(Preface: There is no writer on earth who could tell this story well enough in one article that you could say “ehhh, I don’t need to see the documentary now.” Go watch it. Now, if you can. Close this window and invest four hours of your life into watching it. It’s important. It’s important to history, it’s important to informing today’s racial and political landscape, it’s important to you, personally, as a human being who ostensibly wants to be better at just being. It will, in turns, force anger, sadness, confusion, inspiration, romance, disappointment, and admiration into your brain and heart, and you will hard-stop disagree with Jackie Robinson on at least two points, regardless of your beliefs. I am going to try to write about it, and I hope I can capture even one small part of the immensity that is Jackie Robinson’s story. But don’t do yourself the disservice of letting this be the only way you experience it. The documentary is profoundly impacting and immensely relevant to the world you live in right now. You can watch the whole thing right here.)
The easy myth of Jackie Robinson is what we hear about his first two seasons: the first black baseball player, “strong enough to not fight back,” enduring with quiet dignity and transcendent grace the indignities heaped upon him by the brutish white racists of the day.
I mean, yeah. That’s the story that gets told. But that wasn’t Jack.
The story of Jackie Robinson is not even really a baseball story. Baseball, beautiful as it may be, was really just the platform Jackie Robinson used to preach his unflinching, conflicted, and discomfiting sermon. Those first two seasons where he had to keep quiet and wasn’t allowed to fight back? Jackie hated that. At his core, he was one of the fiercest, most vocal advocates for justice and equality in the entire twentieth century. Jackie Robinson made people uncomfortable, professionally. Baseball? That was just the loudest microphone at his disposal. His sermon was bigger than the game, even bigger than Jackie, and it is preached, perhaps more directly than ever before, in a four-hour, two-part Ken Burns documentary that aired on PBS on April 11th and 12th.
…it did have to be baseball, though.
Especially in the Post-WWII United States, there may have been no greater unifying force than baseball. Basketball and football were yet in their early years; baseball had a head start, and from the beginning, Burns uses that common ground as the canvas for the real subject.
Myron Uhlman, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn in an era when Brooklyn was only Italian and Jewish kids, describes his neighborhood (“Not even any Irish yet; definitely no blacks or Hispanics”), and tells of playing baseball in the streets, emulating the Dodgers as Red Barber’s voice called the action in play-by-play. Meanwhile, Alton Walden reminisces about being a black child in the multi-cultural Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where kids of every color and creed also idolized the Dodgers as their own*. This was before the golden age of TV; baseball was just what kids did. Everyone, even if they weren’t a fan, was at least familiar with the stars of the day.
It had to be baseball. Once baseball was integrated, there was a realistic hope that maybe it could spread to things like schools, restaurants, jobs…
Once you understand that, you don’t really need any more knowledge of the game to appreciate the weight or impact of Robinson’s life. Jackie’s was a story of disruption: before, during, and after baseball. And as much as it is a civil rights story, it is also the story of how he could not have done it without Rachel (the moment where President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama are discussing the strength that Rachel gave to Jackie is, by itself, worth the investment of the first hour of the documentary.)
It is easy, for those of us who grew up inside white skin, in years that climbed into existence on the backs of those tumultuous decades, to forget just how utterly, uncompromisingly segregated our country was in the first half of the 20th century. Baseball, central as it was to our country, was also a blueprint for the “gentlemen’s agreements” that kept the darker-skinned of our countrymen separate from our homogenous and comfortable (and, without fail, better-funded) schools, restaurants, swimming pools, restrooms, etc. There never was an official rule that baseball was for white players only. “By golly, if some black player were just good enough to make the team,” the owners implied, “we’d be more than happy to have him!” Of course, by 2016, this is easily dispelled as balderdash. By the time Jackie retired, black players had won 9 of the previous 11 NL MVP awards.
Perhaps the most enlightening part of the documentary was the last hour, detailing Jackie’s tenuous post-baseball relationship with some aspects of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. A man who had for so long been a fighter, the symbol of Black Masculinity, now found himself torn between the anger at continued injustice and the feeling of being relegated to Uncle Tom status by those whose tactics he saw as too extreme or counter-productive. Did you know that Jackie Robinson campaigned for Richard Nixon against JFK?
I told you it was complicated.
I often wonder, had I been alive in the 1940s and 50s, if I would have been on the right side of history. I suppose we all do. After all, many white people of the time, ardent followers of a faith that told them to love their neighbor as themselves, genuinely and without guile believed themselves to be loving and magnanimous while simultaneously embracing the Jim Crow laws of the day as somehow “good for” the black population. “Separate but equal,” they had been told. “It’s better for them to be with their own kind.” (as if we were not all one “kind”).
It’s easy when you are born into a skin-tone or financial bracket of privilege to believe that there is no such thing. By golly, if some black player were just good enough that his death at the hands of the police was, beyond the shadow of a doubt, unjustifiable, we’d be more than happy to prosecute. “If only they didn’t use so much drugs, or weaken the family unit by leaving their pregnant girlfriends, if only they weren’t so reliant on welfare,” we hear, despite the fact that studies show that none of these things are more a part of black culture than white, unless you count the likelihood of being arrested, or unless serving more time in prison for the same crime somehow makes you more guilty than the other convicts.
“If only these super-predators would stop committing black-on-black crime,” we repeat, ignoring the fact that white-on-white crime is statistically nearly identical.
If only I knew how to say this to people I care about, people who genuinely and without guile believe themselves to be loving and magnanimous… without sounding “elitist” or accusing, or like this is some kind of self-flagellation. As if owning my share of the burden of equality is simply a mechanism by which to both create and—in the same motion—relieve my White Guilt.
If only I could, a bit less clumsily, support, empower, amplify, and most importantly listen to the voices who are fighting the same fight for equality that Jackie Robinson fought; racial, gender, and otherwise. If only I didn’t see my agreeing with every single tactic the movement employs as being the purity test by which I evaluate the validity of their cause.
Yeah. We still have a long way to go.
Which brings us back to Jackie, and why this story is so necessary right now. The particulars change, a little. But the conversations? We’re still having those, sometimes with very little variation or progress at all.
So yes, there’s baseball here. But Jackie Robinson’s story is so much bigger than that. His is a story of justice, romance, grit. It’s a story of bravery, of the American spirit, and—in its most honest moments—of missteps and tragedy. The story of Jackie Robinson is, in many ways, the story of America from the 1940s through the 1960s. Imperfect, growing, uncomfortable, awkward, indomitable and violent. It is the grandfather of the story of today, this year, this minute. It is the story of progress. Slow, painful, unwieldy, heavily resisted, imperfect, but righteous progress; of moving incrementally forward, even (especially) when met with palpable resistance to Go Back To When It Was Comfortable (for someone, anyway).
No, backwards will not do. “You don’t steal the base you left,” as the documentary reminds us. There is a long way yet to go before we stand side-by-side, breathe deeply, and exhale a victorious sigh of relief. Inequality had a head start on liberation, after all. The force required to push back against it will, indubitably it will make you and those around you uncomfortable.
But always forward.
*The story of the game where these two men’s stories intersect is one of the most powerful moments of the documentary, but to go in-depth as to why would be a ruinous spoiler. I will just say that when the Brooklyn man speaks of finally understanding his father’s interest in Jackie Robinson, I broke. I could not relate it to my wife without breaking down into sobs. Ken Burns is a consummate storyteller, and he does so here as well as he ever has.