In the immediate aftermath of the Euro 2020 final between Italy and England earlier this month, two things dominated the news. The first was the chaos and violence unleashed by some England fans in and around the Wembley Stadium in London where the final was played. The second was the online racist abuse directed at England’s black players, especially towards Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, all three of whom failed to score during the penalty shootout that decided the game. It was ugly, despicable, but also, sadly, unsurprising. A large chunk of England’s football fans are racist, and despite the brilliance of a young and diverse England team making it to a first international final in 55 years, to the haters, the squad’s black players would never be “English” enough.
Much has been said about how the Tory government in England has stoked divisions for electoral games. English cabinet ministers like Preeti Patel and Prime Minister Boris Johnson have been accused of laying the groundwork for the abuse of players by belittling the England team’s decision to kneel before every game to protest against racism. The simple act of kneeling to protest historical and lived injustice of racism has been cast by some in England, the US, and elsewhere in the western world as a “political” act. Once labelled thus, this powerful gesture of solidarity has been imported into the culture wars that right-wing, populist governments and politicians have been fighting across Europe and the US. One of the main targets of their ire are black athletes who protest against racism, often by kneeling before their games.
Given the circumstances, it is highly fitting, then, to read the powerful and moving Why We Kneel, How We Rise by Michael Holding, which was released shortly before the beginning of Euro 2020. The former West Indies cricketer, one of the most legendary bowlers to have played the game, was a pillar of the all-conquering WI teams of the 1970s and 80s. Since his retirement, Holding has re-invented himself as an insightful and outspoken television commentator. And in light of Why We Kneel, it is also clear that Holding is a powerful communicator.
The book isn’t an easy read, nor is it meant to be. It’s divided into three sections called ‘Speaking Up’, ‘Why We Kneel’ and ‘How We Rise’, and each section contains essays by Holding as well as interviews that he conducted with some of the world’s most famous black athletes. Some of these, like footballer Thierry Henry, and track and field legends Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson, are also some of the best players ever in their respective sports. Alongside tennis star Naomi Osaka and Holding himself, they are household names, instantly recognisable, immeasurably successful and highly feted. And also deeply scarred by the racism that they have faced and that they see all around them.
From the instances of lived racist discrimination that these athletes narrate, and the way that these shaped them, each of the stories are equal parts upsetting, powerful and sobering. Take the case of Henry, one of the most famous men on the planet, who felt reduced to the status of being just a ‘black man’ in the US when an Uber he had ordered drove right past him. The cab driver saw a black man waiting on the kerb and just decided he didn’t want his fare. Or that of Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world, who was followed by a mall security guard when he went shopping in London. He went into a jewellery store wanting to buy a watch. The sales representative asked him if he was sure if he could afford it. Or the story of Hope Powell, the first black coach of the England women’s football team, and the institutional racism and sexism that she encountered every step of the way.
In many ways, the most moving story is that of Holding himself. Coming from a country with an overwhelmingly black population, he didn’t face racism while growing up. But he did, and how, during his playing career, both while touring with West Indies and also while playing County cricket in England. He came from a generation of Black athletes that preferred to let the mastery of their skills rebut racism, by simply being the best in the world in what they did. By his own admission, he had spent much of his life sidestepping the question. What led that dam of pent-up private feelings to burst was the racist killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, in May last year. Holding, who was commentating for Sky Sports during an England-West Indies Test match in early July, went on air with former England international Ebony Rainford-Brent during a rain-break to powerfully and eloquently denounce racism, linking it to their own experiences and that of other black players. This book was born of that moment of candour from Holding.
Why We Kneel is a deeply researched book that joins the dots between historical colonial oppression, institutionalised slavery and modern racism brilliantly. Holding’s reasons for writing this book is to hold a mirror up to society. He wants to make the reader understand how a combination of education policies, learned bias and prejudice, and opportunistic and populist political rhetoric contributes to the toxic stew, and how that damages lives and scars people. Ultimately, Holding is optimistic, however cautious, that things may change for the better. But for that to happen, Holding writes, people, especially white people, have to publicly demonstrate their solidarity for black people. As he so memorably told the Independent last month, “You can’t just sit back and say ‘I’m not racist’, you have to point out racism and speak up against it.”
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