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Jackie Robinson Never Had it Made

Jackie RobinsonI grew up with three brothers, therefore I first knew Jackie Robinson as a legendary baseball player. I became more aware of the world and more political, and then I found out that he had been the first Black baseball player allowed to play in the Major Leagues.

This trajectory of knowing, my initial disbelief that there was ever a time when Black people could not play baseball with white is due to the world that Jackie Robinson helped to create, and I give thanks looking back that this is the world I grew up in. Not one entirely conditioned to separate but equal. Not one so blatantly accepting of racism. Not the one that Jackie Robinson faced down and helped to crack open with so many others of immense courage, will and strength.

Don’t get me wrong, racism is still central to the way America works. Baseball is still rife with it, as are all the other major-league billion-dollar franchises. The NBA booted Donald Sterling out, but we still have a long way to go.

Still, we should find some hope in that we’ve come a long way. Reading this you see it, even through the heartbreak of Ferguson and the horror of racist white reaction and the ongoing accumulation of slow and spectacular violence.

It’s funny how much it reads as just the story of an ordinary man, extraordinarily gifted at baseball. Strong enough to be what he needed to be to help break down the segregation and to survive everything that was thrown at him. The first half of the book is eloquent on this struggle, the way it beat down the body, the heart and the spirit. I wonder, still, how he managed to do it. More than ever, you realise how much we need love from family and friends to survive this world and the damage that it inflicts.

The story of how the Dodgers’ president Ricky Branch gained the commitment to civil rights that led him to bring Robinson on the team in the first place is somehow the most powerful single story. He was a coach with Ohio Wesleyan, and this college team had one black player. When he was not allowed in a hotel in Indiana, Branch argued and fought, threatened to change to a new hotel, and eventually Charley Thomas was allowed to stay in his room, sleeping on a cot. Robinson writes:

“He sat on that cot,” Mr. Ricky said, “and was silent for a long time. Then he began to cry, tears he couldn’t hold back. His whole body shook with emotion. I sat and watched him, not knowing what to do until he began tearing at one hand with the other–just as if he were trying to scratch the skin off his hands with his fingernails. I was alarmed. I asked him what he was trying to do to himself.

“It’s my hands,” he sobbed, “They’re black. If only they were white. I’d be as good as anybody then, wouldn’t I, Mr Rickey? If only they were white.” (27)

A society that does this to a talented kid, well, you just want to crush it up into a ball like paper and throw it away and start all over again. If only it were that easy. I think of Fanon especially, of Malcolm X, of Black Power and how important they were, they are, in reclaiming pride and space from a toxic white world and healing this. At minimum we should all be allowed comfort in our own skin.

Being an ordinary guy, this is also a curious story of someone moving through the worlds of business and politics with the immense power of celebrity, determined to do his best for Black people, but uncertain of how to do it. Admitting mistakes. Like allowing his presence to be used against Paul Robeson at HUAC without being aware of the full situation or the stakes, like supporting Nixon and the moderate current of the Republican party, repudiating it only with the advent of Barry Goldwater. Like supporting the war in Vietnam, until he found out more about the conditions faced by troops through the heroin addiction (and the VA’s abandonment of) his son, and facing the irony of fighting for a ‘freedom’ abroad that his family did not have in the U.S.

Despite this edging towards conservatism (dude worked with Rockefeller), he writes this in the preface:

As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, , in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made. (xxiv)

And he ends with this:

But I still feel I owe–till every man can rent and lease and buy according to his money and his desires; until every child can have an equal opportunity in youth and manhood; until hunger is not only immoral but illegal; until hatred is recognized as a disease, a scourge, an epidemic, and treated as such; until racism and sexism and narcotics are conquered and until every man can vote and any man can be elected if he qualifies — until that day Jackie Robinson and no one else can say he has it made. (269)

That would not be a bad world, though maybe now we can demand a little more.