Colour Bar by Learie Constantine
Learie Constantine doesn’t have a first class or Test record that immediately jumps out at you looking at statistics alone. Delving a little more into his life, as I was moved to do, highlights how much further than cricket his contribution to society went. I discovered this book through a small reference to it in the excellent Fire in Babylon: How the West Indies Cricket Team Brought a People to its Feet by Simon Lister. A book that was winner of The Cricket Society and MCC book of the year in 2016.
Whilst Colour Bar touches on Learie Constantine’s experience as a cricketer first arriving in England in 1923, it is mainly a book that explores the prejudice faced by coloured people.Whilst it touches on historical prejudices, the real eye-raiser for me was the realisation that so much of the prejudice he reports occurred within the last 100 years and in some cases, as little as the last 60 years.
There can’t be many books that open with a preface that includes a full recital of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and then proceeds to discuss the implications. Fewer still written by Test cricketers!
The reality is that this is not really a book about cricket, so much as a book about the experiences of a black cricketer. As he says in the opening chapter, “if the nations which put their splendid signatures to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights quoted in the Preface to this book had had the slightest intention of honouring that Declaration, there would have been very little in the subject of Black and White for me or anyone else to write about.”
The reality is that many countries didn’t honour it and change took time. Constantine suffered as much as many others, but he was better placed than most to deal with it. He came to England to study law. Cricket, playing for Nelson in the Lancashire leagues, was merely a route to fund his study. In later years, he used his knowledge of the law to successfully bring a successful case against a hotel for discrimination on the grounds of race – Learie Constantince v. The Imperial Hotel.
This is not a book that could be described as light reading. It explores some of the less pleasant aspects of race relations at depth and in a language that is in keeping with the time it was written – 1954. For all that, history tells us some important lessons that should be remembered.
Over 40 years after his death, it remains a book worth reading. Thank you Simon Lister for bringing it to my attention.