"If we have a fairer system, or start to move toward equality, nobody will lose out. There's enough to go around, folks"
Michael Holding is in no mood of slowing down.The West Indian legend left the playing field in 1987 and spent some 30 years in the commentary box. Instead of lazing in the Caribbean sun, the 67-year-old continues to deliver thunderbolts. This time the target is global racism.
The summer of 2020 will be remembered by the devastation wrecked by the Covid-19 outbreak when the entire world, not just cricket came to a standstill. The decision by the West Indies to tour England in July was to be the first cricket in England during the pandemic.
As fans around the world waited in anticipation, the world was suddenly confronted by the brutal murder of George Floyd by a police officer in the United States. Floyd's murder hit a nerve globally. It filled the air with anger and disgust. Cricket was affected too.
The Black Lives Matter movement took centre stage in Southampton when the two teams, officials and umpires kneeled in silence before play began. Cricket stays clear of political symbolism, and this was unprecedented.
Thanks to the perfect English summer, rain only allowed 17 overs to be bowled on the first day. But the same rain delay led to arguably the most consequential moment in the story of race and cricket.
Enter Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent, the first black woman to play for England.
Holding has never held back. Whether with the ball in hand or speaking out against cricketing injustices, his voice has always been univocal. On a wet English summer morning in Southampton, he jolted cricket to its core and delivered a spell for the ages. Unwittingly, with his monologue on Sky Sports, Holding became the anti-racism champion that cricket was desperately in need of for ages.
Holding's and Rainford-Brent's powerful anti-racism appeal galvanized the sporting world. But Holding went further than the monologue and penned a book about race. Titled Why We Kneel, How We Rise, it won the William Hill 2020 Sports Book of the Year award.
"The most atrocious thing happened in the US," he told The News on Sunday from his home in the Cayman Islands. "But you find it everywhere. Racism is a global problem."
A Historical Problem
Why We Kneel, How We Rise is not an academic history of racism, nor is it about sports or cricket per se. It is about racism, which Holding describes as a plague that afflicts the globe. Holding uses his own personal story of growing up in colonial Jamaica and his global cricketing career that took him around the world.
He describes how his mother's family refused to see her after she married a much darker-skinned man. "When I was a young man growing up, her siblings were always around, along with her mother, but no one else from the older generation," he writes. "It was much later that I found out the reason for that."
Playing cricket in the 1970s and 1980s, Holding also met his fair share of fan abuse and saw racism firsthand.During the 1975 tour of Australia, a fan in Perth hurled "Go back to the trees!" at him. As if to prove Holding's point that racism is alive and well, some 46 years after that incident, spectators in Sydney targeted India's Mohamad Siraj with "Brown Dog and Black Monkey."
In fact, that 1975 tour planted the seeds for the most successful sporting team in history that didn't lose a series for 15 consecutive years. The West Indies, humiliated in Australia by the terrifying pace of Dennis Lillee and Geoff Thomson, went on to build the world's most lethal fast bowling attack, of which Holding was a proud member.
It was a year later when the West Indies toured England that the West Indies came to be truly feared, partly galvanized by a racist comment by England's South African-born skipper Tony Greig.
"We are going to make the Windies grovel," he told the media on the eve of the first Test. Greig - and England - were left battered and bruised in the five-match series. At a time when race relations in England were poor, the victory gave England's Caribbean community something to cheer against the colonial masters.
The tabloid press - always at the forefront of stoking flames - jumped in, with one calling the team "bullies" and another "coconuts."
Still, Why We Kneel, How We Rise is not just about Holding's life experience or cricket. What makes it worth reading even more is reading the experiences of nine global sports personalities such as Thierry Henry, Makhaya Ntini, Usain Bolt and Naomi Osaka.
One particularly troubling experience was that of American Ibtihaj Muhammad. African American. Muslim. Woman. The fencer won a bronze in the 2016 Rio Olympics and was the first to compete with a hijab. She endured racial abuse for years: Her name was omitted from official team sheets; she was excluded from team dinners and official email groups. She persevered and fought for her rights.
A global problem
Even though the uproar emerged after Floyd's murder, racism is by no means just an American problem, Holding insists. The difference between the United States and the United Kingdom, he says, is that the latter has no gun culture. Indeed, when we spoke, England was in the grips of the explosive revelations by Azeem Rafiq about institutional racism at the Yorkshire County Cricket Club, one of England's most celebrated county teams.
"Yorkshire is not peculiar; it's in many counties," Holding says. Indeed, he recalls that Gordon Greenidge was called a "wog" - an offensive term for non-white persons - when he played in England and it was common for West Indian players to receive letters with "You Black this, You Black that, go back to your own country."
Holding also argues that racism is not an issue just in the west but a global issue. He shines an uncomfortable light on South Asia. While the region does not have racism as experienced in the west, there are other forms of discrimination. One of the more common is a perception that lighter tone skin is better and those with darker skin are inferior.
"The lighter the skin, the better; colorism is a derivative of racism," he says. "If you are not white, you try to be as close to it as possible."
In 2020, global cosmetics companies which sell billions worth of skin whitening products in South Asia announced they will remove "white," "fairness" or "light" from their products. A call to change Why We Kneel, How We Rise is not an "angry" book. In fact, Holding goes to great lengths to share that his message is for people of all races. And his key message is to relearn history and use education as a mean to end racism. "I think history has been taught in my lifetime, and the many, many preceding years, from the perspective of the people who want to retain the status quo, the hierarchy, if you will," he writes. "In short, we've been taught a white history."
Christopher Columbus is an "explorer," and not a mercenary whose goal was to find new land for the Spanish to rule over and from which he could profit. Little is known of him as one of the founding fathers of slavery.
Not surprisingly, Holding is also particularly scathing about British imperial history and how it's portrayed and taught in schools. "It is not so much a lie as a deliberate indoctrination of British people against the horrors of what was committed in their name," he writes. Without fixing the education system, racism can't be fixed, he argues.
"If we have a fairer system, or start to move toward equality, nobody will lose out. There's enough to go around, folks," he writes. "So it's about hope. It's about why we knee, and how we rise."