Monday, August 04, 2008

I do not recommend this book

Wherein continuing with subtext week


Major Taylor is a fascinating character I've been meaning to read up on for a number of years. He was a sprint cyclist when bicycles were the fastest vehicles on the road and cities were competing to build the largest cycling arenas -- the original Madison Square Garden was built for cycling events. Major Taylor was also black and descended from slaves. While other riders opposed him, and on occasion attacked him, and many venues, particularly in the South, refused his participation, he rose to become one fo the first truly international sports stars. So when I saw the new biography, Major: A black athlete, a white era, and the fight to be the world's fastest human being (Todd Balf). I was excited. Unfortunately, it's dully written and filled with tortuously wooden analogies that seemingly serve no other purpose than to point out that black athletes still face racism.

Writing of a race between Major Taylor and the book's annointed villain, Floyd McFarland, Balf write's of Taylor's wife:
Daisy Victoria Taylor wished she didn't believe that the outcome of a winner-takes-all race between a white man and a black and would fix the prospects of the innocent unborn baby that filled her belly. But she did.

Ugh. That's a lead balloon of imagery. Explaining the racism of 1890s Indianapolis:
In Jim Crow Indianapolis he could take the trolley cars, but only if he sat in the last three seats. Indianapolis set the tone for Cypress, California, a century later, where a five-year-old was tied up, stoned, and spray-painted with the word nigger. That boy's name was Tiger Woods.

Set the tone, really? Nineteenth century Indianapolis was responsible for that?

Because these are the only two athlete's to ever be called businesslike:
In later years his coolness and self-control would be preceived as brusque and businesslike, as if he didn't love the sport, only the money he earned from it. One hundred years later writers made a similar complaint about Shani Davis at the 2006 Winter Games -- the first African American gold medal winner in speed skating -- after he showed no emotion on the mdeal stand.

There were a few controversies around Shani Davis and he had a couple of dick teammates, but this is one accusation I don't recall and can't verify. I'm sure someone said it, but is this the conventional wisdom?

Concerning the 2006 Little 500 and a team named after Major Taylor, Balf's reporting seems incomplete because there's plenty going on without having to make it racial:
A rival team questioned whether one of the TMT riders was truly amateur, as the rules stipulate. The atmosphere quickly turned ugly as charges and countercharges flew. On practice day, the eve of the race, the other thrity-two teams laid down there bikes, refusing to practice with them -- a public display of both rider unity and, it appeared, racial hostility.

Let's take a look at ESPN's Jim Caple reporting from 2007:
Major Taylor finished second in 2003 but has yet to win, though that's not for lack of effort. Bishop received a lifetime ban from the Little 500 following allegations that he offered scholarships to riders in exchange for their participation on the Major Taylor team (a violation of race rules). The school dropped the ban in March and he is back coaching. Although Major Taylor is successful enough that Nike provides gear, Bishop's original dream of a champion all-African-American team has evolved into a rainbow coalition that sounds like the setup to a joke. "We have two white kids, an Asian kid, a black kid and a Hispanic," Bishop says with a smile.


There's plenty more, though maybe not as eye-rolling as those. Balf is too eager to emphasis points rather than tell a story and what should be a fascinating story is almost always sucked dry of interest. There's also an aspect of framing the story with the white villain, McFarland, and a white benefactor, Louis Munger, that almost reduces Taylor to playing the magical negro in his own story.

As a cyclist, as an athlete, as an American, Major Taylor deserves to have his story told and told well. This is not that book.

2 Comments:

Blogger bill said...

The "and a hundred years later" device might work if he was a more compelling writer. Reading the book jacket it says Balf has written extensively about professional cycling. This surprised me because huge swaths of the book read like a cycling novice trying to explain the sport to other cycling novices.

8/05/2008 05:34:00 AM  
Blogger XWL said...

When all you have is a hammer, the whole world is a racist conspiracy to keep the brotherman down.

8/05/2008 03:32:00 PM  

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