For Caribbean boys living in Britain in the late 1970s, watching cricket with their dads was a cherished experience. Fathers would provide a steer on the drama unfolding before them, and offer parting shots at the stonier version called life. Racking up victories on the field of play was a sort of countervailing redress to the tribulations away from it. At The Oval, an earshot from Brixton, the sound of steel pan reverberation announced our being. Here, we couldn’t be denied. England were scorned and covert rum lubricated the occasion.
Last summer, rain dulled the cricket proceedings between England and the West Indies to a standstill. Usually during this most civilised of sports, such an interval would be an occasion for “drinks”, “lunch” and analysis of the game’s tactical shifts. An opportunity for the commentators to pick over of its subtlety. However, in a break with precedent Sky TV aired an interview shot earlier that day. They had filmed former West Indies fast bowler Michael Holding and former England women’s cricketer Ebony Rainford-Brent talking about their experience of racism. The subject was topical and raw. Just six weeks previously George Floyd had been murdered. The world was witnessing sweltering protest marches to demand Black Lives Matter.
“I had comments about my long name and that maybe my mum didn’t know who my dads were”, Ebony explained. There were other references “about body parts, especially the derriere. About the food I ate and that it stank. Did I wash my skin? Everybody in my area gets stabbed”. London-born Ebony welled up and cried as she reflected on a litany of persistent abuse in the game that had quietly peeled away at an outer resolve.
Holding’s experience as an emerging sportsman from the Caribbean was markedly different. Racial abuse was fleeting, isolated, occasional. Besides, his international success meant he was spared the daily torment endured by Rainford-Brent. The murder of George Floyd was a tipping point for both. Ebony joined three protests. Holding was relieved technology had finally captured in transparent fashion what had previously escaped public gaze. On the same day George Floyd was murdered, another incident took place in New York. Amy Cooper, the white New Yorker who threatened to turn cops on an African-American male because he politely insisted she leash her dog because of its danger to Central Park wildlife was, to Holding, an embodiment of racist imbalance in society. He said, “she threatened this black man with her whiteness . . . if the society in which we are living did not empower her, or to get her to think she had that power of being white and being able to call the police on a black man, she would not have done it”.
When the broadcast ended Holding, flanked by former England captain Nasser Hussain—who, pointing to his BLM lapel badge delivered a commendable anti-racist denunciation all of his own—was invited to expand further. His response and the fallout from it form the central tenets of this book.
Redressing the deficit of the black contribution to history, science, to discovery, was key for white people as well as black people, Holding maintained. For him, marching and protesting is a wearisome and ultimately a futile experience if minds are not recast. Education in the widest sense is the only salvation. He maintained that hatred, or racism, gave birth to the act of transatlantic slavery, and not the reverse. He writes in the book, “the dehumanisation of the black race is where it started.” Holding goes on to argue:
“Human beings are naturally inclined to think that anyone or anything that is different, or other, is inferior. This was the jumping off point for racist ideology… This justified and strengthened the slave trade. Or, to put it another way, race and racism allowed Europeans to distribute power to different human groups. They chose to bestow power on their own and take from those who did not look like them. The indoctrination, the brainwashing and the learned behaviour was happening before the slave trade… the slave trade was a symptom, but it was such a potent disease that it would mutate and grow into the illness that we see today.”
Holding’s sporting profile and TV broadcasts gave him access to interview big names from the world of sport for this book. But the results are rather mixed, underwhelming even. From Usain Bolt, one anticipated a stimulating insider account of where race and corporate sports brands coexist. But his contribution were like blanks out of a starting pistol. It didn’t extend beyond being able to leapfrog prejudice and demonstrate, hey, we too have wealth to buy shiny things.
Thierry Henry’s insight into the relationship between racism and celebrity was more telling. The former Arsenal, Barcelona and France footballer has won every honour going in the domestic and world game. He is instantly recognisable across Europe. That fame and reception didn’t automatically transfer when Henry decided to ply his trade in the US. Standing in casual sports attire, complete with hoodie and hat, he waited for a pre-booked Uber cab. But when the driver pulled up and glanced at a figure in his midst, he sped off. “My colour came back, Mikey” Henry announced to Holding. “I was just this Black guy again”. “Did it sting?” asked Holding. “No, you know why? Because I got the vaccine a long time ago”, replied Henry to laughter. He had effectively stepped back out of the temporary world of an honorary white.
For Holding “white privilege” “doesn’t mean you’re getting a free ride. Rather it means that “whatever hurdles you have to cross are not there because of the colour of your skin”. Yet can the absence from one form of oppression be credited as a “privilege”—an advantage freely acquired without any sort of struggle by all white people, irrespective of their social standing?
]It’s possible to sigh, tut, even groan because Holding elevates ideas and beliefs over material circumstances to get to grips with racism. However, you can understand why, given the buried histories of black ingenuity.
Taking his cue from the ongoing pandemic and the riches and acclaim doubtless heading the way of the vaccine makers, Holding dips back into history. In 1721, the city of Boston in the US had succumb to a severe outbreak of smallpox. Over half the 11,000 population had been affected and 850 had died. By the 1600s Massachusetts had become a slave colony but the illness which the colonialists had introduced did not affect them because they had previous exposure to it in Europe. Quarantine measures didn’t stem infection. Freedom from the disease came from an unlikely source, a slave from Libya called Onesimus.
Onesimus revealed to his master, a Puritan minister called Cotton Mather, the process for a cure—taking pus from one infected with smallpox and applying it to the cut on another’s arm. The reaction it triggered was an immune response. It provided protection against the disease. Onesimus had undergone it whilst in Africa. Mather wasn’t about to be taken in by a slave—who society at the time considered a human tool that practiced witchcraft. But other slaves confirmed that they too, like Onesimus, had immunity. Grudgingly, Mather accepted the slaves’ knowledge but had to contend with a furious public backlash, a hostility so severe it terminated the discovery.
It was only later following another outbreak of the disease that a Boston doctor, Zabdiel Boylston, followed through with Onesimus’s method. By the close of the eighteenth century a vaccine was developed and English physician Edward Jenner scooped all the credit. Remember that, the next time you pass Kings College London where Jenner’s portrait, amongst many others, adorn the outer perimeter of the university building.
Similarly, Thomas Edison’s filament for his newly invented light bulb didn’t last two seconds because it was made from paper. It was Lewis Howard Latimer’s creation of a carbon filament which allowed lights to continually illuminate. Latimer was black. Citing discovery and travel, Holding references the African presence in the pre-Columbus Americas among the Olmecs, the first civilisation in Mexico.
Holding’s priority of reversing the “brain-washing” of racism by “education” is misplaced idealism. And it comes despite the fact that as he himself acknowledges, “History is written by the conquerors”. Further, his chosen allies—big business and big donors—simply institutionalise opposition to racism and have no intention of upending it. Ibtihaj Muhammad, African-American Muslim fencing Olympian whom Holding interviewed, put the emphasis like this, “we’re going to need help from the corporations and institutions because big money around the world makes a difference. You ain’t gonna change it just on the streets.”
One summer on from Holding’s Sky TV broadcast the England football team took to the field during the Euro Championships. They took the knee. The example spread – Belgium, Portugal, France, Germany, Italy all did similar. They continue to bend at the knee. Anti-racism and the “progressive patriotism” of the England manager’s Dear England open letter were eagerly debated.
After falling behind to an audacious Danish free-kick in the semi-finals, England drew level and were then awarded a penalty. Captain Harry Kane stepped forward for the spot kick. Online footage would emerge from an Islamic seminary in Blackburn. In a darkened, packed room young Muslim men crowded round a solitary laptop which emitted the only source of light. As Kane’s initial strike was saved by the Danish stopper it drew gasps of sorrow, but when his follow-up strike rattled the Danish net the room erupted with joy. The footage was viewed by almost half a million people in one night. That sight, of Muslims in Lancashire cheering on England led one on Twitter to observe that the scenes would result in Home Secretary Priti Patel “losing her shit”. Another commented “This is the England we are part of which some people lead us to believe isn’t possible. It is and the racists can do one.” And indeed, they can. To defeat the racists at the top of society, we have to mobilise anti-racists from below.
A new book by Paul O’Brien
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