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Black Oarsmen: Q&A with Dr. Rashid Faisal

BY LUKE REYNOLDS
PHOTO PROVIDED BY RASHID FAISAL

Rashid Faisal, a Detroit educator and historian, has written a book about early Black oarsmen and their participation in the sport. Rowing News interviewed Dr. Faisal about why he undertook the project, what he learned, and what he hopes his book will accomplish. 

Q: Tell me about yourself and why you decided to write a book about this subject.

A: I guess you could call me a local historian. My background is in education. I have a doctorate in urban education and I specialize in African American education. That takes me to a lot of different areas, from the academic to the athletic. So my research tends to cover both sides. My interest in rowing came from a couple of different pathways. I was always impressed by the elegance and beauty of the sport in general. I spent some time at Columbia University and had the opportunity to see it in action. I am not a competitive rower but more of a spectator. Also, Dr. Joseph Trigg [one of the rowers profiled in the book] is a member of my fraternity—Alpha Phi Alpha—and I was going through some of the old archives and I came across his name and found out that he was on the rowing team. That  sparked my interest, because I didn’t know of many African Americans who were participating in rowing, with the exception of Howard University in the 1960s. Rowing is what you would consider under-researched, and when you intersect that with race, talk about trying to find a needle in a haystack! 

Q: Tell me what you’ve learned about the sport as “more of a spectator.” We don’t hear a lot about the sport from the perspective of someone who isn’t directly involved.  

A: Within the sport, there is a really interesting intersection between race and class, particularly since its origins are in Anglo-English society. We [Americans] kind of looked to Europe for our intellectual, religious, and social models, and I found it interesting that once the sport came to the U.S., it was at Harvard and Yale. That intercollegiate competition is actually older than the football game, but it doesn’t get the same media play. The narrative of the history of how it came over to America, how it impacted collegiate sports, and the kind of race and class issues that evolved around it fascinated me. Also how it was rooted in muscular Christianity, where your faith was also tied to athletic success. And how that shaped collegiate athletics, because football was frowned upon because it was too barbaric, while rowing and track were considered artistic and athletic. 

Q: Have you spent much time looking at what the culture of rowing is in America now? 

A: I haven’t looked at it from a contemporary standpoint. I think it was featured in Rowing News about the high school rowers in Chicago who were considered some of the first African American rowers, but they weren’t the first, and that goes back to some of the histories that weren’t captured. I’m putting myself in the context of how can you make the connection between the past and the present so that if you have African American, non-white, minority rowers, they can begin to see that they do have a connection to the sport historically. 

Q: What do you hope the work accomplishes?

A: I see this volume as a way to serve as an entry point, because if students can see themselves in the narrative, then the likelihood of their being attracted to the sport and sticking with it will increase. We have to break down perceptions, especially in minority communities, because sometimes perception is reality, and if you think the sport is only for certain people, then you will shy away from it. I hope the book will serve to break down some of those barriers. 

Q: When will the book be released to the public? 

A: I am pushing for January or February, if not sooner. It’s not a huge volume. It’s almost like an airplane-flight read, because I wanted to tailor it to everyday people and high school students, because I want to work more closely with them and get them involved in the sport. 

Black Oarsmen: Early African American Pioneers in Collegiate Rowing will be available in 2021. 

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