Anyone who thinks that Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier and acceptance for other ballplayers of color followed closely behind is, of course, sadly mistaken. Baseball is full of disgusting tales of prejudice and inequalities persistent well beyond Robinson’s career.
As much as I have enjoyed reading all of the tributes written in homage to the late Hank Aaron, I feel it’s imperative that his accomplishments be remembered within the context they were achieved.
Hank Aaron was no stranger to white rage throughout his career, but the volume was turned up tremendously as he grew closer to breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record. In various autobiographies and biographies and in published interviews he was unambiguous about the pain and suffering he and his family had suffered because of prevalent racist attitudes:
“April 8, 1974, really led up to turning me off on baseball. It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about. My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ball parks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. “
The contralto Marion Anderson was arguably the “Jackie Robinson” of the opera world. In 1955, she became the first Black singer to sing a solo role at the Metropolitan Opera. But perhaps more well-known than that debut was her appearance singing at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1939 for a crowd of 75,000. She had been denied the venue of Constitutional Hall in Washington by the DAR who cited a “white-artist-only” clause in their contractual agreements for appearances in the building which they owned.
Like athletes of color, black singers have continued to experience both overt and subtle racism long after Anderson’s MET debut. For some, that has kept them from the opera stage. For others who did have careers, one has to wonder what they endured to get there and what they suffered to remain in the spotlight. Also, was the color of their skin perhaps a reason why some of them are not more widely known? And what voices of perhaps similar beauty and musical excellence were never recognized nor heard?
The previous year saw public outcry over the murder of George Floyd, nation-wide peaceful protests in support of Black Lives Matter, and organizations–including Major League Baseball and the Metropolitan Opera–taking a good hard look at ways that they have been a part of the problem in persistent racism in this country. We have also seen the election of the first Black Senator from Georgia–all very positive events.
But the past year also saw a tone-deaf administration abandon its job of dealing with a pandemic that has been found to disproportionally affect Americans of color. We have seen blatant voter suppression and attempted disenfranchisement of lawful voters from urban, i.e., predominately Black districts. We had no sooner turned the calendar than the entire world witnessed an attempted coup against the Legislative branch of our government perpetrated by domestic terrorists, a number of whom openly espoused racist and antisemitic rhetoric and slogans and who were aided and abetted by others with the same white supremacy proclivities and agenda.
Until this country has a reckoning with its racist past in some sort of meaningful way, I fear that it will ever be this way: three steps forward, two steps back. And I don’t have a lot of confidence in any such national awakening happening, I’ll be honest. But there is one thing about which I am certain: there will be Black Americans who rise to the top of their disciplines and fields despite the senseless and disgusting impediment of racism that is put in their paths.
But, I too have a dream: that one day we the public will be able to see all of the rich Black talent–in sports, in classical music, and in all other arts and sciences and human endeavors. There are certainly those figures who have excelled in spite of their detractors. But imagine those whose talents that we never were allowed to enjoy and experience simply because the hate and cruelty were too great for those individuals to persevere in their pursuit of greatness?
It’s not an understatement to say that I went into a depressive funk following the event of January 6 2021. But, while marking Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work and legacy about a week later, I tried to keep in mind his perseverance and the phrase he often included in his sermons:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.“
If you watched the Inaugural ceremony, perhaps you were inspired by the animated reading and thought-provoking words of Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate. I certainly was.
I’ve tried to retain the spirit of optimism that is so deeply embedded in her poem “The Hill We Climb,” an excert from which I include below:
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true,
that even as we grieved, we grew,
that even as we hurt, we hoped,
that even as we tired, we tried,
that we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat,
but because we will never again sow division.
Ms. Gorman penned these words in response to the events of January 6th. Perhaps I would do well to look to her and Millenials like her–those who remain positive in the face of their generation’s less than bright immediate future and who tend toward idealism–for inspiration.