I went to a thing tonight and I want to blog about it before the feeling leaves me. Because there was a sense of being in a bubble of meaningful reasoning…and then you leave the Antigua and Barbuda Youth Enlightenment Academy and step back in to the real world.
So, let me begin by saying kudos to Lawrence Jardine and Mali Adelaja Olatunji of the Antigua and Barbuda Youth Enlightenment Academy which, moved by the life and recent death of Muhammad Ali, the Greatest, organized a panel discussion. Going, I wasn’t sure what to expect but I think the 30 high people in the room would agree that it was an evening well spent.
Boxers like Coach Anthony Severin of Uprising Boxing Gym, Larry Charles (you might know him as the proprietor of Big Deli known for its delicious sandwiches and its boxing memorabilia), and fellow boxer Archibald Richards discussed what boxing and Ali have meant to them. It was a night for reflecting on their encounters in the ring and encounters with Ali and his message. Also on the panel were cricketer and coach Hugh Gore, former national basketball player and Muslim Khalid Shabazz, photographer Colin Cumberbatch, and National Hero Sir Vivian Richards – a mix which moved the discourse beyond the ring.
Coach Anthony sharing that, as a product of a single parent household in Villa, boxing provided motivation for him, forcing him to be disciplined and resilient. This is what he’s trying to pass on to the young people he works with at Uprising Boxing Gym which is located in the facilities that once hosted the boys’ school in Ottos. His efforts, he said, is helping to keep them off the street. And having seen the level of engagement and deportment among the teenage boys he brought with him – and the level of articulation when they spoke as one did during the free flowing discussion – he’s doing more than that; he’s shaping them in to thoughtful young adults. And isn’t that what we want? So why are we learning, as we did during the session, that Uprising is in danger of losing its home, a revelation that prompted Sir Viv to pledge to do what he could to help. Because when someone is doing positive work in the area of youth development, the last thing you want to hear, really, is that the Minister of Sports (who also heads the National Olympic Committee) has told them that their days in the space the club calls home are numbered. Talking to Coach Anthony after the session, the way it was done also leaves much to be desired. Disappointing. As this is a new development, he didn’t have a specific plan on the way forward for Uprising but I think everyone there would agree that they would like to see its work continue.
Sir Viv who spoke of his encounters with Ali in Pakistan and Manhattan – icon to icon – made perhaps his most meaningful contribution when he spoke directly to these young men from Uprising, telling them “even though you may have the skill, always remember that the will must be greater than the skill.” He made it a point to speak to them a time or two more. On the point of the badmindedness our people are sometimes prone to give out instead of encouragement (something he, Gore, and some others spoke to), Sir Viv charged them to use it as reinforcement. “Sometimes you have to thank them for being so critical,” he said, using it as motivation to “make them eat their words.” And he pushed further “choose your companions (well); there are some guys who may not be as good as you are who don’t want to see you succeed.” Sir Viv wasn’t just in and out, by the way, he lingered for the mingle and the picture taking, evincing a very generous spirit. That merits respect for the man described during the reasoning as Antigua and Barbuda’s Ali, not just because he was a great sportsman but also because, while I’m not suggesting that either man is or was perfect (I must say we got the de-sanitized version of some of Ali’s interactions – with the women in his life, for instance), like Ali he was a great man who stood for something when it counted and at great personal cost. As one person referenced, Viv, easily one of the top batsmen ever, is also counted as one who stood up against Apartheid in South Africa, resisting a huge payday to play there, while racial justice remained a dream in SA, much like Ali did resisting going to fight in Vietnam at a time when racial justice was just a dream in America. The fact that this discussion and in fact these men engage me in spite of my lack of real interest, if I’m being honest in the sports of boxing and cricket, speaks to the ways they’ve eclipsed the sports that made them famous in ways that, to reference Ali, “shook up the world”.
A few of the panelists spoke to the role our sportsmen play in our lives and the lack of respect and support they receive here at home. I observed, for instance, how quietly animated the young people were when Archibald ‘Fighting Jim’ Richards (who reported he’d had 28 wins, 10 losses, and five draws in 43 professional bouts) and Larry Charles re-lived their fights in and out of the ring, watching them emulate the jabs the men were describing as though seeing the fight play out in front of them. And yet, as Khalid Shabazz said, it is not unusual for athletes who have, like these men, flown the flag abroad or mentored others in so doing, to return home unheralded. Too many, he said, “don’t have a job, are living in squalor or walking the street and don’t know where they can buy a tin of milk.”
Charles, an entertaining storyteller whose every word drips not only with his affection for Ali but his passion for boxing (“boxing is not about brawn, you have to know the discipline of boxing…you have to love boxing like you love drinking water”), dropped truths about his tough coaching style balanced by the investment he made in developing the sport here on his return from the US – and the lack of support of such efforts.
“We’re not going anywhere until we change the whole system in our country, otherwise we’re going to be second best all the time”.
Okay, okay, I know it’s starting to sound a bit like a gripe-fest but it really wasn’t. It was a reflection on Ali’s life and, inevitably, on the life of our own Ali, but also an opportunity to discuss our own (sometimes stagnated) potential. Although as men like Sir Viv prove we’re only stagnated by the limitations of our reality if we allow it. And so one of the more important points made, and I can’t remember exactly who made it, was that even with the lack of support and with being dismissed as small island when we go out there, we must use the criticism and adversity to make us stronger.
I am a writer, I love some sports, but I’ve never been particularly athletic, but this spoke to me and I’m hoping it resonated with the young men, especially, in the room as well – and it made me regret not bringing my nephew along as I had planned to. Because in the end, the session was very affirming in my view; realistic but affirming.
‘Nuff respect to Mali and Lawrence for putting it together and for the work they’re trying to do with the Academy (as Lawrence said with “the future, the young people”.
Finally, I’m amused at the way people say “you’re shy” like it’s something I need to apologize for. It’s true I’m not very social around people I don’t know very well or feel comfortable with. It’s not criminal. I’ll tell you what is criminal (not literally, of course) is the lack of media engagement with activities like this as this kind of conversation is both necessary and good.