- The Trouble with Publicness:Toward a Theory of Black Quiet
The story of this moment has been told many times: it was the 1968 Olympics in a volatile Mexico City, and two male athletes, both black Americans, make an emblematic gesture during the medal ceremony for the 200-meter race. One of them, Tommie Smith, has won the race while the other, John Carlos, was third. As the U. S. national anthem plays, both men punctuate the space above their heads with their black-gloved fists, Smith raising his right hand, Carlos his left. Their salute is a Black Power sign that protests racism and poverty, and counters the anthem and its embracing nationalism. The third man on the podium, standing to their right, is Peter Norman, a white Australian who won the silver medal; Norman doesn't elevate his fist but wears an O. P. H. R. (Olympic Project for Human Rights) pin in solidarity with Smith's and Carlos's protest.
The power of this moment is in its celebrated details—the clenched fists, the black gloves, their shoeless feet—details that confirm a resoluteness of action. Since that day, commentators have memorialized the public assertiveness of their gesture. Smith's and Carlos's bodies have become both a precise sign of a restless decade and especially of black resistance. But look again closely at the pictures from that day and you can see something more than the certainty of public assertiveness. See, for example, how the severity of Smith's salute is balanced by the yielding of Carlos's raised arm. Then notice how the sharpness of their gestures is complemented by one telling detail: that their heads are bowed as if in prayer, that Smith, in fact, has his eyes closed. The effect of their bowed heads suggests intimacy, that this very public protest is also private. There is a sublime balance between their intentional political gesture and this sense of inwardness, a sublimity that is often barely acknowledged. The beauty of the protest is enhanced by reading Smith and Carlos not only as soldiers in a larger war against oppression, but also as two people in a moment of deep spirituality, in prayer, as vulnerable as they are aggressive, as pensive as they are solidly righteous. In this reading, what is compelling is that their humanity is on display; what we get are the inner dimensions of their public bravery.
As one of the most iconic moments of the American twentieth century, Smith's and Carlos's protest helps us explore the limits of public blackness. There is no question that their action was an intentional and public demonstration, the most significant of the O. P. H. R.'s attempt to organize athletes toward a boycott of the Games. Still, the moment exhibits and even draws upon deep intimacy, conveying an explicit sense of human vulnerability; what is moving about seeing them is as much the quality of graceful, lithe surrender in their postures as it is the awareness of the politics that are at stake. Like many moments from the civil rights movement, their protest is an exquisite balance of what is public and what is intimate. How then can the intimacy of their fists-in-protest be overlooked or deferred in our reading such that the breadth of this moment is useful only for its public weight? How is it that Smith and Carlos are largely icons of resistance, and that of all the things we are encouraged to read in their image, vulnerability and interiority are not among them? 1
Part of what hinders our capacity to see this quality in their gestures is a general concept of blackness that privileges public expressiveness and resistance. More specifically, black culture is mostly overidentified with an idea of expressiveness that is geared toward a social audience and that has political aim; such expressiveness is the essence [End Page 329] of black resistance. In fact the idea that black culture is both expressive and resistant is now so common that it neither seems insightful nor requires justification. Of course, central to this thinking is the assumption that all expressiveness is necessarily...