From Jackie Robinson to Obama.

Chigozie Onyema is a member of the Kwame Ture Society (KTS), a student organization founded to further the development, dissemination of knowledge, and the advancement of the Africana studies discipline. Members of KTS will be regularly contributing to The Liberator.

Reclaiming Our Narrative & Our Future, From Jackie to Obama (by Chigozie Onyema): Jackie Robinson is often touted as the first black man to play Major League Baseball in the middle of the 20th century. In schools across the nation he is celebrated during Black History Month for enduring the scorn of his white counterparts and fans. In the conventional narrative his ability to compete is matched, and in some cases superseded, by his ability to penetrate a space carved out for whites. In learning our history we are always inundated with “the firsts.” It is as if the first black person recognized as achieving something did so single handedly. In the barrage of “firsts” that we receive in primary school the conventional narrative is often the incorrect narrative. Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first black man to play Major League Baseball in 1884, 35 years before Jackie Robinson was born and 54 years before he would enter Major League Baseball. Walker was a highly regarded catcher, but beyond Walker’s ability to play baseball was his questionable politics. Walker’s ideas about race relations was not uncommon in the United States at the time, but was the first of any notable athlete. Walker advocated a movement back to Africa in his 1908 book Our Home Colony: A Treatise on the Past, Present and Future of the Negro Race.

Similar to Jackie Robinson, Barack Obama is touted as the first black presidential candidate. Although it is often prefaced with the word “real” in its embryonic stages, Obama is nevertheless bestowed with this title more often than not. In coming years he will be celebrated during Black History Month as a sterling example of a black leader and the first of his kind. However, as stated earlier the conventional narrative is often the incorrect narrative. Barack Obama was preceded most recently by Al Sharpton (2004), Carol Mosely Braun (2004), Alan Keyes (1996, 2000), Lenora Fulani (1988, 1992), Jesse Jackson (1984, 1988), and Shirley Chisolm (1972) (He is also currently running against Cynthia Mckinney). Although this fact is not unknown to many, it is overlooked. Similar to Jackie Robinson, Obama’s rhetorical skills and political prowess is matched, and in some cases superseded, by his ability to penetrate a space carved out by whites. Similar to Moses Fleetwood Walker’s deletion in the narrative of “firsts”, Shirley Chisolm has been removed from the narrative. Like Walker, Chisolm’s politics were controversial. In a hotly contested presidential primary she advocated for increased spending in the social services and the reduction of military spending, and her mere presence as a black woman stirred controversy beyond her politics.

If one were to seek the opinion of baseball analysts in the mid-20th century, they would overwhelming support the idea that Jackie Robinson was selected to play Major League Baseball more for his perceived character than his abilities. While he was a very able player he was not the best the Negro League had to offer. Instead he was the most acceptable to white owners. Similarly, if one were to seek the opinion of well informed political analysts (using the term analyst very loosely) they would overwhelmingly conclude that while Barack Obama is a very able orator and introduces a profound level of optimism to an abysmal situation, he is not the best the black community has to offer. Instead, he is the most acceptable by white campaign financiers and voters. We now see that the conventional narrative and the circumstances that lead to that narrative is governed by white ideas of what is acceptable and reinforced by the blind acquiescence of black people. This exists in the world of sports and the political arena. Those who are not conducive to a narrative that presupposes white benevolence and black fealty toward it are casualties of selective memory or cast away as too inadequate to join the conversation. Moving forward we must take measures to control our narrative in a way that permeates the conventional narrative to synthesize an honest representation of who we are and what we represent.

As we mull over ways to reclaim our narrative we are faced with the question of how to approach those black leaders selected by whites. Should we isolate them or should we seek to gain from their position in the white power structure by following them? In the case of Jackie Robinson, Negro League players followed him into the Major Leagues paving the way for superstars like Barry Bonds and Gary Shefield to become multimillionaires and household names. However, the exodus from the Negro League spelled disaster for black business. Not only did it lead to the demise of Negro League Baseball, but black hotels that hosted them, black secretaries that worked for the franchises, black restaurants that fed them, and black vendors who served at the games amongst others. This is analogous to the way integration in the larger sense led to the loss of black businesses. Instead of individuals integrating Major League Baseball, Negro League teams should have integrated the Major Leagues making teams such as the Kansas City Monarchs and the New York Black Yankees household names. This sort of integration would have been done on our terms paving the way for us to continue to patronize our black businesses and be in a position of ownership. Instead the Negro League teams and players miscalculated in an effort to validate themselves and their abilities to white society. Therefore in the case of Barack Obama we must move similar to the Sankofa bird, looking back in order to move forward. Instead of advocating for one man to integrate the highest levels of a white institution (Democratic Party) and eventually the position of head of state, we should seek to build our own institutions. We should develop our own institutions or work within existing black institutions that, once organized effectively and properly funded by us, can sit at the negotiation table in a position of power to effectively advocate for public policy and ideas that will serve our communities. One might ask “can’t we send Obama into office and build our own institution/party that will serve our communities…?” My only response is to pay closer attention to the Sankofa bird.

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