By PATRICK HUNTER
As a young student, growing up in Jamaica, one of the most seminal moments of my memory was that of two Olympic greats, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, raising a black-gloved fist on the medal podium during the playing of the United States national anthem. That was 1968 at the Olympic Games in Mexico City. Wow. Even today, just thinking about the courage that took send shivers up and down one’s spine, as the saying goes.
Needless to say, the virtual lynching of the two that followed that demonstration was enormous.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated earlier that year, Malcolm X three years before.
Of course, that demonstration was by no means the most important story in our history. But that show – that challenge, as simple as it appeared – had a profound effect on me.
I grew up in a world in which we had Black leaders. Jamaica was, by that time, an independent country. Our Governor General, Prime Minister and other government leaders were mostly Black. So were many of our religious leaders. Yet, we were a country consumed by sports and the achievements of Black athletes.
Our black skin defined who we were. Slavery was imparted to us as a period of shame. Not in schools necessarily, although the lack of formal instructions about it suggested that it was a period worth forgetting. The school curriculum dictated the subject matter of our “history” – Great Britain was the motherland. The Tudors and the Stuarts were the main heroes of our history. We were also expected to know about the Raleighs and the other great naval warriors.
I do not remember being taught about Africa, with the possible exception of the missionaries who went to the Continent to civilize the savages. The sub-context of course was rampant cannibalism and other wild and outrageous activities.
Sports, to my young, naive mind, became a symbol of achievement, individual and team, particularly with cricket as the West Indies team occasionally triumphed over the English team.
We took great pride in the achievements of the Black American athlete, particularly sprinters like Jesse Owens and Bob Hayes.
Those who politically challenged the status quo of Blacks were cast in a different light. Although Marcus Garvey was well-known, he was not revered. Wanting us to go back to Africa was not exactly a winning argument. When the Rastafari Movement emerged, they were frowned upon as troublemakers and criminals, not because they were involved in criminal activities, but their appearance (the beards and the long hair) made them seem scary.
So, when “Black Power” emerged as a mantra, it was not surprising that some of us were caught in a state of confusion. In company, we were expected to, and some of us did, react with ridicule, especially in White company.
More than 200 years after the so-called emancipation, we are still in the throes of identifying ourselves with a view to rebuilding our lost dignity. Although, today, most of us are more proud of who we are, there is still an element of low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence.
We are definitely more aware of our history and how we came to this part of the world. We are increasingly becoming more aware and appreciative of the struggles of our ancestors. We now understand more clearly the choices that faced our enslaved ancestors. If you could, you tried to escape, knowing that if you got caught, conditions going forward would be even worse than those under which you then lived. If you had children with you, you recognize the dangers you would put them in and that may in fact limit your options.
Others took a more confrontational route – classified as rebellions or revolts, while still others engaged in surreptitious activities such as learning to read and teaching others to do the same.
Today, more of our story is finding its way into the curriculum. There is of course much resistance.
Also today, not all of our heroes, as it was back then, are well-known and celebrated. There are, of course, many who stand out. Garvey, King and a pantheon of others whose names can come trippingly off the tongue are among the many who are singled out and celebrated for their leadership. And these unsung heroes can be found everywhere, and are, throughout Europe and the Americas and the Caribbean.
But there are the unnamed ones. These are the ones whose impact has not garnered the international fame and whose contributions are not specifically celebrated.
My great grandfather, Uriah Leopold Brown, for example, was probably not well-known beyond the confines of Seaford Town/Lamb’s River in Jamaica. He did not take up arms against the rulers. Instead, he became a teacher – was headmaster for the local school, a Justice of the Peace, a lay preacher– and in fact a community leader. He was in many ways the village secretary – completing required forms and applications for those who could not.
And there were, and are, others who worked with each other to improve lives within their community, because that is what they did.
So, this is an appeal to remember those among us whose star does not necessarily shine as brightly as others, but whose lives, if only by example, contributed to the making of who we are today. A lot of these efforts go towards strengthening our character to combat the strains and stresses that are the continuing legacy of racism – and specifically anti-Black racism.
We have a remarkable history – nothing to be ashamed of – and we have endured more hardships than many. Yet, we not only survived, we are thriving – look at our arts, our literature, our achievements.