I’m not sure exactly what it is about Rubin "Hurricane" Carter that invokes the passions and the deepest senses. Maybe it is his remarkable life, fraught with every kind of evil and tempered by the sweetness of his triumphant comeback. Or maybe it is his aura; a potent presence that penetrates the soul. Whatever it is, as he addressed a crowd of people at the Jack Singer Concert Hall last Monday night, his message transcended the boundaries of colour, race, sex, and class as hundreds of people sat transfixed by the enigma of this former top-ranked prize fighter.
Carter began by paying homage to the fact that he was speaking at the request of a higher institution of learning, while implying that the only degree he had ever received was from a lower institution of learning: prison. Wrongly accused of triple homicide, he was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Subsequently, he cited the two forces that had always been at the forefront of his life: racism and freedom.
To Carter, racism does not exist. He acknowledged that the only race on planet was the human race. What others commonly perceived as racism was, in fact, tribalism. Identifying a white tribe, yellow tribe, brown tribe, red tribe, the other tribe and a black tribe, he recognized the perpetual struggle for power that existed among these groups. Tribalism is a symptom of our internal struggles, not our external enemies. Carter advocated the need for us to wake up and save ourselves.
For Carter, not only was this a symptom of an internal battle, but one that takes root at the beginning of an individual’s life. We learn tribalism even before we learn our ABC’s. Carter, with the skill of a lyricist, recited a rhyme that encompassed his attitude towards this concept. "If you’re white you’re right. If you’re yellow you’re mellow. And if you’re brown you get around. And if you’re black step back."
As with racism, the notion of freedom took on the same empty meaning for Carter.
"Freedom," he said. "Does not exist. No man knows what freedom is, but the lack of it kills."
And with this short but powerful statement nothing more needed to be said.
What followed was an overwhelming barrage of glimpses into the life of Rubin Carter. From his life-changing encounter with Ali Hassan, to qualifying for the Summer Olympics of 1956, to his 1966 arrest, and glimpses into life in prison in "the hole" where, one day, he woke up blind in one eye due to a lack of medical attention.
All these experiences culminated in the man that Carter has become today.
"After 20 years [in prison], truth won by a total knockout by overcoming diversity and going the distance," said Carter.
In September, 1994, Carter was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, he will attend the Academy Awards this Sunday, and he has spent time with the president of the US, "sitting close enough to hear him breathe." But even more triumphant is the time Carter now devotes to touring the country advocating for youth and his opposition to the death penalty.
"Obstacles are placed in front of us to strengthen us for our next obstacle," Carter said at one point during his rousing speech. "We are all flowers and we have the ability to grow stronger than any other. We can transcend narrow preoccupations. Love cures all people."
His signature phrase, "Love busted me out when hate put me in prison" was truly experienced that night by the members of the audience when they encountered it alive and well in the Hurricane.