Black history seen without rose-colored glasses

February 06, 2002|By Gregory Kane

I FORGET who the wag was who quipped, "Christmas is at our throats once again." But I'm starting to feel the same way about Black History Month, which kind of skulks up on me annually before I've had time to gird my loins for it.

What inspires such cynicism? The sneaking suspicion that black folks - oh, pardon, African-Americans - don't really take their own history seriously. The reality that at festivals for African films the whites in the audience outnumber the African-Americans (watching the movie Lumumba was truly embarrassing). The bipolar condition of black Americans that allows us to hold a pity party in which we whine about white oppression and a celebration of a history that, if we are to be believed, has no downside whatsoever.

Almost every biographical account of prominent black Americans borders on hagiography, especially during You-Know-What Month. Try even hinting at a disparaging word about any black historical figure and you'll be charged with being a racist or an Uncle You-Know-Who.

But can't we say it, just this once? Jackie Robinson, our beloved hero who broke baseball's color line in 1947 and endured racist insults, taunts and assaults for two years was at times, well, a sap. He might even be called the Notorious S.A.P., if he were described in today's hip-hop lingo.

Forget that Robinson's breaking the color line led to the demise of the Negro Leagues and the subsequent failure of viable black businesses. Forget Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey's condescending and racist admonition to blacks to not get drunk or disorderly when attending games to root for Robinson. Never mind that Jackie R. was so bilious that teammate Pee Wee Reese advised him years later that pitchers weren't throwing at him because he was black, but simply because they didn't like him.

Did Robinson really have to go before that hotbed of bigots, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and condemn Paul Robeson in 1949?

He did. The NAACP urged him not to, but he did. The committee chairman was a Georgia racist representing a state where blacks would have been justified being in open armed revolt, but he had the nerve to summon Robinson to respond to Robeson's assertion that blacks wouldn't fight for America against the Soviet Union.

Granted Robeson's comment revealed he was a bit of a jerk himself (another unpleasantry we gloss over in You-Know-What Month) but the demand was galling nonetheless. Robinson's appearance showed what a sap he was. In later years baseball owners would trot him out to testify for the reserve clause - which tied a player to one ballclub for life and kept wages low - as absolutely vital to the game. But Robinson later made amends for that in 1970 when he supported the St. Louis Cardinal Curt Flood, who challenged the reserve clause.

To Robinson's credit, he did advise the HUAC members that they should be just as concerned about anti-black racism and segregation as about the loyalty of African-Americans. What he should have told them is they had some nerve doubting the loyalty of black Americans, considering our contribution to the Red Ball Express during World War II.

About 75 percent of the 23,000 men who drove trucks on the Red Ball Express were African-American. As Gen. George Patton's Third Army raced across France toward Germany in 1944, it was the Red Ball Express that kept him supplied with munitions, gasoline and food.

The Red Ball Express ran from Aug. 25, 1944, to Nov. 16, 1944. The truckers, braving enemy fire and land mines, hauled about 412,000 tons of supplies to the front lines. Years after their duty, World War II veteran Col. John D. Eisenhower, President Dwight Eisenhower's son, wrote in his book The Bitter Woods, "Without [the Red Ball Express], the advance across France could not have been made."

But Robinson didn't mention those heroes who rode the Red Ball. It's just as well. African-Americans today don't have much use for them either. When Steven Spielberg released his D-Day epic Saving Private Ryan in 1998, some blacks wanted his scalp. "Where were the black soldiers," they protested.

Since then, several black directors or producers have had a chance to make a movie about the Red Ball Express and finally give these men their due. What have we gotten? Eddie Murphy giving us a heartwarming, hilarious comedy about Mississippi's racist, brutal, murderous, genocidal Parchman Prison Farm in Life and John Singleton giving us a celebration of police brutality in Shaft.

Even Mr. Blacker-Than-Thou Spike Lee failed the Red Ball Express. Lee went into Oppressed Negro Mode and, passing on the chance to present positive images of those blacks in the quartermaster units, went on a rant about negative black images in Bamboozled.

The only ones getting bamboozled every You-Know-What Month are African-Americans. We should be wary of who's doing the bamboozling.

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