U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Here the brutal is without issue, a dead end”

”   unable to begin
At the beginning, the fortunate
Find everything already here. They are shoppers,
Choosers, judges; . . . And here the brutal
is without issue, a dead end.

                                         They develop
Argument in order to speak, they become
unreal, unreal, life loses
solidity, loses extent, baseball’s their game
because baseball is not a game
but an argument and difference of opinion
makes the horse races. They are ghosts that endanger
One’s soul. There is change
In an air
That smells stale, they will come to the end
Of an era
First of all peoples
And one may honorably keep
His distance
If he can.”
(George Oppen, “Of Being Numerous,” 1962)


One learns from Wikipedia that one of Ferguson, Missouri’s most famous residents was the baseball player Enos Slaughter.

The learning of this fact calls to mind the following passage, which might be useful today, in the “air of atrocity,” as Oppen once wrote; in the face of an event “as ordinary as a President”:

Some people oppose reaching back into the past to comprehend the causes and consequences of present day racism because they imagine that to do so would produce only guilt and shame. We do not see it that way. There is plenty of guilt to go around because great crimes committed have been committed. The emergence of white supremacy is indeed a shameful part of human history. Yet we think that the past also holds lessons that can help us solve problems in the future.

We think, we can learn, for example, from the words of Buck O’Neill, who starred for years as a player and manager in the Negro baseball leagues. Segregation deprived O’Neill of the money and fame he almost certainly would have secured if he could have played in the major leagues. Yet these experiences never robbed O’Neill of his dignity, his pride in his work, or his faith in the potential of other people. He warned people against looking back to the era of segregation as a time when nothing was accomplished. “There never was a time,” he used to say, “when everybody hated everybody else.” On the other hand, O’Neill also recognized the limits of looking only at individuals in a system structured by racism.

Late in his life a reporter asked him if he thought that the white outfielder Enos Slaughter belonged in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Aware of Slaughter’s fine hitting and reputation for hustling on the field all the time, O’Neill asked why Slaughter would not be considered for the Hall of Fame.

The reporter replied that although Slaughter denied it, he was reported to have opposed the desegregation of major league ball, that he led his teammates to revolt and claim that they would not play games if Blacks entered the major leagues, and that one of the first times he did play in an integrated game Slaughter slid into second base with his spikes high and gashed a huge cut in the leg of Jackie Robinson, the first African American in the big leagues in the modern era.

Musing that Slaughter might indeed have been a racist, O’Neill said slowly, “Well, it’s not like he was the only one!” To O’Neill, punishing Slaughter as an individual only misdirected attention away from the real problem, from structural exclusions that made all white players beneficiaries of racism, no matter what their personal beliefs and behaviors may have been.

Like other Blacks who came before and after him, O’Neill did not let white racism prevent him from recognizing and embracing the egalitarian and humane dimensions of American life, dimensions which owe their determinate shape to the Black freedom struggle during and after slavery. This stance is itself a historical creation, not just the opinion of a good hearted individual, but a product of lessons learned from collective, cumulative, and continuing struggles for freedom among African Americans. ( “The Runner and the Track: Why Affirmative Action Works and Colorblindness Can’t” by Kimberle Crenshaw, Luke Harris, and George Lipsitz).

Let us be worthy of these lessons learned from the “collective, cumulative, and continuing struggles for freedom among African Americans.” Let us never tire in demanding justice for Michael Brown: a matter always for politics, and never for the police.

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