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.