"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Friday, January 10, 2014

Movie "42" dusts off era of shame in America

We were recently reminded of the Jim Crow days with those comments from the "Duck Dynasty" guy. The power of celebrity brings lots of attention.
This bearded fellow asserted that black people in the South seemed happier in the pre-civil rights (movement) days. Such days were when we had Jim Crow principles in the Deep South. Stephen Colbert got some humor from this, saying blacks had it good "when they had their own water fountains." The audience laughed.
Back when the boomer population was coming of age, such indifference about race relations - getting humor from Jim Crow - would have been unthinkable. We almost got weary being told about the history of race relations.
Much of this was preaching to the choir. Northern kids never had insidious racism instilled in them. We soaked in the history and realized racism was on a level with the worst in human behavior. We were steered toward liberalism. This philosophy seemed most in line with crushing barriers caused by race.
"Duck Dynasty" is different, as is much of the political culture today. Today, addressing Jim Crow (i.e. pre-civil rights) with a shrug, as if we might find some merit in those old values, might cause a flurry but it doesn't finish you off as an entertainer.
The "Duck Dynasty" matter comes along as the movie "42" is still fresh. Black men were entering big league baseball. "42" tells the celebrated story of the first black player in the bigs: Jackie Robinson, "number 42."
Writing about this is a little like writing about the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. I have written that this history is a little troubling to focus on. I have written that such topics should maybe be buried in textbooks.
It's fine to have a record on it. It's fine for young people in their studies to know it happened. High-profile gestures today seem questionable. We're celebrating the bestowing of fundamental rights to a class of people who should have had them all along.
Branch Rickey is a hero for opening the door for Jackie Robinson. Why thank you, Mr. Rickey. Thank you for realizing blacks should have the "right" to play major league baseball? Thank you to Martin Luther King Jr. for giving the political push for blacks to get assorted other fundamental rights?
Who were we, as white people, to even be adjudicating these matters? Who were we to decide when doors should be opened, when the welcome mat should be put out for minorities?
I'm suggesting that it's embarrassing. It's embarrassing to expose all this to the young people of today, who to a large extent are color-blind.
How do you even categorize "non-whites?" Gone is the American society that had the dichotomy of "whites" and "Negroes." Today we have the so-called African-Americans (even though most have never been to Africa), but there's a wide assortment of non-whites who are categorized differently.
Vic Power was an early black-skinned Minnesota Twins player. He was not African-American. He was from Puerto Rico. He said that in his native country, people lived by color-blind attitudes. He had to adjust when coming to America. Power was the flashy-fielding first baseman who I wish had still been with the Twins when we won the pennant in 1965.
The dichotomy of whites and Negroes is long gone.
There is a long historical background associated with the intense racial bigotry in the Deep South. It goes back to slavery. Deep South whites had to find justification for their antebellum lifestyle. They learned to talk about slavery on the basis of racial inferiority. This became embedded in their minds, to the extent it remained very much alive many years after the Union wiped out the Confederacy, wiped out the planter-aristocrat class, and left the old South "gone with the wind" - no exaggeration.
Thus we ended up with the likes of Ben Chapman in the movie "42." Chapman is masterfully played by Alan Tudyk. We of course should resent Chapman in the most intense way. He's the bad guy Philadelphia Phillies manager who taunts Robinson with classic Deep South racism.
I'm not sure I view the likes of Chapman as such a threat. His racism is so obvious, we can deal with it. I'm more intrigued how the human mind can even bend to such a level where such hatred stews and seems to consume you, making you want to compose the most insulting epithets and shout them across a baseball field.
I'm curious why Major League Baseball didn't have some rules against this kind of taunting. We also see in "42" that Robinson seemed to lack basic security around him, at times, as he makes his rise. Threats cause him to leave a house. He's in a car in one scene that has to speed out of a congested situation as bigots come forward. What if the driver could not have extricated them?
We all know the Jackie Robinson story ends happily. Not only did Robinson keep his personal safety intact, he was able to emerge as a star player. I guess the first one had to be superbly gifted, not some marginal type.
Even in the 1960s, as Jim Bouton wrote in "Ball Four," blacks more than whites had to show they could be stars, not ordinary players. Bouton had numbers. Bouton's book itself was part of the cultural renaissance about baseball. It revealed players as humans with human faults and human struggles.
It is often written that baseball is timeless. Only certain limited aspects are. Baseball in fact morphs from one era into a new one, as seen with the "steroid chapter" and the incessant demands for new stadiums to be built.
Vic Power played in old Metropolitan Stadium. The Twins later played in the profoundly different Metrodome, which we were all told was necessary, before going back outside.
African-Americans have actually seemed to lose some interest in baseball. They are gravitating to other sports. Meanwhile baseball has grown into an ethnic rainbow in which skin color would seem an odd and irrelevant topic. It's a throwback topic.
"42" is a period movie that can make us ashamed of our own country. Actually we should feel ashamed that the Deep South white values persisted as long as they did. Oh, and they're not gone. Much of it has just become "coded" as with the comments by that "Duck Dynasty" star.
Alan Tudyk plans Ben Chapman who was actually a quite superb baseball player. He's not well-remembered as a player. From 1926 to 1943 he had more stolen bases than anyone. He's obscure even though he played with the New York Yankees. Over 12 seasons he batted .302. He bounced down to the minors but would come back, amazingly, as a pitcher. He pitched for three seasons in the National League.
Chapman's venom was hardly confined to African-Americans. In 1933 he intentionally spiked the Jewish second baseman of the Washington Senators, Buddy Meyer. This caused a 20-minute brawl that included 300 fans! He actually taunted Jewish fans at Yankee Stadium with Nazi salutes and epithets.
The year is 1947 where we see Chapman as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, giving us a textbook sampling of the pathetic white southern bigot.
Chadwick Boseman capably plays Jackie Robinson in the movie. I didn't know until after seeing the movie that Harrison Ford played Branch Rickey. Rickey was the baseball executive who gave Robinson his opportunity. I guess Harrison Ford is aging like the rest of us. He assumes the "old man" role genuinely, with curmudgeonly charm in fact.
"42" seems much the typical biopic. It tells a story that was already well-known. It reveals the obvious good vs. evil story connected with racial divides in the U.S. The Deep South continued its spasms of denial about its defeat for a long time. The civil rights movement and Federal intervention began closing like a vise.
Much residue of the bad stuff continued for a long time.
Young people of today are puzzled about the kind of society that could break down along such firm racial lines. I have argued before that it might be best to "move on" and leave the disturbing stuff in history books. The movie "42" puts the bad stuff in the forefront. So does the MLK holiday.
Maybe today's young people view these gestures as curiosities. They are a reminder of times that for today's youth, perhaps belong on a museum shelf. We are blessed that much of the work has been done to make us all brothers. Now let's move into the future. Beyond steroids too!
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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