jackie robinson and a century of excellence

January 31, 2019

When they give us the ball, we teach them how to make the acquisition exceptional. This is Jackie Robinson’s history. He was one of the first figures that showed Black struggle and excellence isn’t confined to an industry or genre (re: music and organizing work), but is a manufactured law of in America: when Black, you must be exceptional or drown. Jackie Robinson was a baseball player, but he swam. He swam through rivers, lakes, and fires of hatred to one day — once he was dead — become an icon for possibility and excellence to the great great children of the people who terrorized him. Domination is wicked, but it is also clever.

Today is Jackie Robinson’s 100th birthday and the legendary baseball player reminds me of this current moment for representation and this fetishizing of a Black exceptionalism happening, and how he in so many ways helped begin this model of modern Black excellence and exceptionalism that many Black folks are often tied to.

A strong, irreverent visual stamped my imagination the moment I witnessed The Carters perform “Apeshit” in South Africa. Beyonce sang with all the confidence in the world, “give me the ball, give me the ball,” while she sang these lyrics, a slide show went through my head: Serena Williams, Lebron James, Colin Kaepernick, Michael Jordan, and of course, Jackie Robinson. The competitive and braggadocios nature of the song mixed with the clear sport reference, made me understand that when Black folks do get the metaphorical or literal ball, we don’t simply complete the mission. We supersede that mission. We do not just become efficient in our work, we become icons of industries. Observing the career trajectories of Oprah and her (even still quite successful peers), there’s an umph that she brought — that she had to bring — in order to successfully be the face of media. This grit is from the pressure of what we are told it takes to be Black, happy, and safe in America. As some of these exceptional negroes adjust in America’s true nature, and learn even excellence does not prevent white supremacist violence, the lust for the Black excellence remains.

And Jackie Robinson was one of the first representations of that excellence. By the time his name reached my ears, he could have been Jesus or Santa Claus or Martin Luther King Jr., by how far and detached his posthumous deification led him from any type of humanity. But here we are on his 100th birthday, and in death at least, it’s important to hold his whole humanity. He was not an icon or a moral compass or a greater man than the great men who are in your life now. He was a Black man that wanted to play a sport and did what he had to do to play this sport well. The obstacles he had to overcome and the trauma he had to endure were not God’s obstacles. They were America’s inventions.

Just like Black excellence itself, I had to engage that there shouldn’t be a need for Black excellence or exceptionalism. The exceptionalism is borne directly from our inability to access equity and humanity, so having to outperform and excel to take away any question of what we should have resources for and have access to is not so much something to celebrate, but a truth to acknowledge. But taking delight in those that spun gold with lives that were supposed to be predestined to servicing wealthy white families’ homes and dodging lynchings is its own type of pleasure for the Black person no matter their relationship with the respectable and non-respectable.