Thursday, April 16, 2009

Remembering the Way Things Really Were

There were a lot of feel-good moments yesterday on Jackie Robinson Day, such as seeing everyone on the field wearing JR's #42 and listening to the always gracious Rachel Robinson on the Mets telecast, showing how wonderfully she has carried on his legacy of public service. Then there was that awful moment later on "Baseball Tonight" when host Karl Ravech concluded a piece on Robinson by noting that "tragically he lost his life in a plane crash while delivering humanitarian supplies to Nicaragua." Huh?!? The ESPN talking head next to him said nothing, didn't even flinch at this egregious gaffe, and it took ten minutes for Ravech to admit his little "mistake". No problem, Karl, most people will let it slide, that slip of the tongue any ESPN announcer could have made, confusing Jackie Robinson with Roberto Clemente. It could've been worse. At least he didn't assert that Robinson led the Salt March, tended the destitute in Calcutta, or devoted himself to the lepers of Molokai.

It is vital to remember exactly what Jackie Robinson did and did not do. He did stand up for his rights and his dignity when facing discrimination during his time in the US Army, and did get exonerated when the Army tried to court martial him. He did stand up to racists in every city in the National League in order to break baseball's long-standing "color barrier," and he did inspire baseball fans (black and white) with his courage and his brilliant playing style. He did continue to fight the good fight after his baseball career ended, devoting a lot of his time and energy to civil rights causes and issues of empowerment for all Americans. He did die tragically in 1972, too young at age 53, ravaged by diabetes that robbed him of his health but could not diminish his dignity or his resolve.

Jackie Robinson did not do these things by himself. Larry Doby and many others overcame racism to eliminate the color barrier, and even then it took a dozen years before every major league team was integrated. His efforts on behalf of civil rights were one man's part of a much larger social movement which took decades to erase the prevalence of "Jim Crow" laws which had segregated American society for more than half a century. More than that, his legacy has been continued in the 37 years since his death by his widow and daughter and a large number of people who are still inspired by his selflessness and determination to make this country better for all of its citizens.

Thus it was apropos that yesterday, Jackie Robinson Day, was the day I finished reading The Plated City, a novel published in 1895, the year before the Plessy v. Ferguson decision by the Supreme Court which sanctioned the Jim Crow segregation by endorsing the notion of "separate but equal" that prevailed until recent decades. Written by Bliss Perry, a professor, author, and essayist much esteemed in his own time though largely forgotten today, The Plated City has recently been re-published by Rvive Books (http://www.rvive.com/).

Though the novel is dated in some ways--the language is stilted in places, and the plot contrived in the fashion of Victorian fiction--it is relevant today because it is a time-capsule visit to an America whose values and assumptions endured into our own lifetimes. As Darryl Brock notes in his excellent and very helpful introduction, "you will come away feeling that you've paid a vivid visit to a bygone America. Best of all, you are in for an engrossing, satisfying read."

This is not a baseball novel, though a baseball player is pivotal to the plot. There are only two chapters about baseball: the opening chapter, which introduces the main characters in attendance at the town baseball game in a small Connecticut factory town called Bartonvale; and a later chapter set at the Polo Grounds in which Tom Beaulieu--modeled after Frank Grant, the Hall of Fame infielder widely regarded as the best black ballplayer of the 19th century--debuts as a major leaguer, masquerading as a Spaniard. Perry played ball with Grant as a youth in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and felt stung by the knowledge that Grant was a far superior player than the regional white stars who made their mark in the major leagues while Grant was denied the same opportunity after the de facto color barrier caused him to be banned from the minor leagues in which he had been playing.

Beaulieu's identity is unmasked at the Polo Grounds, and once again he is banished from the center stage of athletic competition. But the theme of racism is treated much more deeply in The Plated City than simply an athlete's fate. Central to the novel is the fact that Beaulieu's true identity is not definitively known. Nor is that of his half-sister, Esther, whose plight in Bartonvale propels the plot. Their mother may or may not have been white, Creole, or Negro, and their own skin is too light to decide the issue. Nobody seems to know for certain, yet a census-taker, a random clerk, decided at some point that Tom was a non-white, and when Esther moves to Bartonvale she becomes marked by the same uncertain misunderstanding. Another character expresses the surreal irony that was a fact of life in the 1890s: "A man having seven-eighths Indian blood and one-eighth white, is classed in the census as a white man, but let him be one-eighth negro and seven-eights white, and down he goes as a darky." On that arbitrary basis, Esther is hounded from her job at a Bartonvale factory, has difficulty finding a decent place to live, and is shunned by all but a handful of the town's citizens. That her "taint" is unjustified is not an exaggeration of the times. That was the way it was when a person's real identity was some house of cards that could topple with the slightest breeze of suspicion.

The thing that makes The Plated City engrossing is that it is packed with sympathetic characters. Despite a number of unseemly racial confrontations, there are no villains per se. There are no overt plot machinations aimed at ruining the characters for whom the reader wishes only good things. That's the point. The villain is bigotry itself--an invisible yet palpable force, an irrational social system whose very existence imperils Tom, Esther, and those who try to help them. This is how it differs from a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird, in which the racism is incarnated in clearly evil characters. The Plated City is more subtle, its well-meaning characters undermined by a system that is too elusive to be wrenched toward reality.

So the many protagonists are all tainted by racism, breathing it in like the polluted air from the metallurgical factories which form the town's identity. At his most vivid, Perry describes the fire which rages through the town, destroying its economic foundation in a way that parallels the efforts by its finer citizens to strip the town of its underlying prejudice. It is emblematic of the fire of racism which burned through this nation for too many generations, until people like Jackie Robinson came along and stared it down through sheer force of will, pride, and determination. The novel is worth reading if only for its portrayal of the society that the Jackie Robinsons of this world had to overcome.

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