What Do SXSW, President Obama, and Cuba Have In Common?

Answer: They’ve been talking about racism.

For the past week, the news has been full of the Obamas’ historic visit to Cuba. In today’s New York Times, a moving article described the powerful impact of the president’s most recent appearance there (“Obama Looks Past Cuba’s Post-Racial Veneer” by Damien Cave).

According to Cave’s article, an unaddressed schism exists in Cuba. Though the socialist revolution intended to remedy racial inequalities, Blacks and racially mixed groups, comprising some two-thirds of the population, still experience discrimination.

SXSW 2016 Swag BagThough you might not have known it, SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Conferences and Festivals, Austin’s 30-year-old celebration of innovation, has a socially minded side. I’m not sure if there was an extra emphasis this year, but every Interactive track seemed to include presentations addressing racism, stereotypes, and other important social issues.

Perhaps the divisive nature of the 2016 presidential campaign caused organizers to look for opportunities to explore inclusion. Whatever the reason, I appreciated the abundance.

Because the nature of the beast is that you’re going to miss a lot of good SXSW stuff, I couldn’t sample everything on the schedule I wanted. But I did attend these two panels that, like Obama in Cuba, touched on race in America.

And significantly touched me.

Race in America with Ken Burns and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

This SXgood featured session was packed. Both Burns and Gates have new film projects premiering on PBS. Burns’ is a documentary about Jackie Robinson, the iconic Black baseball player (April 11–12, 2016) and social equality activist.

Jackie Robinson forever changed baseball, and I love a good sports film highlighting a legendary player. It was interesting hearing Burns discuss how Robinson’s anger “delegitimized” him to white society, negating the “mythology” of the man, “frozen in time” as a baseball player.

Austin Street Art: Martin Luther King, Jr.
This street art image of Martin Luther King, Jr. graced the intersection of Berkman and Manor Rd.for months.

Gates and Burns discussed how Robinson was one of the Black Republicans who lobbied President Nixon to intervene when Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed in 1960 following an Atlanta sit-in (Nixon declined to act; it was Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy who helped secure King’s release).

Gates’ upcoming project really grabbed me. He introduced the film with this thought-provoking statement:

“If Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. woke up today and asked, ‘What has happened [in civil rights] since I was here?’ what would you say?”

“And Still I Rise: Black America Since MLK” premiers this fall. Though I scoured the ‘net to find a clip to share, I couldn’t locate one. Trust me; you’ll want to see this show. I’m not exaggerating when I say the hair on my arms rose during the brief segment screened. Powerful stuff.

Gates is a wonderful speaker. Burns agrees with me; at one point, he turned to the audience and said, “There’s no greater American storyteller than this brother right here.” The two, inspired by the shootings at Charleston’s Emmanuel Church, are on a national tour, lecturing about the ways history, images, and society influence racial issues in the U.S.

Gates pointed out that their discussion wasn’t focused on race per se but on racism. He touched on the concept that America’s “real enemy is class and fear of scarcity,” and encouraged the audience to find ways to relate to others that “create bridges,” not demonize.

Sports Media’s Role in Shaping Social Justice

SXSW 2016 Sports Media and Social Justice

Every year, there’s a SXSW session that’s so engaging I want to stay cocooned in the room, listening to and asking questions of the panelists. This SXsports panel featuring Jessica Luther, Cyd Zeigler, and Bomani Jones was the one.

What had originally drawn me in was Luther, a freelance writer and author — and Austinite — who focuses on violence in sports (she and co-author Dan Solomon wrote about the Baylor sexual assault case for Texas Monthly).

SXSW 2016 Slide from Sports Media and Social Justice Panel

Images illustrated issues of social justice – the best display of visuals I’ve ever seen in a SXSW session. Iconic sports photos scrolled silently: basketball players revealing “I can’t breathe” T-shirts; Olympians on the podium, fists aloft in the Black Panther salute; Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in “Battle of the Sexes”; Ray Rice and then fiancée Janay Palmer sitting side by side at a news conference; and many more.

Facilitator Cyd Zeigler (Outsports) masterfully guided conversation, encouraged exploration, and promoted guesses at what issues are on the horizon for sports writers. Luther, with a nod to Jules Boykoff (author, and one of the panelist on my favorite SXsports panel from 2015) in the audience, said that social issues surrounding Rio 2016 will be hot. Zeigler, a champion for the LGBT sports community, put his money behind topics related to transgender athletes.

Bomani Jones, sports writer and ESPN personality, turned out to be the star of the show. I confess: prior to this panel, I wasn’t that familiar with Jones. The man has a gift  – my notes are filled with quotes from Jones, which suffer somewhat without his wry delivery:

  • “If you get to the end of an article about a rapist and think, ‘Hey, he’s not such a bad guy,’ somebody probably dropped the ball somewhere.”
  • “Sometimes I get tired of being the face of rebellious Negritude.”
  • “There’s a place for straight-up nuts and bolts info [of sports writing]. If that’s what you’re gonna do, then stay in that place.”
  • “Sports journalism is a lot harder than it looks.”
  • “My agent is always concerned about me being seen as ‘the Black man.’ My response to him – ‘We’re gonna have a little bit of a problem with that.’”

What Jones sees on the social issue horizon? Trump, through the lens of athletes. “How we choose to discuss this will be of great importance.”

More on SXSW 2016

Additional SXSW Interactive highlights are in my article for The Austinot. It’s always a treat to seek out Austin connections, and I’m happy to cover SXSW for this local online resource.

“SXSW Interactive 2016 Spans Sports, Style and Everything Between”

Collage showing images of Olympian Sanya Richards-Ross and other SXsports panelists at SXSW 2016.

Collage showing scenes from SXstyle at SXSW 2016






SXSW has a plethora of convergence content, themed tracks that are open to a variety of badges. SXgood, available to all badge holders, took place over two days during the Interactive portion. Presentations showcased “people, artists, and brands working to build a better world through innovative projects and collaborations.”




“Pack Like a Local for SXSW in Austin”




“SXSW Interactive Spans Sports, Style and Everything In Between”


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Published by Leah Nyfeler

I'm a writer, editor, runner, and adventurer who is always looking for the next new story, exciting adventure, and good meal/book/movie. My focus is on helping people find their best, healthiest self through sharing what I know and how I've come to learn it. In addition to my blog "Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life" at www.leahruns100.com, my articles have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines. You can hear me as part of the 2015 Austin cast of Listen To Your Mother.

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