Saw 42. What's Next?

When he was six, our biracial, African-American son told my wife and me that he was only playing baseball if Daddy coached.  I had never been a baseball guy (thought the game was slow and boring!), but I eagerly accepted the charge.  Four years later, with a couple of championships and a couple of losing seasons under our belt, I can say that I’ve fallen in love with the game and some of the happiest moments of my life have been on the baseball field, coaching several teams through springs, summers and falls.  The multiracial teams we fielded in our magical little integrated part of Chicago’s South Suburbs owe a direct line of thanks to Jackie Robinson.

So of course my family headed to see 42 during its first week in theaters and loved the movie.  My son is at school today wearing a Matt Kemp Dodgers T-shirt because an Amazon vendor mis-handled my order for a Jackie Robinson number 42.  Kemp is one of the leading African-American players in major league baseball, and my son said “don’t send it back, I like him!”  Yes, we are fully bought in to the Jackie Robinson legacy.

The movie was uplifting and inspirational. But then if you watched ESPN the week after it opened, you saw incisive commentary about the fact that Jackie Robinson's hair had turned white by the time he turned 50, and he was dead at 53.  The stress of being that guy aged him early and literally killed him, even though he could be a hero and vanguard through it all.

My reaction adds a question: where are the white integration heroes that made those sacrifices in stride with Jackie Robinson?  We certainly valorize Branch Rickey for what he did, but he was clear that he had primary motives: selling tickets and winning pennants.  Don Haskins, too, was immortalized in the movie Glory Road (based on his autobiography by the same name) for integrating the highest reaches of college basketball through a championship season at Texas Western.  But he, too, talked mostly about doing what was needed to win games.  He was well-rewarded with a great career and the Hall of Fame.

Who are our other white civil rights heroes?  Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb, civil rights workers who lost their lives in the South 5 decades ago?  Saul Alinsky, Chicago founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation?  Sargent Shriver? Bobby Kennedy?  While black folks continue to break barriers as first this and first that, right up to President, too few white folks presently do anything remarkable to cross the color line in reverse and help create a more just America.  In film, we have Michelle Pfeiffer's portrayal of ex-marine LouAnne Johnson in Dangerous Minds, and Hilary Swank as new teacher Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers.  All the other stories - Coach Carter, Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, Remember the Titans, The Express, and 42 - profile people of color delivering hope in the face of discrimination, inequality and oppression.

We need all of those heroes, and many more inspired by them, but something still tells me it's going to take all of us to overcome our history of inequality and injustice.  Which means that as the majority population, white America is going to have to find a lot more people willing to cross color lines to write and live stories of hope for all of us.  Too often, stories like Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers get derided as "Great White Hope" films, or as part of what writer Teju Cole has called the "white savior industrial complex."  As the next chapter of history is written, we are going to have to find ways to overcome such simplistic dismissals to arrive at a new place for all of us.