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What would Muhammad Ali have made of today’s activist athlete? Not the airbrushed Ali, co-opted by the sporting establishment, branded by the market as Icon-Legend™. But the other Ali, the earlier Ali: angry, confrontational, challenging the white establishment, throwing his 1960 Olympic gold medal into a river, refusing to be drafted into the US Army for the Vietnam war and banned from boxing in his prime, stripped of his passport.
Ali died two months before San Francisco 49ers quarter back Colin Kaepernick began a protest that became a 21st century leitmotif of the enraged athlete.
In August 2016, Kaepernick first stayed seated and then knelt while the US national anthem was being played at the start of every NFL match. It was his protest against police brutality and injustice against blacks and other minorities in his country. The gesture was to end Kaepernick’s professional career – his contract ran out at the end of the season as no NFL team would sign him.
When the Black Lives Matter protests erupted over the next few years, Kaepernick’s gesture – of going down on a knee as the US national anthem sounded – became a symbol of protest around the world in sport and in public life. Football teams did it, teams at the Tokyo Olympics did it, individual athletes did it.
You get the feeling that Ali, who had grown up around the one-fisted Black Power salute, would have taken a knee too.
The 2020 Black Lives Matter movement led to marches around the world and an outpouring of life stories about being sliced and bled by the hard edge of racism. One July morning, with West Indies touring England and a session rained off in Southampton, former player-commentators Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent talked movingly about their lives as black players on live TV.
Holding, never garrulous, always restrained, revealed family truths around an issue he had always steered away from and highlighted sustained “brainwashing” in education and culture directed towards the “persistent dehumanising of black people.”
That day, the world saw Holding as he had never been seen before, his voice full of anger and sadness and tears. When he went off air, Holding thought had said his piece and had nothing to add. But the reverberations across cricket following his words on Sky TV shocked the man himself. It was to lead Holding to abandon his reticence around issues of race and culture.
“I thought long and hard about my life and I realised it was time to speak. Maybe my voice could make a difference…I thought about all the occasions when I could have and should have said something. But didn’t. Inside I grimaced. It was not time to make that mistake again. Time to become unselfish.”
By the next year, he produced a remarkable book, Why We Kneel, How We Rise, in collaboration with English writer Ed Hawkins.
The book marks, through reading and conversations, what Holding calls his “re-education” around black history and culture and it has become his answer to ‘what next?’ Why We Kneel, How We Rise has the “contributions” of some very famous athletes on its cover but this is not a book only about sport. Nor, as Holding says, is it a book of complaints, but rather about facts.
In clear, unfettered Mikey-speak, we are made witness to the world of black and coloured people who live, move around, deal with and come up against white privilege and exceptionalism. Holding describes white privilege as being about “the absence of aggravation, challenge and obstruction” in the course of a normal day.
He calls the storming of the Capitol in January 2021 the “finest example of white privilege.” He points out that had the same number of black people stormed the Capitol, “there would have been a massacre.”
Why We Kneel examines all manner racism: institutional, historic, visible as well as its everyday, casual “drip-drip” acid on the confidence of coloured people around the world. Living with it has limitations, shackles even – “If you stay silent, then nothing changes, if you push back you are a trouble maker.”
During the making of the book, Holding spoke to several athletes of colour, including footballer Thierry Henry, sprinter Usain Bolt, cricketer Makhaya Ntini, tennis player Naomi Osaka and athlete Michael Johnson. Holding locates their individual experiences alongside the systematic erasure of black history and significance as a calculated means to endorse the fable of white supremacy and its valuable tool – racism.
Why We Kneel is an ambitious book because it aims to span both today and yesterday, times ancient and modern and drill deep into the insidious brainwashing that dominates public education, popular culture and myth-making around black people. Holding notes the tunnel vision through which schoolchildren everywhere learn about the global black community, be it in Africa or elsewhere.
It tends to begin with 15th or 16th century through African tribalism coming in contact with colonial conquest followed by slavery and post-colonial “freedoms.” Nothing before, nothing else during and very little nothing after.
The Black History timeline at the back of the book shows us how little we have been taught. It begins (after clarifying that Jesus Christ was not a white man) with the Roman Empire’s black emperor Septimus Severus and the kingdom of Ghana and traverses through two thousand years of civilisation, excellence, invention, heritage, valour and sacrifice of black people around the world.
Holding’s fellow Jamaican Usain Bolt spent time in high school filling gaps about black history in his textbooks and says, “It’s important that our schools also teach about the brilliance of our ancestors and not just being slaves on the plantation.”
We are introduced to Hope Powell, the first black football manager of an English national team, whose mother was part of the Windrush generation of the earliest Caribbean immigrants to Britain.
Starting 1948, West Indians were invited to the country by British government campaigns in the Caribbean to fill in post-war labour shortages. In 2018, the British government identified 83 people of West Indian origin for either detention or deportation, even after it discovered that landing cards of immigrants from the Caribbean dating back to the post war years had been deliberately destroyed by the Home Office in 2010.
When Powell was offered the England job, she wondered if it was a token gesture, but took it, “for visibility for the next generation” and told herself with her mind absolutely clear. “I cannot fail.”
The role of sport in the black experience works at two levels: one to protect the most talented in their own environment, which is when, as Holding describes it, “The black superstar has just suddenly found out what it’s like to be white. They only had to become world famous to leave the category of the other.”
However in New York, where he was an unknown face, watching a taxi whizzing past his outstretched hand, celebrated French and Premier League footballer Thierry Henry tells Holding, “My colour came back, Mikey.”
The other side of the celebration and worship of black athletes is lazy stereotyping.
Often, the black athlete’s success is slotted to their natural (sub-text: not earned) physical attributes. The West Indian team was seen for decades as entertainers or ‘calypso cricketers’ – not winners or champions, or thinkers and decision-makers. When Holding’s West Indians dominated world cricket, words used around them in the English Australian press were “savage”, “violent”, or “muggers.”
Holding emphasises that sport is not a barometer for progress of black people in society. No matter how many black players were involved in the English football in the ’80s and ’90s, the presence of black managers was minimal. Henry, himself a coach today, tells Holding that the generation of black players in the ’80s and ’90s “could have been coaches. They had everything…” but they didn’t bother because they knew they would never get the jobs.
Henry does point out that the dial is being slowly moved in football management – “you need to find a way to open the door” – and talks about the generation of the ’90s that pushed it open a little, and those of the 2000s, a little more. “Hopefully I can crack it even more.”
At the end of Why We Kneel, we find Holding leaving the United States where he has lived for 20 years and moving to Newmarket in England. But he does travel in hope. To have a conversation about race, discrimination and injustice loudly and consistently is in itself a sign of progress, as is the sight of thousands of people of all colours and backgrounds marching in the Black Lives Matter protests.
It remains hard to ignore the fact that privilege is constantly preserved in societies across various hierarchies.
The word ‘race’ can be replaced in the Indian context by ‘caste’ and run alongside ‘women’. Like Holding observes, “Hate never takes a nap.” But what endures and stays awake as long is the human determination to take a knee, raise a fist, to resist and push back.
Sharda Ugra is an independent sports journalist based out of Bengaluru.