Why Every Black Man Should Wear Number 42
By E. Ethelbert Miller
I was born a few years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball. By the time I was gripping and throwing a ball, Robinson’s career was over. It was as if I were a black person being born one or two years after Emancipation. I would grow up never knowing the tip of the lash. I was taught about Jackie Robinson in the same manner I was told to associate peanuts with George Washington Carver. History has a sorry way of reducing events and individuals to footnotes. The fact that Jackie Robinson is also enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame is a reminder of how good a ballplayer he was. We tend to sometimes overlook this fact. We shy away from acknowledging Robinson’s temper and his racial pride. There are also things about Jackie Robinson’s career after baseball that we refuse to mention or take note of. Robinson is a key figure when it comes to the civil rights movement in America. He is also a key figure in a then-unnamed black masculinity movement.
The life of Jackie Robinson, like the recent movie 42, embraces a wonderful love story. Would we have had a Jackie Robinson without a Rachel Robinson? Baseball is a game that begins and ends at home. More and more African American men are remembering that simple truth. At the end of the movie 42 we see a victorious Robinson rounding the bases after hitting a game-winning home run and there is a visual overlap of him heading home into the arms of Rachel. It’s a Barack/Michelle moment; another run scored in the image column and scorecard of African Americans surviving in the United States. The film is not without heartbreak. We see Robinson in a hospital celebrating the birth of his first child, a haunting image since Robinson’s son (Jackie Robinson, Jr.), after a difficult time with drug abuse, would die in an automobile accident in 1971. No parent should bury a child. Too many African American men don’t make it to old age.
What does the film tell us about black masculinity? It tells us that it demands equality, excellence, and independence. It is questioning, humble, yet fierce. It is accommodating but never submissive. Yet there is the underlying loneliness of the black male. How often we see Robinson alone, by himself, even as it was his presence, his essence, that was responsible for the enormous change taking place in the world. Here is what he wrote in the epilogue of his memoir:
I have many memories. I remember standing alone at first base—the only black man on the field. I had to fight hard against loneliness, abuse and the knowledge that any mistake I made would be magnified because I was the only black man out there. I had to fight hard to become “just another guy.” I had to deny my true fighting spirit so that the “noble experiment” could succeed. When it finally did I could become my own man; many people resented my impatience and honesty. But I never cared about acceptance as much as I cared about respect.
If there is a number all black men should wear on their backs it’s 42. We saw this number’s return in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. The lead character Mookie walked around Brooklyn wearing Robinson’s jersey. We need to think of Robinson’s number the way we once thought about freedom and spirituals. Jackie Robinson was the man who brought speed and daring to the American pastime. His was a quiet dignity kept warm by the raging furnace in his heart. Robinson’s career coincided with the Cold War and even cool jazz. This is what perhaps made him exceptional. Robinson always reminded people that he was a black man in a white world and that he never had it made.
Today a fire continues to burn in the hearts of black men.
It has never been just a game.