On Being 42: The Strange Case of Viewing Historic Racism

ImageToday is Jackie Robinson Day. Sixty-six years ago yesterday there were 300 Major League Baseball players and all of them shared one characteristic: they were white. Sixty-six years ago today that number dropped to 299. Robinson took the field and revolutionized the staid tradition known as baseball; and as he retired the nation following his example saw a revolution of its own. Today we celebrate the impact that one man can have on a nation.

This day has always been sacred to me and I have celebrated it by donning my Brooklyn Dodgers cap (and as of 4 years ago) my Robinson jersey. This year I was excited to continue my celebration my heading to the cinema and watching 42, a new biopic on the those fateful three years in which Robinson changed the word. 

As I watched the film in Birmingham, AL home of many of the worst racial problems and the center of the most important battle in the civil rights movement, I marveled at how easy it was to root for Jackie and see myself as one of the good teammates who accepted him, I wondered at how good that made me feel about myself. I surprised myself with how easy is was to compare myself favorably to the whites on screen who exhibited the slightest racial animosity to Robinson. I felt superior to the racist manage Ben Chapman played by Alan Tudyk. I felt superior to the racist fans screaming, “n—–r.” I was different. I was better. 

Then the director made an interesting move. He showed a father and a son sitting at the old ballpark in Cincinnati waiting to see their hero Pee Wee Reese take the field. There they were sitting there talking about baseball even as the Dodgers took the field. Then the scene changed as the father began hurling epithets at Jackie. The camera moved from father to son as the son watching his dad emulated the chant of “n—-r.” The scene cut me to the marrow of my being. 

Suddenly I saw myself not as the brave Jackie or the be-knighted Branch Rickey, but as a little boy sitting beside his father at a game. The confusion at first. Followed by the acceptance of his hate. Then the aping of his actions. It is easy to be that boy. In truth I once had my mouth washed out with soap for saying that very word. Where did I learn it? From another family member (no names, no judgment as they had probably learned it from another family member themselves).  

When we attend movies it is easy to see ourselves as the “good” guys (or girls). It is easy to watch The Help, or The Blind Side and see ourselves as the good people of good character who would never have been like all those racist jerks seen in the film. Yet the truth is that were any of us to have been living in those times, our place in the movie would most likely to be that kid in the stands learning racism from watching his father. Though it may seem now that the racist is the exception; in reality the non-racist was the exception for that time and place. We have no room for superiority. Chances are. We would have been the rule and not the exception. 

Perhaps if we had lived then we might have felt some tension in our lives. Perhaps we might have felt some cognitive dissonance between our hatred for blackness, and our appreciation for the woman of color who cleaned our homes, raised our kids, and occasionally took the field in front of us. Yet we in all probably would have shrugged it off and continued with the status quo. Continued to raise our families. Continued to work our jobs. Continued to go to our churches. Just continued to live our lives blind to the sinfulness of this one area of our existence. 

In one of my favorite moments in the movie Jackie is speaking with his wife and lamenting the pain he is experiencing. Looking at her husband Rachel Robinson says, “If they could only get to know you, the real you, I am sure they would come to like you.” This line points to my favorite moment of the movie. Just after showing the father and son, we switch back to the field. There we follow Jackie tossing warm-ups to the other infielders as the profanities rain down upon him. Pee Wee Reese (played admirably by Lucas Black), the boy’s hero, catches one such ball and comes over to Jackie. Handing the ball back, he thanks Jackie for doing what it is doing, and embraces him. As the embrace happens we switch back to the stands and see on the boy’s face, that moment of cognitive dissonance, that confusion as the values of his father collide with the values of his hero. At that moment I wondered just what was going to happen with that boy. 

Here I think is the lesson of 42 and the challenge of any good movie (historical or otherwise). Can we learn the value of embracing those moments of cognitive and emotional dissonance. When we feel those brief moments in which he glimpse the reality behind the status quo, can we stop, think, and question our lives. Or will we go back to our families  our jobs, and our churches unchanged. When the curtain has been pulled back and the realization that the great wizard is simply an old man with a few tricks, can we rethink, reevaluate, and reapply ourselves to our lives. When Jackie Robinson is standing before us, how will we respond?

Will we pretend we did not see. Convince ourselves that we did not really understand what we saw. Will we go back to same old, same old muttering about the way it’s always been done. Or can we change. Because how we handle that moment determines if in that final movie about our lives, we will be shown to be Tudyk’s Ben Chapman or Lucas Black’s Pee Wee Reese. 

The challenge is this. Next time you are in the theater and the temptation to compare yourselves with the worst offenders; ask yourself if you might have more in common with them than you think. You might surprise yourself with how you answer. 


One Comment

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  1. WOW! That was powerful and…profound!-Izzie J

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