Deconstructing the “Santa-Clausification” of Jackie Robinson

Yesterday Major League Baseball did the right thing, a wonderful thing, in honoring Jackie Robinson. The 60th anniversary celebration of baseball’s desegregation couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time either. Race and sports are yet again at the forefront of public dialogue. With the suspension of Pacman Jones, and the never-ending soap opera surrounding Barry Bonds, the pro athlete is in need of some good P.R. Major League Baseball players and managers stepped up big.

But once the clock officially struck 12, I was left wondering why Jackie Robinson had never felt real to me as a kid; why his name never evoked the stirrings of supreme adulation in my soul like Ali’s and Malcolm X’s. Growing up, Jackie’s was a name I knew because I had to know it. He stood beside Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. in the pantheon of inviolable, unassailable black deities from the days before technicolor, immortals I dared not question or criticize. Cornel West calls it the “Santa-Clausification” of our heros. It’s when we strip them of their personhood for the sake of symbolism. He originally used the term to describe the public’s perception of Dr. King: the gulf between the Dr. King we learn about in schools and the Dr. King of actually flesh and blood— a mortal man with doubts, a man with an appetite for the fairer sex that drove him outside of his marriage. According to West, it’s only when we begin to deal with our heros as people who walked the earth that we can learn from them and appreciate them and even strive to exceed them. On the flip side, as long as they remain untouchable we remain untouched.

A little more than two years after breaking baseball’s color barrier Jackie Robinson received an invitation from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The committee wanted Robinson to come to Washington, D.C. to testify against Paul Robeson. At a peace conference three months earlier Robeson, then the most celebrated African-American actor/singer in the world, had said that blacks should not “make war on the Soviet Union” given their treatment in the United States. Robeson’s remarks sparked a public outcry when they were republished (with considerable alterations and additions) over the A.P. wire the following day. With the nation entering the Cold War period, Robeson returned to U.S. soil in time to discover he had become persona non grata among many of his former friends. The HUAC hearings were convened shortly after Robeson’s arrival to rebut and isolate him. Robeson was livid when he discovered Jackie Robinson was the government’s star witness. He wrote to baseball player urging that he not accept the invitation.

Robinson struggled with his decision. Technically, he was not required to testify, but he knew there would be repurcussions if he did not. Robinson also had to deal with the fact of Robeson’s service on his behalf. At their annual meeting in December of 1943, Robeson had addressed the baseball owners. As both a former athlete and a leading man on stage, he assured them that integrating baseball would not cause violence but would in fact propel the country closer to its ideals. Robeson was the first black man to speak before the owners on the subject and afterward they gave him a round of applause. After the meeting commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis remarked that there was no rule on the books denying blacks entry into the league. Two years later Robinson became the first black baseball player in professional baseball.

Robinson wasn’t a fool. He was clear about racial prejudice. He knew where Robeson was coming from. He knew he was the exception and not the rule. But he didn’t believe any one man ought to speak for an entire race of people and that full representation required military service to the nation-state. Robinson agreed to testify and did so before a gaggle of flashing cameras. It was a predesigned media event that would be replayed before the world stage. In a carefully crafted statement that would appear on the front page of The New York Times the following day Robinson said that Robeson “has a right to his personal views, and if he wants to sound silly when he expresses them in public, that is his business and not mine. He’s still a famous ex-athlete and a great singer and actor.”

From that moment on Paul Robeson’s public and personal life began a downward spiral that he never recovered from. The next day Eleanor Roosevelt skewered him in the Times. A month later he would face rioters in Peekskill, N.Y. A year later his passport would be revoked. He would be called before the government in 1956 and held in contempt for his remarks. Thereafter, he would be unable to find work in the United States. His income, which had been six figures at one point, would dry up to a mere pittance. And yet, neither immediately following his testimony nor at any time thereafter did Robeson quarrel with Robinson. He refused to be “drawn into any conflict dividing me from my brother victim of this terror.” It was the ultimate act of a gentleman and Jackie Robinson never forgot it. Near the end of his life Robinson wrote in his autobiography,

However, in those days I had much more faith in the ultimate justice of the American white man than I have today. I would reject such an invitation if offered now…I have grown wiser and closer to the painful truths about America’s destructiveness. And I do have increased respect for Paul Robeson who, over the span of twenty years, sacrificed himself, his career, and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people.

When I think of the story of Paul Robeson and Jackie Robinson I think of two men meeting at a crossroads but heading in opposite directions. I think of an aging Robinson wishing he could do certain things over again. I think of a man whose intentions were pure but who nevertheless came to recognize pure intentions sometimes aren’t enough. Thinking of this story even allows me see how that in the rush to enshrine the Civil Right era into the annals of American mythology, the connection that I might’ve had to Jackie Robinson was sacrificed for a feel-good narrative. Just as Rosa became the meek, middle-aged woman with tired feet and Martin became the weaver of utopian dreams, Jackie became the Saint of Restraint and Dignity for generations of Americans. They were not human beings, not people I could relate to or even emulate. All I could do was pay my respects and move on.

As we continue to celebrate Jackie Robinson it’s important that we acknowledge that he died a disillusioned man. Despite all that he had achieved, at the end he had regret and bitterness, much of it directed toward the game he loved, the country he loved. From now on when we talk about the uses and abuses Jackie Robinson endured on the field we should know that that only scratches the surface of his predicament; that when we regard him solely as a man of great dignity and honor, we rob him of the inner struggle that he underwent, his mistakes and shortcomings. Only by remembering him this way can we begin to see that although our achievements might make us memorable, our frailties are what make us human.

10 Responses to “Deconstructing the “Santa-Clausification” of Jackie Robinson”

  1. tralfamadorian Says:

    But is this really what Cornel West had in mind in describing Dr. King’s “Santa-Clausification,” which, to my mind, conjures up his almost literal “trick-bagification,” if you will, as when Norman Kelley states (in The HNIC Syndrome) that “Now cynical conservatives cite him as their spiritual godfather for ‘color-blind’ rhetoric when arguing against affirmative-action while ignoring that King actually argued for such specific programs for blacks”?

    Or Lynne Duke, who, in her memoir of her time as Washington Post bureau chief for Southern Africa (Mandela, Mobutu, and Me), describes hearing the name of Dr. King invoked to her by an Afrikaner woman opposed to the “intermingling” of black and white children at a school, even though they would be in separate classes.

    Isn’t that closer to what he means?

  2. tralfamadorian Says:

    I understand that it’s impertinent to deconstruct the concept of “”Santa-Clausification” itself, however, I just watched some of Oprah Winfrey’s show about the Imis affair, but more importantly, about misogyny and the degradation of women in hip-hop, as well as the mainstream media.

    Panelists include Stanley Crouch, asha bandele, Dianne Weathers of Essence magazine, et al, and guests inclued Maya Angelou, Al Sharpton, and others. Oh, and Jason Whitlock, who when he tried to say that Al and Jesse always bring the media when the white man does something, was instantly disagreed with by asha bandele who noted the Spelman women’s protest of Nelly and by Sharpton who mentioned his protest of Boondocks and Barbershop. Dianne Weathers talked about Snoop Dogg’s appearance at a music awards show leading some women on leashes, the pornography he produces, etc.

    So with that in mind, listen to the beginning of Part Four of this roundtable discussion about the influence of Brown v. Board of Education from a few years back.

    Michael Eric Dyson, in describing the internal divisions which existed at the time regarding appropriate civil rights strategies, notes that “Martin Luther King, Jr. looked like Snoop Dogg to Thurgood Marshall, because he was trying to transgress against the nobility of the law and take matters into his own hands, legally. . “[H]e subverted the very principle of the law that Thurgood Marshall had invested his life in . . ”

    And then Cornel West, sounding like what Norman Kelley describes as “a bad version of Richard Pryor doing a preacher,” chimes in by linking Snoop and King through the rise of the prison-industrial complex in which the disinvestment into inner-city schools makes inner-city youth cannon fodder, even as Powell and Rice legitimate American imperialism on the international front: “Because American power must legitimate itself in a multicultural form now, but on the other hand, it can hide and conceal the vicious policies which produce a prison-industrial complex connected to Snoop and his culture of rap and hip-hop.”

    Now, if that ain’t the trickbagification of Martin Luther King, I’m Santa Claus.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1903459

  3. Great piece, Dax. Tralfamadorian, it appears to me that through HNIC’s deconstruction of “Santa-Clausification” a wider perspective-definition of the term may have just been created. And when viewed through that lens, this pieces takes on great and added relevancy to the discussion of the want to make black people here and around the world irrelevant except as a myth of their own making.

  4. Al in Portland Says:

    This “Santa-Clausification” has another effect. When children in school are fed the notion that people such as Washington, Lincoln, Franklin, Dr. King, etc., were semi-godlike, they may subconciously feel that the only people who can make a difference in this country are these “Santa Claus-like” people, mythic heroes if you will. That can only discourage participation in civic affairs … after all, if we’re all aware on how less-than-perfect we are, we surely can’t measure up to these people, so what’s the use of attempting to change our world? We’ll just leave it up to the giants who walk among us while we sit back and watch it play out on TV.

  5. tralfamadorian,

    West actually used the term “santa clausification” on Tavis Smiley’s Show this past January (MLK’s b-day). I watched the program in its entirely and it was clear that his intent was closer to what Al hit on: the problem of mythologizing people and thereby removing them from the realm of the tangible. He made it very clear that his concern was, as you note, how he used by people across the spectrum to promote their own (sometimes venally racist agenda) but how inevitably becomes unreal to young kids who throw up their hands and say fuck it rather than try to make a difference.

    Look at it this way, Babe Ruth is allowed to be human in the sense that he was a hard drinking and deeply flawed individual. The same can be said of Jack Kennedy and even of Abe Lincoln. Their human flaws become critical elements in their narrative and a part of their mythology.

    I also take Dyson’s comments regarding the Snoop-MLK comparison with a grain of salt. That’s Dyson being over-the-top and intellectually and historically dishonest. Of course, Marshall and Roy Wilkins were troubled by MLK’s stategy. They didn’t agree with it. But to put Snoop in the same category as MLK is just patently disingenuous. That’s giving Snoop way too much credit. Also, Marshall had problems with everyone including DuBois, which leads me to believe his convictions weren’t always as noble as we would like to believe but that rather he was also motivated by personal animus and ambition.

    I’m going to check out that roundtable but please note that while I quoted from West here, I did so because it was the rare moment in which the man was actually lucid in his critique. The gibberish that often comes out of his mouth and passes for insight is not only infuriating, it’s downright unintelligble.

    Definitely appreciate the feedback. Keep it coming…

    HNIC

  6. Dax. I agree with Dwil. Great piece. Jackie struggling with testifying against an ally speaks to the impact the flaws you allude to have on all of us historically.

    What if Jackie didn’t testify?

    Tralfamadorian, I’m diggin’ your commentary. You add what initially was our vision for TSF. Keep it coming!

  7. Al, sorry to exclude you. It was not my intent. You add the same insight that’s welcomed here, I assure you.

  8. What an amazing story. I pride myself on knowing African American history very well and knowing the stories behind the stories. This one shocked and saddened me. And as my anger against Jackie arose just as surely it fell as you show how Robeson seemingly forgave him and Jackie sadly, but inevitably came to a greater understanding of where we stand in this nation. Wow, simply wow.

    Thanks.

  9. Thurgood Marshall was an extremely pragmatic man and the notion that he viewed the law in such lofty terms is simply not true. I think Dyson is completely wrong on this.

  10. I love jackie robinson he is inspiring to me he loves his family and has alot of goals he has accomplished. When i came here i knew he was a great african american.

    thank and have a great day,
    kevin

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