Running While Black explores many of the issues and problems Black runners face while running. The sport markets itself as being “for everyone,” yet, for many Black people, it’s filled with anxiety and fear. Désir opens the book by describing how she plans out what she’s going to wear to look less hostile to white people and her exact route while running. Désir examines her personal history and how she came to running as a way to deal with her depression when her father became ill. She also writes about the history of the sport, specifically, the whitewashing of it, and how it leaves out the Black athletes who founded running clubs and marathons. She didn’t know that there were Black men and women marathoners, but we mostly know of Black sprinters.
Désir doesn’t shy away from calling out white supremacy in the running industry. Or systemic racism in broader American history, culture and government. She even takes down the coveted Boston marathon, which only allows runners with a qualified time to enter unless runners participate for a charity. She eloquently writes how this elitist structure excludes runners from all backgrounds and doesn’t help the image of running as a sport “for everyone.” She wants runners of all backgrounds and paces to be able to participate without stigma.
In the last section of Running While Black, Désir writes about the fear of violence Black runners feel and how Ahmad Arbery’s murder brought it home for her. In February 2020, Arbery was a Black man out for a run in Georgia and was gunned down by white men. It happened soon after Désir had given birth to her son, and it galvanized her to take action. While working with a group to address racial diversity in the running industry, Désir pushed for wording that included “white supremacy” and “systemic racism,” although it made others uncomfortable. As an activist who wants to make things better, she doesn’t give up.
What really struck me while reading this book is how it contrasted with another writer’s experiences while running. I read Haruki Murakami’s book, What I Talk About When I Talk about Running, and it’s a wonderful meditation on running and peace. It’s also a running memoir, but, as an Asian man, Marakumi doesn’t have to deal with the fear that Désir writes about. He’s free to let his mind ruminate about his writing projects, daily stresses, or the beautiful scenery he’s surrounded by. Clearly, runners with different skin tones experience the sport differently.
As a runner, I learned a lot about the hidden and diverse history of running. The sport—those who organize races, sportswear companies and running clubs—have much work to do, which mirrors the work society has to do to be truly inclusive. Désir’s book is eye-opening and a wake-up call.