Jackie Robinson challenged baseball and others to acknowledge, value Black life
Robinson keeps echoing in MLB’s present as did the pioneering figures from the Negro Leagues
When Jackie Robinson crossed the baseball color line in 1947, we knew it was violating many sacred constructs that shaped American society. This line was hardly drawn in chalk. It was solid like a wall, electrified with America’s reluctance to see humanity on the other side. There was a social order and a Black baseball player was not supposed to be on the roster.
Yet the bricks started to be removed, where baseball could not turn back.
The inevitable erosion of the Negro Leagues followed, fleeced of its talent and ultimately its economic engine. Black baseball entrepreneurship became homeless, drying up its popular leagues in exchange for a wispy hope for inclusion without ownership.
Baseball had to accept its complicity in entering this taboo black and white space where the risk to larger society was that Robinson’s value would be actualized beyond his baseball talents, therefore encouraging those who looked like him to expect that Blackness would advance to the next base in equality.
Robinson and so many others throughout America fought through silence to be heard, and every incremental step he took, our country took a step with him, even if some of those steps were meant to push him and his people backward. Yet he persisted.
In 2020, MLB and many players joined the symbolism, sparked by the NBA bubble protests, to support Black lives and unity to keep up with the reawakening we have experienced in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and a whole host of other moments when Black life was publicly reduced to rubble.
Robinson keeps echoing in baseball’s present as did the pioneering figures from the Negro Leagues. As the 2020 season continued after we opened up from our pandemic isolation, we saw MLB players wearing Black Lives Matter shirts, joining in a different kind of solidarity. Despite the many versions of how it was expressed and the criticism that ensued for their lack of cohesion, the silver lining was that it showed how different people expressed support for equating Black life with our shared humanity. There is no one way to express this spirit, because it should be expressed in every way.
Yu Darvish, the Chicago Cubs pitcher from Japan with Iranian heritage, wore his Black Lives Matter shirt often. Someone who grew up in a completely different culture found a way to support the spirit of an idea that is foreign to his nation. Forging bonds over your worth with others who are from different backgrounds, especially with those who have racial privilege, has a unique power. This differs from the NBA or the NFL, where it was a matter of time before those players just looked around and found collective power tied by color, experience and identity.
There is power in numbers, yet there is also power in coalescing around a unified team that includes the unwavering support of those who represent a racialized advantage that has been part of your oppression.
In this environment, it is not just stating that Black life matters, it is underscoring that Black life is all of our lives and we are falling short because the legacy of racism and slavery keeps everyone down. If Black life does not matter, then all life cannot matter, unless Black life, by definition, is not life.
Baseball is still sorting through this racial restatement and trying to move from symbolism and performative acts to policy and substantive change. The kind of changes that Robinson continually tried to make in the movements around him, along the way writing a blueprint through his pain, hope, disillusionment and determination.
Following Robinson’s MLB arrival and maybe more importantly, his excellence, other doors opened and soon the U.S. military was integrated. By the time he was well into his post-baseball career, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and many other legal remedies memorialized his hopes. These were big steps to add fuller citizenship to Black life.
Robinson spent his life trying to shift the definition of matter, not just so he or those who looked like him would believe it, but so that others would too. This belief could not be expressed solely in symbolic gestures. He knew that the words that granted rights only ring in truth when we invest in this truth for all. Black was equal to white, not meant to serve it. This was a balanced equation. Our identities as Black people were not just defined by those who look like us but by those who did not. At its kindest, we found allies wearing the same uniform in support of the cause; at its cruelest, identity was shaped by oppression by the other, through the struggle, through the lessons we may gain when we survive and counter the persistent effort to be reduced to property once again.
Robinson sought dignified equality, a game played with the same rules for all, a truly equal and level playing field in the arena of life, not just baseball. Robinson had expanded on this effort when he hung up his spikes. He understood power, just as he understood the subtleties of how to make change.
He pioneered many endeavors : columnist, executive, bank founder and a whole host of positions in order to engage in the same language of power that white society respected. These spaces had the potential to allow him and communities of color to gain control. Control the message, control via executive decision-making, even control the money. He was searching for a way to matter in the game of capitalist and democratic America that was still relegating his people to third-class citizenship. But we were at least on a path as citizens and rounding second base.
Baseball can embrace this part of Robinson because, inside of this work, the side of Robinson that was not pragmatically silent was his activism. The kind of activism that was as aggressive as he was on the basepaths. He wrote letters to challenge presidential candidates, to debate civil rights leaders (he called out Martin Luther King Jr. to check some infighting in the movement and intensely went at Malcolm X), and a whole host of legislators to push them to change the laws that govern us.
I have found that our Black identity is complex. It is shaped by many different experiences. It gives me a certain strength, linking me to Robinson and being able to see myself in heroic figures. It also has a humbling unity, both tying me to President Barack Obama, just as it does to a man on the street corner who is homeless.
Science tells us that matter can exist in four natural states: solid, liquid, gas and plasma, all dependent on the conditions in which they reside. We also know that changing variables, such as pressure or temperature, have an impact on which state this matter will rest in. And Black life would like to rest in safety.
Black lives must matter in all of these forms: when Black life expresses its solidarity, when Black life flows between spaces, when Black life uplifts, when Black life fuses into a larger culture as it so often does both willfully and through co-optation. But the most fundamental need is that Black life matters not only because of the space it occupies, but because of its significance of being in that space. Being anywhere and breathing, after the miraculous path of descendants of slaves, is in itself an accomplishment that should inspire all of us.
We know that “matter” has another definition. And Robinson and so many other pioneers around baseball spent their lives fighting to move the needle from being defined as occupying space to “being of importance and having significance.”
We are still striving to reach this destination.
Baseball can lead through encouraging its diversity to remember the complete legacy of Robinson and his family. The Robinsons certainly knew Black life mattered, and they also knew that baseball can reinforce this truth in a way that no other sport can claim, and they can do so not just on Opening Day or Jackie Robinson Day, but every single day.