This day, and the previous week for that matter, could not pass without commemorating one of the most famous triumphs in all of American history. “On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier and became the first African-American to play Major League Baseball.” Enough with the fables, Aesop. Major news outlets across the country have been reinforcing the mythological throne upon which Jackie Robinson sits. Robinson’s achievement was paramount, indeed. And given mainstream society’s love affair with “firsts,” (Ernie Davis, Tony Dungy, etc.) his praise comes as no surprise and, rightfully so, without contention.
Ok. Let’s continue.
So what’s the problem with this, then? White people have already voted Jackie Robinson first team All-Jesus, right up there with Martin Luther King and Thomas Jefferson. So everything is fine and dandy, right? However, this is where the fairy tales end. Put the children to bed. And the old folks too. I will allow one moment (via the reading of this sentence) for the covering of virgin eyes. It has been precisely one moment, and as promised, I will resume. The problem with the immortalization of Robinson is that while a politically and morally conservative figure is worshipped, there are tantamount, I would argue even greater, black sports heroes who receive little to no recognition. This phenomenon is based solely on the political and social affiliation of the respective athletes. This is evidence of mainstream society and certain white-controlled institutions selectively choosing to attach themselves to a less-liberal, less-revolutionary figure: case and point being our national dialogue about Jackie Robinson and Paul Robeson.
For any ESPN program to give the same respect and due recognition to Paul Robeson’s contributions to not only the sports world but to this country would be too much like…well…justice. Unlike Robinson, he was not the “rally ‘round the flag” supporter of
But oddly enough, there are no special stories, or dates, or anything at all which praise how Robeson, at Rutgers University from 1915-1919, earned15 varsity letters (most players now are lucky to get 4), was a first team All-American in football, yet also finished atop his graduating class at Rutgers, was Phi Beta Kappa, and later graduated from Columbia Law School, while playing professional football on the weekends to subsidize the cost. Yale’s own Walter Camp, the founder of football, even described him as “the greatest to ever trot the gridiron.” It is truly a remarkable story that a black man in that given time period, or any time period for that matter, could overcome so many societal and institutional barriers to achieve so much. His contributions to the early formation of sports are undeniable, yet his achievements and efforts are overlooked year after year, documentary after documentary, and his legacy wanes in comparison to Robinson’s.
So that begs the question, why is there no ESPN Sunday conversation about Robeson today? Why in third grade do we always have to learn Jackie Robinson’s mother’s maiden name, but never hear as little as a whisper of Paul Robeson, who did just as great if not greater things in his time? Why is the emphasis on the man who in 1949 testified in front the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for the sole purpose of summoning Robeson to have him questioned about his relationship with the Communist Party? Or better yet, why don’t we, as a country, glorify the man who stood for freedom and sovereignty in all third world countries? And why don’t we have celebrations for the man who recognized the global plight of people of color? Why is there not a celebratory day throughout sports which commemorate a man who was compassionate enough to visit the Kremlin during the Cold War crisis, not in treachery, but in love?
The answers are numerous, yet obvious. Robeson went abroad and not only expressed sympathies for other oppressed peoples but also was not shy with his opinion of the present condition of black people in America. Robeson was willing to bring the cause for black liberation to a world stage, whereas Robinson never strayed too far from the plantation. It is much easier to tell the story of the black man who first valiantly served his country, and then persisted through the ubiquitous racism of the sports industry and waited patiently until the ever so gracious Branch Rickey kindly pulled him up from the slums of the Negro Leagues to the prominence which he still holds to this day. Finally, it all makes sense. I mean, really, how could Robeson’s story be woven into the American narrative? The government stripped him of his passport, forbade him to travel, and as such he lost the right to perform and earn a living. They literally ended his career, violated his privacy and had him bugged for the better half of his life (let’s pour out a lil liquor for my man J. Edgar Hoover). Wait, what chapter would all this go in again? Oh, oh, that’s right. I forgot. There is no chapter about that. What was I expecting, righteousness? Guess I’m in the wrong country for all that. Damnit. I had my mind all ready for some justice, yet am left with anything but. I thought this was the land of the free, no?
This phenomenon is not at all unique to sports. One could go on for days listing similar instances where the face chosen by white America to represent “the struggle” (yes, the infamous struggle in which at some point all black people were included) has always been the more conservative and less threatening individual based on national political agenda: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois, later Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, and of course MLK and Malcolm X. I love how the names can switch places over time too. That’s that shit. But seriously. Our collective national history of a public figure like Paul Robeson is embarrassing and shameful. And I could have written the same article about Jim Brown, and how the Heisman was stolen from him in 1956 and given to Paul Hornung of Notre Dame, the first and only time the winner played for a losing team. Not to take anything away from the man, but there are many national tragedies which are more egregious than those which Robinson experienced. Yet it is convenient for those in power to erase such tragedies from our national memory with the goal of protecting American hegemony and stability.