by John Carlos with Dave Zirin
Forward by Cornel West
Haymarket Books Chicago, IL 2011
I am not a big sports fan. I don’t remember the Olympic games from 1968. If we even had a TV in the house that summer we were probably camping during the Olympics. Dad probably listened to them on the transistor radio he kept plugged into his ear.
I do remember the photograph. I do remember the political atmosphere. I remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being shot and Bobby Kennedy and the protests across the globe against apartheid and for civil rights. I remember that what the papers, the news media were saying didn’t make sense but I had no alternative context.
I was little, my understanding of events was at a grade school level. My parents were politically active so I had a more rounded education and experience with these matters than most of my white, suburban classmates. Even back then I had direct experience with the difference between intention and motivation for an action and the media’s take on those same actions.
I called the library and asked what is the difference between an autobiography and a memoir. It took them a while to come up with an answer. Something about the entire scope of a life and chronological order make it biographical where reminiscence or the story of a single event falls into the memoir category.
This book is classified as neither an autobiography or a memoir. It is considered to be a biography, presumably because the majority of actually writing is by Dave Zirin. However it reads as though it is a memoir, with chronology and lifetime scope, in the voice of John Carlos. It’s written in first person. The stories come from a personal angle rather than a “historical” one.
This is not a book about the 1968 Olympics, although that event is clearly central. This is a book about standing up and (to paraphrase Carlos quoting MLK) “Speak for those that can’t and those that won’t speak for themselves.” Those words, according to John Carlos, gave him a center for his life and judging from the book they carried him far beyond the 1968 games.
The fact that the afterword, written by Dave Zirin, talks about the continued impact and importance of coming together and speaking out for what is right. He talks about Wisconsin and Governor Walker. He talks about Arizona and immigration. He talks about LGBT marriage equality. He talks about workers rights in Egypt. He says, “It’s not every athlete who acts like their life’s ambition off the court is to be featured on MTV Cribs.” He says, “Since athletes are role models…….it’s worth asking the question: what are they modeling?”
John Carlos gives credit along the way to many athletes who stood up both before and after he and Tommie Smith and Peter Norman. He talks about speaking with Jesse Owens, and accusing him of not doing enough in Hitler’s Berlin. He talks about the support he got from Jackie Robinson and how, unlike Jackie, at least he had the support of his team. He mentions George Forman, Kareem Abdul Jabar, and Rosie Grier.
It’s also helpful that the small and ubiquitous acts of oppression in the world are simply laid out as a given. This piece is carefully written to convey passion rather than anger. It is a hopeful and painful read because he makes you understand why this struggle is so important and necessary. He also makes clear that what happened in 1968 is a piece of our country’s history that many people have worked hard to gloss over.
As a non-sports fan I had no trouble with this book. At its heart it is not a sports story, it is a human story told with a sports perspective. It is a journey through history past and present. It is enlightening and hopeful. There is no question that we continue as a people to struggle with these issues. John Carlos’ philosophy seems to feel that the struggle is worth it. He makes a good case.