Mrs. Knight on her book and appearance in the BigTen Network
November 10, 2021
Westfield English teacher and author Dawn Knight has spent almost two decades writing her book, “Race and Football in America,” which has not only inspired her but also provided her the opportunity to speak on social justice.
Mrs. Knight’s book tells the story of George Taliaferro, Race and Football in America.
While a student at Indiana University, Mrs. Knight met the subject of her book, George Taliaferro. Taliaferro was a social work professor in a class that Knight took for an elective.
“I’ve always been interested in race and what that means in America …” Knight said. “He was just an amazing educator and as somebody who was going into the field of education he ended up being a really important mentor. Then I kept in touch with him, and so I would occasionally go back to Bloomington to have dinner with him. We were at one of those dinners and he and his wife and their friends were there and I heard him from across the table say something about when he played football for IU.
‘What do you mean you played football for IU? You never told us that,’ I said.
‘Oh it had nothing to do with social work,’ he said.
The person sitting next to me, who I didn’t know until that night said, ‘Oh well, if you didn’t know that. You probably didn't know he was the first black man drafted by an NFL team.’
I was like, ‘What? Wait a minute?’”
That conversation sparked Knight’s interest in telling Taliaferro’s story. Knight realized that his story needed to be shared.
“He was essentially the Jackie Robinson of the NFL and no one knew, even people sitting in his class.”
Knight set out to learn and tell Taliaferro’s story,
“I just started asking questions and then it occurred to me that I saw him often and was in his class, and I didn’t know about this treasure,” Knight said. “I thought, ‘I have to tell his story.’
So I called him one day and I asked ‘Can I write a book about you?’
He laughed and said, ‘Sure, yeah go ahead, who wants to write about me?’
‘I do! I have no idea what I’m doing, but I do,’ I said.
So I did.”
Knight began to uncover the amazing life of Taliaferro, bringing to light the story her book would tell.
“I found out that when he played football for IU it was actually a segregated campus, he wasn’t allowed to live on campus … and decades later, he was teaching a class at the same university he once couldn’t live on.,” Knight said.
After a decade of interviewing, Knight’s work and Taliaferro’s life culminated in the first edition of her book.
“It actually took about ten years because I was teaching, getting my master’s degree, had three kids and I wrote the book and he was super happy with it, which made me happy.”
While the book’s release seemed to be the end of her journey with Taliaferro’s story, it was only the beginning of a new adventure for her.
“(George Taliaferro and I) got to go to book signings together. But I always had this nagging feeling that it could’ve been better and that I was missing something. On the way to the first book signing, he told me a story about when he met Jackie Robinson.
I went ‘Oh my god that’s not in the book.’
He goes, ‘well, that’s okay, I’ve had a long life.’
I said, ‘Well that one’s pretty important.’
So I just started interviewing him more and looking into his life more. I started realizing how divisive the country was getting with the issue of race and I felt like his story gave some context so that we may understand it a bit better. I asked my publisher if they would be interested in redoing the book and so I rewrote it and included way more of the information after the first one. It came out in 2019. He passed away in 2018 and he knew that it was coming out and I got to do a lot of interviews with him for the new book, but he never got to see the final product.”
Integral to Taliaferro’s story and Knight’s book is how race is intrinsically involved in America, in sports, and in the lives of others. Social justice has always been a passion for Knight and her book has provided her many opportunities to speak as well as share Taliaferro’s voice.
“I started looking at other athletes who also used their status in order to fight for social justice … I think that, what (his story) does, is it helps give up an understanding of the Why. Why people are still fighting for social justice, and how it’s been done in the past. It’s not an isolated thing that is currently happening, this has been ongoing for decades. People use sport as a means for social activism. When you have the historical lens, you start to have a better understanding of the why.”
This past year, Knight’s expertise was called upon by the Big Ten Network.
“I was interviewed by a production company called BlueLine ... to do a documentary for a show called the Big Story. They do about one-hour episodes about athletes in the Big Ten who made an impact in some way and they were doing an episode about George Taliaferro.”
As the author of his biography, Knight was integral to telling his story.
“The producers actually called me and said, ‘Hey, we all read your book and we really want to make the story you told the focus of this documentary - as far as how we organize and the timeline. Can we interview you about it?’ and then they ended up interviewing me. I was kinda a consultant. I gave them a bunch of materials that I had, game programs and football cards and pictures, things like that. Then did the interview.”
Knight (Right) with the subject of her book Race and Football in America, George Taliaferro (Left)
The episode, “The B1G Story: George Taliaferro” aired back in September, but students can find reruns of it on the Big Ten Network or on demand depending on their cable provider.
As a teacher, George Taliaferro often wrote on his board a quote that has become Knight’s favorite from him and it continues to inspire others.
“May our complacency disturb us profoundly today.”