Jamaicans are known for our vibrancy and assertiveness, but when it comes to social justice and human rights advocacy, we are lackluster at best.
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.
Well, it’s been a while since the Petchary has dared to write about her favorite football team, the illustrious Arsenal Football Club. The season so far has been one of nervous confusion and a feeling of unreality, as my team struggled in those nether regions of the Premier League table – strange and frightening territory for my boys. Blogging about it would have just added to the misery.
Because, let’s face it, and I have to just say it: This was the Gunners‘ worst start to the season. Ever.
But now – if I can be so bold – things seem to be looking up, just a little. We are kind of comfortable in the top half, and although I have to admit we may not make it to the level of those Mancunians, this time around, we are putting in a decent show, at last. Things are all upside down in the League, and even the mightily arrogant Manchester United have looked strangely distracted, as if a flock of large, black birds had flown down and settled just behind the goal, cawing and pecking at the net. After slicing the poor Gunners into small pieces a few weeks ago, Rooney et al just got a taste of their own medicine – total humiliation at home in a Manchester derby, no less. And during that game, only Rooney seemed to care (and Sir Alex, of course, whose face got redder and who chewed his gum so hard I thought he might end up with a broken jaw).
So, plenty of drama all round. I don’t want any more, speaking personally as an Arsenal fan. I just want us to settle down and play consistently. And we can take more and more goals from the likes of Robin Van Persie – our stylish striker who just can’t stop scoring, and not only in the Premier League. RVP just floats across the field, arms extended, hands slightly spread to balance himself… and does some wondrous things. Delicious to watch. And maybe, who knows, Gervinho (he of the lovely round face, funny hairstyle) – who knows how to run at defenders quick and darting, and who set up two goals and scored one on Sunday against Stoke City. He might just come into his own.
Then there are the real youngsters – practically babes in arms – who acquitted themselves well in the Carling Cup today. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (eighteen), Ryo Myaichi (eighteen), Ignasi Miquel (nineteen), Emmanuel Frimpong (nineteen), Francis Coquelin (twenty), Nico Yennaris (who?… eighteen)… and so on. And Arsenal has one of the youngest goalkeepers around, Wojciech Szczesny (too many consonants in his name!) who is a remarkable talent for his age. My other favorite goalie, Brad Friedel, is old enough to be his Dad…
Oh, the joys of the Premier League. This season is looking more action-packed than ever, with many red cards held aloft, tiffs with managers a la Carlos Tevez, and (sadly) accusations of racist comments among players. But football is not a polite sport.
Who wants polite.
- The most exciting Premier League season, but for all the wrong reasons (footballfancast.com)
- EPL Hot 11: Van Persie, Balotelli, City Well Represented in Match Day 9 (bleacherreport.com)
- Arsenal have found their self belief, says Gervinho (guardian.co.uk)
- Park fires Arsenal into last eight (vanguardngr.com)
- Manchester Derby: Why So Easy? (football-talk.co.uk)
- Gratefulness (petchary.wordpress.com)
- Heskey urges players to report racism (BBC Sports)