories would be emblematic and lasting, and which would be forgotten by the time the book was actually released. That’s the problem with books: there is a four to five-month period where the book cannot be touched while life goes on. The great fear is that your book will be outdated by the time it hits the shelves.
Should black athletes be leaders in the fight for social inequality?
Black athletes should, like the rest of us, be citizens. On the one hand, they have an opportunity to effect change because of their visibility and the way Americans tend to fawn over money and celebrity. So they’re the ones. People listen to them. They have money. They have the floor and they can amplify concerns of people the mainstream do not listen to or actively silence.
On the other hand, the black athlete’s ability to be a citizen shouldn’t be actively discouraged by his or her industry, which is precisely what is happening in sports. I say often The Heritage is not a club that anyone should want to join, for we know the cost black players will pay for being advocates for black people. Would it be better than the black community didn’t need their voice so much? Yes. It would also be better if the black player did not face the kind of sanctions they face for simply advocating a position. Sports wanted black players to be political when it suits their white bosses (Jackie Robinson testifying to HUAC, 1949, players raising money for disaster relief) but will try to end their careers if they challenge police killings or took a position that didn’t just raise money for Hurricane Maria relief, but also publicly fought global warming policy. So, you can raise money for disaster relief, but you can’t fight the policies that create the disaster.
What do you want readers to take away from the book?
I don’t think I “want” anything. Books take on three stages of ownership. First the book belongs to you. Then it belongs to the publisher. Then, it belongs to the world. Once it hits that third stage (the second, really), it’s out of my hands. What I can say is what I tried to get out of writing it. I wanted people to look more critically at the positions and attitudes being beamed at them by the mainstream corporate culture and see them for their distortions and illegitimacy. Sports is being used as a vehicle to sell war and policing to the public. The soldiers are being used as shields to continue those wars, now approaching 20 years of continuous conflicts. The black body is used to the drive profit for universities and the business of sports while the black mind is being sacrificed. All of these dots connect, and part of citizenship is to connect them, even if they make you think a little bit more about what you’re watching beyond the home team winning or losing.
What are some of your favorite books?
I read so many books, but there are a few that are just special. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948–1985, by James Baldwin is probably the book I reread the most. Common Ground, by J. Anthony Lukas is a mainstay. Citizen, by Claudia Rankine is just terrific. For fiction, I love the Larry McMurtry Lonesome Dove trilogy, plus Streets of Laredo. There are too many more to count. For these times, On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder should be a wake-up call.