Professor of History & AAADS Frank Guridy – DT006
Dean’s Table Podcast Episode
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About the Episode
Dean Harris speaks with Frank Guridy, Associate Professor of History and African-American and African Diaspora studies at Columbia University. Professor Guridy specializes in sports history, urban history, and the history of the African diaspora in the Americas. He is the author of Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow, which won the Elsa Goveia Book Prize from the Association of Caribbean Historians, and the Wesley-Logan Book Prize from the American Historical Association.
Associate Professor of History and African American and African Diaspora Studies
Professor of History & AAADS Frank Guridy – DT006
Frank Guridy is Associate Professor of History and African-American and African Diaspora studies at Columbia University. He specializes in sports history, urban history, and the history of the African diaspora in the Americas. He’s the author of the award-winning book Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow.
I invited Frank to the Dean’s Table to reflect on how he came to study history rather than political science, to talk about his book on the African diaspora, and to discuss his latest research on the history of popular sports. Welcome, Frank.
Frank Guridy: Thank you for having me.
Fredrick Harris: So you’re a New Yorker, how was it growing up in the city?
Frank Guridy: How do I answer that in a concise way? It was amazing, and it was a struggle. So I came of age here in the late ’70s, ’80s. I’m the child of Dominican immigrant who’s family arrived here, not too far from this neighborhood, in the 1950’s. My mother is Puerto Rican, born in New York in the Bronx. And I lived in this amazing trans-cultural black, Latino, Jewish world that the Bronx was at that time. So they were working class. My father did not finish high school. My mom got her GED. And yet because, I realized this in retrospect now, because we had a welfare state here, because they connected themselves to positions, public institutions like, so my mom was a school secretary. My dad eventually wound up working for the New York Board of Education, among other jobs. They were able to somehow live their version of the American dream insofar as having stable employment, affordable housing. So in a curious way, they benefited from arriving in that period of U.S. and New York history.
But you know, it’s the ’70s and ’80s and crime. New York was in a fiscal crisis. So that was going on too, but I think, as I look at it, and maybe I’m romanticizing that period a bit, I think that period of New York history is misunderstood. I think we think about New York in that period as crisis, as burned down buildings in the Bronx. My experience growing here for the most part was not like that. It was fairly stable, integrated for the most part, working class, histories where I encountered black people of various iterations. I encountered Jews. I mean there was racism and all that stuff existed, but it was a really interesting time to grow up here.
Fredrick Harris: And where? Where did you grow up?
Frank Guridy: Co-op City.
Fredrick Harris: Co-op City? So tell our listeners about Co-op City.
Frank Guridy: Co-op City’s a fascinating place. It was the largest subsidized housing development in the United States of America. It’s in the Northeast Bronx. It was built in the late ’60s and early ’70s. And again, this is an example of my experience at Co-op was different than the way I think we often talk about it, right? It was built, conceived of, or certainly influenced by, the desire for whites to leave the South Bronx, to move to the Northeast Bronx as Puerto Ricans and blacks and other populations of color were moving to the South Bronx and the West Bronx. So certainly it was predominantly Jewish, but then over time, it became a much more integrated place. My mother’s sister married a Jewish man. And then the rest of us just sort of followed. So I’ve got all of these images from that era. And again, my father was a security guard at Co-op City, so we were very in tuned to crime and those sorts of things at the time.
Again, I played baseball there. Actually there was green spaces. A public school. All that stuff was, I really benefited from being in that environment.
Fredrick Harris: So, as the world knows, hip hop started in the Bronx and you already declared that you are a Bronxite. So this is probably a silly question, but were you exposed to the music and culture as a resident there?
Frank Guridy: That is not a silly question, Fred, because it was all around me. It was all around me. And yet I wasn’t a hip hop head. So again, the master narrative of hip hop is that it comes from the South Bronx, but it was all over the Bronx, right?
So people were break dancing. People were rapping. All the music was all around me. Boomboxes, all those things that you associate with hip hop in that era was everywhere in the Bronx at that time.
It was around me, but I was a kind of a ’70s music kid. So I was into Stevie Wonder. I was into Marvin Gaye. Yeah, I appreciated this revolution that was happening around me. And I was a shy kid. I wasn’t as kinesthetically talented as some folks, so breaking was not something that I could do. A lot of my friends did. Literally after school, people would come out, put that cardboard box on the floor, and then people would just dance. It was just extraordinary. But I was sort of indifferent to it because it was just like, “All right, that’s what people are into now.”
Fredrick Harris: Right, that’s funny because I had a similar experience. And I thought I was just different. So I didn’t have this moment like, “Oh wow, wow. This new music, hip hop.” And I was listening to ’70s soul. I’m a ’70s kid. And jazz. And also a little garage which was coming, or house music which had it’s soul roots. So yeah, I feel like I missed the hip hop-
Frank Guridy: And my father who was a huge music connoisseur. Part of that was his influence, so in our household, we listened to Merengue and salsa. But he was big into Joni Mitchell. He was big into Bob Dillon. He was big into Miles Davis. I learned about Miles Davis from my dad. So like part of it was that, I had a rich musical soundscape in my apartment. So hip hop was just one of many things that I was exposed to.
Fredrick Harris: So you went upstate. You stayed in the state. You went to college at Syracuse University. What was that like?
Frank Guridy: Once I just knew that college could be possible for me, I decided, “I gotta try to leave the city. I gotta leave the city.” And part of that was because, and we can circle back to this later, is that I was a huge sports person. So the 1980’s was the heyday of Big East college basketball.
So this is embarrassing to admit, but my understanding of college in part was informed by what I saw on television. When I saw these black athletes playing for Syracuse. So I said, “Wow, that’s interesting. Where’s Syracuse?” It started from there and then eventually I learned it was a good enough school that I could get into as a New York City public school kid. And so, I decided against my mother’s wishes to apply, and I convinced her that I could go. Because she wanted me to stay in the city. And that made sense. I was the first person to go to college in my family.
I get there, and it was an extraordinary time to be there because it was … Syracuse recruits a lot of students, or did anyway, from New York City. So there are a lot of black and latino students there. And 1989, 90, my freshman year there was a year of extraordinary student mobilization. When I arrived visiting the campus, black students were mobilizing around black studies. This was also the heyday of kind of Malcolm X resurgent or reiterated kind of Afro-centric politics. That was very prominent at Syracuse. For whatever reason, even though I didn’t come from a politicized family, it just spoke to me. Seeing all these black and latino students who were taking charge of their educational experience, who were kind of articulating insurgent politics. I didn’t agree with all of it, but certainly it spoke to me.
So I got an extraordinary political and then eventually academic experience there. And it was also racially polarized place. So it was a place where I sort of encountered forms of racism that I hadn’t as a New Yorker.
Fredrick Harris: In what ways?
Frank Guridy: Well, it was just more explicitly segregated. Racism existed in New York, but because of the density of the population, and because there was a certain iteration of whiteness that I experienced, Italians, Jews, that’s a different kind of whiteness than what I was exposed to at Syracuse, which was WASPier or more affluent classes of people. For whatever reason at the time, I felt pretty quickly that I had to decide who I was going to affiliate with. It was Jim Crowish.
Fredrick Harris: Really?
Frank Guridy: Yes it was. No doubt. Once I figured out quickly that … I was hanging around when I got there, mostly white students. But it was clear I was encountering racism from them and I didn’t like what I was experiencing. Thank goodness there was this robust cultural, social world of black and students of color there that I just plugged myself into. Then socially I found my way because I found those institutions. The latino student organization was being founded at the time. So I was involved with them and the black student groups.
Then I encountered amazing professors. So my mentors at the time were Naeem Inayatulla, who was an international political economist who specialized in kind of a colonialism and imperialism in the Middle East and South Asia. This was at the height of the Gulf War. And I took his class, I think it was just simply called, Problems in International Relations or something like that. And what did we read in Naeem’s class? We read Said. We read post colonial theory. We read the history of British imperialism in the Middle East and south Asia, and he got up there and he was combating all this imperialistic, apologetic explanations for the Gulf War. He just turned me on to ideas. And he was a serious mentor for me. So he’s one.
And then Horace Campbell, who was a Pan-Africanist political scientist, who comes out of the kind of Caribbean black radical traditions, very much influenced by Walter Rodney and C.L.R. James. He was my professor, and he intimidated me because he was brilliant.
But nonetheless, he opened my world to this broader tradition of black radical politics and history. But coming at it mostly from the Caribbean and also Pan-Africanist traditions. So I had a extraordinary experience with Horace.
And with John Nagle who was a lesser known kind of comparative politics guy, but he taught me Marxist theory. I got a lot of political theory, I think now in retrospect at Syracuse. Which then really shaped my understanding of political science at the time.
Fredrick Harris: Is that why you majored in political science at the time because of the courses you took? Or did you have something else in mind, like I majored in political science as an undergraduate, and I just knew I was going to law school. So how did you fall into majoring in political science?
Frank Guridy: Great question, great question. So my parents gave me a gift. As a first generation college student, they did not put pressure on me to study something that would bring the family greater financial security like many students experience, understandably so.
To make a long story short, yes, it was Naeem’s class, that class I talked about that year during the Gulf War was my sophomore year, 1991, where I just was compelled by the notion of studying politics, but anchored in literature and humanistic forms of knowledge. That was Naeem.
So yeah, it was the classes and it was the political environment at the time, right? Spike Lee’s Malcolm X comes out in 1992. This is again as I said earlier, the heyday of kind of the resurgence of Malcolm X. Louis Farrakhan came to campus at the time. And my generation of black and latino students weren’t quite hip the differences between the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X. It was all sort of the same thing to them in some ways. But again, it turned me on to the possibility of radical politics and intellectual life.
Fredrick Harris: So you decided to go to graduate school. And you initially wanted to get a PhD in that great discipline of political science. What changed your mind?
Frank Guridy: It’s really funny, I did what I tell students not to do. I was determined to go straight into graduate school.
So I applied to a bunch of poli-sci programs. I think I even spoke to Charles Hamilton. I applied at Columbia. But I wasn’t gonna make it at Columbia. I didn’t have the grades, I didn’t have the GRE. But in the end I wound up getting into Northwestern. And Adolf Reed was at Northwestern.
Fredrick Harris: Yes, he was. I took a seminar with him as a graduate student there.
Frank Guridy: Yes, so
Anyway, to make a long story short, I moved to Chicago because I’m like, I want to go to grad school.
Then I rethought that, and I decided, “You know what? I’m not so sure this is a good idea.”
When I looked at the program, the only person who seemed to be doing things that I was interested in pursuing, which at the time was this kind of historically informed, anti-colonial black radical politics, Adolf was pretty much the only person there at the time. This was also, my sense of the discipline at the time, and I could be wrong was, rational choice was very popular. Quantitative method was very popular. And that was not me. I was not that kind of scholar. I’m still not.
I moved to Chicago and I decided, “You know what? I’m gonna take a year off.” So I did. And then I decided. Partially because Horrace and other folks who were in poli-sci, Horrace had been at Northwestern, and he’s like, “You know you really should think about history.” And history at Syracuse was not interesting. It was very traditional. So I’d really only took one history class at Syracuse in the history department, although I had history all over the place. To make a long story short, I decided to apply at history programs, and I got a masters at University of Illinois at Chicago. Then I was there for three years. Then I went to Michigan and I got my PhD there.
Fredrick Harris: So at least during the ’90s, I’m not sure this was the case when you were there, there were stellar historians there such as Robin Kelly, Earl Lewis, Elsa Barkley Brown, others. Did you work with any of these folks?
Frank Guridy: Robin had just left. Elsa had just left. Earl Lewis was moving into administration. And that actually affected me in more profound ways because he was an amazing Dean of the graduate school. And he actually showed me what a good administrator could look like. Earl was the kind of person that you as a grad student, you could walk into his office and you could engage with him. He’s a very approachable person. That shaped the way he administered. I never took a class with Earl, but I was around Earl quite a bit, and I count him as a mentor as well though I technically wasn’t his student. At the time, Michelle Mitchel, a historian, had just arrived.
And Michelle was awesome because she was one of the folks at the time who were really pushing through gender and black nationalism. I took a class like that with her. I mean my primary advisor was Rebecca Scott, a historian of Cuba, we hadn’t talked about the Caribbean yet, but part of the reason I went there was because I wanted to work on race in Cuba. So she was there. Fred Cooper, an Africanist, was around. Michigan the kind of history American studies world was pretty small, so there was a lot of cross area synergies. Around slavery, about empire or post-colonial theory. There was a history-anthro program. Fernando Corneal, the late Fernando Corneal, was there. A lot of folks were there at the time. I really took classes with a number of them.
I was able to create specialization in black diasporic history but very much informed by Latin Americanist, anti-imperial thought, Latin American historiography, but also US Afro-Am history. I was able to kind of put together a diasporic program of sorts, even though we didn’t have a diasporic concentration in the history department.
Fredrick Harris: So what was your dissertation about?
Frank Guridy: My dissertation wound up being a study of racial politics in Cuba in the early 20th century. I got into Cuba almost by accident. Let me back track. So I always did want to study the history of the Caribbean because my family’s from there. But at the time, there weren’t many historians working on Dominican history. A few more were working on Puerto Rican history. And if you were gonna work on the Spanish speaking Caribbean, the place to work on was Cuba. Because at least there was a literature, there was the fascination with the Cuban revolution. There have been long standing debates about race in Cuba after the triumph of the Castro revolution of 1959. So I figured out that Cuba was the place that I could pursue these questions that I was thinking about. Essentially the black experience in the Spanish speaking Americas. Because I was not satisfied with the kind of dominant narratives of how we understand slavery and racism in those contexts at the time.
Aline Helg, Our Rightful Share was a pathbreaking book in 1995, and it really started open up questions around how racism got reconstituted in Cuba in a society that supposedly had the dominant nationality of racial egalitarianism.
My dissertation really follows up on Helg’s book. But in the process on doing the research in Cuba, it became pretty clear to me that Afro-Cuban experiences or their understandings of themselves as racialized and as national citizens was very much informed by their encounters with African-American politics, culture and society.
It became clear to me that to tell the story the way I wanted to tell it, I had to think about the black experience beyond Cuba. I had to, rather than using African-American sources as sort of the backdrop just for archival material, the story that I was more compelled to tell was this interaction between Afro-Cuban associations and African-American ideas.
This was a story that warranted a broader frame of analysis beyond the island of Cuba.
Fredrick Harris: Right, and this is in your book Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow. Can you say a little bit more about those connections?
Frank Guridy: Yeah, so many prominent African-American historical figures in the early 20th century, Du Bois, Garvey, Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, up until Malcolm X and beyond. All had connections to Cuba in one form or another. Some of them were shallow and some of them were deep. I became interested in this question of, what is African-American history look like if we put it actively in conversation with Cuba? Part of that conversation already happened because of the 1960’s and ’70’s, black activists here were very compelled by the Cuban Revolution. They wanted to see this experiment that was happening in Cuba that supposedly socialism had overthrown racism in Cuba. So there was this ongoing debate in the ’60s and ’70s, Johnnetta Cole’s involved in this. Many people, Angela Davis, among many people.
But there’s a history of that debate. There’s a history of that connection that people knew about after the revolution but it was very little known about before. So basically it became a book about the social and cultural and political ties between different black institutions in both countries.
Afro-Cubans had a rich associational life that resembles things we see in the Jim Crow South; recreational societies, literary societies, not political parties, because the one that was started was repressed here, but black associational, cultural, social, political life continued.
Fredrick Harris: Cultural too?
Frank Guridy: Yes, absolutely, right? So I mean we know this in a musical sense of course with Benson, with other Afro-Cuban musical traditions, Santería, Afro-Cuban religions, all that sort of stuff. But beyond that, the black association life in Cuba was rich and deep. So African-Americans knew that at the time. African-American intellectuals knew that.
I looked at the Booker T. Washington papers and I kept seeing all these letters from Cuba, among other places. The first international students to study at Tuskegee in 1898, 1899 were from Cuba and Puerto Rico actually. Part of that was engineered by US imperialism, US expansionism. But the Cuban connections, what I argue in the book, were really developed by Afro-Cuban aspiring, upwardly mobile Afro-Cubans and Tuskegee, apart from the US imperial apparatus on the island at the time.
So the Tuskegee material was fascinating. I just loved the idea of, what was it like, of exploring this question, what was it like to be a Cuban of African descent in the middle of the Jim Crow South in 1900? And Tuskegee, for them, it was a challenging place, but it was a bit of a refuge for them because they’re able to pursue some advance education.
it’s a very important moment for Afro-Cuban politics because some of them are aspiring to be like Booker T. Washington, just like Marcus Garvey was.
Fredrick Harris: Right, well that was my next question is, so does Garveyism or Marcus Garvey’s so called Back-to-Africa movement, there are Garvey chapters there? UNIA, University of Negro Improvement Association, is that covered in …?
Frank Guridy: Yes, the second chapter of the book, it looks like Garveyism in Cuba. But again, as this transnational black network. So yes, historians knew that the largest number of UNIA divisions outside of the United States was in Cuba, 52.
But I’m in the Archivo de Santa Clara, a very small archive in the middle of the island of Cuba, and I come across this reference to documents on the UNIA in Santa Clara. I asked the archivist and she brings this gigantic folio of papers.
Fredrick Harris: Really?
Frank Guridy: Which were these police records, surveillance records of the UNIA in central Cuba in the late 1920’s.
Fredrick Harris: That’s amazing.
Frank Guridy: And that’s when I realized, I’ve got to write about Garveyism in Cuba. I’ve got to write about Garveyism as part of this bigger history of diasporic community making. It was amazing material because there you see the ways in which the UNIA was attracting black folk from Cuba as well. Not as active political activists per se, but the UNIA was able to plug itself into this preexisting black associational life. The UNIA is one of many of these kinds of groups, West Indian, but also Afro-Cuban. I was just struck by the fact that they’re singing some Garvey anthems in Spanish. I mean there was an explicit attempt to try to appeal to black Cubans.
That was a book that was not about Garvey, but it was about Garveyites on the ground. And Garveyites on the ground spoke Spanish, they spoke English, they spoke French, and you see this extraordinary transcultural black world in those archives.
Fredrick Harris: So your current research projects are on the history of sports. You’re working on, I think, two books?
Frank Guridy: Yes, I am.
Fredrick Harris: Now these projects appear to be big shift from your first book on the African diaspora. How did you become interested in the history of professional sports?
Frank Guridy: Yes.
I was working on an edited volume called Beyond el Barrio: Everyday Life in Latino/a America, it was published the same time as Forging Diaspora was published. You know, I became a big believer in collaborative scholarship. I’ve always seen my work as putting black diasporic studies, Latin-American/Latino studies in dialogue with each other, in a hemispheric sense because I come at these questions from the Caribbean Latin America and the US. So I was working in that vibe and we were looking at kind of what barrio means across the United States, across Latino populations in the US.
And I decided in doing that work, that I would write an essay about the politics that were surrounding the reconstruction of Yankee Stadium in New York City in 2008, 2009. Because I was really fascinated by the ways in which this iconic stadium, Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, is in the midst of a predominantly black and brown neighborhood, yet clearly has its imperial relationship with the surrounding community. I really just kind of proceeded from there. I’ve always had a passion for sport, not just as a fan, but as a site of critical inquiry. I think people think people work on sports, they just love sports. And I do love sports, and I can sit and watch Lebron James all day long. Whether he’s playing for the Cavs or the Heat or the Los Angeles Lakers.
But to me, if you look at the history of black people in sports, it’s a history, not just of upward mobility and exploitation, but it’s a history of creative labor, right? Meaning that in the ways in which scholars and aficionados of jazz can talk about John Coltrane’s solo and Billie Holiday’s solo and this performance, I think scholars have an amazing opportunity to think about labor from the perspective of athletes, of black athletes because of their centrality to the expansion of sport in this country. That’s one of the overriding questions, how do we think about the black experience in sport beyond exploitation and facile integrationist narratives that we often see associated with the way in which we tell the story of the civil rights era.
So the Texas book which is now called, The Athletic Revolution in Texas, really looks at the entanglements between the black people’s struggle, feminism, and the expansion of professional collegiate sports in this country in the 1960’s and ’70s, right? I’m really interested in explaining, how is it that sport catalyzes social change racially in some ways, and yet, it remains a site of exploitation as well for black people and also other marginalized populations. I became interested in this question because it allows us to think about, revisit this question of integration and what actually it meant in this society. Get us to think about sport beyond this notion that it’s just a meritocratic kind of space where people can just triumph apart from exploitation or racism or sexism.
So I’ve sort of proceeded along these lines and I’ve focused on Texas, probably because I taught there for a long time, but I’m really interested in this former Jim Crow, US borderland, colonial space, how it is transformed by the expansion of sport, but then how those hierarchies get reconstituted as well.
Fredrick Harris: Right. So you’ve given some thought to the career of Mohamed Ali. Why do you think he’s such an important figure in the history of professional sports?
Frank Guridy: Well, he transcends sports as we all know. Ali of course is a figure that, like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, have been repackaged as American heroes, right? They were disdained by many people in this country when they were actually alive and performing and doing their politics. But are now repackaged as emblems of American democracy. And we can talk about that repackaging process or not. So Ali is obviously important and we think about African-American athletic activism. For his courageous stance against the Vietnam War. For his decision to give up for three years, at the prime of his career, of his earning potential. And of the fame that people like Joe Louis another African-American athlete had experienced, although with consequences as he knew. So Ali is important in that way. We know that story. We think about black athletic activism and the Black Power movement, and also just thinking about African-American engagement with Islam, he’s extremely important.
When I write about Ali and his boxing matches in Texas in the Astrodome in the late ’60s, I’m compelled by that story, but I’m also compelled by thinking about him, and again, it’s his athletic labor. He was a skilled performer. And he wasn’t skilled just because he had natural athleticism, but he worked at his craft like all good performers.
So of course there’s a story of brutality of boxing there which we could talk about, but I’m compelled by thinking about Ali as again, as this artist, as somebody who’s articulating a black masculinity in fact that in some ways is not in line with the Nation of Islam’s hypermasculinity politics. He was very skilled at crafting this notion of prettiness. And integrated into his conception of blackness. Which people have talked about, but not from a theoretical standpoint. I think boxing aficionados know this. He gives us a sense of the capaciousness of black masculinity.
I think there’s something there to think about, the kind of capaciousness of blackness and black manhood in that sense.
Fredrick Harris: Well let’s shift to the present and about this idea of athleticism and black manhood and protest, right? What do you think of the reception of the football player Colin Kaepernick and his protest against criminal justice system?
Frank Guridy: I love the way you articulated Kaepernick. He is not protesting the United States of America. He’s protesting the brutality of black people by the police, which often gets overlooked in the kind of dominant ways in which certain politicians talk about this in this country. What I find interesting about Kaepernick, and it’s not just Kaepernick, as we know, there’s a range of athletes who are engaging in politics now which is great. Part of that is, the capaciousness of this group of athletic activists is because now we’re in the post 9/11 era where you have women athletes who are very much part of this story which often get overlooked. So some of the athletes who are protesting before Kaepernick were women in the WNBA, the women’s professional basketball league. Even people like Megan Rapinoe who’s also very active, the white soccer player.
What I find interesting, and I’m writing about this at a piece is to historicise contemporary black athletic activism that’s going on today. Because I do think it’s raising new questions beyond just racial integration. It is raising questions about police brutality. It is raising questions about sexism in sport and homophobia in sport. And that’s because we have a wider range of actors who are taking stands now. And I think that that is historically significant because I think one of the legacies of the ’60s era activism is that it was very masculinist in its politics. You know, Harry Edwards, the pioneering black sociologist, athletic activist admits this in his most recent, the republication of his classic book, The Revolt of the Black Athlete in which he says, “Look, we were not attentive to the conditions of black women athletes at the time.” And he’s right, and it’s great that he admits that.
What I find fascinating about this period is that, athletes the big names like Kaepernick and Lebron James and other folks are taking stands on the field and off, but I think we’re seeing a wider range of politics coming from this group. I think that the fact that they’re athletes is significant because I think that their labor also informs us to think about otherwise possibility as I like to say. What does America look like when you’ve got these actors at the center stage giving us new conceptions of personhood of identity of citizenship of nation that are beyond a simple, we just need to be better American citizens.
Fredrick Harris: So thinking about – and again this may be a easy answer for you, but I assume last time when I asked a question about the Bronx that it will be a particular answer, but here, I’ll try it again. You’re from the Bronx. Are you a Yankees fan or a Mets fan?
Frank Guridy: You think that’s an easy question? That’s not an easy question. No, I’m not a Yankee fan.
Fredrick Harris: You’re not?
Frank Guridy: I’m not a Yankees fan.
Fredrick Harris: I’m making all these assumptions.
Frank Guridy: No, no, I’m all about disrupting our assumptions as I’m sure you are, Fred.
So I had my moments when I liked the home teams but because I’m a contrarian, and because for me sport is not just about being a homer or a nationalist, it’s about engaging in this kind of experience of the otherwise, of seeing transcendent performance. I love transcendent performance, whether it’s on the baseball field the football … well, not the football field anymore. Basketball, soccer, or in the arts. Or in the jazz club. My interest in sports is no longer around teams, is about looking at the politics of sport, but looking at the ways in which compelling athletic performance allows us to be inspired. I really need to be inspired everyday if I’m gonna do what I do. And to me, looking at a local kid do a slam dunk or a nice move on the soccer pitch or looking at Lebron James do some extraordinary … makes me feel great. And I actually think it gives us a sense of what’s possible for us as we move forward.
Fredrick Harris: So you’re neither.
Frank Guridy: I am, what I would say is I’m a post-team sports spectator. Which people think that means I’m a bandwagon person, but no, no, it’s emotionally easier for me to enjoy sports if I don’t have particular rooting interest in a certain team. I get compelled by teams at a certain time. So when Lebron went to Miami and decided that he was gonna try to win a championship with them, I found that a compelling story. When he went back to Cleveland, and decided he was going to go back home and lead the Cavs to the championship, I loved that story when they won the championship in 2016.
So I get swept into certain sports’ story lines that get associated with teams, but they’re not reducible to the fandom of a certain sports team.
Fredrick Harris: Although I suspect you shift that logic during the Olympics.
Frank Guridy: I don’t know if that’s true.
Fredrick Harris: Really? You don’t follow the country.
Frank Guridy: No, no, no, I’m not a nationalist, Fred. I’m not. I’m very much, I don’t want to call myself cosmopolitan, but I’m internationalist in my sensibilities. I’m transcultural in my sensibilities, rooted in certain black traditions of course. I sound like a scholar probably, but I’m able to translate that into my sports spectatorship. Do I love Simone Biles? Yes. But can I get caught up in the French national team’s winning of the World Cup last year? Yes. So no, it doesn’t correlate to sort of regional, national affiliations.
Fredrick Harris: Okay, all right. Well …
Frank Guridy: Is that disappointing to you?
Fredrick Harris: No, no, no. I guess I’m just an old soul. I just need to get out of my post-colonial kind of thinking about sports.
Frank Guridy: I don’t know that I’m representative. I have these discussions with people all the time. And by no means do I look down on anybody who’s a traditional American patriot in the Olympics.I don’t want to say I don’t root for anybody because I absolutely do.
I mean what made the French team interesting are the reasons why that Laurent Dubois, the historian cultural critic of the Francophone imperial world, shows it very clearly in his book Soccer Empire. To understand France’s colonial history, just look at the history of soccer. Look at the ways in which these European teams are now populated by people from the colonies. And how they’re raising new questions about citizenship in Europe. And how they’re raising new possibilities of what Frenchness looks like in the 21st century. So Dubois’ work is really influenced my thinking about sport and political affiliations and transformations.
Fredrick Harris: I’m gonna take you back to New York, but in a different way. Could you tell me about the course you taught on the anniversary of the 1968 student protest at Columbia?
Frank Guridy: Yes. So you know one of the reasons why I stopped working on Cuba, and this was a tough decision, is that I really want to work on the histories of the communities that I live, where I live. I wanted to take that up as a political intellectual challenge.
So I really want to ground myself in the history of this neighborhood, partly because there’s some family connections on my father’s side here. And then I just started investigating a bit as I decided to teach a course on the ’68 protests and their legacies, partly because I wanted to kind of bring to … I wanted to do something in light of the 50th anniversary which just passed last year. And it contains many elements that I find fascinating.
There’s a sport history there because of course part of the issue that’s at stake there is Columbia University’s decision to try to build a gym in Morningside Park. Eventually it was not built because of the student protests and the community protest.
Just from local perspective of local black history, it’s utterly fascinating, the ways in which these black students are able to mobilize, connect with the Harlem community and make claims. And they’re successful actually.
And my goal here is less to demonize Columbia, although I think that’s probably easy to do in this story, but to think about what are the visions of Columbia’s relationship to the surrounding community that are emanated by that story? That we might think about today, actually, right?
Because we’re not an ivory tower situation. We say, we’re in the City of New York. So the ’68 … by this point, through student research, is about thinking about our relationship to this city as we move forward in the 21st century. So I’m very compelled by that challenge.
But I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to think about where we are today. In a moment of resurgence, polarized politics and moment where people are groping for answers and solutions.
50 years ago, people were engaged in very similar predicaments. I’m not saying we have to replicate what they did. I do think we don’t, but it can form the ways in which we might think about these issues in the present.
Fredrick Harris: So from the perspective of students, why do you think it’s important to offer such a course like this?
Frank Guridy: Columbia students are amazing. And I know I sound like a company man, but I mean that sincerely.
We’ve got extraordinarily talented students on this campus who are hungry for history. Who are hungry for knowledge that will certainly allow them to figure out how they’re gonna live in the long run. In a period in which this country, you know, we’re in crisis right now I think. I’m not the only person who would say that. So they are a wonderful audience to work with because they are very interested in a lot of these questions that the ’68 story raises. And I want to empower them not just to be activists but to be scholars, to do research on these questions, to go into the archives, to interview people, to read political theory, to do ethnographic work. It’s a way to inspire them to do scholarship in whatever form that might take them in the long run. As PhD’s or people who are engaged in other sorts of impactful work.
I’ve had a lot of fun doing this work, and I see myself doing it for quite some time. Because my heart is here in New York, I realized now in my late 40’s. If I can engage in a collaborative enterprise that allows us to think about how we can harness historical knowledge to think about contemporary questions, and to do that in this very local but yet extremely impactful way, I think is a wonderful challenge for me.
Fredrick Harris: So Frank, I’m sure we can go on and on, but this has been terrific. I’ve enjoyed this conversation. Thanks for coming through the Dean’s Table.
Frank Guridy: Thank you so much, Fred.
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The Dean’s Table is produced by Destry Maria Sibley with production assistance from Jack Reilly. Our technical engineers are AJ Mangone and Airiayana Sullivan. Our lead researcher is Kala Deterville. Our logo is by Jessica Lilien. Our music is by Imperial. I’m Dean Harris.