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January 23, 2021

What Norman Rockwell Left Out of the Picture

How old were YOU when you learned that when Hank Aaron eclipsed Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974, he was subject to hate mail and death threats by fans furious that a Black man could outrank a white baseball legend? That his successes were snubbed by baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who would have been expected to congratulate him and didn’t?

I only found out this morning, myself, reading Hank Aaron’s obituary in the Toronto Star over my cup of tea, and I’m not really going to beat myself up that, because that I was reading an article in the sports pages at all was kind of remarkable. But it’s also typical of the limitations of my understanding and experience, as someone who grew up in the 1980s and came of age in the ’90s, believing that the fight for civil rights had long ago been won.

We thought a lot about Martin Luther King Jr., but never about the fact that someone had murdered him. I knew about Ruby Bridges from Norman Rockwell’s iconic image of the school girl, but never once in my life had I seen a photo of the ferocious mobs of white people (mostly women) who were screaming at her as she entered her school. I knew that baseball players like Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron had overcome adversity and racism to succeed as they did in baseball, but all that strife was kind of abstract. Until this morning, I’d never really considered the kind of violent rage that would cause someone to write a death threat to a baseball player, to put a stamp on it. That this is literally white supremacy—a phrase that gets tossed around a lot these days, but possibly because it’s everywhere: the unfettered rage of a white person at seeing a Black athlete shine.

A lot of people like to spend their time maligning “wokeness,” and in some ways I understand the cynicism, and I actually see the fallacy of viewing everything that happens in the world through a social justice lens, but I also can’t think of a better metaphor. That I must have been sleeping, for what other excuse could there be for having failed to notice that those furious white women screaming at Ruby Bridges didn’t just disappear with the Civil Rights act, and neither did racism? That even if “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” there are so many people intent on throwing obstacles in its way?

That the story of a hero like Hank Aaron isn’t actually one of triumph in the end, but instead that of an incredible talent who lost his love of the game, because racism and white supremacy beat it out of him—and this story is so exhausting. It often seems never-ending. And people who haven’t woken up yet, who continue to insist that race doesn’t matter, that none of us are or should be judged or valued by the colour of our skin, that “making everything about race” is a thing that people go out of their way to do in a world where men get death threats for hitting home run records, in a world where race seems to be about everything—they’re only making that story even longer.

One thought on “What Norman Rockwell Left Out of the Picture”

  1. Beth Kaplan says:

    Powerful, moving, and true, Kerry.

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