The Petchary was recently kindly invited to a film show at the Canadian High Commission. The film was called “The Mighty Jerome,” and was selected to recognize Black History Month. (Now, Jamaicans too recognize – or half-recognize – this month. Paying lip service to the need to understand one’s roots. Commenting sourly, “But it’s an American thing, and we don’t need to celebrate it,” or “Of course, it’s the shortest month of the year” – without understanding that February was chosen – by an African American – because it included the birthdates of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. But all that is for another discussion).
Anyway, back to the film. I had, I confess, never heard of Harry Jerome, the subject of this subtle and complex documentary – all in black and white, until the final scene or two. But then, I have not heard of many athletes, as it is not an area that has really got me excited. These runners and jumpers are interesting, though, in a physical sense. These days, they have powerful chests and pumped-up shoulders from all those gym workouts, but in Jerome’s day this was not done. They were muscular but skinny – not a bulging bicep in evidence. Although Jerome, when he was rehabilitating himself after a terrible injury that almost wrecked his career, did start using weights and was one of the first athletes to do so. The weight room at the University of Oregon, which nurtured his talents, is named after him.
Let’s put Mr. Jerome in context. He was born in the war years (1940) in Saskatchewan and at age eighteen broke the Canadian record for the 220-yard sprint (don’t ask me what that is in meters – 200??) But it was never smooth sailing (or rather, running) for Harry. Injuries forced him to pull out of a couple of very important races, and the media – who had built him up as Canada’s Great Black Hope for athletics – started calling him a “quitter.” The headlines then were fairly cruel. As we have seen many times, the young head that wears the surprisingly flimsy crown of fame is not necessarily comfortable wearing it. He had novelty value, but of course also wore another very heavy cloak – that of racism – that was very hard to shrug off. Some of his critics seemed almost to take pleasure in wrenching him from his pedestal, having pushed him up onto it in the first place.
Harry married a white girl, and they encountered considerable hostility as a result (as is normally the case, she was more reviled than he, and being a woman didn’t help – it never does). His wife’s commentary throughout the film is honest, wry and regretful, spoken with a half-smile (they divorced, it was suggested, because Harry could not resist the pressure of adoring girl fans. Such is fame). Their daughter also spoke at length, and without sentimentality, but described him as a good, if distant father.
But it was Harry’s mother’s remarks that struck me, spoken rather creakily and with an odd accent. She talked about her son’s marriage, and his personal troubles, with sharp clarity and a certain amount of irony. If she had spoken throughout the documentary, we would probably have learnt much more about Harry, who appears in all the footage permanently surrounded by clean-cut white Canadians of all ages (except for one photograph of him chatting with the ever-ebullient Muhammad Ali (maybe he was still Cassius Clay, at the time). Unlike the Black Power, fist-raising American athletes of the era, their Canadian counterpart appeared rather diffident, self-conscious and not in the least assertive. When interviewed about his more militant rivals across the border, he appeared ambivalent. In a rather extraordinary Canadian TV interview, he was even challenged by a white Canadian fellow athlete, who was unable to understand why Harry did not take his cue, and start a one-man civil rights campaign in Canada. Harry backed off.
His mother pointed out that Americans were always much more “up front” than African Canadians, who were more hesitant to join the fray. But that was not to say that racism was not prevalent among the black and white suburban homes of Vancouver and beyond. It was there, all right, said Mom. It was just that “in Canada, these things are more…hush-hush.”
Well, Harry became a hero again, competing in three Olympic games in the 1960s and winning a bronze for Canada in 1964, having recovered from injury. He was incredibly determined, gritted his teeth, learned to walk and then run again, triumphed over adversity. He received national honors and a Canadian sports award is named after him. He has been “immortalized” in media parlance. Sadly, he died very suddenly from a brain aneurism at the age of 42.
Black History Month is all about chronicling the struggles and achievements of black men and women, the world over (although in Jamaica and elsewhere, black Africans seem to get little attention). This film was another illustration of this struggle. Harry was portrayed as a somewhat flawed character – well, who is perfect? But his remarkable determination after a major, difficult and ground-breaking surgery – the big muscle at the front of his leg literally tore in two – was awe-inspiring.
However, another part of the film resonated with me, at a deeper level. The images of Canada in the 1960′s reminded me a little of the conservative England that I grew up in – the England of my parents, when everyone wore a hat and no one wore jeans or T shirts as a matter of course, and people smiled politely, laughed simultaneously, slicked their hair back and hid their true feelings.
But England in the later 60s was changing rapidly. I got the feeling that Canada, perhaps like many of the former colonies, took a while to catch up.
It seems like another world; and tall, dark Harry sped through it. The fastest man in the world in 1960, and then gone.