Commentary: Being the first is never easy

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. (Chuck Kennedy/MCT)
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. (Chuck Kennedy/MCT) MCT

Jack Roosevelt Robinson had a temper. It flashed like lightning when he was confronted by the racial indignities one was required to endure if one was black in the 1930s and '40s.

At age 8, he got into a stone-throwing confrontation with a white man whose little girl had chanted a racial slur.

As a lieutenant in the Army, he went off on a provost marshall who, not realizing the man on the other end of the phone was black, asked how he'd feel if his wife were forced to sit next to a black man.

Robinson was once court martialed (and acquitted) after he ignored a bus driver who ordered him to the back of the bus.

So this was not a man to whom turning the other cheek came naturally. Which made him far from the obvious choice for Branch Rickey's great experiment. Rickey, who ran the Brooklyn Dodgers, wanted to integrate Major League Baseball. He set out to recruit a black man who was both a great ballplayer -- which Jackie Robinson was -- and who could also restrain himself during that make-or-break first season of 1947, from responding to the racist slurs, threats and taunts that would inevitably come his way.

When they met in Rickey's office, Rickey play-acted the kind of treatment Robinson could expect with a ferocity that left his shirt dark with sweat and Robinson's fists clenched. At one point, the ballplayer demanded, "Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?"

And Branch Rickey replied, "I am looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back!"

Because Jackie Robinson was about to become a First Black — as in first black player in modern Major League Baseball. And First Blacks bear the burden not only of their own destiny, but also that of every other African-American who hopes to follow. First Blacks must represent.

It is a truism that seems especially timely during Black History Month in the age of Obama. Barack Obama is the ultimate First Black.

Understanding that may help explain why this president doesn't always respond to provocation as some observers would hope or expect. There is a lot of anxious talk these days about willingness to fight back, and Obama's perceived lack thereof.

And indeed, he has quietly absorbed unusual if not unique abuse during his candidacy and presidency. Not just Rep. Joe Wilson calling him a liar during a speech before a joint session of Congress and people showing up at political rallies with guns, not just shouting matches at town-hall meetings and a sign promising death to the president, the first lady and their "two stupid kids."

No, what has been truly astonishing is the amount of crudely racist language and imagery flowing, not from isolated crazies, but from the offices of public officials. As in Rep. Lynn Westmoreland calling Obama "uppity" and Rep. Geoff Davis calling him "boy" and Dean Grose, then-mayor of Los Alamitos, Calif., sending out an e-mail depicting the White House with a watermelon patch out front, and Sherri Goforth, an aide to Tennessee state Sen. Diane Black, distributing an e-mail that shows the president as a pair of cartoon spook eyes against a black backdrop.

You'd think that kind of stuff would tee a fellow off. The fact that Obama does not seem teed off, that he seems so preternaturally detached in the face of nonstop attack, has some observers concerned.

Dee Dee Myers, who served as press secretary to President Bill Clinton, told USA Today, "Obama seems like he tries to talk everyone into what he believes -- and that's part of why we elected him, because he's a calm, reasonable guy -- but behind that, there has to be some fight. You have to be able to take a few punches and throw a few punches."

George Mason University Professor Stephen Farnsworth told The Boston Herald, "Obama's detached demeanor has won him little enthusiasm. Surely there is a middle ground between George W. Bush's instinct to underthink and Obama's tendency to overthink."

An editorial in the New York Times said, "We don't want Obama to turn into a hot populist, but he can be too cool and often waits too long to react at big moments."

It is, perhaps, not too far-fetched to suspect that at least some of Obama's coolness, his professorial detachment and above-the-fray disinclination to fight back, spring from his lonely history of being a First Black (first black president of the United States, of course, but also first black president of the Harvard Law Review). As a woman in politics is not allowed to cry, so a First Black is not allowed to lose his cool.

To be a First Black has historically meant to walk on eggshells, to constrain otherwise natural behaviors and responses for fear of how they will be construed. It is to know one's actions impact not only oneself, but all those who look like you. So you learn to be cautious, to try and anticipate all the possible repercussions of what you do.

When Diahann Carroll starred as Julia and became one of the First Black women to headline a network sitcom, she scrutinized every element of the show to ensure it represented black folks well. She told The New York Times in 1968 that she was lobbying for Julia to wear an Afro, to have a family so as not to seem rootless, and to have markers of black culture and history in her life and that of her son, Corey.

"If a black child doesn't get a sense of himself and his history from the beginning," she said, "his self-image is destroyed." Saving the self image of black children may seem like an awful lot to ask of a benign sitcom. But Carroll was a First Black, so Julia was never going to be just a benign sitcom.

When he became the First Black co-star of a network drama on I Spy, Bill Cosby pondered similarly weighty matters. His character, he told the Times in 1965, "is a Negro 'good guy' working equally with a white man for a patriotic cause -- a premise which may not be accepted by every Negro watching. In other words, though the part is never the usual put down of the Negro people, I feel I have to be careful that it doesn't become an exaggeration of another kind."

To be a First Black, then, is to carry every other black always in consciousness.

Boxer Jack Johnson notoriously disregarded that dictum. The early 20th century black boxing champion was a brash man whose concerns never extended much beyond his own gratification. He openly dated white women, flaunted fancy cars and jewelry, taunted white men. Newspapers published fiery editorials against him, the government conspired to try him on flimsy charges. When he destroyed white champion Tommy Burns in 1908 to claim the crown, whites across the country rioted.

There was not another black heavyweight champion until 1937. Tellingly, it was quiet-spoken, noncontroversial and utterly unflamboyant Joe Louis, who raised no protest as sports writers called him a jungle beast and saddled him with a series of ludicrous, racially loaded nicknames: the Dusky Destroyer, the Copper Colored KO King and the Brown Bomber, to name a few.

Thus was the pattern set. Thus were the rules of the game written.

Barack Obama famously declines to speak much about race. When asked, he will answer, but he will seldom volunteer. There are two noteworthy exceptions. The first came when his former minister Jeremiah Wright made the topic unavoidable during the campaign. Obama responded with a speech widely regarded as one of the more eloquent and insightful analyses of the subject in recent memory.

The second came in July when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates got involved in a racially charged confrontation with a police officer. Obama weighed in with an opinion that the officer had acted "stupidly," a remark that earned him widespread condemnation. One suspects the lesson he learned from that experience is henceforth to follow his gut instinct where race is concerned.

And Obama's gut instinct is to downplay and minimize. It's worth noting that even when he became the first black nominee of a major political party on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech -- was ever a confluence of dates more pregnant with symbolism of racial progress? -- his references to the history he'd made were earnest, but noticeably fleeting.

It's not that Obama has nothing to say on the subject; his book Dreams From My Father was, after all, an elegant exploration of the conundrums of race and culture. But he seems to have made the decision, like other First Blacks before him, that he must govern himself closely here, else there will never be a Second Black to follow him. And as a racial barrier breaker, that is the ultimate measure of success.

So one learns to do a balancing act, seeking to acknowledge black but not be defined by it, not be confined by it, to be what the times demand and the people need, to carry us all along for the ride and most of all, to represent. Even if, in the process, one loses the ability to simply be oneself.

In a series against the Phillies that first season, Jackie Robinson faced some the most vicious abuse he'd ever heard, a steady stream of bile spewing from the Philadelphia dugout.

"They're waiting for you in the jungles, black boy!"

"Hey, snowflake, which one of those white boys' wives are you dating tonight?"

"We don't want you here, nigger!"

In his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, Robinson recalled thinking that this was more than he could take. "I thought, what a glorious, cleansing thing it would be to let go. To hell with the image of the patient black freak I was supposed to create. I would throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of bitches and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist. Then I could walk away from it all. I'd never become a sports star. But my son could tell his son someday what his daddy could have been if he hadn't been too much of a man."

But Robinson didn't let go and when sports fans and sports writers condemned the Phillies for their behavior, manager Ben Chapman defended the team by saying this was baseball; the opposing player was always ragged upon. The implication being that if Robinson couldn't take it, then maybe he didn't belong.

Robinson took it. He took the screams and curses of the angry crowds. He took the boycott talk and the cold shoulder from his own teammates. He took the hate mail and threats against his family.

He took it all and led the Dodgers to the World Series that first season.

He took it because he was a First Black and all the other blacks, known and unknown, born and unborn, were depending on him.

"Not being able to fight back is a form of severe punishment," he wrote shortly before his death in 1972.

"I was relieved when Mr. Rickey finally called me into his office and said, 'Jackie, you're on your own now. You can be yourself now.'"


Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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