Miller Center

Damion Thomas

History, University of California, Los Angeles

"The Good Negroes": African-American Athletes and the Cultural Cold War, 1945–68

Thomas photo

Damion Thomas is Assistant Professor of Physical Cultural Studies and affiliate faculty in the African American Studies Department at the University of Maryland.

Thomas's research interests include:  Sport and United States race relations, Black internationalism, African American popular culture, U.S. foreign relations, and Black masculinity. His book, Globetrotting: African American Athletes and Cold War Politics, provides a transnational perspective to the study of domestic American racial affairs by examining U.S. government attempts to manipulate international perceptions of U.S. race relations during the early days of the Cold War.  As nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin American gained their independence, the State Department began to send prosperous African Americans overseas to showcase African Americans as the preeminent citizens of the African Diaspora, rather than as victims of racial oppression. Athletes were prominently featured in the State Department goodwill tours, designed to undermine anti-Americanism. However, as African-American athletes began to provide counter narratives to State Department claims about American exceptionalism—most notably during the 1968 Mexico City Olympic protest—the transatlantic relationships these tours fostered were co-opted as a means to foster African Diasporic cultural and political agendas.

Thomas's dissertation, "'The Good Negroes': African-American Athletes and the Cultural Cold War, 1945–1968," examined State Department attempts to manipulate international perceptions of United States race relations by sending African-American athletes abroad as cultural ambassadors. This project argued that the politics of symbolism associated with the African-American athletes and integrated teams were designed to give legitimacy to existing racial inequalities in American society during the Cold War/Civil Rights Era. The symbol of the integrated athlete allowed the government to argue that the racial order was not an impediment to the advancement of individual African Americans.

Fellowship year: 2002

Mentor: Jeffrey Sammons, University of North Carolina

Selected Recent Publications

Globetrotting: African American Athletes and Cold War Politics (University of Illinois Press, 2012).

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