Black athletes who qualify to participate in the Olympics are often challenged with dealing with issues beyond their athletic talent.
For instance, tennis star Naomi Osaka faced considerable backlash for taking a mental health break. In the 1960s, Muhammad Ali threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River in disgust after being refused service at a restaurant. And history put a stain on the heroic acts of Tommie Smith and John Carlos who raised their fists as a human rights symbol during the Olympic games in 1968 but were ostracized for their efforts. Colin Kaepernick and so many Black athletes have become infamous simply for fighting for justice.
A forthcoming book, Say Their Names: How Black Lives Came to Matter in America (Grand Central Publishing, $25.49) provides a gripping, thought-provoking survey of the forces that pushed our unjust system to its breaking point following the murder of George Floyd. Penned by a powerhouse of five expert Black journalists, Say Their Names is a deep dive exploration of the historical context behind America’s original sin.
By examining how inequality was propagated through history, the authors, Michael H. Cottman, Patrice Gaines, Nick Charles, Keith Harriston and Curtis Bunn, highlight the disparities that for so long have characterized the dangers of being Black in America.
Bunn is an award-winning journalist at NBC News BLK who has written about race and sports and social and political issues for more than 30 years in Washington, D.C., New York, and Atlanta. Additionally, he is a best-selling author of 19 novels that center on Black life in America.
In one chapter written by Bunn that examines Black athletes who have also served as activists, the book touches on Osaka’s bravery for using her platform to confront societal prejudices while being an advocate for fallen Black people.
“Naomi Osaka, the women’s tennis phenomenon born to a Haitian father and a Japanese mother, wore seven different masks to her matches at the 2020 U.S. Open, each bearing the name of an unarmed Black person killed by law enforcement. It was a strong display of support of Black Lives Matter—and an indication that the movement spilled into the sports world.
It was an audacious move by Osaka. She took BLM’s concerns to the predominantly white, affluent, pretentious tennis world—where Black players are scarce—and its vast international television audience. She won the major tournament and won a legion of fans that may not have known her as a star, but identified her as courageous after her two-week stand.
Asked after she took the title what she wanted to get out of displaying the names of unnecessarily fallen Black people, Osaka was unflappable: ‘Well, what was the message that you got was more the question. I feel like the point is to make people start talking.’ “
An additional excerpt from Say Their Names points to the longstanding struggle of Black athletes to combine sports with using their public platforms to make a statement.
“To bring attention in the hope for change in America in 1968, U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists and bowed their heads on the Olympic podium in Mexico City during ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ after winning gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200 meters. Their Black Power salute is among the most iconic images in sports history.”
Bunn also touches on Colin Kaepernick’s activism and the audacity of the former NFL quarterback to sacrifice his career by kneeling during the national anthem to bring attention to police brutality.
Bunn spoke to BLACK ENTERPRISE and shared his thoughts on why it was important to have a hand in this compelling project.
“There was not much contemplation for me when this book idea was presented,” Bunn says. “A social justice movement and a pandemic were running simultaneously. As journalists, our responsibility is to chronicle events, news. My co-authors and I knew instantly that we were working on a project that would be historical in nature. So we dug in, understanding it was important that we craft a book that would be among the first to examine not only what happened in 2020–and bled into 2021–but how we got there in the first place.”
Bunn also told BLACK ENTERPRISE that the book also looks at “the history of white supremacy, how it created mass incarceration that eviscerated Black families” and more.
“So, the book is important–and will stand the test of time as a reference source to capture the pulse of Black America during an unprecedented time in history,” Bunn said.
Say Their Names addresses a myriad of issues by five expert Black journalists such as:
HOW BLACK LIVES CAME TO MATTER & THE BLACK WOMEN BEHIND IT: A comprehensive breakdown of the history of racism in America, the numerous forces leading up to the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the powerful influence of Black women leading it.
RACIAL DISCRIMINATION IN HEALTHCARE: A study on the long and complex history behind systemic racism in healthcare, from the indoctrinated biases of medical professionals, to the factors behind COVID-19’s disproportionate ravages within the Black community.
POLICING OF BLACK LIVES: Context behind why stories such as Breonna Taylor’s and Michael Brown’s are tragically common in a country where a Black person is fatally shot by law enforcement nearly every day—yet justice and reform continue to remain out of reach.
MASS INCARCERATION OF BLACK LIVES: An exploration of the disproportionately high percentage of incarcerated Black people who, compared to incarcerated whites, face higher rates of unemployment following release, life sentences without parole, and what attorney Ben Crump refers to as the “two justice systems in America. One for Black America, and one for white America.”
THE BLACK CHURCH IN THE AGE OF BLM: A community historically credited as a sanctuary and source of powerful influence for Black movements now faces the challenges of its place in a new age.
BLACK INFLUENCE IN POLITICS: An examination of Black political lineage from Adam Clayton Powell to Barack Obama to Stacey Abrams, the power of the Black vote, and the urgent need for fair legislation to protect the Black community.
Click here to learn more about Say Their Names: How Black Lives Came to Matter in America. The book, set to be released October 5, can be preordered now.