When Sylvia Jimerson laced up her shoes on May 8, 2020, she prepared herself for a meaningful run. Rather than focusing on her fitness, her miles that day would be part of a resistance to the racism and white supremacy that seemed to impact every part of American society this year.
Jimerson and her daughters, Syrae, 11, and Jayda, 9, joined thousands of others who laced up to “Run With Ahmaud,” a virtual event meant to remember Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery’s killing sent waves through the running community, with organizations like Harlem Run Club, Latinos Run, and Runner’s World running in his honor. Jimerson brought Syrae and Jada with her to teach them about the reality of being Black in America: that one can be shot and killed simply because of the color of their skin. “These conversations are not easy, but we have to have them with our Black children,” Jimerson says.
This year has been especially trying for Black people around the nation. After George Floyd’s brutal killing was caught on camera in late May 2020, protests erupted across the nation, demanding justice for him, Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and all the other Black Americans who are no longer here because of systemic racism. This has coincided with a global pandemic that has disproportionately devastated Black communities in the U.S., with Black Americans dying from COVID-19 at three times the rate of white people. Some Black women, searching for peace and self care, have resisted stress and exhaustion by running their way through frustrations about ongoing racism, statistically tragic health outcomes in the community, and inequality.
“Running is part of a healthy lifestyle, but it’s also self care, which is resistance,” Jimerson says. “The most important thing we can do during this social justice moment is to keep running.”
Jimerson is a member of Black Girls RUN! (BGR), a national group that advocates for Black women’s health and fitness. BGR and other Black-focused running groups have proved invaluable as connection points for the community in such a high-stress time. RUNGRL, another running group dedicated to Black women, aims to celebrate the Black distance runner through storytelling, resource sharing, and community. Ashlee Green, of Washington, D.C., is a cofounder and CEO of the RUNGRL organization. She emphasizes the need to normalize Blackness, especially in the running community.
“A Black man or Black woman running down the street is still not normal, and I recognize that, and I think about that all the time when I’m running,” Green says. “So continuing to run and expanding our communities is a great way to bring awareness to us as people and as humans and as beings who live these full lives.”
Amid the ongoing turmoil due to systemic racism in America, Green has found herself reevaluating why running is so important in her life. “Continuing to run is resistance,” Green says. “Despite knowing that I might die on my run, I still do it. Continuing to try and live right now is resistance in itself.”
For Jay Ell Alexander, CEO of BGR, running also continues to be a source of healing. “It’s always been my peace,” Alexander says. “It’s just how I release.”
Alexander praised the community that she and other Black women have built to challenge the health issues that disproportionately impact the Black population, such as increased risk for diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. Over the past six months, the BGR community has become more important than ever, displaying the full breadth of Black lives and allowing Black women to enjoy a reprieve from the dual stressors of anti-Black racism and a global pandemic. During a period when Alexander would normally convene a group run for local members, social distancing amid an uptick in Covid cases across the South has forced the organization to do solo, virtual runs. Still, they root for each other online.
“Running is how I deal with stress, and I know for a lot of the other women, it’s the same thing,” Alexander says. “The group gives us a space where we always can just lean on each other.”
While these runners have found themselves grappling with racism and ongoing lack of racial representation in running, they also have to face struggles
specific to being Black women: namely, street harassment and sexual assault. These issues are often ignored in exchange for focusing on issues that largely impact men.
Green described the frustrations of dealing with harassment, and trying to compartmentalize those feelings while seeking justice for Black lives. But as cities across the nation begin to counter racism, Green, like many other Black American women, views this as a time to address multiple issues within Black communities, including the intersectional challenges that impact Black women because of their race and gender.
“Not only do I have to deal with harassment every time I go out and run, but I also have to deal with racism? It’s not ok.”
As Black women like Green balance coping with and fighting intersectional, systemic injustices, they also believe that addressing these issues begins with being more vocal, on and off the road.
“We have to be louder,” Green says. “We have to be more intentional. We have to be more impactful for the specific community that we serve.”
Moving forward, runners like Green and Alexander feel that resistance can really come down to representation, and hope that this period of activism also leads to better, safer running experiences for Black women. Alexander has found that as the protests continue, white runners recognize the historical systemic issues and are reaching out to her, trying to rectify their exclusive behavior in the community.
“In this past week, I’ve probably spoken to more non-Black counterparts than I ever had in terms of how they can get engaged with Black Girls RUN!, and how they have fallen short of diversity inclusion within their organizations,” Alexander says. “And I think through those conversations, they begin to turn the wheel. If you turned the wheel just enough, you may be able to create some more sustainable change.”