26 April 2016

The Complexities of Jackie Robinson: A Hero After All

“I’m a black man first, an American second, and then I will support a political party—third.”  

Sunrise  01/31/1919 ~ Sunset 10/29/1972

As I viewed Ken Burns' documentary, there were many events and situations that I hadn't been aware of as a teenager in my hometown, Rochester, N.Y. especially during the early/mid/late 60's.  He wasn't a hero to me given his advocacy for Nelson Rockefeller and the republican party in New York.  I couldn't understand his alliance with Richard Nixon and the dismay that caused in some quarters of the black community including his devoted wife, Rachel.  It would be disingenuous, however, to state that there weren't a number of blacks who subscribed to his brand of  integration and respectability politics of that time. They were just as vocal as the naysayers. 

It was also important for blacks where I lived to speak 'correct English' without the slang especially in the public arena.  As I sat in a civics class my senior year, it was clear just how important it was when the white instructor was going on and on about how he was so impressed with Mr. Robinson's intelligence and manner of speaking. It was not so much what was said but how he said it. 

Some of my perspectives on Jackie Robinson began to change when I read the thorough and scholarly biography by Arnold Rampersad on this tireless fighter for equal rights.  It was a page turner and critical analysis of the man behind the headlines. His love of family and his integrity to fight the good fight although the context of the times were different from when he was the hope and inspiration for 'Negroes' during the late 1940's.  He faced intense opposition while breaking color barriers in baseball and other segments of society.  Blacks traveled from all over the United States to see their hero 'at work'.  Imagine how difficult it was for him to realize that his ideologies were no longer respected by the masses as they were back in his heyday.  The landscape had changed.  Dr. King went through a similar phenomena when he expanded civil rights to human rights and consequently lost his life. 

One of many complexities

 Mr. Robinson testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee {1949} as a rebuttal to the opinions of Paul Roberson. A definite no-no for many in the black community. They believed he was used to facilitate the inquisition of this giant figure beloved by many in our community and on the world stage.

Lastly, if you haven't seen Ken Burns' documentary on this complicated man it is highly recommended. It brings him back to life for four hours with the rare film clips, interviews, speeches and assessments by loved ones and  protagonists.  Despite my differences with some of his views, I do believe he cared about black folks and took different paths at times to achieve what we all wanted -- equality and respect for our humanity.  Yes...{for me} he became a hero and his legacy is captured so brilliantly by Ken Burns.


Jackie Robinson:  The Militant Black Republican
Ken Burns Documentary on Jackie Robinson
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