Volume 1 Number 9
A Whole New Ball Game
01 May 1988
One of the two opening batsmen for the Masters is Conrad Hunte, invited from the USA by the Barbadian government with his American wife, Patricia, and their three daughters, Roberta, 10, Grace, 5, and Veronica, 2.
Barbados, November 1987. Vociferous applause from the crowd watching cricket at Bridgetown's Kensington Oval. There's nothing unusual in that for the West Indies: but this is a special match. Barbados is 21 years old, and playing against a national team is the 1966 Masters team, formed again to celebrate this milestone of independence.
One of the two opening batsmen for the Masters is Conrad Hunte, invited from the USA by the Barbadian government with his American wife, Patricia, and their three daughters, Roberta, 10, Grace, 5, and Veronica, 2. The Barbados Advocate, noting that Conrad, at 55, is `still looking trim and extremely fit, and flashing that infectious smile', also takes a sly dig at Patricia with its headline, 'Hunte wife knows nothing about cricket'. But during the visit, Patricia and the girls at last get to see - and love - the strange game at which Conrad became famous. And Patricia, who is well-known in Atlanta as a television newscaster, one of the `anchors' on WXIA, the NBC-TV affiliate station, is invited one evening to host the Barbados national TV news. It is a typically warmhearted West Indian touch, and brings even closer together the worlds of two remarkable people.
The Huntes have not been content with successful careers in cricket and television. They measure their achievement by whether they have lived relevantly to the racial and community problems which are poisoning relationships across the earth.
Conrad was the eldest of nine children of a plantation worker who later became a local government officer. They were so poor that when he was 12 he only had one square meal a day - and the entire menu was maize flour. From the age of four he walked barefoot three miles to school and back, rain or shine; he did not have a pair of shoes until he went to grammar school at 11.
Some years later, and 1300 miles away across the Atlantic, Patricia as a child chopped tobacco on her father's farm in the tiny community of Cascade, Virginia. She was tenth of eleven children, and until she was 16 had never been to a town with more than 25,000 inhabitants.
Conrad played his first international cricket Test in 1958, at the same Kensington Oval in Barbados to which he returned last year. He scored 142 in his first Test innings - a feat equalled by only a handful of players from any country.
The great upsurge in the West Indies' cricket fortune - and even the revival of cricket as a sport to enjoy - began, perhaps, with the famous Tied Test in Brisbane in December 1960. It was the first time both teams in a Test Match had made identical scores, and then only because two of the Australian team were run out in the last three balls - one of them because of a 90-yard throw from the boundary by Conrad. At tour's end 500,000 Australians lined the streets of Melbourne to farewell them.
He remembers that day for another reason. A few weeks earlier he had spoken from a Christian radio pulpit about the race struggle and the brotherhood of man, and this had brought him a flood of letters of appreciation. Instead of feeling pleased, he was troubled: the letters `spotlighted for me what a hypocrite I really was. For even as I denounced exploitation of man by man, I was exploiting women for my pleasure. I remembered, too, the terrible things I had seen in India. My life was doing nothing to help the poor of the world. I had failed God and man.' A few days later he just missed causing a head-on collision that would have been fatal for him and the family in the other car. He went back to his hotel, got on his knees and asked God to take control of his life.
Shortly after that, he saw a film, produced by Moral Re-Armament, about Mary McLeod Bethune, one of the great pioneers of American race relations. The story, he said, `riveted me'. In one scene, the two main characters quietly seek what God might be saying in their hearts. Despite his prayer a few days before, he doubted that this could possibly work for him. Just before being swept up in the cavalcade of cars wending their way through those half-million cheering spectators, he cross-questioned someone else for whom the experiment had had considerable results. Next day he tried it, and had some uncomfortably concrete thoughts about apologies to make and money to pay back.
But what would these lead to? Initially to brighter cricket. He began to spend time each day asking God to clarify his motives and give him insights - and got many ideas about how to stabilize the team's batting and give others a chance to shine. This may well have helped the West Indies stay on top for so many years. For some time Conrad was vice-captain to Frank Worrell, and then Worrell retired. Hunte naturally expected to be chosen captain, but Gary Sobers was picked in his place. It was six weeks before he felt able to go to Sobers and apologize for his bitterness.
In Calcutta during the West Indies tour of 1966-7, agitators
tried to use the huge crowd to demonstrate that the people had no trust in their elected leaders or police. They stormed the pitch and set the grandstands on fire. Conrad prayed to be shown what to do. He managed to save all his team's baggage and the flags of both nations - and helped ensure that the match was not cancelled or the tour called off.
This experience changed the way Conrad watched world affairs. After seven years in big-time cricket he was expecting to play on for another eight. A knee injury took him off the field for some months. He was in Britain, and Enoch Powell was predicting that `rivers of blood' would result from the great number of coloured immigrants from the West Indies, Africa and Asia. Conrad became one of the prime movers in an MRA inter-racial group which decided to try and tackle this issue at the grass roots. As people in the different racial communities responded, he found himself facing perhaps his most difficult decision yet. Would he take early retirement from cricket so that he could carry it through? After much agonizing he decided to do so, unpaid and unspectacular though the job was. The campaign continued, in 33 British cities.
In the course of this he met many of the leaders of the burgeoning Black Power movement. At the time of Martin Luther King's assassination, these leaders had been making ready for some such event which would `give a reason for urban guerrillatype warfare'. But, they told Conrad later, `we came to the conclusion that what you and your friends had been telling us was right - that be yond violence there was a militant non-violent approach, to change your enemies and make them into friends - and that this would strengthen our cause.'
Here ,vas something, he felt passionately, that was needed everywhere there was racial and ethnic division, and he travelled as widely in pursuit of this new aim as he had with his cricket bat. In 1977 he was in South Africa with an inter-racial group. One night in a small country hotel he and a black South African friend were forced to sleep in a back room.
`During the day I was a comrade with my other friends, seeking to bring healing where there might be hurts. By night I became a non-person, not worthy of care and cleanliness, for the toilets were filthy, the bath was closed, there were candles, not electric light, the walls were cold and bare, the blankets and sheets, though clean, were tattered and torn. The poor are facing such shocks daily: they are forced to turn either to Christ for healing or away from him in despair. Where would I turn?
`Through this experience I was given a clearer understanding of the struggle in Southern Africa and the world. It is a spiritual struggle between good and evil in your heart and mind every day. Victory must come at this level on a big enough scale before it' will come at the level of politics, economics and social structures.'
After 20 years touring the world, Conrad met Patricia. It was love virtually at first sight. Even before they knew each other properly, they came independently to the conclusion they were meant to get married. Patricia had prayed that God `would send me a husband not a boyfriend. I was disillusioned with the dating arena.' But she nonetheless felt ill-prepared when Conrad told her `the bitter-sweet story of his life, including some details I recoiled at, and then said ` I believe you are meant to be my wife".' In fact she was relieved, not upset, at such a proposal. Months before she had told colleagues at the BuffaloTV station where she was then working that she had met the man she would marry - and had been embarrassed because he, touring somewhere as usual, had not even been in touch.
`Start with a clean slate'
After the wedding (on her father's farm with 600 guests) there were things to work out. Patricia's job was structured and his was informal. He found himself having `to play Mr Mom for a season' and not making too brilliant a job of it. Hardly anyone in Atlanta, where they made their home, had even heard of cricket so he took up softball and in 1986 topped the averages in his county. Softball matches, indeed, took him away from home at a time when Patricia was ill and still had to care for the three young children. They have found they ha v needed to forgive each other for things like that which might have damaged their relationship.
Their home life had strengthened his belief, Conrad said, that both sides in any conflict can `start with a clean slate and build an entirely new synthesis - when forgiveness and repentance come together'. Such a cure, said Patricia, is so simple that it is perplexing', adding that she believes `God has allowed me to experience the depth of the problem so I could actually find this cure.'
Patricia reads the news on WXIA-TV every weekday between midday and 1 pm and 5.30 and 6.00. In the lunchtime programme the day I visited the studio there were, as well as the news and weather, interviews with: a West Palm Beach socialite whose marriage to one of the Pulitzer family had broken up and who had written a book about it; a Californian doctor who said junk food was really all right to eat; and a woman who was going to make masks of children's faces in the Soviet Union.
Conrad has just been appointed Barbados's Honorary Consul General in Atlanta. The city today is perhaps the most booming metropolis in the United States - with one of the busiest airports in the world, $34 billion of new investment and 400,000 new jobs in five years. There seem to be vast new skyscrapers and freeways being built everywhere.
`I set her free'
The tomb of Martin Luther King, assassinated 20 years ago last month, lies in the middle of a reflecting pool at the `King Center for Nonviolent Social Change', which is visited by a million people every year. The anniversary has prompted a fresh look at the civil rights position. Advances have been considerable. America now has some 7000 elected black officials - including congressmen and mayors of great cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta - where there were less than 100 before 1955. Housing and schooling is more integrated. A third of all black families have middle-class incomes of between $25,000 and $50,000. But the successful have left behind a growing `underclass' which is poorer than before and amounts to 31 per cent of the black population. 26 per cent of blacks who finish high school go to college: but in 1976 the figure was 33 per cent. Those left in appalling conditions in the ghettos are angry.
The reforms in the Sixties, Patricia Hunte says, `opened up restaurants, toilets and public facilities, provided more job possibilities, stopped blacks being kept in the back of the bus, but they didn't cure the hate. We blacks constantly need to forgive. We also try to forget: but that's a lot harder than forgiving. I run into three kinds of people: the first group accepts those from other races as human beings, the second would, but for pressure from their peers, and the third lot is belligerently defiant.'
Patricia is not complaining. `The generations before us endured far more than we do,' she says. `I owe it to them and my own children not to wallow. I always loved my Mom and Dad, but I resented being born black - and that they weren't able to give me more inner development to prepare me for the world outside. I was never happy to parade them through the newsroom, to have them come and share my environment. I've been repenting for that and it's been an arduous and lengthy process. On my last birthday I appreciated God's call to me as a black person - and how much my parents were able to achieve with so little.'
At the same time she cannot understand how slavery could have been allowed to exist for three whole centuries. `I believed I was capable of doing anything I set out to do. What gripped me as I studied slavery as a fully-fledged adult was how unexplainable and unreasonable the whites' hatred of us was.'
Listening to her, I had to admit to myself that I hadn't ever called whites' attitudes to blacks by the name of hatred, even though I had wanted us to stop acting superior. Patricia detailed some incidents which had kept her relationship with whites superficial. `My humanity kicks in, my empathy declines, I can't trust them,' she said, and added with a smile, `But I'm obligated to love them.'
One of her white colleagues had asked her a few months before, 'Patricia, why do you blame me for slavery?' and she had realized that she had been mentally beating this woman over the head with the legacy of the white past. Just before this, she and Conrad had experienced in their own relationship the power of forgiveness, and she decided to release this woman and all whites `from the burden of my condemnation'.
The woman had become entirely different to work with, she said. `I set her free. It is not enough any more just for whites to change or blacks to change. Not one of us will be able to say "I was right and you were wrong." We've all been right on some points and we've all been wrong.'