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Who Was the Real Jackie Robinson?

Jackie Robinson (HO Old/Reuters)
Jackie Robinson (HO Old/Reuters)

Colorlines' Jamilah King points out that the baseball legend's fight for racial justice was always tempered by a degree of pessimism about the realities faced by black people in America.

Almost 66 years to the day that Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut, the new biopic, "42," offers an opportunity to examine the racial politics of a man whose legacy is often limited to one heroic act.

Brian Helgeland, the film's director and screenwriter, worked closely with Robinson's widow, Rachel, to depict what he's called "10,000 small acts of bravery that turned into one big act of bravery." The decidedly mainstream film starring newcomer Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey has earned the endorsement of the Obamas, who told a crowd gathered inside the State Dining Room that "everybody in this country needs to see this movie."

There are already plenty of images of Robinson in popular culture, from children's books to postage stamps: He's the focused infielder crouched in a defensive position, the tall black man standing stoically before the press. But you don't necessarily think of the post-baseball Robinson who told a New York Times reporter in 1969 that he "wouldn't fly the flag on the Fourth of July or any other day … When I see a car with a flag pasted on it, I figure the guy behind the wheel isn't my friend."

"Jackie Robinson is positioned in the mainstream as this symbol of an integrationist willing to turn the other cheek," says David Leonard, the author of "After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness" and a race and gender studies professor at Washington State University. "But this story of racial redemption and African-Americans having to facilitate it is really a tired Hollywood trope. The caricature of Jackie Robinson is that he improved himself and that puts the onus of change on people of color rather than on white America and the institutions that have enacted racism and discrimination throughout history."


Read Jamilah King's entire piece at Colorlines.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

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