Sunday, February 19


There's a poignant, sharp-edged scene that I recall to this day (and I would ask you to recall) in the 1967 screen drama, "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" -- an Oscar award-winning film about the conundrum presented by a black, on-the-rise-towards-prominence physician, played by Sidney Poitier, in seeking his fiancee's well-heeled, quintessentially-liberal parents' approval (the parents played wonderfully by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) to marry their daughter and thus enter into an inter-racial marriage, which by law in many states at the time of the film's debut was still verboten.

The scene I'm calling to mind is when Sidney Poitier and his character's father, a retired postman, meet privately in Spencer Tracy's study to air their differences about the impending marriage of a black man and a white woman, which has left both sets of parents dumbfounded and, initially anyways, in a most uncomfortable dilemma. In that scene, Poitier's character says to his intractable, set-in-his-ways' father, at the height of the emotions flying back and forth between the two:

I'm your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself ... as a man.

That exchange came to mind during the strained interview of Shani Davis, a 23-year-old black athlete from the South Side of Chicago, on last night's Winter Olympics' broadcast by NBC Sports. Davis had just won the gold medal in the men's 1,000-meter speedskating event and was coming across as a near reticent, subject-predicate-only responder to the questions being put to him by the NBC interviewer. She went so far as to ask him if he was "angry" about something given his grim expression before the cameras and his taciturn disposition.

Today's Houston Chronicle's front page, below-the-fold story by Dale Robertson ("Davis' gold makes history for black Olympians" link) goes to great lengths to depict Davis' post-triumph behavior as the result of an internecine, U.S. Olympics' team feud between him and fellow speedskater-teammate Chad Hedrick, who hails from the Houston area; but I'm not so sure. Could it simply be that Shani Davis has the mindset of Sidney Poitier's character and he doesn't want to be hailed as the "first black (man) to win an individual gold in the Winter Olympics," but rather to be regarded rightly as an athlete who overcame the obstacles thrown at him by a hardscrabble life?

After all, Shani Davis isn't the Jackie Robinson of Olympic speedskating. Pigmentation doesn't keep you off the ice, even on Chicago's South Side. His gold-medal victory shouldn't be cast in racial terms, but rather in pure athletic achievement. Maybe that's what rankled Davis -- that an NBC Sports' interviewer couldn't wait to ask him about his blackness in the context of his Olympic triumph.

You see, you think of yourself as a white interviewer questioning a black athlete. I just think of myself as a man and an athlete.

Congratulations, Mr. Davis, for winning a gold medal in speedskating as a member of the U.S. Olympic team. And have no fear: NBC Sports' Melissa Stark will not be coming to dinner.