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There's a moment in the civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize when Harry Belafonte describes Muhammad Ali as "terribly, terribly delicious." The way Belafonte savors those words before letting them out -- drop by drop -- tells you that he loves the beauty and glamour of Ali even more than he does Ali the boxer or Ali the proud black man.
That sensuous appreciation of beauty is exactly what's missing from Arnold Rampersad's biography of Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson will probably come to be officially accepted as the definitive story of the man who broke baseball's color line in 1947 when he was called up by the Brooklyn Dodgers, thus becoming the first African-American to play modern major league ball. If it were only a matter of thoroughness and scrupulousness, there's no reason why the book shouldn't be the official Robinson bio. Like a conscientious student, Rampersad, who has written books on Arthur Ashe and Langston Hughes and is a professor of literature at Princeton, has done all the research. We get a vivid portrait of the opportunities and tensions afforded by Robinson's Pasadena boyhood, and an even more vivid portrait of the straitjacketing that Robinson's stature as role model and barrier breaker imposed upon him (like Elvis in the Army, he was denied the right to complain, lest it look like he was seeking "special treatment"). Rampersad's chapters on Robinson's post-retirement political activities may be among the most complex yet lucid accountings we have of how black Americans seeking to improve their position found themselves tossed back and forth between the political left and right.
You can barely get through a chapter here without one of Rampersad's insights striking you. He notes that Brooklyn may have been the perfect place for baseball's color line to be crossed, since in the years following World War II, the borough's largely Jewish population was ready to identify with the tribulations of American blacks. What eludes Rampersad is contained in a photo, included in the book, of a pack of eager white kids hanging over the Dodgers dugout at Ebbets Field during Jackie's first game, trying to get his autograph. Anyone who'd crossed the color line would have made history. But people don't respond to history-making figures if those figures don't have the charisma to unleash imaginations. The stunning smile Robinson displays on the book's dust jacket tells you more about why people went wild over him than Rampersad's painstaking details and considered analysis. We love people who make history outside of the narrow grounds where history is officially accepted as being made (politics, the military) because they seem more vital, more real than the figures in the history books teachers try to shove down our throats. Leave it to an academic to return Jackie Robinson to those dull, dusty volumes. -- Salon