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Simon Parke: A question of identity

18 January 2012

WHEN Jesus asked his disciples “Who do you say that I am?”, he had more effect in the circus than on the football pitch.

“The Railway Station” was one of the most popular circus acts in Britain towards the end of the 19th century. It featured the double act of Footit and Chocolat. Footit was George Hall, an English clown, and Chocolat was a black dancer from Cuba. Chocolat was paid 800 francs a month for being slapped without flinching.

This was how the scene was played out: three passengers arrive at a rail­way station. Footit is the grandiose guard who consults his large watch and announces that the train is about to depart. The first pas­senger is travelling first class — utter respect is shown, cap in hand, every wish is anticipated in grovelling fashion.

The second passenger is travelling second class. He is treated in a dismissive manner, and told to hurry up. The third passenger, Chocolat, scratches his head and wonders: “What will the guard do to me?” We soon find out.

Footit: “What class are you?”

The poor wretch cannot speak for fear.

“What class are you?”

“Third class, sir.”

Footit turns on him with blows, flings him to the ground, and drops all his luggage on top of him. As Footit walks away, he asks the laughing audience if he is expected to keep a train waiting for a negro — and a third-class one at that.

The question posed by Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?”, reson­ates beyond a particular moment in first-century Palestine by asking every subsequent generation: “Who is anybody?”

In the circus act, the comedy arose from deeming the black man a figure of no worth. But, as the aud­i­ence laughed, they also choked; for Jesus’s question poses a prior question: “Who do I say that I am?”

Our attitude towards those of a different colour, creed, or view largely depends on our attitude towards ourselves. If I hate myself, to give myself respite, I will need to trans­fer that loathing on to particular individuals or groups.

Could Footit and Chocolat perform their act in Britain today? No, they could not; so, on the surface, things are better. But below the surface the deep roots of self-loathing are alive and well, as football illustrates. Put men on a football pitch, and the veneer of respect quickly disappears.

The Chelsea and England captain, John Terry, has been charged with a radically aggravated public-order offence; the Liverpool forward Luis Suarez is serving an eight-match ban for radical abuse; and a black Oldham player broke down recently because of the racist comments that came from the Liverpool crowd.

Who do you say that I am? That depends on how I am feeling about myself.

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