You might have an annual tradition for Jackie Robinson Day. It might be a moment of quiet reflection. It might be a day of voracious reading. You might have the Ken Burns documentary waiting for you on the DVR, or you might watch it again. Or, you might be one of those sociopaths who is quietly annoyed that you can't use jersey numbers to figure out which player is which. I'm not here to tell you how you need to honor it. I'm just going to share what I do.
Read, of course. Dig through box scores. Read some more. Contemplate just how difficult it must have been. Acknowledge there is absolutely no way for me to have a fraction of an inkling of an idea. Read some more. Wonder at the horror of it all. Marvel at Robinson's strength.
The most important tradition, though, is to spend some time wondering exactly what my reaction as a white man would have been to Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947. I'd like to think that I would have been one of the enlightened champions of Robinson's rightful place in Major League Baseball, that if I were a writer back then, my typewriter would have spit out all sorts of fiery missives in support of him.
Then I stop and remember that the odds would have been overwhelmingly in favor of me having awful opinions and unfortunate beliefs. It's possible I would have been one of the few who came out clean on the other side of history. It's just not very likely. This person, this brain, this soul, transported into the 1940s would have been capable of some pretty stupid, repugnant things.
It's easy to realize that racism is Bad, and it's even easier for everyone to think that they are a Good Person. And because racism is Bad, there's no way that a Good Person would have anything to do with it. Therefore, there is no way that I, a Good Person, could have ever had anything to do with such a Bad Thing. Simple.
Except that's a dangerous, naive, insular worldview. Doing that is a way to go back in time and declare that every brick in the wall that kept African-Americans away from their rightful place in American society was a brick laid by a Bad Person. And because everyone reading this thinks of themselves as a Good Person, it's easy to dust our hands off and say, "Thank goodness none of those Bad People are here anymore."
Nope. Try harder. The people responsible for segregation were people, just people, no capitalization needed, and like every person before and after them, they were exceptionally capable of atrocious, nasty behavior. Jackie Robinson Day shouldn't be a way for everyone to clap each other on the back and remember how Robinson helped baseball fix everything. It should be a way to remember how human beings who thought they were Good People got caught up in the maelstrom of conventional thinking.
How they took the path of least resistance, excluding people of color because that's just was what was done. How they didn't have to explore the morality of it all because their parents were Good People, and surely they had it all figured out. How they picked up stray pieces of vicious rhetoric and tortured logic along to way to shield themselves from idea that they could possibly be anything other than a Good Person with the purest of ideologies.
How this is all still going on today, and how there sure is a lot of work left.
I'm writing this 100 percent as someone who thinks of himself as a Good Person. Jackie Robinson Day is a way to remember that history is filled with people who thought the same and were spectacularly wrong. If millions and millions of people were woefully overestimating just how benevolent they were, if they all look misguided and primitive with the benefit of hindsight, that's probably a hint that we won't fare much better in the future. It's a hint that if we want to be good people, upper or lowercase, it will involve a sense of perspective that we're probably not capable of, but shouldn't stop trying to achieve.
I'm not going to pretend that I sit on a mountaintop every April 15 to contemplate all this. No, I give it just enough time to make myself feel better, and tomorrow I probably won't think about it at all. Forgetting about it is something that's easy for me to do because I'm not confronted with the realities of racism every day. And that seems like a great way for a Good Person to be less good than they might imagine.
The annual tradition of Jackie Robinson Day, then, might be to have an annual tradition for the Day After Jackie Robinson Day, followed by a tradition for the Day After The Day After Jackie Robinson Day. I don't know, I'd like to think I'm trying.
It's just that I shudder when realizing that all of those Good People liked to think they were trying, too.
If nothing else, just remember that Jackie Robinson Day isn't a celebration of the day when everything was fixed forever. It's a reminder of our own potential and our own limitations, and it's the celebration of someone whose courage and importance is impossible to quantify. It's a reminder of the way things used to be, and it's a reminder that comic book villains weren't responsible for those ways. Just people.
We should probably keep an eye on people, to be honest. And we should celebrate the ones who make us remember that.