This morning, I got up, made some tea, heated a Greek sort of spinach thing, and turned on the TV for some news. But, instead of the news, I got The Jackie Robinson Story. I had never seen the film, and caught it about half-way through. It was made in 1950, when I was ten, and it was in black and white. There was some short guy at the plate who was outfitted with special riser soles, to give him some height. The dugout was laughing, but he got a hit. Dick Lane, who used to call roller derby and wrestling on KTLA, Los Angeles, played the manager, and the talented, beautiful Ruby Dee was Jackie’s wife.
The movie was low budget, and mediocre in many ways, and I was about to change the station when Jackie Robinson, playing Jackie Robinson, showed up. I half-way decided to hang around and watch a little of the film, and then stuck with to the end.
Robinson was 28 years old when he began playing big league ball in 1947. He was at the height of his skills when the movie came out, and he quit the game in 1957 to become a corporate executive.
Most of the action scenes appear to have been made in Southern California, with its ever- present eucalyptus trees, and a lot of the crowd scenes show the same fans in multiple scenes. Jackie did a decent acting job, and was even-tempered with the rednecks in the stands. It was hoped that he would be even-tempered with the real-life racist knuckleheads on the field, but management did not always get its wishes. There were plenty of insults and plenty of threats, including such niceties as threats of torture and death to his family. Robinson had to role-play the humble, grateful black man more than once, such as when the studio insisted that he receive some very basic, on-film schoolground coaching from two different white teammates. As for the threats, they never completely stopped.
Did I much give a damn about Jackie Robinson when I was 10, or 15, or 17, as a junior in high school? No. Did race have any meaning for me? No. I knew of Jackie Robinson, who was from Pasadena, and Larry Doby, the man who broke the American League color line. But I was not a Dodgers or White Sox fan. Plus, Hemet, California, was neither integrated nor segregated. It was simply without a “Negro” family. No family, no kids, no problems. Blacks strung up on Southern streets, with gleeful white adults and children gathered ’round? Fascinating. Horrible. Unforgettable. And pretty much meaningless. Those events might as well have happened on the moon. I had no measuring stick, and what good is your uneducated, callow boy-child without real comparisons? This girl, that girl, this team, that team, this car, that car? Now, you’re talking. Who was fighting in the park after school? That had meaning.
If Negros were denied services and voting rights, then that was America for Negros, alright, but that was all far away from my life, our lives. There were no school essays of outrage written about those things in my hometown. A little white girl falling into an abandoned well pipe? Radio, TV and newspaper reporters cut their teeth on this stuff, and became famous. This was especially gripping television at its young, local, black and white best. Many people did not leave their sets until the dead child was eventually pulled up from the well. Countless thousands of parishioners delivered countless tens of thousands of prayers for the deliverance of her soul. The people who failed to seal the well were vilified, if not driven out. People talked and telephoned day and night. People cared. But black people with often life and death black problems? Not so much care, and very little interest. Outrageous racial slurs and often deadly actions can still, to this day, be unheard and ignored. Pleas of, “Hey, I’m not the only one! It’s not my fault!” remain classic responses from children of all ages, in all times and all places, from Washington to Podunk.
Assuming you are white, and reasonably curious (the incurious will neither get the question, nor will they be interested), have you ever thought what life in America would be like for you if you were born black? Go ahead. Be black, if only for a moment or even the lifetime of a day. Use your imagination. Attempt to know black America as you go about your daily business wherever you are. Maybe you are looking for a job. Or, maybe you fall in love with a white girl or boy. Now that is a real “uh oh,” demanding attention to some hard realities, right? Or, you have joined the Army and have just walked into your barracks for the first time. Or, you shop for a mortgage loan, or try to gain admission to a fine college, or seek a promotion or a pay raise, and on and on. Are you thinking? Are you getting feelings about yourself in different situations?
How about attempting to be an athlete like Jackie Robinson, playing America’s once-national pastime? Jackie Robinson, UCLA All-American, the first-ever black man to play big-league baseball? He hits over .300 year after year, playing for 10 years in a state of anxiety about the well-being of his family as he wipes the spit from his face and his uniform. Wear those cleats for just a few seconds. Go home and tell the kids about your day at the office. If you have a tough job, your boss is a prick, you never get the vacation period you want, and you are underpaid, add black to the color of the face you see in the mirror.
No way in hell a white person can walk in the shoes of a black person, but, from time to time, it is worth considering, particularly when America forced Jackie Robinson, and millions of others, to spend all those decades of poverty, degradation and death when attempting to walk in those cruel white shoes.