Why Jackie Robinson smiled for the camera


The first snowfall on a cold November day sometimes helps me adjust to the coming December dark. From the comfort of my living room the snow seems serene, a quiet balm to the noise blaring out of the TV screen. A longing for baseball settles in like laziness. Baseball––its long yawns and outfield lawns––revives a sense of hope in me in a way football, the warrior sport, never does. Nostalgia is in my longing, I know. I played baseball as a kid, and it’s easy for me to believe everything was better in those good old days when I was young. If only we could go back. We can’t. But against the backdrop of the snowfall whitening another leaden November sky I still see Jackie Robinson, his wide-open smile bright on the black and white screen of our family’s primitive TV set.

November is probably the cruelest month for those who call Minnesota home. Despite the warm and colorful days of October that are like Passover signs promising that the winter plague won’t strike us this year, November can’t keep the cold from sweeping in. In November we want October to stay and December to stay away. Our avoidance reaction persists until the December holidays, ceremonial preludes to the hopeless blizzards of January when we conclude that blankets, firesides, hot toddies, and curling in close are a pretty good way to go. Winter has a way of muffling outdoor noise, and an indoor calm also settles in by mid-February when we enjoy another football truce.

What we can’t completely purge from the household are commercials and politics. Though we’d rather stay home than drive to the shopping mall, the commercials keep blaring at us to buy. And politics don’t go away––noisy, nasty, ugly. We ask ourselves whether there’s any good reason to believe that democratic striving for improvement is paying worthwhile dividends. In winter, as in the long view of old age, we think with both feet on the brakes of our runaway duty to say yes. But the temptation persists. Why not turn political noise off with the TV, curl up in a blanket, and just snooze instead? What would Buddha do?

It’s clear that roughly half the registered voters heed Buddha’s call to disengage from active politics, though they probably keep their TVs on and tell safe friends what to believe. But they don’t vote, feeling, perhaps, that one vote is too small to represent the breadth and width of their depths. Besides, the planet is a lot bigger than a living room, so it’s natural to feel small in it. It’s understandable that so many conclude political acts don’t matter at all.

Whenever I conjure “culture” I also feel small. I see myself as a speck swimming in a thick stew simmering inside a petri dish where whether I’m healthy or sick, happy or sad, and rich or poor depends a lot on what nutrients and toxins might be in the stew. In November that image congeals. I think of “culture” as glacial. It’s a massive heap, a slow-moving glut of opinions, behaviors, fashions, habits, and stuff that just inches along, with me, a shivering speck, somewhere inside being moved along too. November politics seem like a noisy shower of hail hitting rock solid rooftops, so it’s easy to imagine politics hitting culture’s glacier and just melting away. It’s consoling to know that if poisonous government breeds monsters in a poisonous culture, presumably we could––if our culture were good enough––do without poisonous politics. But culture is massive, sluggish, and drowsy. It’s rather hard to get glaciers to speed up, or to move them left or right, and it’s not every day they turn around.

That’s why Jackie Robinson’s smile intrigues me. It seems so spontaneous and genuine, so open and generous. For those of us who remember Jackie Robinson we recall best his smile. Younger folk who don’t recognize him also don’t know that his smile is a cultural icon of sorts. Did Jackie Robinson’s smile not merely affect but effectively change the course of American culture? If today hundreds of dark-skinned males can play major league baseball, can sit next to light-skinned females in public schools and walk hand-in-hand with them without being lynched; if our current President is a dark-skinned male, and if Republicans, rightly smarting from accusations that their politics are loaded with racist undertones, have a dark-skinned male running as one of their candidates for the presidency––is this why Jackie Robinson smiled for the camera?

Behind the scenes he spent a lot of time not smiling. When he was a not-invisible minor leaguer he couldn’t sleep in certain hotels with his white teammates. When he showed up to play games were sometimes called off by local cops, stadiums padlocked. When he was brought up to the majors the racial tension in the Dodger dugout was explicit, and he had to turn the other cheek to racial slurs thrown his way by baseball fans. He had to bite his lip and play the game. His winning smile was a political act.

It’s arguable that Jackie Robinson was perhaps the most important catalyst of the civil rights movement. Robinson touched the hearts of millions of baseball fans who had to confront the fact that racial prejudice was directed at a face difficult to hate. His smile softened the cultural glacier frozen with racism, and he changed that culture’s course. His smile gained power from the many who had come before––the thousands of activists, most of them nameless, who spent years working on behalf of civil rights, and from individuals like his teammate Pee Wee Reese, who put his arm around him and spoke loudly enough for other teammates to hear, “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them.” And Jackie Robinson’s smile was strengthened by forces irrelevant to racial issues––competence as a baseball player that validated him as a professional, even the improvements in camera technology that allowed his smile to be better appreciated, and, in time, to reveal in close-up and full color the individual faces of many other dark-skinned ballplayers from diverse places in the world. Culture moves in strange and mysterious ways.

Currently other significant cultural shifts are observable. Women’s rights and gay rights, for example, have moved our culture in ways that would have been unthinkable fifty years ago, and current discourse about economic inequality seems to be gaining weight. Racism, sexism, greed and homophobia are still with us, of course, and there are still those who throw legal and political roadblocks in front of the movements for positive change. But culture is more powerful than politics, and it has word of mouth and hi-tech ways of overwhelming obstacles to what’s holding it back. Culture also has a powerful force that politics lacks: Children. Children entering reinvented cultures bring fresh perspectives that speak well for the power of fairness, toleration, and cooperation as powerful moral forces. If given a chance to express their inherent altruism, children will embrace the positive values present in the culture into which they’re born. Blessed are the children.

And blessed are those huddled masses weary of winter and politics who bite their lip, play the game, and smile as they continue performing the small political acts––at once smart and generous––that add up to weighty cultural shifts.