Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics

Volume 25, Issue 9

Book Review: September 1, 2022

by Taylor McKee

Canada, like any country, frequently traffics in mythmaking about its origins and national character. Through these national myths, Canada and Canadians are often depicted as uniformly polite, peaceable, and prototypically masculine, forged through a combination of refined civility and rugged individualism. This collective self-identity frequently leaches into Canada’s broader sporting mythos. Accordingly, Canadian athletes and teams are frequently cast as athlete-heroes defined by their grit, underdog spirit, or laudable sportsmanship. This common characterization becomes especially pronounced when brought into contrast with international ‘others’, be they American, Soviet, British, or anyone else cast in the role within a given narrative. However, despite the prevalence of this typecasting in our collective cultural imagination, Canadian history contains an abundance of examples that undercut the validity of this misleading national storytelling.

Isolating such important counternarratives, and expressing them in a manner that is both clear and accessible to readers, is a challenge for any historian working to resist Canada’s homogenous sport history. While crafting any national sporting history is exceedingly difficult, given the challenges associated with context, subject position, and scope or scale, one recent work of Canadian sport history deploys a microhistorical approach to effectively destabilize deeply engrained assumptions about this subject. In Ian Kennedy’s new study, On Account of Darkness: Shining Light on Race and Sport (2022), he perhaps ironically contends with this mammoth task by creating a microhistory, or rather microhistories, of Canadian sport at the intersections of racism and colonialism. Kennedy’s approach aligns with a long historiographical tradition of addressing complex topics, events, or issues through a focused case study. For example, in the same way that a reader comes to understand life in sixteenth-century Friuli by learning the cosmology of Menocchio in Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms (1976), microhistories in general have the unique ability to distill complex historical narratives through specific geographic or temporal spaces. Through On Account of Darkness, Kennedy not only proves the continuing efficacy of microhistories as a historical methodology, but he further demonstrates how this approach can be combined with other strategies, including oral history and ethnography, to produce a form that is established, yet entirely new.

A thoroughly resourced, yet relentlessly accessible work, On Account of Darkness is written for a general audience, but it is also supplemented and supported through rigorous archival research. One aspect that makes On Account of Darkness such a uniquely compelling read is Kennedy’s novel approach, in which he examines broader issues that are integral to Canadian sport history at large through a regional focus on one locality: southwestern Ontario. It is a credit to Kennedy’s abilities as both a storyteller and researcher that the resulting text is easy to grasp, even if a reader is wholly unfamiliar with the Chatham-Kent region of Canada and its defining characteristics. Throughout the book, Kennedy offers his reader the opportunity to consider different aspects of Canadian sport history. Rather than attempting to depict events or themes with objectivity, an ideal that is itself impossible and even undesirable is historical research, Kennedy’s humanist approach foregrounds subjectivity, whether through the subjects he interviews or his own unique perspective. The result is as a concert of distinct voices that meaningfully contributes to the larger history of race and sport in Canada, rather than functioning as a traditional sport history textbook. On Account of Darkness thus succeeds as a work of autobiographical, ethnographical microhistory and is unlike any other such work on Canadian sport history.

There is immense value in considering Kennedy’s mixed-methods approach for sport scholars, especially given the field’s frequent reliance on established methodologies and similarly canonical topics. Clearly possessing an intimate knowledge of this geographic space, Kennedy tells his own story alongside those of his participants. In doing so, he reveals both the particulars of his subject position, while also seeking to connect with all interested readers, resulting in a narrative that is both specific and universal. At each turn, Kennedy reveals a local history that was previously latent to him while he was growing up in this region. Kennedy’s expressions of vulnerability and discovery lend a sense of curiosity and narrative propulsion to his writing, making for an exceptionally easy reading experience. Rather than producing a devotional tome that further codifies prevailing myths about Canadian sport history, Kennedy creates a counter-history that amplifies the voices of those who have been often silenced in the pages of more traditional retellings. Coupled with his devotion to the region’s historical records, this approach humanizes both the history and the historian.

On Account of Darkness is divided into twenty-one brief chapters that span Canadian sport history, in both topic and time. Taken together, these studies help illuminate Kennedy’s broader thematic interest in race in Canadian sport. He typically begins each chapter with personal reflections, ruminations on local landmarks or events, or interviews conducted with a member of the Chatham-Kent community. Many chapters tell, or re-tell, stories involving popular Canadian athletes, acknowledging these known histories before reimaging them through additional details or new perspectives. These include Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Ferguson Jenkins and Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Willie O’ Ree, though oftentimes such narratives are woven into broader, intertwined discussions of race and sport. Moving from the stories of local legends to figures of national or international renown reveals how the familiar unlocks the unfamiliar and the many ways in which the global can be understood through the regional. Weaving together recovery narratives of forgotten figures and revisionist histories of well-known events, Kennedy rewrites Canadian sport history in real time. By underscoring the many and varied ways that these Canadian athletes are connected across time and place, Kennedy explicitly undercuts Canadian mythologies regarding our contradictory homogeneity and inclusiveness. As he reveals through these histories, the Canadian sporting ‘other’ has not only been our international opponents, but they have oftentimes been fellow Canadians who were marginalized based on their racial identities.

For example, Chapter Six, ‘Learning to Play Ball’, is emblematic of Kennedy’s incisive analysis and engaging style of prose. He begins with a personal interview with an Indigenous athlete. From there, he deftly moves to a discussion of the relationship between Canada’s most (in)famous sports journalist of the twentieth-century, Lou Marsh, and Olympian, Boston Marathon winner, and Acclaimed Indigenous sporting icon Tom Longboat. Following that, he concludes with an examination of anti-black racism in Chatham-Kent’s harness racing community. While one might imagine such a combination of topics may lead to a sense of discord or confusion, Kennedy’s smooth transitions guide the reader through his elegant line of reasoning. Rather than being beholden to chronology or a single topic of study, Kennedy employs a kind of thematic dream logic that allows him to explore the landscape of Canadian sport history with genuine ingenuity and fearlessness. Instead of leaving his reader disoriented, Kennedy offers us an innovative path through this familiar terrain, making good on his stated intention of ‘shining light on race and sport’. Because On Account of Darkness is so carefully constructed and artfully composed, the reader can simply glide between the past and the present, the archive and the kitchen table.

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