Had it not rained in Southampton on the morning of July 8, 2020, washing out play in the West Indies-England cricket Test, Michael Holding, one of the finest quicks of modern times, might never have got an opportunity to pour his heart out on a subject that incises him deeply: the racism that Blacks face in the Western world.
Holding was supposed to be commenting live on television for Sky Sports “but the sky was heavy and dark and full of rain, meaning no play was possible. Without on-field action to discuss, there was only one subject to talk about: the Black Lives Matter movement spawned by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin six weeks previously.
“With no cricket and the rain still falling, Sky showed a short film involving me and my commentary colleague, Ebony Rainford-Brent, talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, protests and our personal experiences of racism,” Holding writes in “Why We Kneel, How We Rise” (Simon & Schuster).
“When it was over, I was asked to speak again. And it was live. Ian Ward, the anchor of the show, asked me how hard it was to make that film and speak about such things. Well, I didn’t hold back. And from what I said, and the way I said it, I think people say anger, frustration an emotion. I just about managed to hold back tears,” Holding writes, adding: “I want to be clear: this is not a book of complaints. It is a book of facts. I hope it will enlighten, inspire, surprise, shock move. And above all, help to bring about real change.”
The statistics are quite startling.
In 2020 alone in America there were 226 fatal shootings of Black people by the police. Harvard research showed that, in some parts of the country, if you are Black, you are six times more likely than white people to be shot to death by those who are supposed to protect you. In the United States, according to data provider Statista, the rate of fatal shootings (per million of the population) from June 2015 to June 2020 was 30 Black, 23 Hispanic, 12 white, 4 other, Holding writes.
“Black people suffer. Our lives are worth less. And the statistics don’t lie. In the US and UK our children are more likely to leave school without qualifications, we are more likely to go to jail, more likely to live in poverty, more likely to live in social housing, less likely to own a home. We earn less, our women die in childbirth at a higher rate, our infant mortality is higher. And not surprisingly, our life expectancy is lower.
“All these things happen because we live by a system that tolerates and enforces deeply entrenched ideas that Black people, or people of colour, are inferior. From a seed of an idea hundreds of years ago that Black people were ‘different’ and ‘other’ has grown a belief system that has led to the consistent dehumanisation of Black people,” Holding writes.
“Underpinning all of that is education. Or lack of it. And that was the main thrust of what I said on Sky Sports.”
At that time, Holding had no idea what impact his words would have.
“But as soon as I was off-air and saw the messages and emails coming through on my phone, I realised people had taken notice. Job done, I thought. The clips of the speech were being passed on through social media. I think the phrase they use these days is ‘gone viral’ (it has now been watched about 7 million times). The next morning I was asked to talk again on Sky News. I agreed, thinking that it would be the last interview I did on the subject. I didn’t see any reason to keep repeating the same stuff — it people didn’t get what I was talking about from what I’d already said, then they wouldn’t even get it and perhaps didn’t want to understand.
“I almost made it this time without crying,” Holding writes.
It’s not a “gloomy book”, he maintains. “I want it to be a story about positivity. And that’s why you will learn about brilliant Black minds and bodies and the incredible life-changing live-saving things they have achieved. About how we can fix the education system so that everybody, regardless of their colour, benefits. If we have a fairer system, or start to move towards equality, nobody will lose out. There is enough to go around folks.”
It’s quite a collection of Black icons that Holding has gathered to reinforce his story.
There’s Usain Bolt, the fastest man who has ever lived, the World record holder in the 100 metres, 200 metres and 4×100 metres relay, who speaks about the sheltered upbringing both he and Holding had in Jamaica; and how the “fierce tennis champion” Naomi Osaka used “her status as the most sought-after athlete in the world to inspire change”. (Osaka had pulled out of the French Open last month after deciding to skip the post-match media press conferences on the ground that she had been suffering from depression for almost three years and that questioning by journalists impacted her mental well-being. She also skipped Wimbledon but will appear at the Olympics.)
Michael Johnson, who won four Olympic golds and eight World Championship golds during his career, tells Holding “about the fear that underpins the entire system of racial inequality, while sabre fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American woman to wear a hijab while competing in the Olympics, where she won a bronze, reveals what it’s like to be Black, Muslim and a woman in the supposed Land of the Free.
Thierry Henry, one of the greatest footballers of all time, opens up about how only worldwide fame can help to protect from racism, while the story of how racism ended the career of Adam Goodes, the legendary Australian Rules footballer, could well move you to tears.
There are trailblazers too — Makhaya Ntini, the first Black African player to turn out for the South African national cricket team in all forms of the game, and Hope Powell, England’s first Black coach of the women’s national team.
“So it’s about hope. It’s about why we kneel, and how we rise,” Holding concludes.