Award-winning tome on racism inside and outside of sports

Russell Holden
In the Zone Sport and Politics Consultancy | @russinthezone

Michael Holding
Why We Kneel, How We Rise
320 pages, hardcover
London: Simon & Schuster 2021
ISBN 978-1-3985-0323-6

For many the name Michael Holding conjures up images of pure athleticism and notions of the aesthetics of speed as he regularly propelled a cricket ball at extreme pace during his illustrious playing career. Others of a younger vintage will be more familiar with his calm and measured analyses as a television commentator, yet now courtesy of his new book Why We Kneel, How We Rise, he has also become a major player in the on-going discourse regarding the issue of racism in society which he approaches from a perspective that far extends beyond the cricketing world he has long inhabited.

In opening his volume with a chapter entitled Black Clouds, Holding sets the tone of his work combining the opportunity of inclement weather during a SKY TV broadcasting stint on the England versus West Indies Test Match in early July 2020 at Southampton, with the chance he was granted to speak at length about the death of George Floyd. Following the showing of a pre-recorded short film involving Holding and his colleague the former England women’s international Ebony Rainsford Brent talking about their personal experience of racism and the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, Holding was asked to expand on his comments by the programme anchor Ian Ward. At this juncture, he revealed his sadness, anger, exasperation and emotion about the reality of racism and how it should be addressed. With this intervention, Holding, now in his late sixties, entered the world of political and athlete activism for the first time, utilising his experience and reputation as a catalyst to provide a platform for creating a meaningful tool for public education.

Initially, Holding was reluctant to take this step despite his strong personality; he preferred not to seek public attention. However, spurred on by the support of his two older sisters (both former teachers) and the persuasive powers of his long-time collaborator Ed Hawkins and the encouragement of former French football international Thierry Henry, Holding decided to commit his ideas to paper and join the increasing number of individuals willing to speak out against a range of discriminatory practices faced by Black people.

By the time of the broadcast, the Black Lives Matter movement had substantially grown in stature with support galvanized across the globe. Very significantly it stirred a new class of political activists, some of whom had felt previously disinclined to give voice to their internal pain, whilst others felt it was no longer tolerable to accept systemic racism passively and had begun to actively campaign for change for the first time.

However, as Ibtihaj Muhammad, African American Muslim fencing Olympian whom Holding interviewed, rightly points out, “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.”

With respect to the articulation of his feelings, Ed Hawkins has helped to weave together in a conversational tone a collection of thoughts, observations and recommendations that result in Holding in no way can be perceived as hectoring, but rather as something of a sage dispensing wisdom with which many will happily engage. However, those steadfast in their beliefs regarding the issue of racism and what they deem to be its overplaying in societal terms, will choose to ignore the volume as they consider it insignificant.

Holding neither offers his readers an easy read or a straightforward cricket book. Rather he combines elements of autobiography threaded with interviews and testimony from a number of notable sportsmen and sportswomen from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa and his homeland, Jamaica. Sadly, the contribution from his fellow countryman Usain Bolt offers the least insight and he is right not to draw on this heavily. Considerable emphasis is also placed on how he came to reach the moment at which he could no longer hold back his anger at how Black people and their achievements in a range of spheres have been marginalised throughout the course and teaching of history, be it in the United Kingdom, the United States or throughout the West Indies. For the author, redressing the deficit of the Black contribution to history, science, and discovery is key for white people as well as black people, as Holding maintains marching and protesting is a wearisome and ultimately futile experience if minds are not recast through education.

In keeping with the title, Holding’s work is split into three sections; Speaking Up, a response to Floyd’s killing and numerous other instances of the loss of innocent lives detailed by Holding, both in the United States and the United Kingdom. Why We Kneel, exploring the sense of inferiority and suffering, and How We Rise, examiniung how to respond to being downtrodden, but increasingly with the support of wider society. Each section is interwoven with the thoughts of his interviewees, though the middle section is more overtly historical and less reliant on the testimonies gathered. However, Michael Johnson’s observations on fear and worthlessness and how he places this in the context of racial division, misperception and intolerance is interesting in terms of the distance society has to travel, notably, though not exclusively, in terms of the United States, and further illustrates the nature of the campaign Holding continues to wage. The observations of Naomi Osaka with her high public profile and fearlessness in raising awareness of police brutality by opting to ware a different face mask during each round of the 2020 US Open portraying the name of an individual victim, combined with Hope Powell’s observations and recollections of her upbringing and her role as manager of the England women’s football side and the first ever Black coach of an English national sporting team, enhance the strength of the text.

Michael Holding at the Royal Ascot Racecourse, June 2021. Photo Reuters/Andrew Boyers.

However, it is interesting to note that the latter section, which largely revolves around solutions, is considerably shorter than the part dealing with the roots and development of racism and how its tentacles have extended into daily life. Sadly, this is a reflection also of how difficult it remains to covert mass displays of public solidarity which are now increasingly evident into tangible initiatives with positive, and where possible, quantifiable outcomes. However, in the closing pages reference is made to the need to decolonise the curriculum, the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement in weaponising the need to overturn the status quo in respect of age-old perceptions of race, whilst in the case of Britain, Holding rightly points out the need to address the many on-going grievances felt by the ‘Windrush Generation’ in terms of their treatment and rights of residency.

Whether Holding succeeds in his objective is dependent on the expectations it is possible to have from a volume which represents more a call to arms than a programme for action. As a means of outlining the scale of the problem that still needs to be confronted, with its roots in the dehumanisation of Black people, manifest most strongly within slavery, Holding undoubtedly succeeds. However, as Ibtihaj Muhammad, African American Muslim fencing Olympian whom Holding interviewed, rightly points out, “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.” The dilemma remains one of how to confront big business and big donors who institutionalise opposition to racism, yet have no intention of upending it.

Education in the widest sense remains Holding’s chief salvation and each of his interviewees endorses this through their comments and actions – be it quietly and diplomatically by Hope Powell, very visibly by Naomi Osaka or Adam Goode’s creation of the Indigenous Defence and Infrastructure Consortium helping to foster indigenous business in Australia, or Makhaya Ntini’s efforts to take cricket into deprived Black communities throughout South Africa. However, it remains a shame that an interview with Colin Kaerpernick did not happen and that more attention was not paid to the growing literature on athlete activism.

Ultimately Holding’s work should have mass appeal and will no doubt feature prominently in global Christmas book sales. It has managed to capture through the prism of sports how racism dehumanises people, how it works to achieve this end, and how this reality has often been ignored by history and historians. If it has one notable failing, it does not sufficiently confront the Fortune 500 companies where the power and resources to direct and channel change has to come in order to boost the efforts of the wider public in changing their ways and continuing to campaign for change. If this occurs and thebrainwashing of racism by education succeeds, this achievement will be even greater than the glories of Holding’s cricketing career when he was part of arguably the greatest sports teams that ever was, a team that was predominately black in its composition, a reality that helped to feed Holding’s inner strength and determination.

Copyright © Russell Holden 2021

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