Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Brutish Idiot

"Man as an individual is a genius. But men in the mass form the headless monster, a great brutish idiot that goes where prodded."

-- Charlie Chaplin

When I was about five, we lived in a first floor apartment, and my bedroom was close to the street. At night, I would wake up frightened by ghosts on my ceiling. When I told my father about them, he explained that I was seeing shadows cast by the headlights of cars, coming in through and around the window shades.

I didn’t believe him. He probably knew that the ghosts were harmless, and thought it best to deny their existence. They danced on the ceiling and had strangely contorted faces. They sometimes seemed to be smiling and laughing. Perhaps they had always lived in our building, and at night gathered in my room. They were probably smiling and laughing at the fear they could see in my face.

My only defense was to hide under the covers until they decided to move on.

A few years ago, my wife and I went to a nearby art museum. Usually visits to museums and art exhibits are at her suggestion, but this one was mine. I read a review of a show called: Monsters. I thought it would be fun to walk through an adult house of horror, and gaze at images so frightening that I would feel an ice cold shiver run through me.

Sadly, the show was a big disappointment. We saw paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs of monsters. But these were someone else’s monsters. Some were repulsive, some bizarre, others pitiable, but none even slightly terrifying.

I thought about it later. I wondered about that failure to frighten.

The scariest monsters don’t usually look like monsters. They look ordinary. They look like us, that is, until in a flash, they become something very different. If your daughter had come home with her new boy friend, and said, “Mom and Dad, I’d like you to meet Ted Bundy,” you might have felt pleased that her new guy had such a charming personality, not to mention the face of a young T.V. anchorman. I am positive that his victims glimpsed a very different face.

When I was around ten, I became a boxing fan, and the great boxers became my heroes. The best gift ever was a subscription to Ring Magazine, the bible of boxing. I used my allowance to buy every other boxing magazine that I could find on newsstands.

I especially enjoyed reading about boxers from the past, mainly the heavyweight champions. I read each of their stories in detail, often more than once, and I cut out their pictures and made a big collage. They were colorful men, from the first ever to hold the title, John L. Sullivan, the Boston Strong Man, to Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, to Jack Dempsey, the Manassa Mauler, to Rocky Marciano,
the Brockton Blockbuster.

At ten, my imagination was limitless. It put me ringside at the greatest fights of all time. It made the champions my friends. It promised to one day make me one of them. But a limitless imagination is not always a joy.

One magazine told the story of Jack Johnson, the first black man to become Heavyweight Champion of the World. The year was 1908. A picture showed Johnson battering the champion, Tommy Burns. And it showed a section of the crowd.

These men were dressed, as was the custom of the day, in jackets, ties, and the brimmed hats that were fashionable in the early 1900s. These were gentlemen. They were probably druggists, shop owners, school teachers, trolley drivers, maybe some doctors and lawyers. Some of them would have been your neighbors. If you were a child in 1908, they would know you by name.

And these men were on their feet, yelling: “Kill the nigger!”

I must have felt a cold shiver go through me. I was stunned. I carefully cut out the picture of Jack Johnson, along the outline of his body, and threw away the faces in the crowd. But those faces never left me. I had never seen hatred worn so proudly.

At the age of ten, you are too old to hide under the covers and too small to stand up to the monsters that invade your mind. So here’s what you do: You find a way to lure them into a cage, then you slam the door shut, and you lock it. Then you build a wall around the cage so that they won’t see you and you won’t have to see them. You will deal with them later, when you are a lot bigger and a lot stronger.

As Heavyweight Champion of the World, Johnson was loathed by those who believed that he had upset the natural order. Sportswriters openly compared him to an ape. An animal now held the most coveted title in sports – an ungodly mockery. The cry went out for a Great White Hope.

The cry was especially desperate because Jack Johnson’s behavior was never less than outrageous. In his match with Tommy Burns, he was called a nigger by his opponent, by his opponent’s cornermen, and by those faces in the crowd. He answered their taunts by propping up his weak opponent to inflict greater damage, not just to Burns, but to those snarling white men who were quickly losing hope. While they fought, he joked with onlookers to show how easily he was handling their champion.

Negroes were considered to be subhuman and fit only to be servants, but the champ wore handmade suits, drove expensive cars, bought a house in an upscale white neighborhood in Bakersfield, California, and he consorted with white women. He simply did whatever he felt like doing. He seemed to be living his life to taunt his “white masters” the way he toyed with Tommy Burns.

The urgent cry for a Great White Hope grew deafening. But, as a fighter, Johnson was far superior to any possible contender. Each white hope fell with embarrassing ease, until only one remained.

Finally, finally, finally. James J. Jefferies, the former champ, who had retired undefeated and had returned to his life as a farmer, answered their prayers and agreed to return to the ring one last time, saying, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a negro.”

On July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nevada the fight took place that was billed as “The Hope of the White Race vs. The Deliverer of the Negroes.” Johnson won by a knockout in the fifteenth round. In cities all across the U.S., blacks took to the streets to celebrate the unimaginable. Whites answered them with rage, and lives were lost in the violence.

The pillars of society could not permit this perversion of nature to triumph. If you’ve seen the movie, The Great White Hope, or the Ken Burns documentary, Unforgivable Blackness, you know the rest of the story.

Jack Johnson fled the country to avoid imprisonment for a trumped up conviction on violating the Mann Act --transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. He lived in exile, in Europe and South America. In 1915, he lost his title to a mediocre fighter, named Jess Willard. Some say he threw the fight. Others believe he was just out of shape and tired of battling. He returned to the U.S. and served his prison sentence of a year and a day.

The natural order had at last been restored.

The aging Jack Johnson finished his boxing career in a lackluster fashion, losing most of his fights. He became old news. With a little time, what he had accomplished would be forgotten. One day he stormed out of a North Carolina restaurant after being refused service because of his race, and died in a car crash. The year was 1946.

He should had lived one more year.

In 1947, America’s sport was baseball. And that sport was about to assume an important place in American history.

Another black man named Jack began doing what no black man had been allowed to do. He began playing major league baseball. The story of Jackie Robinson bears few similarities to that of Jack Johnson.

Robinson was a highly disciplined man with enormous inner-strength who endured the animosity of many of his teammates, the racial slurs and the well aimed spikes and inside fastballs of opposing players, and, of course, the jeers and verbal attacks of angry fans – and, for his first two years, endured it all silently and without retaliation.

His job was to break major league baseball’s color barrier, and he did it by maintaining a standard of behaviour so impeccable that critics would have nothing to challenge. The story of Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers has been chronicled numerous times, and I can offer nothing new.

But to me, one day in his ten-year career stands out from all the rest. In 1947, the Dodgers were at Crosley field in Cincinnati warming up before the game. The crowd was the ugliest that Robinson had ever seen, and ever would see. They jeered him relentlessly, shouting “Nigger, go home!” And, they hurled bottles onto the field. It would be too dangerous to play the game.

Then, an amazing thing happened. The captain of the Dodgers, a Southerner from Kentucky, Pee Wee Reese, walked over to Robinson and put his hand on the black man’s shoulder. And then, another amazing thing happened. The jeering and the bottle throwing suddenly stopped.

Over the years, Jackie Robinson would have to endure many more acts of hatred, but he would not be doing it alone.

Before the start of the 1947 season, Dodger players, led by those from the South, circulated a petition, stating that they would refuse to play unless the black man was removed from the team. Pee Wee refused to sign it. He said that it had nothing to do with racial decency. It was all about making a living for his family, after having just returned from the war. It was a practical matter.

Some of those close to him weren’t so sure. They recalled Pee Wee telling a story about when he was ten-years old. His father took him along on a trip to Brandenburg, Kentucky. On that trip, he pointed out a tall tree, with a large branch that extended almost horizontally. The elder Reese told his son that it was called the Hanging Tree, because that’s where negroes were hanged.

As an adult, Pee Wee recalled the story to friends and family members. Clearly, it had made an impression. I think you know where I’m going with this. At ten-years old, and with an uncontainable imagination, he envisioned the faces of those men in the lynch mobs. The faces of ordinary men who turned into Freddy Kruegers.

So he did what a terrified ten-year old does. He lured them into a cage, slammed the door shut, and quickly locked it. Then he built a wall around the cage so that he wouldn’t have to see their faces.

And that day in Cincinnati, he was more than big enough and more than strong enough to face them. And they knew it.

On Coney Island, in Brooklyn, stands a statue by sculptor, William Behrends. It depicts two men, wearing the uniforms of summer. One man has his arm on the other’s shoulder. You know exactly who they are.

I’ve never seen the statue. If you decide to plan a trip to Coney Island, let me know. Maybe I can arrange to meet you there.