Why I Wear a Jackie Robinson Jersey
by Alex Andre
I was first moved to buy my Jackie Robinson jersey by Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, wherein the character Mookie (played by Lee) sports the #42 Brooklyn Dodgers jersey throughout the film. To begin with, I just thought it was fly as hell; my affinity for throwback jerseys needed no convincing beyond the aesthetics of the crisp white and starkly contrasted red and blue embroidery, and anyone who is familiar with Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy can understand further why I was attracted to a #42 jersey, but those were not the only reasons for my purchase.
As far as the athletic accomplishments of Robinson, it’s not difficult to see why the six-time All-Star, 1949 National League MVP, 1955 World Champion, and first ballot Hall-of-Famer deserved my recognition, but of course he is most famous for breaking the color barrier in the MLB, and so wearing his jersey will always be more of a political statement than a declaration of fanhood. As a black man, for Mookie to don the jersey in Do The Right Thing is most likely viewed as a clichéd (and perhaps misguided) expression of black pride – just as clichéd and misguided as the white character later in the film wearing a Larry Bird jersey in an all-black neighborhood – but for me to wear it as a white man I imagine must be confusing to many. It makes people think. I like that.
Anybody who knows me knows that a lot of my friends are black. My parents are supportive of me having black friends, but they become concerned when they hear me slip into an accent or hear of my involvement in black organizations on campus like Wabruda, or performing in shows like Black Images. “But you’re not black, Alex… Why would you do that if you’re not black?” It’s an important question. Do I wish I were black? Am I suffering from some deep conflict of personal identity? On the contrary, I think it is people who ask such questions who are confused about their identities. There is a scene in Do The Right Thing which illustrates my point:
PINO: How come n*****s are so stupid?
MOOKIE: If you see a n*****, kick his a**.
PINO: F*** you.
MOOKIE: Pino, who’s your favorite basketball player?
PINO: Magic Johnson.
MOOKIE: Who’s your favorite movie star?
PINO: Eddie Murphy.
MOOKIE: Who’s your favorite rock star?
MOOKIE: Pino, all you ever talk about is n***** this, n***** that, and all your favorite people are so-called n*****s.
PINO: It’s different. Magic, Eddie, Prince are not n*****. I mean, they’re not black… I mean… Let me explain myself. They’re not really black. I mean… they’re black, but they’re not really black. They’re more than black. It’s different.
Black culture influences nearly every aspect of mainstream American culture: music, fashion, dialect, and simple sense of cool, yet, like Pino, many white people fail to acknowledge that black culture comes from black people. If you listen to hip-hop music, you benefit from black culture. If you watch Chappelle’s Show, you benefit from black culture. If you understood what I meant when I said “fly as hell” earlier, then you benefit from black culture.
Despite this daily engagement with black culture, many white people are quick to distance themselves from it, always making sure to treat it as something separate from themselves. For example, many white people love The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but they would never turn on BET to watch Fresh Prince reruns because they feel that watching BET is just for black people. If Fresh Prince were just for black people why would it be on mainstream (read: white) networks? I speculate that the reason they wouldn’t turn on BET is because BET is explicitly a black network, and to watch BET requires a conscious acknowledgement that one is engaging in black culture, an acknowledgement that many white people are unwilling to make. It places them on the same cultural level as black people, and they are uncomfortable to admit that they inhabit that level. Even if they were persuaded to tune in to BET, they would be sure to make fun of the commercials and other elements of the channel to make clear that they do not identify with it. There is, of course, an unspoken conviction that black culture is inferior to white culture, and that to be associated too closely with it will somehow compromise oneself. You can hear echoes of Pino’s fumbling logic: “I love Fresh Prince, but BET is for black people… it’s just different.” It’s not different.
Of course, it’s not just about white people refusing to watch BET. I won’t even delve into how this is a symptom of a larger inability to respect black culture, black accomplishments, and black people in general, but suffice to say it is a much more subtle and insidious manifestation of racism than Pino’s unapologetic spraying of racial epithets. And it is deeply hypocritical of these people to turn around and tacitly deride the same people whose culture they participate in and benefit from every day by making efforts to distance themselves from it.
American culture is profoundly enriched on every level by black culture, and wearing Jackie Robinson’s jersey is my acknowledgement of what Jackie Robinson did for me and my culture as an American of any color, as well as a larger recognition of the contributions of black culture to my life that were made possible by people like Jackie Robinson. And it is an invitation to others to make the same acknowledgement.
Earlier this year I performed a spoken word poem at Black Images, an annual variety show hosted by the Black Cultural Arts Council. I did it not because I was “trying to be black” but because I recognized that my poem was fundamentally influenced by black culture (spoken word poetry was borne of the Harlem Renaissance and gained popularity during the civil rights movement of the 1960s). Some of my favorite musicians are John Coltrane, Curtis Mayfield, Bobby McFerrin, and The Roots. My favorite actors include Will Smith and Samuel L. Jackson. Growing up in Chicago, my favorite athlete was Michael Jordan. Without Jackie Robinson, there is no Michael Jordan. I’m not confused about my identity; I simply respect and appreciate the contributions of black people and culture to American culture – my culture. And I’m not afraid to recognize where these contributions come from. So when you see the jersey, now you know.
image via Creative Commons: http://www.flickr.com/photos/queen_of_subtle/395631372/