Author takes unique look at race, civil rights, politics
“Right here in Fayetteville, in the 1930s, blacks — wearing Razorback uniforms and being coached by Razorback coaches — were competing against whites in football,” says author Evin Demirel. “Young men representing two races were competing each other and building friendships despite laws trying to keep them apart. They were, in essence, going out of their way to commune and seek out the best (athletically) from each other. That’s a lesson we in the 21st century can learn from.”
That’s just one of the reasons Demirel wrote “African-American Athletes in Arkansas: Muhammad Ali’s Tour, Black Razorbacks & Other Forgotten Stories.” He’ll be among authors showcased at an “Arkansas Sports Night” tonight at the Bank of Fayetteville on the square.
“The idea for the anthology really crystallized after Muhammad Ali’s death last summer,” explains Demirel, a former award-winning feature writer with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette who has also written for the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Daily Beast, SLAM, Vice, the Arkansas Times, Arkansas Life and the Turkish Basketball Federation. “Here was this titan of sports, arguably the most important athlete of the 20th century, who had spent nearly an entire week in Arkansas at the height of his fame. The more I looked into the stories surrounding the controversy leading up to his speech at the UA, the more I realized that he kind of served as a nexus point for all kinds of significant historical movements. I wanted to “Arkansas-ify” Ali and his Black Muslim beliefs — look at the Arkansas Delta origins of the black nationalist movements he represented, go deeply into the ties between his anti-Vietnam stance and those of J. William Fulbright, etc.”
And Demirel had his own, more personal reasons.
“All good and well, a reader may wonder, but why does a ‘white guy’ like me care so much about African-American history?” he writes in the introduction to his book. “I definitely look ‘white,’ and I label myself as such for the sake of simplicity. It’s the checkbox that feels the least like lying when I’m speeding through government forms. Still, I know while my mother is a ‘white’ American, my father is not. He is Turkish, a different ethnic group from most of the lighter-skinned peoples who populated northern Europe for centuries.
“Growing up in Little Rock, I preferred to think of myself as white and simply get on with life. Yet I always felt different from most people I met.”
That “otherness,” and a passion for basketball shared with his father and the Razorbacks around the time of their 1994 NCAA championship, led Demirel to “use sports as a lens to look deeper into local and regional historical stands of politics, education, religion and civil rights.”
“I want [readers] to come away with an appreciation for a more nuanced history of race relations between blacks and whites in our state.”
Arkansas Sports Night
WHEN — 5-7 p.m. today
WHERE — Bank of Fayetteville on the downtown square
COST — Free; books will be available through Nightbird Books
INFO — 444-4444
BONUS — Also on hand will be authors Brian Reindl and J.B. Hogan.