Reflections on Ragtime, on Coalhouse Walker, on #42, Jackie Robinson, on Oppression, and on Continued Efforts to Live Up to American Ideals
By Ken K. Gourdin
Last Saturday I saw the musical Ragtime at Hale Center Theater in West Valley City, Utah. At the turn of the 20th century, many immigrants were drawn here by the promise of achieving The American Dream. As Emma Lazarus’s poem, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, put it, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had freed African Blacks brought to the United States as slaves in the 1860s, as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, America had yet to live up to the true meaning of the words contained in its Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.”
In the play, which is set in the 1920s, both Blacks and immigrants experience the collision between their aspirations and the reality which, to a greater or lesser degree, thwarts them. They experience the collision between the ideals for which the United States is supposed to stand and the ways in which it has failed to live up to those ideals in its treatment of classes which the majority, for whatever reason, considers suspect, whether because of race, national origin, or some other immutable characteristic. These conflicts are personified in the play’s main protagonist, Coalhouse Walker, a black man.
Coalhouse confronts racism when he is hassled by a gang of white volunteer firefighters-cum-street-toughs who refuse to let him pass in his Model T Ford roadster and who damage the car after Coalhouse seeks to have the police intervene in their dispute; instead of helping him, the police arrest him. He then is unable to find a lawyer willing to defend him. His girlfriend and wife-to-be, Sarah, is killed at a rally for President Taft’s Vice President (who is running for president) intending to importune him to help Caolhouse. Instead, her motives are mistaken, she is accosted by the crowd at the rally, and she is killed. These incidents leave Coalhouse embittered.
Determined to draw attention to the unfair treatment he and those he cares for have received, he takes over the headquarters of railroad magnate J.P. Morgan. After Sarah and Negro rights activist Booker T. Washington both implore Coalhouse to give up his siege and surrender (the latter guaranteeing his safety), he begins to exit the premises with his hands raised above his head—only to be shot on sight by assembled police officers. I’m somewhat ambivalent about the lengths to which Coalhouse went to draw attention to his plight.
It’s easy for me, in hindsight, as a person with a strong law-and-order orientation, to say that Coalhouse should have stuck to legal means. On the other hand, the legal system in place at the time was one of the pillars on which the unjust society he so decried was built. And if I had been alive at the time, I might well have been one of the parties Dr. King excoriated in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” who preached continued patience even in the face of almost unbearable oppression rather than favoring resorting to nonviolent, passive, peaceful resistance. And I’d be lying if I said I had never considered drastic action to draw attention to my own plight. I pray that whatever it is that holds me back from taking such action continues to hold firm, because I will say this: I understand the impulse.
Then, yesterday, I saw the movie “42,” about the first Black baseball player in the Major Leagues, Jackie Robinson. Robinson shows well in an exhibition between the Brooklyn Dodgers and its minor-league affiliate while playing for the latter, and is soon called up to join the parent club. Race-based insults rain down on him from the stands, not only from opposing fans, but from fans of his own team, as well. And Robinson faces persecution not only from fans, but from players as well—both from opponents and even from teammates. Several of his teammates sign a petition stating that they will not play on the same field as Robinson, and opposing pitchers purposely throw high and inside to him, even hitting him in one case.
Harrison Ford was wonderful in the role of Dodger executive Branch Rickey. Rickey is a mass of contrasts: curmudgeonly, cigar-chewing, and occasionally profane, on the other hand, neither was he above occasionally quoting scripture to drive home his point. While, since Rickey certainly was a contrarian, it might have been easy for the film’s writer and director to impute to him a noble desire to break down racial barriers as his motivation for selecting a Black baseball player to cross the color barrier (eventually settling on Robinson), Rickey’s motives were much more practical: he knew that the nation’s Negro league comprised a reservoir of untapped athletic talent. He cared less about breaking down barriers than about putting the best talent on the field, which, in turn, would result in the best product, which would put butts in the stadium seats, which would make Rickey money.
Sports and entertainment often are the harbingers of social change, the venues to which may look in order to determine what changes might be in the offing for society as a whole. Perhaps this is because what matters most in sports and entertainment is not one’s color, but rather one’s talent. So it was in major league baseball. Before hotels, restaurants, buses, schools, and other venues were integrated, baseball was integrated. For example, Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, a full seven years before the landmark decision Brown vs. Board of Education, (And Robinson had to deal with separate-but-equal discrimination in all of those venues on top of breaking the color barrier in his sport.)
In many ways, the interaction between Rickey and Robinson was the movie’s most telling aspect: in the first meeting between the two, Rickey lets loose with a racist tirade to see how Robinson will react. “You want me to have the courage to fight back?” Robinson asks. “No!” Rickey snarls, jabbing his cigar at Robinson to punctuate the point. “I want you to have the courage not to fight back!” Rickey reminds Robinson that the “experiment” of crossing the color barrier in major league baseball could be short-lived. Rickey warns that unless Robinson is able to suppress what otherwise would be natural reactions to the oppression he faces, whites in the press, in the stands, and on the field will be quick to conclude that there is no place for the “negro” in “white” baseball (my words in quotation marks).
While Rickey’s motivation for recruiting Robinson was largely practical, that is not to say that he was indifferent to the pressures Robinson would face in his role as a pioneer. It is the bombastic, often-profane Rickey who turns into a caring father figure, helping Robinson to navigate the complexities of being the first Black major leager. Rickey is, at turns, pragmatic, practical, and paternalistic—tough and tender—as he guides Robinson through the confusing mazes and maelstroms he faces. One of the movie’s more touching moments for me is when teammate Ralph Branca put his shoulder around Jackie Robinson in front of a whole stadium of fans (as well as in front of teammates who refused to take the field with Robinson). I don’t recall Branca’s exact line, but he says something to the effect that he has friends and family in the stands, and he wants them to know (whatever their racist inclinations) that he stands by Robinson.
I admit, I cannot relate to Coalhouse’s experience with racial oppression, or to Jackie Robinson’s. But as a person with both a physical disability and a complicated psychological history, I do know what it’s like to hit a glass ceiling—to have seemingly every attempt I have made to improve my circumstances seemingly thwarted at every turn. I know what it’s like to be frustrated in pursuit of seemingly-illusory dreams, not to mention in pursuit of even modest goals.
And what of our shameful national history of oppression based on immutable characteristics? Perhaps it can be said that, “We’re not where we could be, we’re not where we should be, we’re not where we ought to be—but thank goodness we’re not where we were.” Have we achieved Dr. King’s vision of creating a society in which a man is judged not by the color of his skin or by some other immutable characteristic, but rather by the content of his character? No. Do we still have a long way to go? Certainly.
But we’ve also come a long way in our pursuit of the ideals Dr. King expressed. The United States of America may not live perfectly up to the ideals espoused in her Declaration of Independence of treating everyone as having been “created equal,” or of guaranteeing everyone a fair chance at “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But we’re closer to doing so now than we have been at any time in our history. Anyone who believes otherwise—and remember, I say this as someone who has experienced a good deal of oppression himself—could use a good dose of the perspective that the stage play about Coalhouse Walker and the movie about Jackie Robinson provide.