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Mark Anthony Neal (Megan Morr/Duke Photography)
Mark Anthony Neal (Megan Morr/Duke Photography)

Mark Anthony Neal

Thank you, Jackie Robinson: A symbol of the possibilities ahead Add to ...

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of black popular culture in the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University.

I was travelling with my 14-year-old daughter when I spotted former Major League Baseball player Darryl Strawberry in the airport. Never much a fanboy, I nevertheless walked up to Mr. Strawberry, just to shake his hand.

I was at pains afterward to explain to my daughter why I was so excited to meet Mr. Strawberry. Like most of her generation of African-Americans, baseball is not a thing they care about. That Mr. Strawberry is still so recognizable almost 20 years after his retirement speaks to an era in which baseball really was America’s pastime, and possessed stars who transcended the sport.

Mr. Strawberry, like his former teammate Dwight Gooden, and their contemporaries Ozzie Smith, Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr., were the very faces of the game. That the most recognizable baseball players would be African-American is unfathomable now, as it was before April 15, 1947.

I was six years old when Jackie Robinson made his last public appearance – at game two of the 1972 World Series. It was the first series I remember watching, and I watched much of it with my late dad. I suspect my dad, as I had with my daughter, tried to explain to me the significance of Mr. Robinson – how he had not only broken baseball’s colour barrier, but in his brief remarks that day, he implored MLB to do more by hiring its first black manager. But I was too enthralled with Reggie Jackson’s irrepressible swag and the way Joe Morgan hitched his elbow when at bat.

I do remember, though, when Mr. Robinson, only nine days after that appearance, suffered a fatal heart attack at age 53. I was still too young to fully process Mr. Robinson’s impact, including in Canada where he played one season with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ top farm team. Nevertheless, the reverence that my father held for him has stayed with me my entire life.

My father and I watched many baseball games together, including those first games that Mr. Strawberry played for the New York Mets during his rookie season in 1983. We watched the first games of Mr. Gooden when he joined the team the next year, and I called my dad from college when the Mets won the World Series a few years later. We didn’t talk much about Mr. Robinson in those days, though as a student of African-American history and culture, his legacy became complicated as I fell under the sway of thinkers like Malcolm X, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka and Stokely Carmichael. Mr. Robinson was not a thing for a young scholar in the making.

That changed months later when Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Al Campanis, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Mr. Robinson’s MLB debut, attempted to respond to the dearth of black managers by suggesting that perhaps African-Americans “may not have some of the necessities” to manage a team.

A decade later, the ranks of black managers had increased – including Cito Gaston, legendary manager of the Toronto Blue Jays.

I go back now to photos of Mr. Robinson, on that day in Cincinnati in the autumn of 1972. His hair was grey, and he was barely able to walk, a shadow of the man who dared challenge the idea of racial segregation and who would steal home, for the thrill of it. Mr. Robinson would no doubt be disappointed that young African-Americans have seemingly given up a game that he gave so much to, but he would have gotten a good laugh at Mr. Campanis’s comments given the gold medal that swimmer Simone Manuel won in the 2016 Summer Olympics.

For this father and scholar, who is only two years younger than Mr. Robinson was when he died, Jackie Robinson is indeed a thing. More than 40 years later, I realize why Mr. Robinson mattered so much to my dad, because he was a symbol of the possibilities that were ahead, not for him, but his young son.

For that, I thank my dad, as I thank Jackie Robinson, on behalf of so many sons and daughters whose parents dreamed what was possible, because he did.

Mark Anthony Neal is director of the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship and co-director of the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity.

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