Tonight at 8 ET, PBS is running the first of a two-part Ken Burns documentary about Jackie Robinson. This gives me an excuse to repost an essay, slightly modified, that I wrote six years ago about a Lucille Clifton poem honoring the legendary ball player.
Apparently Clifton had three special heroes: Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, and Robinson. Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947, doing so with a combination of grace and talent. Despite non-stop heckling from fans and opposing players, he went on to become an all-star second baseman and is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I love Lucille’s description of him as “brave as a hit” and running “against walls without breaking,” which gets at his hitting prowess, his speed on the base paths, and his propensity to play with reckless abandon. In one of the great plays in World Series history, Robinson stole home against the New York Yankees in 1955, something that is almost never done.
“Walls” and “fences” stand in for the obstacles that Robinson had to overcome, and “night games” points to the hostile terrain that he entered with his black skin.
I fully expect Burns to vividly depict the racism, along with all the death threats, that Robinson faced. In the end, however, he himself became “the conquering dark,” inspiring other African Americans like Clifton as he did so.
By Lucille Clifton
ran against walls
in night games
was not foul
but, brave as a hit
over whitestone fences,
entered the conquering dark.