Sunday August 30, 2015 was the final staging of play Black Bodies directed by Fabian Thomas and Jomo Dixon at the Vibes Theatre in Kingston, Jamaica. It’s also the same day that Kenya and Jamaica came first and second respectively at the IAAF World Championships in Bejing, China.
It’s fascinating how you can have something directly in front of you and still not see it. Many of us watched the wondrous beauty of prized black bodies radiantly competing and striking gold mines at the World Championships. The historical reverberations echoed as Kenya and Jamaica gave excellent performances with Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce defending their titles and of course that amazing run by Novlene Williams-Mills. Cheruiyot, Rudisha, Kiprop and Yego of Kenya all dazzled.
Jamaica and Kenya deserve to celebrate. This kind of accomplishment takes hard work and is built on the dreams of many athletes who want to make themselves and their countries proud. But does this personal success have any other significance? The image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos wearing black gloves and raising fists in a black power salute on the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games came to mind. What could the success of black athletes internationally especially at the highest level mean for other Black Bodies? The Black Lives that matter? Does activism have a place in sports or athletics? Do Jamaican athletes think about how their success can influence or create change, in addition to euphoria. Without wanting to put pressure on athletes to accept responsibility they may not want, I wonder about the ways a socially and politically aware athlete can change the world?
Black Bodies in Jamaica
The Black Bodies audience gathered to hear a haunting collection of stories which highlighted human rights abuses and injustice against black bodies by police in Jamaica and the United States. But while revisiting pain and trauma of violence in the black community, Fabian’s play felt like a fist raised towards the moon in the dead of night, helping us to remember the names and the stories of ones who should not be forgotten. On stage, young black bodies, much like those in Beijing, honoured the light and power of black magic hunted and squelched.
It is a tremendous feeling to see Jamaica succeed in the world. Knowing that the circumstances here are never ideal, to survive you must be determined to struggle and overcome. Chronic water shortages have left many people severely affected, yet the government refuses to take responsibility for ineffective management of public resources and services. So we endure the frustration of climate change driven, hot sticky days and take some comfort that whether human or financial resources have been scarce our talent is overwhelming.
Last week I saw a man literally walk out of his clothes in the Stony Hill Square. It made me wonder what frustration pushed him over his mental edge. Life for black people can hold us by our throats; so many of us can’t breathe. But this is not a new occurrence, Angela Davis reminds us that freedom is a constant struggle and even today black people’s freedom fights continue. Struggle and celebration side by side, World Championship jubilance in Kenya and Jamaica while black people still experience unbearable violence against our bodies. My friend commented on the impact of spellbinding genius that flows steadily from the people who injustice affects the most. The majority of our sporting talent comes from poor or modest means in Jamaica, underdeveloped towns in rural areas or urban centres with sprawling poverty and crime. For every one that makes it out, how many don’t? Are the majority systematically not supposed to or because it’s not in the interest of government, private sector or NGOs to make sure they do?
Do black athletes see other black lives?
The question might be a question about responsibility. Who takes responsibility for making statements and moving towards changing the world? At a packed press conference in Beijing, Usain Bolt said it was up to all clean athletes, not just him, to save the sport. “Initially I run for myself, that is what I do…People are saying I need to win for the sport but there’s a lot of other athletes out there running clean, and who have run clean throughout their whole careers. So it’s not only just on me because I cannot do it by myself. It’s a responsibility of all the athletes to take it upon themselves to save the sport and show that sports can go forwards without drug cheats.”
At another press conference at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, Tommie Smith said “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
Political statements in sport and sport activism
Political statements are not uncommon in sport.
Learn more about the history here.
When the world is paying attention what do we tell them about black bodies and black lives and their responsibility to protect them?
#icantbreathe #blacklivesmatter #bringbackourgirls