[With my older son in the midst of his high school cross-country season, and both sons gearing up for their next seasons of indoor and then outdoor track, running has become a huge part of this AmericanStudier’s life these days. But it’s long been part of both my life and America overall, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy different sides of running, leading up to a very special Guest Post from one of those aforementioned youthful AmericanStudiers!]
On two interesting AmericanStudies contexts for a pair of interconnected all-time greats.
I imagine that this remains relatively common knowledge way beyond the relatively small community of track and field fans, but in case not: Florence Griffith Joyner (1959-1998) and Jackie Joyner-Kersee (1962- ) weren’t just a pair of athletes who dominated track and field and the Olympics in the 1980s and 1990s, both laying claim at one moment or another to the title of greatest female athlete of all time (one bestowed specifically on Joyner-Kersee by Sports Illustrated for Women, since JJK competed in and dominated the many different events comprised by the heptathlon); they were also, as their names suggest, related by marriage. In 1987, Florence Griffith married another Olympic champion, 1984 triple jump gold medalist Al Joyner, who was Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s brother (Jackie had married her coach, Bob Kersee, a year earlier). There’s plenty of competition for the greatest athletic family, of course, but I have to think this is the most athletically talented pair of sisters-in-law ever!
That in and of itself makes for an interesting lens through which to AmericanStudy this pair, but they were much more than their familial relationship; so I also want to highlight one compelling context for each woman individually. Jacqueline Joyner was born in March 1962 and named after First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, but that’s not the American connection I want to share for her: it’s her birthplace, the confusingly named East St. Louis, Illinois (a city directly across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, but obviously across a state line as well). In the early 20th century East St. Louis was home to a blossoming African American community, and in early July 1917, that community was targeted by a multi-day white supremacist racial terrorist massacre that came to be known as the East St. Louis Race War (or race riot, but as I’ve written elsewhere, that term is particularly problematic). As was the case with so many of those ubiquitous massacres, the community was decimated for many years thereafter, but it didn’t vanish; and I find it incredibly moving that nearly fifty years later a newborn African American baby was named after the First Lady and would go on to become one of the truly first ladies of American and world sports. Ain’t that America?
It certainly is—but so in its quite different and unique ways is Los Angeles, the city in which Florence Griffith was born two and a half years earlier than Jackie, in December 1959. Of course Los Angeles, like much of the West, had been significantly changed by the Great Migration, and Griffith’s family took part in that movement, with her grandparents having moved from the South to Los Angeles a couple decades earlier. But what I want to highlight here is the multi-layered, complicated role of public institutions in Florence’s young life in California: her upbringing by her single mother (a seamstress also named Florence Griffith) in the prominent Jordan Downs public housing complex in the Watts neighborhood of LA; and then her experiences as a student-athlete at two universities in the UC system, first California State University at Northridge and then UCLA (with a short gap in between where she worked as a bank teller while seeking a scholarship to return to school). California is of course not at all unique in the role that public housing and public education alike played in its development in the 20th century, but it was one of the states most connected to those trends—and it’s telling that one of the most famous athletes and Americans born in the state in the mid-20th century was so interconnected with those public institutions and communities.
Last RunningStudying from me tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Running connections or contexts you’d share?