As an old Hempstead High School alum, I have a great respect for track and field events. For the last 30 years, my alma mater has had nationally ranked track stars. So… what was the secret? Is it in the food? No... Is it in the water? No… Is it that good Long Island air coming off the Atlantic Ocean? No... It’s the building itself. Hempstead high school has three buildings and plenty of stairs. Just going to class builds strong leg muscles on even the laziest kids. A special secret is our ability to train indoors in the winter time. The oval shape of “A” building allows students to run on all three floors like running around a three-tiered track. And for basic training… we just did the stairs. With year-round training, our track team always had great camaraderie. So it was a logical progression that we specialized in relay race events. Anyway, I never did join the track team because I was born velocity challenged, but I did learn a lot from watching the training and the meets.
As I like studying about greats of the past, I found myself reading about one of the greatest track events ever held. It was an amazing race because the rules for the race weren’t actually established before the race began. Just watching how the race unfolded gave me great insight into how people interact in the real world. The members of the visiting track team ran into problems right away. One of the runners hurt his foot and never made the trip. Because the bus was old and run-down, another runner got car sick and couldn’t compete. When they reached the event site, the remaining runners found that they had to compete at alternate event sites, so they could not all compete together. Then things got interesting…
The remaining group of runners was told that their race would be a relay race, and rather than the winner being the team that finished a designated number of laps in the shortest time, it would be the team that completed the most laps in a designated time. Also, each team would be required to hand-off the baton every 40 seconds. The first two opponents lined up, and got ready to run. Then the judges came out and told the visiting runner that he had to run with a ball-and-chain on his leg. Flabbergasted and confused, but ever the competitor, he lined up ready to give it his best effort. And… they were off!!!
Both athletes did their best, but the ball-and-chain made it not just impossible to keep up… it made it painful to try. After forty seconds, the racers made their first handoffs to the next runners, with the new runner for the visiting team also pulling a ball-and-chain. After about three minutes of exchanges, the host team had a sizable lead and some of the judges began to question the rules. After debating the rules and seeing the need for a change based on the problems of the ball-and-chained runners, the race was stopped at the 4:07 mark. The ball-and-chains were cut off, and the racers were restarted from the spots where they were stopped.
With the ball-and-chain gone, the visiting runner began to make up ground quickly. Having worked so hard with the weight on his leg enabled him to move that much more quickly with the weight off of him. The judges, all coaches for the host team, quickly halted the race after only 31 seconds. It was decided that the first change was too drastic, so the visiting runners could continue without the ball-and-chain but they could only run in the outside lane. Again the contestants began running. Running in the outside lane, the visiting runners stayed even on the straight-aways, but continued to lose ground on the curves. During this segment of the race the judges were still conferring. After another minute (actually 58 seconds), the race was stopped again. The judges accepted that they had overly favored the host team and told the visiting team they could again run on whatever part of the track they wanted to. Ten seconds after the runners began running again, the judges decided they needed to give the visiting team a chance to make up for the problems resulting from the previous rules. So they gave skates to the visiting team and started them off again. The next scheduled baton pass came not long after this, and the new runners gave it everything they had, with the host runner running normally and the visiting runner on skates.
Looking at his competition flying around the track, the runner for the host team ran to the judges’ booth after just 14 seconds. He told them it wasn’t fair that he had to run in sneakers while his opponent used skates. Some of the judges explained that it was to make up for the unfair advantage that his team had in the beginning of the race. But the host runner didn’t care because he wasn’t running then. He only wanted a fair race now, while he carried the baton. Some of the judges agreed, while others still differed. While the debate continued, both teams stood on the track and waited.
This race may seem crazy… and that’s because it is. This relay race has been run for several hundred years in America. While this story is a representation of what has actually happened, everything is it actually happened. If you let your mind allow seconds to become years, it will become much easier to connect this relay race with our beloved “rat race” of life in America. The visiting runners are the Africans who were brought here as slaves, and the host team are the colonists that brought them here. The runner who was hurt and didn’t make the trip was the African who was killed during the slave hunt. The runner who got sick during the trip was the African who died along the middle passage. The runners who were sent to participate at other sites were the Africans who were sent off to Central and South America and the Caribbean Islands. The forty second intervals between runners were the forty years of each generation. Now we have a framework through which to see “the race-race.”
While Blacks and Whites had lived as both free men and indentured servants in American going back to the beginning of the fifteen hundreds, the arrival of the first slave ship at Jamestown in 1618 represented the beginning of slavery as a generational institution. The 4:07, or 240 seconds, that the visiting runners ran with a ball-and-chain on their legs represents the 240 years that slavery existed before the Thirteenth Amendment ended “race-based” slavery in 1865 (the “end of slavery” issue is a story for another day). The 31 seconds after the ball-and-chain period represents Reconstruction. This period ended for the runners when the visiting team was required to run in the outside lane. Like the Supreme Court decision of Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896, it was done with the belief that you could be Separate But Equal. But the way the rules were introduced in both situations was such that separate was inherently unequal. Thus after 58 seconds race time, or 58 years historically through the Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ruling in 1954, separate but equal was abolished. Ten seconds/years later, the Civil rights Act of 1964 was introduced, and socio-economic skates were given to African Americans in the form of Affirmative Action laws. This lasted only another 14 seconds/years before a host team runner named Allan Bakke filed his suit with the Supreme Court on the basis of “reverse discrimination”.
This is not a pro or anti Affirmative Action piece, because I have pros and cons of my own on the issue… too many to discuss at this point. But like I said, I know track, and I know how to survive in our rat race of American life. I understand the concept of fair play, hard work, and living by the rules. I also know enough about American history to know that whether you divide your demographics by race, religion, gender, age, indigenous, immigrant, or enslaved, Americans have always worked hard as individuals, groups, and as a whole. Still, while the time frames between acts and actions, and the ability or inability to benefit from the systems of rules and laws in the United States for the past four hundred years can be debated, one comparison stands out: 240 years with a ball-and-chain vs.14 years with skates. Now that the baton is in our hands, we really need to decide what is fair and get “the judges” to move on it. But in the meantime, we need to run our own individual races… and run it like we respect and appreciate the people who had to run with a ball-and-chain on their legs for 240 years, and in the outside lane for 58 years. They ran with those impediments so we wouldn’t have to, which makes them winners in my book.