Six months in the planning, the weekend is finally here, and so far, so excellent. Our “Race in America” weekend has gotten off to a rousing start.
You can read the preamble to the weekend here. And check out highlights of the first presentation below. Video clips will be coming once edited. Until then, we’ve got opening remarks to share, and our student bloggers following up in the Comments section on the first day’s sessions.
A multi-media think-piece on the backlash against the Obama Presidency, using as its model the audacity of the first African American in Major League Baseball’s unforgettable act of stealing home in the 1955 World Series against the NY Yankees and the outrage and inspiration it provoked.
Here are some of my words of introduction to Ethelbert:
Words about E. Ethelbert Miller – Poet, Sportswriter, Teacher, Activist, Agitator, Artist, Board Member, Father, Friend.
What’s he doing here? Contributing to a hifalutin ‘Discourse on Race?’
He says ‘not so much.’ Continuing a conversation among friends? Coming back to the neighborhood and picking up where we’ve left off?
He says, ‘That’s more like it.’
For Ethelbert, there is relationship here — between a man and a Community Center — Most especially, a friendship that began — with Miriam Morsel Nathan — (a mentor to many of us here) — and from a first meeting at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, they forged a dialogue, that became a program: “Windows and Mirrors,” a series of cultural encounters and interchanges that spoke to a shared history between African-Americans and American-Jews…
Miriam and Ethelbert met at a Corcoran outreach event involving the book “Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges” by Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb, for which Ethelbert helped do research and laid much of the groundwork in reaching out to both the African American and Jewish community.
Ebert points to Gabrielle Edgcomb’s primary thesis, looking at Holocaust Survivors who found work in the South in Historically Black Colleges. These were Jewish Marxists in the Segregated South — educating Black youth in communitarian values; youth who would go on to become leaders in SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).… Farrakhan was in the news back then… As was Leonard Jeffries and the Crown Heights riots. Miriam and Ethelbert forged a friendship amid the turbulence…
So Ethelbert says: “Let’s not have a dialogue about Race. Let’s continue to extend and explore our friendship.”
Ethelbert asks, Why do this program here? You’re not an academic institution.
He answers: ‘You’re a COMMUNUTY CENTER.
You want to be at the center. You come here to play ball. You come here to eat. You come here to kick back, to take in… To actively contemplate: What is our community now, with all a whole bunch of new issues swirling about? We got a black man in the White House. We got folks being pushed out of their homes. We got gentrification, we got charter schools, we got a baseball team, and a black quarterback and a bunch of Jewish owners, and we should be talking about Race, here of all places….’
Let the program begin, and let the friendships deepen.
And Ethelbert’s essay, reprinted here with his permission:
(c) E. Ethelbert Miller, 2013
We often solve problems, challenges and experiments by asking questions. Here are a few we might want to consider today:
- How should we view or talk about race in the 21st century?
- What is the state of race relations today?
- How do we measure racial progress? What should we look for?
- What should be our tools of measurement?
- How significant are some events and individuals in determining the
parameters of racial discussion and dialogue?
I was thinking about these types of questions when looking back at the Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s and 1950s. I was also reexamining how the Civil Rights Movement had been taught to me in school during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Much of the focus was often on the Brown Supreme Court decision of 1954, the Emmett Till lynching in Mississippi in 1955, or the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and the influence of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.
I had been taught to look at the 1950s with only a partial glance over the historical shoulder at the 1940s. So names like A. Philip Randolph and Jackie Robinson were not given the important attention they deserved. It would be the equivalent today of celebrating the achievement of Barack Obama without acknowledging the contributions of Jesse Jackson and Ron Brown. To understand race in America means we must understand the motion of history, the endless connection between events and individuals.
A few months ago I went back and took another look at President Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race delivered in March 2008. This is a speech he gave in response to the controversial surrounding his relationship with Minister Jeremiah Wright. Wright was presented in the media as having extreme or radical views on race. The question the media (and public) wanted to know was whether Obama shared the same views as his minister and one time mentor.
Reviewing Obama’s speech I discovered a remark that made me think of physics. In distancing himself from Minister Wright, President Obama mentioned that the difference between him and Wright was that Wright saw race relations in the United States as being static. He saw no progress.
The term “static” should be looked at closely when we consider the motion of history.
Is it possible for race relations to remain static? If so, how do we measure this? What if the motion was simply invisible to our eyes or could not be detected by our tools of measurement? Is the word “static” the best word to use? Was Minister Jeremiah Wright, right or wrong?
President Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race was praised primarily because it was delivered at a time when the issue of race was about to derail his campaign for the presidency. It was a speech which eventually game him a safe lead off first base.
But let us go back in history and look at third base on September 28, 1955. Our attention is now on the baseball player Jackie Robinson playing in the World Series, the Brooklyn Dodgers against the New York Yankees. Here is a man who must be viewed as more than a gifted athelete; instead he should be recognized as one of our major Civil Rights leaders. Robinson’s life even before he signed with the Dodgers was one of activism when it came to race. As a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, while stationed in Fort Hood in Texas, he refused to move to the back of a bus. This resulted in a court martial case against Robinson in 1944.
We tend to view Jackie Robinson’s life and career as starting on April 15, 1947 when he played his first game in Ebbets Field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. One could say that Robinson not only changed the color of baseball but also how the game was played. In the Negro Leagues players like Cool Papa Bell brought speed to the field. Bell, many claimed was so fast that he could climb into bed quicker than the light could be turned off. Jackie Robinson was also fast and we see this on display in the 1955 World Series which actually took place at the end of his career.
One can perhaps see a symbolic turning point in race relations as Jackie Robinson danced off third base in 1955. Here is how he described that moment in his memoir – I Never Had It Made published in 1972.:
During the 1955 season I played in approximately two-thirds of the games. My batting average was down. I was doing a poor job in comparison to past seasons. The newspapers began subtly – and some not so subtly – to refer to me as a has-been.
However, despite this the team made it into the world series. It was the fifth series we had been in during my 9 seasons with the Dodgers. (We had been in only a total of 7 since 1905 and we had never won one.)
There was a saying in Brooklyn which everyone has heard about the Dogers (“the bums”): “Wait ‘till next year.” Well, here we were in our seventh world series in fifty years and there was hope that this would be the year, but our fans were also ready to shrug their shoulders and say “Wait ‘till next year” if we lost. The way we were playing in that first game – down 6-4 in the eighth inning – it looked like we might have to wait. I was on third base and I knew I might not be playing next year. There were two men out, and I suddenly decided to shake things up. It was not the best baseball strategy to steal home with out team two runs behind, but I just took off and did it. I really didn’t care whether I made it or not – I was just tired of waiting.
What should be underscored in this passage from Robinson’s book is his unwillingness to wait or remain on third base. He is also aware that he is going against the rules or laws of baseball. He is placing his team (and himself) at risk. But what should not be overlooked is that Robinson doesn’t care if he will be safe or out. How is one to interrupt Robinson’s words? Is he being reckless? What is Robinson attempting to do?
From his own words, it seems as if he is attempting to change the narrative. Robinson wants to change the story of the Dodgers (or bums) losing all the time. Is he successful?
Well, even though the Dodgers will lose the game – they would win the 1955 World Series. Robinson’s stealing of home is one of the most memorable stories in baseball history.
But let us go back and look at the footage of that play. Is Robinson safe or out?
Ari Roth who invited me to speak today asked me what I thought. I responded to my friend Ari by saying – “Ari, I’m a black guy – I know Robinson was safe.”
Robinson’s play on the baseball field creates a narrative that has special meaning for African Americans. It is a story of excelling on a major stage – in this case the World Series.
Jackie Robinson’s story however is just one narrative. What about Yogi Berra – the catcher for the New York Yankees that day in 1955. He still believes he tagged Robinson out. It is at this point we see two narratives coming together. Who will be the umpire?
There is a key moment in David Mamet’s play –Race where Jack says to Susan:
The jury has a story, in their head, about what happened in that room.
We have to drive that story out of their heads.
Susans responds by asking – How?
Jack says – Tell them a better story.
So Jackie Robinson is safe, how does Yogi Berra now look at the world? How might he explain not just baseball but also what is happening around him?
Yogi Berra is known not just for playing baseball but also his statements about reality.
After Robinson steals home, one might imagine Yogi beginning his narrative with one of his famous quotes. Here are four he might begin with:
- A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.
- You can observe a lot by just watching.
- If you don’t know where you are going, you might end up someplace else
The best one however – which to me explains race matters is:
- The future ain’t what it used to be
Jackie Robinson had an interesting career after baseball. The views he held while standing on third base in 1955 didn’t change. In a letter to President Eisenhower dated May 13, 1958, he wrote:
My dear Mr. President:
I was sitting in the audience at the Summit Meeting of Negro Leaders yesterday when you said we must have patience. On hearing you say this, I felt like standing up and saying, “Oh no! Not again.” I respectfully remind you sir that we have been the most patient of all people. When you said we must have self- respect, I wondered how we could have self-respect and remain patient considering the treatment accorded us through the years. 17 million Negroes cannot do as you suggest and wait for the hearts of men to change. We want to enjoy now the rights that we feel we are entitled to as Americans. This we cannot do unless we pursue aggressively goals which all other Americans achieved over 150 years ago.
The excerpt from the Robinson letter I just read can be found in the book First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson edited by Michael G. Long.
The book contains Eisenhower’s response to Robinson which he wrote the next month.
Eisenhower began his June 4, 1958 letter by saying:
Dear Mr. Robinson:
Thank you very much for taking the time to write me some of the thoughts you had after the meeting of the Negro leaders here in Washington. While I understand the points you make about the use of patience and forbearance, I have never urged them as substitutes for constructive action or progress.
Eisenhower ends his 5 paragraph letter to Robinson with:
This progress, I am confident, will continue. And it is gifted persons such as yourself, born out of the crucible of struggle for personal dignity and achievement, who will help lead the way towards the goals we seek.
Six days later (June 10th, 1958) Jackie Robinson would write Eisenhower back:
My dear Mr. President:
I was very pleased at the contents of your letter and extremely happy about your personal tribute to me. However, my concern isn’t for personal achievements but for the accomplishment of our nation and the part 17 million loyal Negro Americans can play in bringing about equality for all Americans.
I think in Robinson’s second letter to Eisenhower we find a good reminder that one shouldn’t take the success of one person as being the answer to the various issues confronting the African American community. That’s what we might need to realize in 2013. The election of Barack Obama to the US. Presidency in 2008 and 2012 is a wonderful individual achievement by a black man. It doesn’t solve the inequalities in our society. Placing a black man in the White House will not make poverty or forms of discrimination disappear.
What we must not fail to celebrate however is that our nation created a new narrative by electing him. This is why Obama’s remarks in 2008 in many ways echo Lincoln’s. Where our nation might have been divided over the issue of slavery and turning our country into a conflict between blue and gray – today we are too often divided into blue and red states.
Where Lincoln fought to save the Union, Obama is confronted with the task of creating a more perfect Union. And it is here where we find a clash of narratives and a desire to tell the story slant. One might ask the question – Why do we need a more perfcct Union, what’s wrong with the old one? How many people would like to return to the good old days? We like the old stores – even if they might not be true. And who is to say – what’s true or false? Out or safe?
What we do know is that things do not remain static. History is often best described when it is viewed as a river. It is against this backdrop or interpretation that we can understand our daily struggle and what the scholar Vincent Harding called “our continuing movement toward freedom.”