“JUST LIKE JACKIE”

                                           

                                                               

Two men born into vastly different circumstances 42 years and a continent apart. One was born in the segregated Deep South in 1919 in a state that was once part of the Confederacy. The other was born in the nation’s 50th state; the only child of a black Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas. One carried a middle name in honor of a former president who died 25 days before his birth; the other bears a name that clearly reflects his late father’s African roots. These men would never meet because the older man, his body ravaged by the diabetes that blinded him, died at the relatively young age of 53 in 1972 when the younger was in the fifth grade. But, the younger one has met the widow of the man with whom he is forever linked because of the historic “firsts” they accomplished.

Jack Roosevelt Robinson is more widely known as “Jackie” and for a time, Barack Hussein Obama II, in an attempt to blend in more with a society unsure of how to deal with the biracial young man with an exotic, slightly dangerous sounding name, went by “Barry.” While Jackie was never widely known as Jack to the American public, young Barry eventually returned to his original given name.

On April 15, 1947, Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson literally and figuratively changed the face of professional team sports in America when he made his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Nearly 62 years later, on a cold, blustery January morning in the nation’s capital, Barack Hussein Obama II took the oath of office that installed him as America’s 44th and first African-American president. And as Robinson did by playing in his first game as a Dodger, Obama changed forever the history of his profession and the nation when he intoned, “I, Barack Hussein Obama do solemnly swear…” But beyond the fact that they were both the “first” in breaking the color barrier in their respective fields, Jackie Robinson and Barack Obama also had to bear the burden of not being able to be angry in public.

At their initial meeting in 1945 (Robinson spent the 1946 season with the team’s Triple A Montreal Royals), Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey famously asked Robinson if he could face the racial animus sure to accompany his entering the hitherto all-white “National Pastime” without taking the bait and reacting angrily. At first, Robinson thought that Rickey wanted a Negro who was afraid to fight back and that surely wasn’t his nature. However, Rickey assured him that he was looking for one with the guts not to fight back because he knew that a fight between Jackie and a white player could quickly escalate into a race riot and surely destroy what became widely known as “The Great Experiment.” Once he understood Rickey’s line of thinking, Robinson assured him that he could. In return for his agreeing to do so, Rickey promised Jackie that after two seasons, he wouldn’t have to “turn the other cheek” and could react just as any other player on the field would to whatever happened.

No one knows for certain if anyone ever said the same kind of thing to Obama as he prepared to run for the presidency in late 2006 and early 2007. But if someone did, perhaps it was Harry Reid of Nevada, the ranking Democrat in the Senate when Obama won his seat in that chamber of Congress in 2004. Reid, according to the acclaimed book on the historic 2008 presidential campaign, Game Change, and subsequently confirmed by all involved, was the first senior party member to suggest to Obama that he should consider running for president. Neither Obama or Reid has ever said publicly that they had the type of exchange about anger that Robinson and Rickey had, but Reid definitely opened a window into his train of thought when he was quoted in the book as having said in private conversations that Obama could win the Presidency because the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama—to whom he referred as being “light-skinned” and “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one”.

Even if Obama and Reid did have that type of conversation, considering the former’s multicultural family background and upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia were many times he was the only black in his school or neighborhood, there’s a very good chance that Obama already knew that he couldn’t afford to let his anger get the best of him, no matter how provoked he may have been by both covert and overt acts of prejudice and racism. Because his grandparents were able to get him into the prestigious Punahou School, a private college preparatory school that he attended from fifth grade until his graduation from high school, he’d already had the valuable experience of learning how to blend in with everyone. Add in Obama’s other barrier breaking act when he was the first African-American president of the Harvard Review while in law school, and he already knew it was going to be hard enough for a black man to get the nomination of the Democratic Party let alone be elected president and that an “angry” one stood no chance whatsoever of doing either. And thus, we have the strongest link between Jackie Robinson and Barack Obama; neither initially enjoyed the luxury of being able to respond to their opponents and off-field tormentors with any hint of anger if they hoped to have any chance of succeeding.

However, much as Robinson was finally able to defend himself in any way he felt necessary after his first two seasons with the Dodgers, we may see that same change in Obama should he win a second term. Even now, as presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney panders to the right-wing base of his party and beyond by fanning the flames of racism with snide and coded comments about the president’s birthplace and patriotism – “Nobody’s ever asked to see my birth certificate” and “This president just doesn’t understand America” – Barack Obama still has to turn the other cheek if he wants to win in November. But a Barack Obama, unburdened with another campaign, can “be like Jackie” and respond to his critics and their disrespectful words and acts, tit for tat.

So, for all of those who have been disappointed by Obama’s lack of public anger, hang in there. For much like an unrestrained Jackie Robinson in his third season with the Dodgers, a Barack Obama unburdened by ever having to run for office again could just turn out to be the “angry” president you’ve been waiting for after all.

                   

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