“Nothing has done more to bring people of different races and different backgrounds together than athletics, certainly more than politicians have done. It’s why the Greeks invented the Olympics” Mike Leach, Washington State Football Coach
Coach Leach is probably wrong about the 2nd part, but the 1st part rings true, at least in my experience. Of course, in defense of politicians you have Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and the Civil Rights Act and…well, anyway, makes one think.
Although for me, an English French Dutch Cherokee Indian American (don’t call me white) my first friendships with African-Americans began on a basketball court. A flat hard space that asked not your color, although I remember feeling inferior, that those friends were better than me and I had to prove myself to them.
I came from an all-white grade school into a junior high that exploded my world of sameness, suddenly understanding how different I was, that I wasn’t normal, that I was indeed the odd one, because of how little I knew about the beliefs and traditions, the myths and stories of people who didn’t look like me, who didn’t sound like me, amazingly, my new friends didn’t even play basketball like me.
My understanding of African-Americans had thus far been limited to my television set, seminal moments, mostly athletic, involving African-Americans, including the Black Power salute by Tommy Smith raising a black gloved right fist and John Carlos raising his left gloved fist while standing on the award pedestal after finishing 1st and 3rd respectively in the two hundred meter dash at the Olympic Games in October of 1968. I once sensed defiance in pictures of Tommy Smith and John Carlos. Now I understand defiant posture as a plea for justice, the animation of prayer in the oppressed, two men standing together with a white sprinter from Australia name Peter, asking God to set right the world, a world inhabited by red, yellow, black and white, a world that presented a gold medal to Tommy Smith but told him he was excluded from certain hotels and restaurants, country clubs and conversations.
There is a grand tradition of fists raised in the name of justice, some might even name it wrestling with God, times where prayer is more of a dialogue rather than monologue, spirited debating with God Almighty. Abraham questioned God’s promise and his own virility, Moses argued incompetence and asked God to send a more eloquent man to Pharaoh, Job ranted, David’s mouth grew parched calling for help, and Jacob transformed wrestling with someone you love into an art form by calling on God to bless him before he was beaten to a pulp. In the United States of America, African-Americans have prayed for many years with emotion, prayed with faith, prayed with belief that someday life will be better and not just better, just.
My upper left front tooth was chipped when I was fourteen years old by a raised fist, a shadow boxing match gone awry between Walter and me. Walter was different from me. He was from across the tracks, African-American, and the best athlete that I ever competed with. We were in the locker room feigning machismo, seeking affirmation, someone to tell us we were men.
We weren’t really fighting, just horsing around, he could have slammed dunked me and mopped the tile floors with my raggedy head. No, it was more like a big brother patronizing a younger, letting him get in a blow, shadow boxing playfully, just throwing punches with the intent of saying I could take you if I wanted, but not really wanting to hurt you. Except he miscalculated and busted my tooth.
During the winter of our ninth grade year, I watched from the bench as Walter and Mike and Myron and Ricky, all African-American kids along with a white Catholic kid named Chet, led a team of otherwise short white guys to a rousing basketball win over our cross-town rival across the river, the all-white team that hadn’t been beaten in their entire three-year junior high career.
That was a surreal moment for all of us. I thought we had no chance to win. I never really thought about those four African-American starters, about how it made them feel, how it may have empowered them, helped them become stronger in a world still dominated by white teachers and coaches and principals and mayors and governors and presidents. Perhaps this tension was unspoken but visceral, resulting in many wildly thrown punches at something unseen, undefined, not yet born in our social consciousness.
I hadn’t heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech. I didn’t know much of letting freedom ring. I was just trying to get along as best I could. But I did know that the world in which I had been introduced left me uncertain, timid, unsure. The basketball court, however, was the place of refuge for me and for kids of all color, the place we lost our fear and found our competitive pride and spirit. For many of us who defined each other by sport, a basketball court was where we found freedoms ring.
I don’t really think of those days as the “good old days”. They were difficult, awkward, we didn’t even know we were punching and ducking, bobbing and weaving. We were, in fact, living out the words of the old Negro spiritual reconstituted by U2, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, believing in a Kingdom where all the colors bleed into one.
James McBride was the son of a black father and white Jewish mother and when he was young, he asked his mother about her being different. She would simply say ‘I’m light skinned.’ Then he began to think himself different and asked his mother if he was black or white. ‘You’re a human being,’ she replied. Then James asked her, “What color is God?” For years he asked this question and his mother declined to answer. Finally, one day he asked and she told him, “God is the color of water.”
These days I’m reminded of the surreal nature of this earth and that I’m a stranger in a strange land. But I’m grateful for those awkward days of youth and thankful for a slightly broken smile that reminds me of the way it used to be when we shadow boxed one another in the halls of our school bobbing and weaving and swinging, challenged to understand what it meant to live in a kaleidoscope world, in a Kingdom where all the colors are bleeding into one, in a Universe created by a God who is for all I know, the color of water.