A chance conversation between visual artist and Tennessee State University professor Michael McBride and Akebulan Images bookstore owner Yusef Harris, dating back nearly 20 years, sparked what may become one of the most ambitious and diversified projects on history, culture and athletics in the nation.
McBride, along with sculptor George Nock, a former NFL player now living in Atlanta, Grammy-winning producer Shannon Sanders and filmmaker Donnie l. Betts have joined forces on the multimedia project Too Black Too Fast, an ambitious production celebrating the contributions of black jockeys to the development and growth of horse racing in America from 1607-1910. It combines visual art with film, literature and music in a diversified salute to an overlooked era and uncredited athletic heroes.
The current exhibit, which features 32 of the eventual 65 paintings and 15 of 25 sculptures (five in bronze), is now being shown weekdays through Mar. 27 at Tennessee State University's Floyd-Payne Campus Center, 3500 John A. Merritt Blvd, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. In addition, McBride, Sanders and project Derell Stinson will be featured Thursday afternoon in a panel discussion at Floyd-Payne Center on the project's music component at 1 p.m.
"As a history and horse-racing enthusiast I was introduced to this project through a discussion I had with Yusef Harris back in 1991," McBride writes via email. "He had been contacted by some people from Churchill Downs about anything he had regarding blacks in horse racing or blacks involved with Churchill Downs. Once I started reading and researching the subject, I found a lot of material that hadn't been very publicized and that really triggered my interest. But I would say that the project really got going in 2000."
The more McBride researched, the more convinced he became that the jockeys were really the first professional athletes in America. "They were around some 200 years before Jackie Robinson integrated major-league baseball,” he says. “But like so many things in America that involved blacks, there was no knowledge of these contributions in many sectors in our nation."
Too Black Too Fast will eventually include not only McBride's paintings and Nock's sculptures, but a documentary directed by Betts, a companion book, and a CD whose music is being supervised by Sanders. Another intriguing element concerns McBride's paintings, which use the "Harris technique" — a method he learned from artist Peggy Harris when he was working in her studios 25 years ago. The Harris technique involves creating oil paintings through a combination of cotton balls, Q-tips, paper towels, brushes and handwork.
The documentary is set to begin filming this fall, with work on the book and CD soon to follow. There are also plans eventually to have a permanent place housing the exhibition known as the Isaac Murphy Equestrian Center, named after the legendary jockey who won three Kentucky Derbys, five Latonia Derby races and four of the first five American Derby contests, once the nation's race for three-year-old horses. The son of a slave, Murphy was so dominant that he claimed victory in 44 percent of his career races, though official racing stats maintain that he won 34.5. But he was unquestionably the most dominant rider in early professional racing circles.
Besides the exhibition, there are plans for a gallery, centers for environmental and equine studies, and many other items dedicated to chronicling the black experience and achievements in horse racing. But for now, sports and history buffs — as well as individuals simply curious about events and personalities that have seldom gotten their just due in sports or cultural circles — can acquaint themselves with a little-known history that fills in the missing gaps between race and racing.
For more information about Too Black Too Fast, consult www.tooblacktoofast.com.
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