24 February 2019

There are no Tommie Smith or John Carlos T-shirts brother

'Tommy who?’ did someone ask? ‘John Who?’ did someone ask? Let’s get to that later. Here’s an easier question. ‘Ever heard of “Bohemian Rhapsody”?’ ‘The movie, right?’ did someone ask? Well, yes and no. 

There’s a generation that probably didn’t imagine there would be a movie titled ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.  Many in that generation would not have known what Freddie Mercury looked like. In fact until the movie arrived they probably wouldn’t have known that his real name was Farrokh Bulsara, was born in Zanzibar to Parsi parents from India and that he had grown up in Zanzibar and India before the family moved to England.

That generation loved his music. That’s about it. That generation is dead or dying. Old, that is. The Freddie Mercury of the movie is as young as the Freddie Movie before the movie, as young as he was before he died and as young as he will always be. 

Today Freddie Mercury is iconic in ways he was not when he was alive. Systems that created poverty, hunger and famine which the band Queen along with others were determined to alleviate through ‘Live Aid’ are as strong as ever. Poverty, hunger and famine are as prevalent now, as then. The system will of course alleviate guilt by channeling part of the proceeds to charities that Mercury and Queen championed. Bucks are being made, though. That’s a different story, however.

Iconic. Yes. And that’s why t-shirts with the silhouetted picture of Freddie Mercury arm raised and fist clenched are quite the rage these days. 

We don’t know if Mercury knew. We don’t know if he cared had he known. We don’t know if he copied it and if he did whether he said a silent ‘thank you’ but that arm-raised, fist-clenched silhouetted image belonged, unmistakably to two individuals whose music was made on a running track and a medal podium way back in 1968. Yes, 17 years before Live Aid and half a century before the movie Bohemian Rhapsody (love the song, the band and the movie by the way!). 

Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Smith and Carlos had won the gold and bronze medal respectively in the 200m event at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. turned to face the US flag and then kept their hands raised until the anthem had finished. In addition, Smith, Carlos, and Australian silver medalist Peter Norman all wore human-rights badges on their jackets.

Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride, Carlos had his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with all blue-collar workers in the US and wore a necklace of beads which he described ‘were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred.’  It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the infamous ‘Middle Passage’ at the height of the slave trade.

They were booed by the crowd. Smith observed that he is an American and not a Black American when he wins but if he questioned that which should be questioned, he would be a ‘Negro’. He believed that Black America would empathize and he was right.

The United States of America press rubbished the two athletes; the same press, mind you, that had never taken issue with the issues that the two men objected to. 

When Carlos Brathwaite hit the fourth six to seal an improbable victory for the West Indies in the T-20 World Cup in 2016, the commentator screamed, ‘Remember the name!’ He was duly dubbed ‘Carlos “Remember the Name” Brathwaite’.  Maybe there weren’t commentators inclined to ask people to remember the names ‘Tommie Smith’ and ‘John Carlos’ in Mexico City. 

Memory plays tricks, but remembrance is not always innocent. Certain images are iconic while others are not. Mercury, with or without that image is iconic. No less iconic are Tommies Smith and John Carlos. The photograph of that historic moment, taken by John Dominis hasn’t made it to any T-shirt. Ernesto Che Guevara’s silhouetted photograph has, yes, but that appropriation took a long time. 

No Tommie ‘Remember the Name’ Smith t-shirts. No John ‘Remember the Name’ Carlos t-shirts. Maybe we should ask why not.

malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com


Vinod said...

This for me was the symbol of the 1968 Olympics.