As a recipient of the Marilyn Yarbrough Dissertation/Teaching Fellowship, Raja Rahim joins the Kenyon College community this year. Currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Florida, Rahim is teaching a course at Kenyon while also working on her dissertation, which examines the political, cultural and social aspects of basketball at historically Black colleges and universities.
The fellowship, named in honor of the late Marilyn Yarbrough, a Kenyon parent and trustee who addressed gender and racial discrimination in her work as a legal scholar and university administrator, provides scholars in their final stages of their doctoral work the opportunity to teach while they finish their dissertations.
Rahim’s class, The Black Experience in U.S. History through Sports: From Jack Jackson to Colin Kaepernick (HIST 391.02), uses sports as a platform to examine the social, intellectual, cultural and political elements of African American history. Despite sports’ extensive influence on popular culture, history education typically overemphasizes topics such as politics and economics, making sports history relatively uncommon territory, Rahim said. “For a long time history has been framed from the top down….and a lot of the cultural studies that included African American history or Latinx history were ignored because of the time,” she added. Rahim describes how the rise of civil activism including: Black power, women’s rights and LGBTQ movements, has caused historians to start examining these “marginalized communities” and the unconventional aspects of history.
Rahim’s area of study is especially relevant today, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly in the realm of sports. Rahim notes that “athletes, especially Black athletes, are at the center of Black Lives Matter campaigns and protests,” and athletes like Colin Kaepernick have used their positions to influence others. Sports, from her perspective, serve as a “unification tool” for society and are therefore significant in both present and historical contexts. Rahim’s class will trace these acts of activism as well as the participation of Black Americans in athletics to analyze broader implications.
Before working to earn her Ph.D., Rahim had grown up in Richmond, Va., a place with a long history of racial discrimination. “I’m from the state that welcomed the first enslaved Black bodies,” Rahim said. As a child, she learned extensively about her hometown’s history of inequality. Learning this history helped inspire her love and passion for the subject, she said.
Throughout her youth, Rahim played volleyball, basketball and ran track. She considered being a student-athlete when she attended North Carolina Central University, but ultimately decided to participate in sports in a different way: She became active in the university’s athletic department through media relations, helping establish her passion for sports. With an interest in both sports and history, “I wanted to figure out ways to blend the two passions together,” Rahim said. Her dual interests helped lead her to pursue a career in higher education, a path that would allow her to fuse the two disciplines together.
Prior to arriving at college, Rahim wanted to be a lawyer. But, once she began her studies, taking classes in education, she realized her passion for teaching. “I have always wanted to be in a place and space where I could help people, but I didn’t always know the proper form,” Rahim said, and “teaching allows me to help those who want to learn about themselves and the world they live in so then they as individuals can change the world, society and their communities for better.”
After briefly considering a degree in history education, which would allow her to teach K-12, Rahim decided that she would prefer to be a professor due to the pedagogical freedom it provides. From there, she decided to major in history, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from North Carolina Central University.
While earning her master’s degree at North Carolina Central and working on her Ph.D. at the University of Florida, Rahim was able to pursue many teaching opportunities as a grader, teaching assistant, and teaching associate.
“Being an educator allows me to be in contact with people I have never met or to be in places where I may have never been,” she said. “Coming in contact with these people and places allows me to not only change and impact their lives but for them to do the same for me.”
Rahim’s area of expertise is not limited to Black sports history but extends to general areas of race and gender in sports throughout U.S. history. Rahim is excited to join the Kenyon community because of the enthusiasm she has encountered from students.
Rahim anticipates difficulty in convincing fellow scholars that sports can be an analytical lens into Black history. Sports, she said, are often considered purely entertainment when, in actuality, they are some of the “largest stages nationally and internationally that can highlight and articulate racial, social and economic disparities.”
On a personal level, Rahim believes that education should have an impact on both students and teachers. The classroom, she says, is a place to share, discuss and build empathy. Her quote to live by is that “your primary purpose in life is to help others and if you cannot help them, at the very least do not harm them.”