Dear Dr. Comer:
I am black and a volunteer parent in a large city school. Recently a black student in the sixth grade looked at a poster picture of Jackie Robinson and asked, "Who's that?" I couldn't believe it.
I am 45 years old and I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when Jackie Robinson signed a major league contract. It was important to me because I could dream of a future as a big league ballplayer or something else important. In fact, I believe that Jackie Robinson's signing was as important to blacks and the country as school desegregation.
Why aren't black parents and schools doing more to inform our children of the contribution of black people? What is the effect on our black children? CS.
I'm about your age and I, too, fully recall the importance of Jackie Robinson's signing. I was coming back from the corner grocery store and my brother ran to meet me to deliver the news.
We jumped and hugged in the middle of the street and even accidentally broke a bottle of milk. Although every penny counted in our family, our parents didn't scold us about the broken bottle. They understood what it meant for black boys to have powerful role model. We could now cheer for a major league star and not in one corner of our minds wonder how he felt about blacks.
I agree that Jackie Robinson's signing and success were as important as school desegregation. In fact, I think that his ability to succeed under enormous pressure greatly contributed to the national climate that made school desegregation possible. Baseball has great visibility and symbolic significance. Equality of opportunity in baseball weakened the rationale for denying opportunity to blacks in any endeavor.
Thus Jackie Robinson's achievement was a significant part of the black struggle for justice and opportunity. That struggle permitted America to become a more humane and democratic society with minimal bloodshed compared to that in similar struggles in other nations.
Jackie Robinson should be as important a figure in American history as the generals, wars and other events we are taught to recall and honor. Certainly, no black child in the sixth grade should not know about Robinson's contribution. Social science and history books used in the schools should describe the history of black exclusion from professional baseball and re-entry through Jackie Robinson and interpret the meaning for blacks, whites and the country.
At most, textbooks describe the event without discussion of the meaning and impact. Many do neither, largely because of the embarrassment some whites feel because of our nation's history of discrimination and abuse of blacks. This if infortunate. The role of Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, is an excellent example of the commitment to fair play that many whites have always held.
The absence of a discussion of Jackie Robinson and the racial integration of baseball and other similar struggles limits the social and moral development of black and white children alike. Such a discussion would made it possible for teachers and to others to consider human ights and responsibilities and prepare young people to better relate to all humans beings who are different in one way or another.
A responsible discussion of Jackie Robinson's contributions could be a particular source of pride to black children. It could be an opportunity to charge them with their responsibility to develop their skills so that they can make a contribution to themselves, their families and friends and their country as Jackie Robinson and others did.
I suggest that you discuss the incident you described with the principal of your school. You might want to point out the potential benefits to youngsters of discussing the contributions of Jackie Robinson and others like him. This could lead to a staff discussion about how such events might be used to promote charcter, social skills and motivation for good academic performance among the students.
Finally, many black parents do discuss the contributions and meaning of the lives of blacks who achieved against the odds or who broke down significant barriers. But this is haphazard and uncertain. Many parents ignore the subject. Black parents can count on only a small number of schools to do an adequate job in this area.
There is a real need for black community groups -- civil rights, churches, fraternities and sororities -- to develop a coordinated effort to describe and interpret the black experience as we would want all black children to know and understand it. Because we don't too many black youngesters take the opportunities they have for granted. Too many of them don't appreciate the contributions of those who went before them to their own success. Too many don't appreciate their responsibility to themselves and those who follow.