I was looking for some new bedtime story material and TwitterFriend Wendy Thurm (@hangingsliders) suggested I grab something by Dan Gutman. Gutman, who I already knew from his "My Weird School" series, also wrote a series of books based on a kid using baseball cards to go back in time to the era that the card was from and to meet the player who was on the card. Since it was Black History Month, I picked up his Jackie Robinson-related story, "Jackie & Me", not really thinking about the subject matter it could potentially contain, since hey - it's a kid's book.
Gutman doesn't pull punches, though. The kid, who decides to go back to see Jackie because he has to do a report for Black History Month, wants to know what it was like for Jackie during that time, which indirectly causes him to be sent back in time as an African-American kid. While there, he runs into some harsh treatment from a Dodgers batboy, sees the death threats that Jackie and his family went through, hears the racial slurs thrown at Jackie (many of which are left intact, including use of the "n-word", which I elected to not repeat during my reading), and sees how Jackie's own teammates initially treat him. It was sobering, even for me. I knew Robinson had run into opposition from opposing clubs and even teammates and knew about the death threats, but didn't realize the extent some opposing teams were towards him. Reading about Ben Chapman (then manager of the Phillies) and some of the things he said and did caught me off guard; one expects the manager of a team to have a little more decorum than his players, but Chapman was only 38 at the time and wasn't that far removed as a player himself.
While things like Chapman's actions caught me by surprise, imagine trying to explain it to three boys, the oldest not yet eight. It's hard enough to help them to understand terminology:
Kid: "Why does Jackie call himself a 'Negro'"?
Me: "Well, back in the 40s, that was a term that African-Americans used to describe their race."
Kid: "I thought you said they said 'colored'".
Me: "Usually, it was white people who said 'colored'. Black people may have used 'colored' at one time, but by the 40s and 50s, 'Negro' was a better thing to say than 'colored'."
Kid: "Sometimes the kid in the story says 'African American' and sometimes he says 'black'."
Me: "People say both now. Usually I end up saying 'black' when I mention people who are 'white' in the same sentence or thought.
Kid: "I just say 'people with dark skin' and 'people with tan skin'."
Other kid: "What about people from Japan? What color skin do they have?"
As you can imagine, some nights we didn't get much reading done. But some nights we did, and I had to explain how people wanted to kill Jackie Robinson just because his skin was a different color than their skin; how people threatened to kidnap and murder his family. It was difficult to explain how these people weren't doing it in the context where they wanted to "kill" the other team by beating them by a lot of runs, but that they actually wanted Jackie to no longer breathe, with a funeral and everything. I had to explain references to nooses and "stringing up" people; how there were people during that time that would take a person because of the color of his skin and hang him, not only to kill him, but to send a message and put fear into others.
When the story ended, my eldest told me he was curious whether or not Dixie Walker was in heaven or hell. Walker was a somewhat major character in the book, with his petition to be traded if Robinson was on the Opening Day roster being referenced. Gutman was reluctant to make Walker a true "villain" though, adding a scene where Walker explains to the kid (who appears to be black remember) that while he doesn't have anything against black people, "that's the way it has always been." I explained to my son that the type of prejudice that people had during that time was a result of their environment and both their home and community, and that not only can it be difficult to think differently than the way you were taught, but that it can also be embarrassing for an adult to admit that the way they've acted and their beliefs were wrong. Walker in reality learned to embrace desegregation and blamed his actions during the '47 season to concern for his home and businesses back in Alabama, and was quoted as saying the petition was "the dumbest thing [he] ever did in his life." I told my son that there were people who changed their beliefs during that time, and that for Dixie's sake, I hoped that Dixie's time with Jackie helped him on the right path.
To be honest, it sucks that I had to have this conversation with my kids and expose some of the evil that has existed (and in some places, still exists) in the world. But at the same time, I'm thankful that it was me exposing them to it, and not their being exposed to it somewhere else. I'm happy this came up because it gave me a little insight into how my kids are thinking when it comes to race, and I'm pleased with where they seem to be at right now.