Route 7 Review
Issue # 2015
In the final third of his statement, Robinson finally mentions Robeson by name and directly addresses Robeson’s statement about African Americans refusing to fight against Russia. “I haven’t any comment to make, except that the statement, if Mr. Robeson actually made it, sounds very silly to me” (“Text” 14).5 Robinson does not quote Robeson directly perhaps because there is conjecture over just what Robeson did say. According to one transcript, Robeson declared, “’[W]e do not wish to fight the Soviet Union,’” which is not quite the same as saying ‘we’ would not fight the Soviet Union. However, the version that found circulation in this country, read, “[I]t is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against a country which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind” (qtd. in Tyndall 182). There are at least “two different interpretations of” the former statement: “that black Americans would never fight against the USSR or that such a fight would be horribly ironic, given the history of racism in American” (Rampersad 212). Perhaps due to the political climate of the time and nature of mainstream American news media, the worst of the two possible statements and the most damaging interpretation of that statement were attributed to Robeson.
By passing the question of what Robeson may have actually said and intended, Robinson reassures his audience that most African Americans would “do their best to help their country win the war—against Russia or any other enemy that threatened us.” While he confesses that he cannot speak on behalf of all African American any more than anyone else, he does go so far as to say, “I and other Americans of many races and faiths have too much invested in our country’s welfare for any of us to throw it away because of a siren song sung in bass” (“Text” 1, 14). (Robeson, of course, was renowned for his deep and resonant voice.)
While the public almost unanimously praised Robinson and his testimony—he received numerous honors from a variety of organizations—Robeson suffered immensely. Although Robeson’s popularity had begun to erode well before Robinson’s HUAC testimony, the effects of Robinson’s testimony were devastating.6 On August 27 that year, Robeson had a scheduled appearance in New York. Hundreds of people “set up roadblocks, burned crosses, attacked buses and cars, demolished and torched the concert stage, and set off fights with concert patrons in which thirteen people were injured” (Rampersad 216). With his passport revoked until 1958 and effectively blacklisted in America, Robeson’s popularity, wealth, and career sharply declined (Duberman 463).7 While Robinson was fully aware of Robeson’s sufferings, it is doubtful that Robinson intended for his testimony to have such deleterious effects. Perhaps this is why Robinson later states, “I would reject such an invitation [to testify] if offered now.” And perhaps he refers to the disintegration of Robeson’s career and reputation when he says, in the course of discussing the HUAC experience, “I have grown wiser and closer to painful truths about America’s destructiveness” (I Never 83, 85).
That Robinson did not support Robeson is both unfortunate and ironic. As a former college football All-American, Robeson knew what it was like, what it meant, to be an African American athlete.8 Let us remember that “in 1943 appearing before Commissioner Landis and the major-league owners...Robeson had argued so powerfully for an end to Jim Crow baseball that the owners gave him a “‘rousing ovation’” (qtd. in Rampersad 212). Thus, while Robeson helped pave the way for Robinson, Robinson, whatever his motivations and intentions, helped roadblock Robeson. The heartbreaking aspect is that both men were, in different ways, fighting for the same thing: racial equality. Bill Mardo, at the time sports editor for the Daily Worker, says, “Jackie Robinson put his hand in Paul Robeson’s and together they fought the same fight. Each is his own voice, sure. But it was the same fight” (qtd. in Rampersad 216). Acknowledging and reflecting on Robeson’s motivation for his sacrifices of self, career, wealth, and comfort, Robinson says that “I believe he was sincerely trying to help his people” (I Never 86). Robinson’s experience with HUAC and the fate of Robeson were reminders that despite Robinson’s very best efforts at separating race and politics from sports, he “knew more tellingly than anyone else that...no great black athlete is only an athlete” (Early 69).
Appendix: Why Baseball and Jackie Robinson Matter
At its worst, baseball looks like nine guys just standing around. At its best, baseball represents timeless and unceasing perfection. Other sports may have more scoring, more physical interaction and contact, more motion, but baseball is and always will be America’s sport and game.
American writer Ernest Hemingway supposedly—but may never have—said some version of “there are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games,” recreation. Yet, at Finca Vigía, outside of Havana, Cuba, the “game” Hemingway concentrated on was baseball. Needing to entertain his two sons, he formed a team, Las Estrellas de Gigi, from the impoverished local children, supplied them with equipment and customized uniforms made from empty sugar sacks, and pitched for both teams. Twice a week he drove them to the “whites only” Hunters’ Club. As a sort of little league Branch Rickey, Hemingway used his standing to secure admittance for everyone.
In the United States, Mo’Ne Davis became the eighteenth girl to pitch in the Little League World Series, and the first to earn a shutout and win. She may not have earned the opportunity if not for a number of other players, such as Kathryn Johnston, who in 1950 became the first girl to play Little League, and Maria Pepe, who in 1972 pitched in Little League. Observing a ban on girls that had been in place since Johnston left the game, Pepe was forced to quit after three games when her team’s charter faced revocation. In 1973, Judge Sylvia Pressler ruled that “The institution of Little League is as American as the hot dog and apple pie. There is no reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls.” More players and teams will break through the walls of race, gender, sexual identity, disability, and class.
A. Bartlett Giamatti writes in the opening sentences of his essay “The Green Fields of the Mind” that baseball “breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.” And while there are other things and other games that will break your heart, nothing, nothing will ever break your heart as completely and sweetly as the great and glorious game of baseball. At the same time, nothing else will ever make you believe that anything, everything is still possible.
For every season is both an ending and a beginning. Old players leave and new players arrive, creating the hard but necessary balance sustaining both baseball and life. Jackie Robinson was a Player for the Ages, who not only endured and persevered but succeeded and excelled (how fitting that in 2014 Jackie Robinson West became the first all-African-American Little League team to win the championship). We no longer have the man, but we have the memory of the man, the forever lingering taste of greatness reminding us that we too, whoever we are, can achieve greatness, wherever and whenever.
In other sports, time is malleable—there are clocks and timeouts. Time can even be stopped, or at least stalled. In baseball times does not even exist (baserunning even occurs counter-clockwise). While baseball shows us that we can exist outside of time, Jackie Robinson shows us that we can live outside of race and other artificial markers. There may be no higher possibility of excellence that we can ever hope for. Baseball is recreation in its best sense. Re-creation: the perpetual chance to make our lives anew, to find and become the best versions of ourselves.
1. After two years at UCLA and having used up his athletic eligibility in the major sports, Robinson left. He “was convinced that no amount of education would help a black man get a job” (Robinson I Never 11). He sought work as an athletic director and briefly found work as an assistant athletic director for the National Youth Administration. When World War II began, “the government closed down all the NYA projects.” Since “no major football or basketball clubs hired players,” Robinson found himself playing football on Sunday for the Honolulu Bears and working a job with a construction company during weekends (12).
2. Hank Aaron says that Jackie Robinson is “the man responsible for their [the “younger players”] being in the major leagues” (I Never xviii). Robinson recounts that he and his wife “had agreed that I had no right to lose my temper and jeopardize the chances of all blacks who would follow me if I could break down the barriers” (I Never 41).
3. Keep in mind that if word got out, and it would have, that he did not speak about Robeson’s statements after being asked to, then his silence becomes a sort of complicit agreement. He can put out whatever statement he wants and say whatever he wants to say about Robeson, but people will remember that he refused to testify before the HUAC when asked. Robinson runs the risk, then, of being branded a communist, of having that scarlet C put around his neck and being blacklisted. Far worse than being called a “troublemaker” or a “rabble-rouser,” such political identification could have disastrous consequences as 1949 was several years into the second Red Scare (1947-1957) (I Never 79). Robinson’s major league baseball career, his single-best option, would essentially evaporate and the possibility of any other meaningful employment would be doubtful. And would his non-cooperation have saved Robeson’s career or merely delayed Robeson’s blacklisting? Robinson had no endorsements, no best-selling biography, no other meaningful sources of revenue--and even if he had, those streams could also quickly dry up if he did not cooperate with HUAC.
4. Because he neither believes in communism nor wants to give racists any more ammunition.
5. Robinson, therefore, sidesteps the issue of exactly what, if anything, Robeson said except that “if” indicates Robinson’s uncertainty.
6. For example, some concert halls banned him and pickets were already appearing at his concerts (Rampersand 211).
7. Robinson states that Robeson “sacrificed himself, his career, and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed” (I Never 86).
8. The only African American student enrolled at Rutgers at the time, Robeson endured a number of discriminatory acts from both his teammates (e.g., breaking his nose and dislocating his shoulder during football) and opposing teams (e.g., refusing to take the field against him). Nonetheless, “considered by many to be the greatest athlete in Rutgers history,” Robeson “also lettered in baseball, basketball, and track” and was a football first-team All-American (“Hall of Fame” 20). Robinson was aware of at least some of these accolades since he refers to Robeson as “a famous ex-athlete” (“Text” 14).
Aaron, Hank. Introduction. I Never Had It Made. By Jackie Robinson. New York: Ecco,
1995. xv-xx. Print.
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. The Norton Anthology of African American
Literature. Eds. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 2004.
Early, Gerald L. A Level Playing Field: African American Athletes and the Republic of Sports.
Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011. Print.
Fairchild. B.H. “Moses Yellowhorse is Thowing Water Balloons from the Hotel Roosevelt.”
Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest. New York: Norton, 2003. 10-11.
“Hall of Fame: Robeson.” Record-Journal [Meriden, CT.] 19 Jan. 1995: 20. Print.
Rampersad, Arnold. Jackie Robinson: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. Print.
Robinson, Jackie. I Never Had It Made. New York: Ecco, 1995. Print
-----“Text of Jackie Robinson’s Statement to House Unit.” New York Times 19 Jul. 1949: 14. Print.
William Nesbitt received his Ph.D. in American Literature at Florida State University. His major area is American Literature after 1875. He started teaching in higher education in 1999 and has been at Beacon College (exclusively for students with learning disabilities) for ten years and has served as the Chair of the Interdisciplinary Studies Department for four years. He teaches and conducts research within a variety of subject areas including pedagogy, American literature, Beat literature, African-American literature, the graphic novel as literature, ecocriticism, and popular culture. He has published in journals such as Route 7 Review, The Southeast Review, and The Journal of Evolutionary Psychology.