- Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith
In an essay on African-American sports autobiographies in David Wiggins’ African Americans in Sport (2004), Michael Oriard considers that of a black athlete as more than “simply an account of that individual’s experiences in and out of sport” (p. 17). An autobiography, according to Oriard, “is not the transparent record of a lived life but the consciously crafted self-presentation of an individual framed by certain social, economic, and political contexts and guided by any number of personal motives.” In contrast, “the sports autobiography . . . is a commercial product arising from and contributing to American celebrity culture, rarely written by the athlete alone but ‘with’ or ‘as told to’ a professional writer.” Tommie Smith, one half of the iconic pair of black-gloved 1968 Olympians, is the latest black athlete to contribute to the growing body of the African-American sports autobiography genre. Smith partners with newspaper columnist David Steele, whose presence is noticeably absent.
In describing the patterns of the genre, Oriard identifies three common elements, “early poverty, strong parental influence (whether from one parent or two), escape through sport, usually with the guidance of black or white mentors, hard work, setbacks, and triumphs.” These elements combine to create a “pattern of the American success story . . . its appeal to readers in its utter familiarity, as well as its reassurances that talent and hard work can defeat all obstacles, even racial ones” (p. 16). Smith’s story follows the established pattern faithfully to a point, growing up as one of twelve children, son of James Richard and Dora Smith (Chapter 3: “Out of the Fields” reveals the strong influence of his parents). Coached at San Jose State by Bud Winter, Smith was the fastest man in the world in the mid 1960s. Smith’s story, despite the necessary elements, does not result in the typical celebration of American meritocracy. Instead, Smith’s life is dramatically altered by his decision to make his gesture on one of the most visible platforms afforded him, the victory medal stand at the 1968 Olympic games; although, readers might argue, after the last page is turned, that Smith’s life, albeit not following a straight trajectory, has been one of accomplishment, perseverance, and success.
Smith’s twelve chapter autobiography details his early upbringing, his college experiences at San Jose State College, his Olympic gesture, and the aftermath of his gesture (which is far from silent, as the title suggests). The most enjoyable, interesting, and unrehearsed chapters of the book are at the beginning and end (Chapter 1: “Welcome Home”; and Chapter 12: “It Will Outlive Me”). Both chapters address Smith’s reaction to the newly erected statue of himself and Carlos in their famous gesture on the campus of their alma mater, San José State University. Smith’s genuine pride in the overdue honor, reveal a softer, humbler version of himself, which is often absent in the other ten chapters, where his bitterness is palpable. Smith is angry about a number of things: the lack of celebration of his Olympic achievement, his inability to find a job after college, John Carlos’ claims that he let Smith win the race, his ex-wife—the list goes on. [End Page 167]
Certainly Smith has reason to be upset—he was not welcomed home to the United States with open arms. However, as he recalls and other sources support, he played on the practice squad of the Cincinnati Bengals for a few years, hardly a symbolic tryout, and it is difficult to blame his termination on the 1968 gesture. He was hired at Oberlin College and worked there for several years before landing a job at Santa Monica College, where he worked for decades. He may not have made the money he felt he deserved, but who of his Olympic track and field teammates from 1968 was able to parlay their gold medal into millions? This is more about the lack of financial opportunities in track and field and in the 1960s than his gesture, though...