This will not be a complete review of the newly released motion picture 42. I have just returned from seeing it and I will say it is a good movie – good, but not great. It tells the story of a man who was anointed by a white man to become the first black baseball player to play in America’s Major League Baseball. But 42 made me remember a good deal about my life as a person of color who grew up during the time frame in which the movie takes place.
I was born on November 4, 1944, so in the spring of 1947, when Robinson penetrated the “color line,” I was only two-years-old. I was totally unaware of how much Robinson and I would have in common.
One of the gifts I was given at birth was an exceptional visual and auditory memory. As the movie played, I remembered the Buick Roadmaster driving across the screen as the same model owned by my grandfather. I remembered the names of Leo Durocher and Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella coming across the airways in consecutive springs after I entered school. If we behaved, the nuns would allow us to listen to the World Series as we sat, hands folded, at our pint-sized desks. And I remembered the name Jackie Robinson.
For many young black movie goers, the way Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey went about accomplishing what no other man had even attempted will be bizarre, even off-putting. Rickey told Jackie Robinson he would have to be strong enough to stand up to the jeers, insults, racist taunts and rejections he was sure to receive, without fighting back. To fight back would play into racists’ presumptions that no Negro had the talent or the temperament to succeed in Major League Baseball.
The portrayal of Robinson in 42 by actor Chadwick Boseman is spot on. Yes, he does, resemble the former Dodger star – he has the same head shape, same abundant curly hair, same dazzling, toothy smile – but there is one scene in particular that I believe absolutely nails the emotional impact of being a “first.” After enduring a snarling, epithet-hurling assault from the Philadelphia Phillies dugout from none other than the team’s coach, Robinson leaves the field and has a monumental meltdown, alone and under the grandstand. I felt his pain; man, did I feel his pain.
Anyone who has never been on the receiving end of public bullying will have an epiphany seeing this movie. Black, white, green or purple — sit through that scene, and you will finally get what that type of treatment feels like and you are not going to like it.
I have written before of how I was raised to understand that in order for me to succeed in this white man’s world I would have to run circles around every one of my white competitors. I could not be ignorant; they expect that. I could not be belligerent; they won’t stand for that. I could not sound like a Negro; they preferred I speak like they do. All this was instilled in my tiny, unfinished brain by the time I was enrolled as a first-grader in the neighborhood Catholic school. I was the first black child so enrolled.
People like Jackie Robinson and me got lucky. We came into the world equipped with special gifts that, if self-acknowledged, self-developed and nurtured by the adults around us, would allow us to endure all the strikes we had against us. Robinson had to perform his way into the hearts of his teammates and the front office staff. Whether he was a nice guy or a jerk was unknown to them. All they knew was that he was black.
They said — not ready. Too soon “They” won’t accept him. Until he started bringing money in, that is. Branch Rickey says this at the beginning of the movie:
Baseball is a business. There is no black or white in business. All money is green.
As I was growing up, I remember how my mom used to brag to other people about me and my accomplishments. “Lezlie was the first colored student at St. James School.” “Lezlie was the first Negro at Proviso East High School to make the majorette squad.” “Lezlie was the first Negro to be elected to the National Honor Society at her school.” “Lezlie was the first African-American student to attend her college.”
These were always said with great pride and were celebrated enthusiastically by the poor souls who had to listen to her boasting. It often embarrassed me. I felt resentful, for some reason.
Eventually, I figured out where that resentment came from. Nobody but me could fully understand the impact those “firsts” had on ME. I didn’t have to endure anything like Jackie Robinson did, but there was a definite price to pay for those barrier-busting events. But I also will never forget the experiences that made me feel that I was “other,” just in the Robinson was made to feel.
I remember being six-years-old and waking up in a hospital ward. The day before my beloved Collie Dog Snuffy had chased after a squirrel while I became airborne on the other end of his leash. When I landed my left elbow struck a water meter hidden in the lush lawn of parkway in front of my grandparent’s house. It fractured in three places; one bone poked itself through my skin and protruded sickeningly. Surgery was required.
When I woke up, I was confused and scared. Where was I? Where was my mother? Why are there bars on my bed?
I finally looked around me and saw I was in one of six beds in the ward, all of which were occupied by young children. I learned later that most of them were suffering from crippling diseases or disorders, and I was the only one who would be ambulatory once the residual effects of ether wore off. That fact alone would have been enough to earn the other kids’ hatred, and it did. Now pile on the fact that I was the only one in the ward who was not white.
Jealousy + Fear of the unknown = Rejection. And I was only six.
I remember being eleven-years-old. As a Girl Scout, I was eligible to attend a two-week sleep-away camp in Three Rivers, Michigan. By this time, I carried a boatload of responsibility to “represent my race” in the most positive way possible. Again, when I arrived at the camp, I found myself the only brown-skinned person. I remember wondering if the counselor who shared my first name was being nice to me because she had to or because she was just nice and was not caring about the color of my skin. I’ll never know.
I remember being told I had been selected to participate in an experiment when I was in eighth grade. The high school was choosing the 30 students with the highest IQs from all the feeder elementary schools. They would be put in a special, accelerated curriculum and spend the four years studying together. I was one of them. My mother, of course, was beside herself with pride. I, however, was ambivalent.
Fitting in became a problem. Many black kids treated me more like a pariah than anything else as a result of what they thought was the special treatment I’d received. They didn’t know me because I went to the Catholic school and they all attended the segregated public school. I was too light-skinned to be trusted because they assumed I thought I was better than they were. Now, even when I was to attend the public high school with all of them, I was still going to be isolated from the mainstream.
On the other hand, I had few problems from the white kids. I have an outgoing personality and am not afraid to initiate a conversation with anyone. When I did that, for the most part, the white kids were receptive. However, when it came to inviting me to their homes for parties and sleepovers, that was another story altogether. Many of those white kids learned their parents’ true feelings about race. Most had been taught that everybody is the same in God’s eyes, but their parents had neglected to tell them that it was their parents’ eyes that mattered when it came to who they would be allowed to befriend.
I can tell you that there were many nights when I would cry myself to sleep, praying to wake up either dark-skinned and obviously black or white-skinned and blonde haired. Either way, things would have been a lot simpler.
Happily, there are very few barriers remaining to break through today. We have come a long way from the 1940s and 1950s that hosted my childhood. But until our kids, regardless of race, understand what Robinson’s achievements really cost him, and probably many people of color, they will never know how great a hero he really was. It takes extraordinary strength of character and conviction to walk alone in this life. That Robinson had not just the talent, but the strength of character and conviction to lead the Brooklyn Dodgers to the 1947 World Series, is made abundantly clear in this movie.
For that alone, I recommend you see 42.
Lezlie Bishop, 68, is a mixed-race woman who grew up in a suburb of Chicago. A retired public relations director for Fortune 100 American corporation, Lezlie now writes blog posts about current events.