By PAT WATSON
Many people haven’t heard of athlete Alice Coachman Davis, but she was the first Black woman to take Olympic gold with her high jump victory at the 1948 games in London, England. Coachman Davis was the only person of colour on the U.S. team and the only American woman at those games to take gold.
She achieved this despite having been denied access to train in public sports facilities in the segregated south, where she lived.
Coachman was personally congratulated on her win by King George VI and was also congratulated at the White House by President Harry Truman for her achievement, yet at celebrations in Albany, Georgia, her hometown, the mayor would not shake her hand.
In a radio interview to remember Coachman Davis, who died at the age of 90 at the end of July, the interviewer spoke with a representative of Albany State University, where she had graduated as a teacher, and which used to hold an annual track meet in her honour.
It was all very interesting to this listener until the interviewer asked the most obtuse question a White interviewer can ask about a noted person of colour who has been at the forefront of any accomplishment that would otherwise be denied them on the basis of so-called ‘race’ in this hemisphere. That is, whether that person was ever bitter about the racial oppression of those times.
What would such a question be seeking to understand? Would it be to assure White audiences that no matter how much Black people have been abused by embedded racism that they will remain stoic about it? Is it the kind of question that is asked so that abusers can be assured that whatever wrong they have done they have been forgiven, in other words, they have gotten away with it? Or is it to be assured that Black people really don’t feel any great pain regardless of the merciless charge that comes from one segment of humanity aimed at them?
When people become angry, they react. Sometimes it drives them to prove antagonists wrong. Sometimes, they protest. They show that they are angry in masses. Why then would it be that human beings of one colour or another should be considered different? One of the key facts about the removal of civil liberties during the summer of 2010 when the G20 conference was held here in Toronto was that when the police began to round up civilians and cart them off to a holding centre in the Port Lands, the first to be locked up were persons of colour.
Members of visible minority groups were there to protest global injustices along with every other person who felt it necessary to make their concerns heard by world leaders. Yet, they were among the first to be pulled from the crowd. Why wouldn’t that make them angry and bitter? Just about everyone who was detained and held for hours on end in unsanitary conditions and without food or water was upset. Why is it that persons of colour are expected to be passive and supernaturally noble about abuse? What is that about?
A note on the colour line in Ferguson, Missouri…
It may come as a surprise to anyone living here in Toronto who has never been to any of the urban regions of the United States that in fact segregation along residential lines is still very much a fact of life. Even in cosmopolitan cities like New York. Anyone who has ever been to Brooklyn would find that a person could walk for miles and not see any so-called diversity. The stories of racial harmony in American entertainment television are nice, but hardly reflect the larger reality of Americans still living apart. Racial groups remain strangers to each other and that results in their continued fear and mistrust of one another. The news of the killing by a police officer of 18-year-old Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, can be placed in this context.
His death made the news, but there is no doubt that there are other young Black men who faced a similar fate in recent days in the U.S. When will this madness cease?
The other important question is whether this time justice will be served?
Pat Watson is the author of the e-book, In Through A Coloured Lens. Twitter@patprose.