On a glorious Saturday morning in Dorchester, a group of Black men in running clothes are sweating and hugging, breaking their victory embraces to urge the next runner up the punishing final hill.
“Let’s go, brother man, let’s go,” yells Jeff Davis, as he and others at the finish line clap and cheer on a breathless teammate. “Let’s go! … I see you, ‘Los! … C’mon, Carlos!”
Boston has many running groups, but perhaps only one driven by a history of oppression and the volatile current moment. For its members, it’s a sanctuary.
The Boston chapter of Black Men Run organized in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Every Saturday at 8 a.m., the runners gather at the historic clock in Peabody Square. They’re a diverse mix of ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religious and political leaning. But those differences are irrelevant in a world that often sees them merely as Black men.
Last summer, with the killing of Black men by police or through violence, the need to connect as a community seemed more important than ever. Around that time, Davis noticed that an event was being sponsored by a national organization called Black Men Run. Launched in 2013, Black Men Run had chapters all over the country, but none in Boston.
“How special could it be,” Davis mused at the time, “if, as Black men, we have a space to come and just be?”
A runner since high school, Davis realized that this group could bolster physical and mental health while fostering relationships. So, after some consultation with the Black Men Run’s national office, Davis led its first Boston run with just three guys.
Since then, the group has had up to 17 runners.
Davis is coach and captain, poet and priest. He talks to the group about James Baldwin, a Black writer who had to leave America to be fully appreciated. He talks about the importance of COVID vaccinations.
At the start of each session, Davis leads the men through elaborate warm-up exercises. Then they circle up, and each answers the question “Why?” — why did you get out of bed this morning and show up for the brutal run?
The answers pour forth in accents from across the country and around the world.
“Love of our community” ... “For continued balance” ... “Being here for those who can’t be” ... “Being consistent” ... “Black excellence” ... “So much joy and pride” ... “Lifting one another up in love and peace...”
Some in the group have been running all their lives, others are novices. Some are extremely fit, others are doughy. Today they’ll be running four miles, but they know it’s okay to jog or walk the route.
“We’re gonna start up Talbot,” Davis announced, “take Talbot to Norfolk over onto Morton, come down toward the chocolate factory, then come up Dot and Galvin and finish back here at the church.”
Everyone waits at the finish line for the last to return. Every one of them gets cheered through the final stretch.
“Idris, finish strong. ... Finish strong, let’s go!” Davis shouts to Idris Aziz above the clapping and clamor of those who’ve come in. “We don’t quit. ... we don’t quit!”
Aziz later admitted he needed the emotional support of the group to climb that final hill.
"I appreciate the camaraderie of these brothers. I was weak coming up this hill. I needed the help of these brothers to help me up the hill and be stronger."Idris Aziz
But once there, and cooled down, Aziz challenged those standing by to join him in 20 push-ups. They all drop to the pavement and start pumping. Aziz keeps going past 20... past 25... past 30. He’s ecstatic.
Davis said running often brings up difficult dormant emotions. Thoughts suppressed for years may start to surface.
“You might not even know the emotions are coming,” he said. “You get out there — one mile, two mile, three mile, five mile ... gotta get to the finish line — but then after that, all the dormant emotions hit you. And In that moment, can you have a brother hold you up?”
He means that literally and figuratively.
Co-captain Jeff Joseph said he runs to get out of his comfort zone and build community, to connect with a group of Black men around something positive.
Kahlil Saddiq, a community activist, sees running as a civic duty.
Serghino Rene said he runs for his mental health. As a Black man, he said, he’s lucky to have a good job and live in a nice neighborhood. But he lives with micro-aggressions on a daily basis.
“These guys have all been through those experiences as well,” Rene said. “There’s just that understanding of: ‘I know where you’re at.’”
Many in the group refer to it as their sanctuary.
“This is probably the only space where I can be 100% me in all ways possible,” Rene said. “I’m not here by accident. Definitely something in the universe is working.”
And they’re all here for the physical fitness — including Nigerian-born Robinson Otu, whose overnight job means he hasn’t slept since yesterday afternoon. “Running with these brothers is something I look forward to,” Otu said. “I know we’re gonna push one another to finish stronger.”
Hoping to lead by example, the group intentionally runs through Black neighborhoods. For Black men and boys, they say, such modelling is critically important. Almost 50% of Black men over 20 suffer from cardiac disease. For this population, it’s the leading cause of death.
“The stress of living is killing us,” Davis said. “As a community member, I want to show that health and wellness is not a fantasy. It’s actually a lifestyle anyone can achieve. It just takes one step at a time.”
And today, as the last of the runners pulls up to the finish line, those accumulated steps energize a euphoric brotherhood.
“Whaddaya say, Idris … you already won, baby! You already won, Idris! … C’mon, c’mon get me! … Heads up, eyes up, chest up … Heads up, eyes up, chest up …”