Ryan Cecil Jobson
Nearly an hour into the critically hailed Jackie Robinson biopic, 42, a plane descends into Panama. Signaling the arrival of the Brooklyn Dodgers for spring training in 1947, the camera shifts to the interior of the team’s living quarters, where discontented white ballplayers have assembled to draft a petition against the widely rumored promotion of Robinson, a “negro,” to the big leagues. The Central American tropics appear as an unusual departure for both the viewer and the dramatized Dodgers ballclub. As Bobby Bragan, the backup catcher for Brooklyn in 1947, reasons: “Why do you think Rickey’s got us playing spring games here in Panama? Huh? He wants us to get used to Negro crowds. He wants more of them than there are us. And he’s hoping it’ll make us more comfortable being around Robinson.” Comfort, or the lack thereof, is perhaps the most persistent theme in the filmic narrative of 42. Throughout, the discomfort of Robinson’s white teammates with sharing the same field, locker room, and shower with a superstar athlete-cum-“nigger” is palpable. Yet, nowhere is this discomfort more evident than the seven-minute journey to Panama on the silver screen.
The obvious unease of the white players in protest notwithstanding, Panama is staged in stark contrast to the familiar confines of Ebbets Field. Diegetic Latin music plays asymmetrically alongside the whites-only players’ meeting and the markedly American ballplayers conducting practice; Afro-Panamanian spectators line the fences adjacent to the training field; a Dodgers coach fumbles while attempting to thank a young boy in Spanish for retrieving baseballs; manager Leo Durocher lays in bed beneath a mosquito net and fends off pesky insects that defy the protective screen; and Robinson, a middle infielder by trade, is asked to learn a new position, first base. In light of the multiple invocations of Panama as a foreign, exotic, and distinctly racialized landscape, it should come as little surprise that Bragan deems the petition raised by his discontented white compatriots a “Brooklyn Dodger Declaration of Independence.” Tellingly, immediately upon the return stateside, the camera passes a large American flag affixed to the exterior of Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.
The nationalist underpinnings of Bragan’s chosen moniker and the visual device employed by director Brian Helgeland should not be lost on the audience. Contrary to the film, the Dodgers did not hold spring training in Panama in 1947. In reality, the team anticipated Robinson’s debut by venturing to Cuba, reprising their prior spring home of 1941 and 1942. Preceding the Cuban revolution by nearly two decades, the revisionist maneuver in which Panama is literally cast as Cuba in the screenplay is especially curious. Of course, the sentiment of unity and racial justice that a figure like Robinson evokes would be compromised by any gesture toward the American occupation and ensuing economic domination of the island in the first half of the twentieth century, or the coming embargo imposed on Cuba following the revolutionary upheaval led by Fidel Castro and his supporters. Cuba, in this respect, is a proverbial black mark on the discourse of Pax Americana, a disturbing exception to the rule of liberal democracy. It is predictable then, that Cuba conveniently falls out of view. As anthropologist Jafari Allen observes, “Cuba is not a place in a timewarp . . . it is the perception of Cuba that is warped.” Thus, despite its efforts to excise Cuba from the historical imaginary of Jackie Robinson, 42 is revealing in its emplotment of the integration of Major League Baseball and the national civil rights struggle it prognosticates.
1947 was a watershed moment for black politics beyond the baseball diamond as well. African American troops, having returned from World War II, sought to ride the coattails of the victory against Nazism abroad to end Jim Crow on the home front, goaded by the Double V Campaign. The Truman Doctrine emerged in the same year, denouncing Soviet expansionism and solidifying the United States as a global military power in the unofficial opening salvo of the Cold War. Jackie Robinson duly entered the fray at an opportune moment in which the United States began to consolidate its nationalist vision across racial lines, lending greater support for progressive civil rights reforms. In this moment, brilliantly reconstructed by historian Penny von Eschen in Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957, the State Department sought to advance the global reputation of the United States as an arbiter of freedom and democracy, sponsoring prominent black figures such as the jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong and the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team on overseas cultural missions. From this vantage, the celebrated advances of the Civil Rights Movement foreclosed other avenues for black politics that characterized an earlier era of internationalism and anticolonial solidarity.
While the negative consequences of integration for the Negro Leagues have been noted elsewhere, the implications it held for black politics and the coeval suppression of anticolonial criticism among prominent African American writers, activists, and politicians, remains underexplored. Prior to integration, black American ballplayers often ventured outside the United States, seeking the decidedly more pleasing milieus of Latin America and the Caribbean. Without reinforcing the exceptionalism of a Latin American “racial democracy,” the preferential treatment accorded to Negro League stars in Cuba, Venezuela, and Mexico bears acknowledging. As Satchel Paige biographer Larry Tye recounts, “The Caribbean was fat city for Negro ballplayers in the 1930s and ‘40s,” where they played on racially integrated teams and were largely afforded the luxuries of their white counterparts in the American and National Leagues.
42 scarcely gestures to these broader histories or political concerns, rendering its triumphalist narrative of racial integration between the foul poles. In its celebration of an virtuous athlete who surmounts the strictures of racial oppression, the film privileges an individualist dogma in which rights and freedom are extended to those who illustrate their worthiness via extraordinary talent and discerning acumen. This tension, between individual and collective struggle, is evinced by an exchange between Robinson, capably played by Chadwick Boseman, and Wendell Smith, the Pittsburgh Courier journalist charged as his advisor:
SMITH: “You, Mr. Robinson, are not the only one with something at stake here.”
ROBINSON: “I apologize. You’ve been there for me through this more than anyone besides Ray and Mr. Rickey. But I guess that’s what bothers me.”
SMITH: “How do you mean?”
ROBINSON: “I don’t needing someone to be there for me. I don’t like needing anyone for anything. I never have.”
SMITH: “You a hard case Jackie Robinson.”
While their dialogue maps the wider societal implications of his success on the field, by the close of the film one is left with the sense that Robinson is right not to “like needing anyone for anything,” proving that he, deracinated and isolated as the lone black major league ballplayer, can overcome the prejudice and violence directed toward him.
Accordingly, the near deification of Robinson by Major League Baseball in recent years—the retiring of his number across baseball and the commemoration of Jackie Robinson Day on April 15—is underscored by a discourse of neoliberal individualism that elevates the man above the civil rights and anticolonial black politics that his career trajectory straddles. In what John D. Kelly deems the “Jackie Robinsonization of international baseball,” the figure of Robinson again becomes a means to legitimate the preeminence of the United States and baseball as a distinctly American pastime amidst a differently globalized landscape. Said differently, while the game of baseball has in a sense always been global, as illustrated by the forays of Negro Leaguers like Paige elsewhere across the Americas, its current configuration demands that global talent congeal under the banner of American exceptionalism and the promises of liberal democracy and individual uplift.
Returning to the discussion of comfort at the outset of this essay, I want to consider the ways in which the nationalist parochialism of civil rights has produced a delimiting sense of comfort vis-à-vis the black freedom movement. While few would dispute the sustained presence of racial inequities and quotidian racism in the United States, the modes through which such inequities are narrated remain startlingly deficient. For instance, the proliferation of commentaries on the dearth of black professional baseball athletes elides the dramatic rise of African-descended ballplayers from the Caribbean and Latin America, cementing an understanding of domestic racial oppression and the racially inflected logic of neoliberal structural adjustment as fundamentally divergent. The debate infamously came to a head in 2010, when African American outfielder Torii Hunter, then of the Los Angeles Angels, opined, “People see dark faces out there, and the perception is that they’re African-American. They’re not us. They’re impostors.” Hunter’s avowed discomfort toward his Afro-Latino counterparts—and where Hunter would place the growing number of ballplayers from the Dutch Caribbean remains unclear—indicates the fracturing of black diasporic solidarity along lines of nation and language and the reinscription of a provincial civil rights narrative that Jackie Robinson is called upon to represent. But one need not look further than the Dominican New York Yankees superstar Robinson Cano, named for Jackie of course, to see the enduring linkages that this perspective omits.
In lieu of the comforts of civil rights, then, we might exult in the productive discomfort of a black politics that defies the insularity of nation, language, and ethnicity as its discursive scaffolding. As David Scott proposes in his rumination on C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins, the romance of civil rights and decolonization is insufficient to the demands of our times. The genre of tragedy, by contrast, resists an alluring fiction “in which history rides a triumphant and seamlessly progressive rhythm,” to reveal “a broken series of paradoxes and reversals in which human action is open to unaccountable contingencies.”
Likewise, our strivings for global justice stand to gain from the discomfort that a tragic register engenders. In seven minutes in Panama, a telling narrative aside, 42 nods tentatively to the tragedy that lies beneath its triumph. As we celebrate Jackie, and deservedly so, let us also recall that which his legend obscures, neglects, and silences.
Ryan Cecil Jobson is a doctoral student in the combined degree program in Anthropology and African American Studies at Yale University. He received a B.A., summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, in Africana Studies and Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2011. At present, he is conducting archival and ethnographic research on natural resource development in Trinidad & Tobago, exploring the ways in which the extractive industries of petroleum and natural gas mediate claims to citizenship in the postcolonial Caribbean nation-state. And while he supports a baseball club from the Bronx, he comes from a line of Brooklynites who followed “Dem Bums” throughout their years in Flatbush.