Everybody loves a good footrace. The 2020-but-in-2021 Olympics are currently underway, and I’d wager a sizable number of people will tune in once the track-and-field events start in the second week. There’s something exciting about the notion of super-human abilities; who wouldn’t want to be known as the “fastest human live”? You would literally be the coolest person in any room you walk into. I’m sure Usain Bolt can feel me.
But the Olympics aren’t the only place where footraces-for-respect happen. Every night in Black communities across America, some gathering of Black folks results in discussions about glory-day athletic achievements and then the dismissal of said achievements resulting in a challenge that is so commonplace nobody bats an eye and we all act accordingly. “Do you want to race?” moves as many people to action in African America as free chicken sandwiches at Popeyes. And to be clear, it doesn’t matter what particular field the prior achievements were in; if legs were used, a footrace can be used to validate or invalidate; it can be used to flatten egos and enable Super-Saiyan level trash talk. “Do you want to race?” is the great equalizer.
There’s a scene at the end of an episode of season 2 of the hit FX show, Atlanta, where, after leaving a club where Earn, Paper Boi et al. are trying to do promo, Earn and Vanessa stumble upon a gathering in the parking lot. As it turns out, Michael Vick—who doesn’t need the money—is racing niggas for money in the parking lot. In the parking lot. Of the club. At like 3 a.m. As ridiculous as that sounds, it also isn’t.
You see, I sing because I’m happy and I sing because I’m free; my eye is on the sparrow and I’ve seen scenes like that happen in real life, in real time on more than one occasion. It’s a spectacle, sure, but it’s also like, “Oh, word? Niggas is racing? Let’s go see.” Nobody in the parking lot seemed even remotely stupefied by the display; it’s 3 a.m. and niggas still have energy, and who doesn’t want to be the nigga with ‘hood bragging rights who beat Michael Vick in a footrace outside the club? The guy who told Earn that Vick was racing folks said it as if it was some regular Tuesday shit.
As it turns out, for many of us, it is. After that episode aired, social media was alight with folks, especially dudes in Atlanta where I can confirm this type of shit does happen a lot, wondering if this was common where other folks lived. For many, it was stuff they see. I read stories of folks chiming in with their own random footrace-at-the-club stories and I believed them all because, again, I’ve seen them. For the record, I have never raced anybody outside a club after midnight; I was a distance runner; you ain’t finna make me look dumb in my Steve Maddens-Not-Pradas in front of women who didn’t want me in the first place.
I don’t know what it is about Black men in particular where racing is a thing we just, ya know, do in order to address perceived slights. Maybe it’s because it’s usually easy to have a footrace. Maybe because it is a spectacle and all prideful actions need a crowd. It is because we’re Black? I don’t know, but it’s funny, accurate and, well, I supposed in a Darwinian way it does solve whatever problem it was intended to address. It can make legends and create foils. It can also, ruin your own personal narrative.
Which brings me to a recent evening at my own home. My brother-in-law is heading to Howard University in the fall—which is actually mid-summer; fall semesters are starting mad early these days—so my family had a cookout for him. He brought a couple of his boys with him to visit D.C. and hang out. A jolly time was had by all. And it got jollier because one of my best friends, a former college track athlete at one of those dominant college programs, and one of my brother-in-law’s friends somehow got into a discussion that ended with the words, “You wanna race?” Mind you, it was very close to midnight, but the challenge was laid and accepted and well, you can’t say no if you are a 40-year-old former D-I track athlete being challenged by an 18-year-old.
Now, I must give some quick background about my neighborhood. I live in a very Black neighborhood where folks throw block parties with sound systems blasting well into the wee hours of the morning, where people are typically gathered outside to hang until the hanging ain’t worth the hang no more. So inside my house, “they finna race,” traveled, and outside there was a crowd of folks, young and old more or less just chillin’ waiting for the next big thing.
As about a dozen of us poured out of my house and both of the race entrants changed into more comfortable clothing, I walked down the street towards the crowd and told them—I don’t know them, by the way—that there was finna be a race and we need to block traffic. Because every Black person in America, young and old understands the importance of such things, they all obliged and some stood in the road and others all moved their chairs or whatever to get a better view of the upcoming ongoings. Basically, even at midnight in Southeast Washington, D.C., nobody was even phased that a race was about to happen and everybody moved accordingly so they could be part of the spectacle. We set up a starting line and finish line and had a cheering section for everybody and nobody as two Black men raced for whatever form of glory each of them was chasing. And glory was achieved for one.
I won’t divulge the outcome of the race, that isn’t the point but there is footage that exists because it’s 2021. But sure as shootin’, a bunch of Black men were chillin’ in a house talking shit and because of course it did, it resulted in a bunch of Black folks running down a street at midnight.
This is how we do.