Black America’s story has been a course of negotiating its humanity and dignity ever since the first batch of black African slaves set foot in the New World.
Usually, it is White America that is quick to remind all that “we have come very far” whenever the uncomfortable topic of race relations is brought up. But that sentiment seems more rooted in self-consolation more than anything else.
How far has America come?
It has been only 83 years since Jesse Owens went back home from Nazi Germany with four Olympic gold medals and President Franklin Roosevelt could not afford to congratulate him publicly lest he made southern Democrats angry.
That episode in 1936 was a unique example of how being a national hero was not quite enough to save the black man. His Americanness was unaided by his skin colour.
Prior to the games of that year, the United States was emphatic in its opposition to the event having to be held in a country bent on propping up white power.
Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1932 was an essential marker of German antipathy towards races they consider inferior.
Often, the story of Hitler is told as if individuals did not freely participate in elections to make his Nazi Party the biggest in Germany while they knew what he was selling.
This much was not lost on the president of the American Olympic Committee (AOC), Avery Brundage. In 1933, he expressed skepticism about Berlin hosting the games: “The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race.”
There was a real possibility that the Germans would not allow blacks or Jews to compete in the games. The debate over boycotting the games split the American sporting fraternity.
The needfulness of this reminder is that some in America were prepared to forgo one of the world’s biggest events because they had reservations over Germany’s racial intolerance.
But this was the same America where Owens and others who looked like him could not access the fullness of their citizenship because of Jim Crow laws and other such impediments.
Owens and others such as Mack Robinson (older brother of the first black MLB player, Jackie) made the US team as part of a delegation that included 18 black athletes.
Perhaps, this was in characteristic American fashion of daring an unfriendly nation.
If he was there as a political middle-finger to the Germans, Owens did his job well. In the end, he made trips to the podium to claim four gold medals in track and field events.
Hitler, chief evangelist of the “White is Right” brigade, could not shake Owens’ hands, according to the testimony of the athlete. It was only in the spirit of the games to not be a sore loser but Hitler could not do that.
Black was not supposed to beat white. That was not what the propaganda taught Germans.
Lily Rothman and Liz Ronk in a piece for Time, brilliantly explain how the government machinery tried to spin the story: “… A prominent Nazi theory to explain why the U.S. was beating the host nation so much was “that Negroes are not really people” but rather an “auxiliary force” brought in by the otherwise disappointing real (white) American team. Despite the attempt to explain away the wins with such falsehoods, Owens had proved Hitler’s theories about race differences wrong.”
When he went back home, Owens was met by a happy welcoming team that included the New York mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia.
In honour of Owens and the US team, celebrations were held at the plush Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. But due to hotel policy at the time, he could not use the main door because of the colour of his skin.
This occasion, as well as that FDR White House snub, was never lost on him. In his life, Owens had seen enough to draw solid conclusions on what it means to be a black man in America.
After an initial lukewarm attitude towards civil rights activism, Owens would later write in I Have Changed: “I realized now that militancy in the best sense of the word was the only answer where the black man was concerned, that any black man who wasn’t a militant in 1970 was either blind or a coward.”
When Owens died in 1980, a more open US president, Jimmy Carter, quipped: “Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry.”