Wineskins Archive

February 4, 2014

Surprised By A Painful Memory (May-Jun 1998)

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by R. Vernon Boyd
May – June, 1998

32We were having our monthly fellowship meeting in Detroit. One of the leaders of the church where we were meeting had invited Mayor Archer to give greetings to the group but he couldn’t come. He sent a representative, a man who looked to be in his fifties, a well-dressed person who stood with dignity. At first he seemed puzzled about what he could say to a group of church leaders. Yet there was a confidence about him which conveyed that he could represent the Mayor acceptably.

He had arrived late and was ushered to the side up front, to the deacon’s bench where he listened as the scheduled program ended. The meeting was discussing race relations in the church and how they could be improved. All seemed aware that blacks and whites needed to get along better but no one took the lead as to how it could be accomplished.

The time came for the Mayor’s representative to speak. It seemed he put aside whatever canned words he might have had in mind and the previous discussion lead him to tell of his youthful experience when he confronted racism while growing up in Harlem in New York City. He and a few friends wanted to play baseball. In those days baseball was THE game and the city was captivated by the Yankees and the Giants. There was no basketball or football or any other sport which caught the interest of the people like baseball. The group of friends went to the local police station asking if they could play in the Police Athletic League (PAL). The two sergeants in charge of this work agreed to let them join. At that time there were no black teams playing in the entire league and many assumed blacks could not play the game acceptably.

What even their sponsors did not know at first was the enthusiasm and talent of these boys. They had almost no equipment – used, taped-up bat or two with a ball which had to be continually rewound with tape. But the boys were good at baseball and proceeded to win all their games. They beat one team so badly that the next time the two teams played, they decided to give them a break and play backwards. If a man was right-handed, he would only swing left-handed. It was the only game they lost all season.

They went into the play-offs with a 14 and 1 record. They continued to win, upsetting and surprising all competition. At the final game their record was 16-1. The other team was from the Bronx, dressed in sharp clean uniforms, with beautiful sports jackets with their team name emblazoned on the back and a crossed bat insignia on the front. The boys had never had such signs of athletic success within their reach before. They were confident this kind of outfit would be theirs after winning this game. And win it they did! One of their players hit a grand slam and the ball went over the fence. They totally dominated the game and won the championship for the city! The photographer was there to take pictures. They expected the picture to be in the next day’s paper but it turned out that the photographer was there to document the players to find out if they were eligible age-wise to play. There was no public proclamation to match their joy over the accomplishment. PAL was a white institution at that time and a black team was not welcomed by the organization.

There was an awards ceremony to be held later. All the boys and their three sponsors were there. The boys looked forward to getting their shiny new sports jackets. Instead, they were presented with rather ordinary jackets, a far cry from what the white players from the Bronx wore.

At this point in the story the city official suddenly broke down. His recounting of the story had been with the enthusiasm of a youth reliving a grand achievement. But when he came to the climax, one could feel the idealism of his youth being crushed to the core. He lost his composure. Tears came to his eyes and his confident voice wavered. He apologized to the audience and asked for a moment to regain his composure. Voices all around the room encouraged him.

The coaches were heart-broken, too. They told the boys that what they had accomplished no one could take from them. They knew what they had done and had proved themselves victors. The boys were urged never to let what others did to them define who they were nor set limits on what they could accomplish. Neither the boys nor their sponsors ever played in New York City’s Police Athletic Leagues again.

The Mayor’s representative urged us to be our best and thanked us for working for good in our communities, then was soon gone. It took a while for the impact of his visit to sink in. He now is a successful and accomplished public servant. But for a moment he was a young boy learning a harsh lesson about life.

There was no bitterness in his tone, nor was he on a crusade to lash out at all white people. But how long that pain had lain hidden in his memory! Fifty years had not erased the scar. It all came back to him, caught him by surprise in the middle of his speech. What he had buried and tried to forget would not be so easily dismissed. If anything, that racism had propelled him to outlive and succeed in spite of injustice.

It comes as no surprise that there is a disproportionately high number of black men languishing in prisons, caught in the violence of drugs and poverty who have not been able to succeed in spite of their circumstances. And blacks see the evidence of discrimination long before it begins to dawn on many whites. Sometimes they do not have the skills to make better choices as our speaker did. Blacks have to live haunted daily by the history of their past, stunned by present obstacles they must face, with the understanding they must work harder than white contemporaries to succeed in the future. And many are successful today. But sometimes this comes at a high price. For instance, black men have a much higher problem with high blood pressure than white men do in American society. High blood pressure leads to kidney failure which can cause early death.

If there is one word to summarize the attitude of Jesus it is compassion. We all need this quality as we live among people who are different from us and who must struggle to survive. The compassion white people can show today may be sorely needed by them after the year 2011, when it is predicted that whites in the United States will be in the minority.Wineskins Magazine

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