During his time playing in the 1970s and 1980s, West Indian cricketer Michael Holding did not speak out against racism, even though he saw it all around him. “I chose not to face him because I was selfish,” he says. “You saw what happened to the athletes when they tried to speak up. Their career came to an end.
He remembers John Carlos and Tommie Smith, the two African-American athletes who raised their black-gloved fists at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City during the 200m medal ceremony. “There wasn’t enough pressure on people to listen to a black man calling at the time,” he says.
The 67-year-old Jamaican athlete, considered one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time, is however finding his voice now. It happened almost by accident during a test match between England and the West Indies last summer. He was commenting on TV and when the rain stopped playing, his co-host asked him what he thought of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Without thinking, Holding unleashed a heartfelt and improvised speech that an interview the next day on Sky News. And as he finally spoke about his own experiences of racism, he broke down in tears on live television. The clip went viral – and black sports stars around the world reached out to Holding to tell their own stories.
Among them were tennis player Naomi Osaka and footballer Thierry Henry. “Mikey, you can’t stop. You have to keep going, ”he said, they told him.
A year later, Holding wrote a book, with contributions from Osaka, Henry and other great sportsmen, including sprinters Usain Bolt, Michael Johnson and Olympic fencing medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad – the first American Muslim to wear a hijab when participating in the Games.
Why we kneel, how we get up, which is published on June 24, does not deal with racism in sports, however, says Holding: it is about racism in society. The “why we kneel” part is a big part of the book – he acknowledges it (most of it actually). But that’s because the “how we rise” part is so simple, he says. “It’s about educating people so that we can all come together and understand each other. Blacks cannot rise up on their own, ”he said.
Holding knows the book will be uncomfortable for whites to read. But that’s the point, he says. He criticizes the England cricket team, for example, for its decision to stop “taking the knee” before test matches in support of Black Lives Matter.
They are trying to hide behind the decision as being political, he says. “But that’s hogwash. It is not political, it is a question of humanity. Why would you want do not want to kneel down continuously to support Black Lives Matter? Maybe they think he doesn’t need support? Well say it, don’t hide.
The most powerful chapters in the book are where Holding is in conversation with other black athletes. Osaka, for example – who withdrew from Roland Garros last week due to concerns about her mental health – talks about her own personal battles against racism. “Before being an athlete, I was a black woman,” she says.
After the assassination of George Floyd, Osaka was forced to travel to Minneapolis to join the protest marches. It was her first time attending a march, and when she posted a photo on Instagram, there were “predictable criticisms,” she says in the book. “But keeping quiet is never the answer. Everyone should have a voice,” she said.
Usain Bolt reveals that his first experience of racism did not take place in his home country, Jamaica, but in Britain, when he first visited in his early twenties. He remembers strolling through a shopping center in London, taking some free time before an athletics event the next day. He needed a new watch, he said, so he went to a jewelry store. “I said to the woman behind the counter, ‘I like this one. How?’ She tells me the price, then says, “Are you sure you can afford it?” “”
His tone took Bolt by surprise. “I didn’t think back then, it’s racist, because it was new to me – then,” he says. But remembering racism is education in itself, says Bolt. “And you could tell this story and somebody else will say, ‘this happened to me.’
He did so, at Holding – only two decades earlier. “Usain remembers that story and I remember mine because of how it made us feel,” Holding says. “It hurts, and it still hurts.
Black people have to “jump one more hurdle” in life. This is the essence of white privilege, he says. “Whether you are a multimillionaire or just an ordinary black person, you always have this hurdle to overcome. “
The book was a difficult journey, he said, because so many stories were painful to write. “But I want this to be difficult read. It is not an easy conversation to have, it is not an easy acceptance. But it’s the truth.”