Is Obama Jackie Robinson or Stepin Fetchit?
We'll find out Tuesday.
Jackie Robinson was the first black professional Big League baseball player who broke the color barrier in 1947 and proved to the world he was equal if not a better player than many of his white teammates and competitors. He served as an inspiration not only to people of color all over the world, but to his country---at great cost to himself.
Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry on the other hand, whose stage name was Stepin Fetchit, was the 1930's actor noted for his wide-eyed, shufflin,' hang-dog look and demeaning portrayals of a black man, designed to satisfy the racist stereotype popular with white audiences of the day.
It was a racist country back then and in some ways it still is today.
Obama will be facing the schoolyard bully Romney. Many have puzzled over Obama's listless and spiritless debate in the first go-around. Some have speculated he was reluctant to come off seeming as an "angry black man." Still another theory is that Obama has a history of trying to be conciliatory and smooth, trying to work with opponents rather than adopt an "in your face" type confrontation, and thus, this approach led to complacency in the first debate.
Yet another explanation is that Obama's background, only one generation removed from a second-class, segregated existence, refused service in a restaurant, or sitting on the back of a bus, made him subservient in the face of Romney's distortions and taunts.
Perhaps we shouldn't read too much into it. Who among us hasn't had a bad day at the office or on the golf course? Maybe Obama just didn't feel well.
Whatever, the "angry black man" supposition in particular evokes memories of Jackie Robinson. Branch Rickey, general manager and club president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Robinson himself, knew bringing him up to the Big Leagues would make history. Rickey cautioned Robinson not to lose his temper in the face of every kind of disgusting racial taunt and epithet, not only against him, but his mother, his wife and children.
Robinson agreed that to fight back, to lose his temper, would be just what the racists wanted. He would fail. The country and its history couldn't afford that.
Robinson's brilliant play in the face of not only thousands of fans screaming for his blood, but players on other teams trying to illegally trip or spike him when he slid into base because they couldn't stand competing with a black man----is legendary. Robinson's play was as great as his courage, and if you think it's easy, try standing alone before 20,000 screaming haters.
Robinson won the admiration of his teammates, some of whom themselves were racist.
But he ultimately paid a price because despite the supreme act of controlling his emotions, he was no doubt figuratively bleeding inside over the way he was being treated. Robinson only lived to be 53.
Stepin Fetchit shouldn't perhaps be blamed for furthering racist stereotypes, even though he did, with his wide-eyed scared look, his thick-and-slow-moving-as-molasses Southern drawl, "Yow-sir-boss!" His lazy shiftless water-melon-loving demeanor that reinforced for thousands of white movie goers that all blacks were like that, despite the achievements of men like George Washington Carver, W.E.B. Du Bois and of course, Frederick Douglass.
There was little meaningful work for blacks in the racist 1930s and particularly in Hollywood, where to be a black actor was to be confined to roles playing butlers, servants, gun-boys in jungle films and wide-eyed-coons like Stepin Fetchit. When you had a chance to work you maybe didn't enjoy it---but you took it.
Tuesday's presidential debate, however it comes out, shouldn't be about race. We as a country should have moved past that long ago. But like Jackie Robinson was the first, so is Obama. Perhaps drawing a parallel between Obama and Jackie Robinson is wrong, but also perhaps inescapable.
Obama is the first-ever black president.
I don't want Obama to win the election because he is black and Romney is white. At the same time, I don't want Obama to be sheepish and subservient like Stepin Fetchit with Romney. After years of Civil Rights struggles and some progress, but also failures, riots, assassinations and lynchings----like Jackie Robinson failing at baseball----that could send a message Americans can ill afford.