In his playing days in the 1970s and 1980s, the West Indian cricketer Michael Holding didn’t speak out against racism, although he saw it all around him. “I chose not to confront it because I was being selfish,” he says. “You saw what happened to athletes when they tried to speak up. Their careers came to an end.”
He remembers John Carlos and Tommie Smith, the two African-American athletes who famously raised black-gloved fists at the 1968 Mexico Olympics during the medal ceremony for the 200m. “There wasn’t enough pressure on people to heed a black man calling out back then,” he says.
The 67-year-old Jamaican athlete, regarded as one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time, is finding his voice now, though. It happened almost by accident during a Test match between England and the West Indies last summer. He was commentating on TV and when rain stopped play his co-host asked him what he felt about the Black Lives Matter movement.
Without thinking, Holding unleashed a heartfelt, unscripted speech that would prompt an interview the following day on Sky News. And as he finally spoke about his own experiences of racism, he broke down in tears on live TV. The clip went viral – and black sports stars from around the world contacted Holding to tell their own stories.
Among them were the tennis player Naomi Osaka and the footballer Thierry Henry. “Mikey, you can’t stop. You have to continue,” he says they told him.
A year on Holding has written a book, with contributions from Osaka, Henry and other sporting greats including sprinters Usain Bolt, Michael Johnson and Olympian fencing medallist Ibtihaj Muhammad – the first American Muslim to wear a hijab while competing in the Games.
Why We Kneel, How We Rise, which is published on 24 June, isn’t about racism in sport, though, Holding says: it’s about racism in society. The “why we kneel” part is a big chunk of the book – he acknowledges (in fact most of it). But that’s because the “how we rise” part is so simple, he says. “It’s about educating people so that we all can come together and understand each other. Black people can’t rise on their own,” he says.
Holding knows the book will be uncomfortable reading for white people. But that’s the point, he says. He’s critical of the England cricket team, for example, for its decision to stop “taking the knee” before Test matches as a gesture of support for Black Lives Matter.
They’re trying to hide behind the decision as being political, he says. “But that’s rubbish. It’s not political – it’s about humanity. Why would you not want to take a knee continuously to support Black Lives Matter? Perhaps they don’t think it needs support? Well then, say it – don’t hide.”
The most powerful chapters in the book are when Holding is in conversation with other black athletes. Osaka, for example – who pulled out of the French Open last week citing concerns over her mental health – talks about her own personal battles with racism. “Before I am an athlete I am a black woman,” she says.
After George Floyd was murdered, Osaka was moved to fly to Minneapolis to join the protest marches. It was the first time she’d ever been to a march, and when she posted a picture on Instagram there was “predictable criticism”, she says in the book. “But being silent is never the answer. Everyone should have a voice in the matter,” she says.
Usain Bolt reveals his first experience of racism was not in his home country of Jamaica, but in Britain, when he made his first visit in his early 20s. He recalls strolling around a shopping mall in London, taking some free time before an athletics event the next day. He needed a new watch, he says, so went into a jewellery store. “I said to the woman behind the counter, ‘I like this one. How much?’ She tells me the price, then says, ‘Are you sure you can afford it?’”
Her tone took Bolt by surprise. “I didn’t think back then, this is racist, because it was new to me – in that moment,” he says. But remembering racism is an education in itself, Bolt says. “And you might tell that story and someone else goes, ‘that happened to me’.”
It did, to Holding – only two decades earlier. “Usain remembers that story and I remember mine because of the way it made us feel,” Holding says. “It hurt, and it still does.”
Black people have to “jump an extra hurdle” in life. That’s the essence of white privilege, he says. “Irrespective of whether you’re a multimillionaire or just an ordinary black person, you still have that hurdle to jump.”
The book has been a difficult journey, he says, because so many of the stories were painful to write down. “But I want it to be difficult reading. It’s not an easy conversation to have, it’s not an easy acceptance. But it is the truth.”