Trevor Phillips has an interesting piece about colour, race and tribe in The Times today. I have been thinking about sport and the Arts in the context of what he says.
The very good South African fast bowler Alan Donald’s nickname was “White Lightning”. This was at a time when most of the world’s top fast bowlers were black so Donald’s skin colour was then considered to be noteworthy. Earlier in cricket history the fine Jamaican batsman George Headley was called the “Black Bradman” signifying the seemingly unusual fact that a black man could bat with the best. But it wasn’t until 1960 that the West Indies had a black captain – Frank Worrell – it was a job previously the preserve, on racial grounds, of the white man.
Institutionalised racism scarred the United States of America, and still does albeit that theatres no longer have a “Coloreds” entrance and seating area. In sport and The Arts everywhere there have always been race driven divisions and assumptions perhaps reaching its gruesome apogee with Laurence Olivier blacking up to play Othello. The “Black and White Minstrels” were a downmarket version on this absurdity.
What influences talent and its exploitation? We are firmly in the nature/nurture squally waters on this one. Can white men genetically not play the trumpet as well as black men (nature) or is it that the jazz trumpet can best be played by those from the African-American cultural tradition (nurture)? It is surely true that it helps if our talents can be nurtured by having sympathetic people around us – look at the extraordinary Kanneh-Mason family whose individual achievements have nothing to do with their skin colour and everything to do with the sympathetic family in which they grew up.
Elvis Presley grew up on the border between the White and the Black areas of Tupelo Mississippi and his music and style was influenced by both cultures. Elvis heard the music that influenced him played live at the black nightclubs he frequented as a teenager and young adult. Some in the black community accused him of cultural appropriation but most just admired him whatever the roots of his music.
In modern day Britain we are nominally and legally integrated but in fact there are considerable racial, cultural and social divides and tensions. And huge differences of opportunity. Where seventy years Fred Trueman could grow up in a working-class Yorkshire mining family and play cricket for England today at the highest level the teams are overwhelmingly middle class, and white. The odd Asian-heritage spin bowler aside there are few non-whites in the English game. Jofra Archer and Chris Jordan are more than of Caribbean heritage – they both grew up in Barbados and it is on that island that their relatives still live. They are welcome in the England team of course, but their presence emphasises the fact that our own Caribbean-heritage communities have produced few top cricketers. It can’t be nature can it ? Must be nurture – as with the missing working-class cricketers there has been lack of opportunity.
When Apartheid ended the South African Government and sporting authorities systematically introduced quotas to increase the opportunities for non whites. It was, and is, controversial, but it works. If you are serious about improving the chances of those discriminated against – in sport, the Arts and in any other sector – you have proactively to do something about it.
Elvis “borrowed” from Little Richard and Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra from Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Junior, The Beatles from the Isley Brothers (and many other Black musicians). Historically musicians and artists did not “stay in their lane” but in other walks of life, especially sport, the lanes have had walls alongside them that were difficult to climb over. In Britain we are not doing enough in some sports, especially cricket, to break down class and colour barriers. It’s time we started.