Tag Archives: sport

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.

Beyond A Boundary

imagesC.L.R. James ([1963] 1996) Serpent’s Tail, London

I enjoyed this immensely. I know just enough about cricket that it made some kind of sporting sense — though I confess that there’s was an entire chapter on Bradman and the body-line where I really had no idea what the hell James was talking about. Mostly though, James’s enthusiasm carried me along the crest of a lyrical use of words in unfamiliar contexts and meanings, descriptions of overs and strokes and other barely understood marks of poetry and genius. Growing up with three brothers made this a familiar sensation, and I let the minimally understood words carry me along to more familiar territory. Historiography, politics, colonialism and its legacies, ethics, the relationships between a people and their popular heroes, the relationships between popular heroes and the spirit of the time and place.

These things are beautifully explored, and impossible to sum up. Strange growing up in Arizona playing soccer I was inculcated with many of the same values of fair play, and it’s not a bad code to live by. Certainly conflicted, as James says, by where that code comes from and how it has been wielded.

This is partly why I appreciated his statement of the importance of remembering the past and understanding it in the present for both  colonised and the colonisers. It is not about catharsis, but about understanding how we have arrived where we are so that we can shape where we are going. The demand to forget the past so often comes from those who benefit, even if unconsciously, from such forgetfulness.

There are the people who, having enjoyed the profits and privileges of racialism for most of a lifetime, now that racialism is under fire and in retreat, profess a lofty scorn for it and are terribly pained when so much as refer to it in any shape or form. Their means have changed, not their ends, which are the same as they always were, to exploit racialism for their own comfort and convenience. They are a dying race and they will not be missed…

There is a less obvious fraternity. They not only understand, but sympathize. When you delve into your own history they see in it a search for catharsis! You are getting the poison out of your system.

Here he quotes T.S. Eliot: ‘This is the use of memory…liberation, From the future as well as the past.’

That is exactly what I do not think about memories. They do not liberate me in any sense except that once you have written down something your mind is ready to go further. I do not want to be liberated from them. I would consider liberation from them a grievous loss, irreparable. I am not recording tragedy. I do not wish to be liberated from that past and, above all, I do not wish to be liberated from its future. … I speculated and planned and schemed for the future; among other plans, how to lay racialism flat and keep stamping on it whenever it raises its head, and at the same time not to lose a sense of proportion — not at all easy. (59)

And this is a book about both the coloniser and the colonised, a look at what cricket has meant in England and how that has been exported to the West Indies to take on its own life and meaning. The connections between the two as they continue to meet. The playing out of emancipation through the politics of sport. A use of sport as a prism to understand national movements and hopes and anxieties. It feels more nuanced than a traditional economic base and ideological superstructure analysis, though it contains some of these elements. On the Victorian middle class, as it appropriated cricket to ‘convert it into a national institution’, James writes:

It was accumulating wealth…More than most newcomers it was raw. Unlike the French bourgeoisie of the eighteenth century, it had no need to create a new political and philosophical system to prepare itself for power. Its chief subjective quality was a moral unctuousness. This it wore like armour to justify its exploitation of common labour, and to protect itself from the loose and erratic lives of the aristocracy it was preparing to supplant… (161)

Seeing sport as culture:

The world-wide renaissance of organized games and sports as an integral part of modern civilization was on its way. Of this renaissance, the elevation of cricket and football to the place they soon held in English life was a part; historically speaking, the most important part…The only word I know for this is culture. The proof of its validity is its success, first of all at home and then almost as rapidly abroad, in the most diverse places and among peoples living lives which were poles removed from that whence it originally came. This signifies, as so often in any deeply national movement, that it contained elements of universality that went beyond the bounds of the originating nation. It is the only contribution of the English educational system of the nineteenth century to the general ideas of Western civilization (166).

It is, however, a universality this particular form of which came into being through certain economic changes. James describes that following the Factory Act of 1847, ‘there had come into existence an enormous urban public, proletarian and clerical lower middle class. They had won for themselves one great victory, freedom on Saturday afternoon. They were ‘waiting to be amused’ (170).

W.G. Grace became my hero (though later conversation with people who know about these things tore him down again, forcing me to make a separation between personal life and public — one that I am never ever comfortable with). I learned a new word as well:

Prolegomena is a tough word, but my purpose being what it is, it is the only one I can honestly use. It means the social, political, literary and other antecedents of some outstanding figure in the arts and sciences. Grasp the fact that a whole nation had prepared the way for him and you begin to see his stature as a national embodiment (170).

I think there is something important here about how we study history, how we understand people and movements:

But the passions and the forces which are embodied in great popular heroes — and W.G. was one of the greatest of popular heroes–these passions and forces do not yield their secrets to the antiquated instruments which the historians still cling to. Wilton St. Hill and Learie Constantine were more than makers of runs and takers of wickets to the people of Trinidad and Tobago. Who will write a biography of Sir Donald Bradman must be able to write a history of Australia in the same period. I have indicated what I think W.G. signified in the lives of the English people, not in what politicians did for them or poets wrote of them or what Carlyle and Ruskin preached to them, but in the lives that they themselves lived from day to day. We shall know more what men want and what they live by when we begin from what they do. They worshipped W.G. That is the fact. And I believe we have never given this fact the attention it deserves. Some day we shall. Of that I have no doubt. For the time being it is enough to say once more: he brought and made a secure place for pre-industrial England in the iron and steel of the Victorian Age (182).

All of this should shape how we work to change our future. Constantine, St Hill, Worrell become heroes as well. The struggle for Worrell as a Black captain clearly a most important one, though clearly a struggle that many on the more dogmatic left believed a waste of time.

I also quite loved the chapter on cricket as high art, the beautiful lines of the play and players themselves, the aesthetics. I chuckled at some of the homoerotic nature of classic descriptions of player form, style and beauty. But I would be the last to deny that this beauty is there.

I think the true skill and beauty of cricket is impossible to fully grasp for anyone who hasn’t followed it for a long time, and better yet played and played well. But its meaning, its greater cultural meaning is something we should work to understand.

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Reading the world through sport

The amount you can learn might come as a surprise if you don’t read the sports pages, and possibly even if you do. I (somewhat) recently went to hear David Goldblatt speak, and definitely learned a whole lot about things I didn’t really know before.

Let’s take the African Cup of Nations 2010 for starters, what did it teach us?

Now I did know where Angola was, but I did not know that there is an unconnected piece of Angola called Cabinda, and that it has been fighting for its independence for decades.

Why does Angola care? Cabinda contains a third of Angola’s oil. So to hold soccer games in this rather out-of-the-way place, miles from any other stadium, was entirely a political decision. Cabinda, we own you.

But that’s still up for rather violent debate, as rebels proved by attacking the Togolese tour bus with its Angolan military escort. Three people died in the ensuing thirty minute firefight. So wasn’t there a peace accord signed in 2006? Well, if you could call it an accord when you pull a rebel out of a Dutch prison where he has been languishing for some time and make him sign something on behalf of loads of other people he hasn’t talked to recently, and that contains nothing about disarmament or amnesty. I’d prefer to call it fraud.

And so the rebels attacked a soccer team’s tour bus. The dark side of national politics, you can read more here.

And of course, there are the direct connections between teams and politics, Goldblatt gave another example of a trip to Israel, where soccer teams correspond to different political factions. He looked particularly at Beitar Jerusalem. Over the past 70 years it has become increasingly tied to the extreme right wing, fans planting soccer club flags beside those of settlements. During half-time you will customarily see  some fans gather to pray. When asked why, the leader of “La Familia” faction said “This is my country … When I see one million Muslims praying in my country, it makes me nervous.”

The even darker side of fans, read more here.

And at the other end? The joy of football, and sport furthering positive resistance. The Mathare Youth Sports Association. Started in the slums in Kenya, it essentially began as a one man operation. He acted as a referee and lent soccer balls to youth who organized themselves to clean up a place to play.

Entire leagues run by youth themselves formed this way, so much time spent volunteering in community self-help, and then they could play. This has since spread to work on other issues from Aids to child labor. I don’t know how well it addresses structural issues, but mutual aid is always good in my book. You can read more here.

So! There’s so much more to say, so to hear the entire podcast, click here. It’s highly recommended. Another great sports blog that connects sport, resistance and politics is Dave Zirin, the Edge of Sport. And I didn’t even start on the Premiere League or hooligans or…well. There’s time.

To the claim that team sports are only bread and circuses? If you’re like me you’ll say “oh hell no,” and then think, and say, “well, some of it is.” Not the love of the game, the love of play, that feeling of solidarity with others. But I’d say we should be critical of the politics of it, and it’s probably as good a way to learn about the world around us as many others. 90 days to the World Cup, and all the world will be holding its breath at the politics and wonder.

[also posted at www.drpop.net]