About 2 months ago I was babbling on the phone about baseball to my boy and he said, "You know what, you have got to be the last black man left who cares about baseball." He made this comment in jest, really just to shut me up from inconsquential spewing about the Mets, but his point was pretty profound. As the MLB celebrates Jackie Robinson's breaking in, we're watching the role of African-Americans, pardon the pun, fade to Black. I've seen a couple of stories about this run on ESPN, I remember one particular segment on HBCUs and baseball that caught me off guard, since the team was predominantly Latino, rather than African-American. At the core of this transition are really the boundaries of race and ethnicity. For most folks in the United States, in common terms, there is Black and there is Latino. While we can acknowledge there are Black or Afro Latinos, seldom do we fully grapple with that dualness and what it means for race and race relations. This debate recently got resparked by the Tigers Gary Sheffield.
In the June GQ he said... well, I'll just excerpt from the article,
The percentage of African-American players in Major League Baseball has declined percipitously over the past three decades, from 27 percent in 1975 to 8.4 percent last year. Over the same period, the proportion of Latin Americans in the game has increased from 11 percent to 24 percent. "I called it years ago," says Sheffield. "What I called is that you're going to see more black faces, but there ain't no English going to be coming out."
Sheffield then unspools a curious theory about the trend in the game. It's about "being able to tell [Latin players] what to do," he says. "Being able to control them. Where I'm from, you can't control us. You mugh tget a guy to do it that way for a while because he wants to benefit, but in the end he is going to go back to being who he is. And that's a person that your'e going to talk to with respect, you're going to talk to him like a man. These are things my race demands. So if you're equally good as this Latin Player, guess who's going to get sent home? I know a lot of players that are home now can outplay a lot of these guys.
So when I read this in the magazine, I found it an interesting quote and kept reading. Didn't shake me to the core, didn't cause me to run to www.blackatmichigan.com to post (let's be honest few things cause me to run and post these days, but you know what I mean). I actually said to myself, "interesting." This is far from the reaction that others have had. ESPN decided to get some opinions from Latinos, I wonder how they picked who they interviewed. Lester Spence gives a really good analysis that talks about Black folks and sporting preferences (though Lord knows I loathe the word preferences, probably from all this affirmative action talk over the years)and the number of Black baseball players. But for me, the thing that is serious here is the color-line and particularly as it is interpretted in a post-colonial global sense. Translation: Who is Black, and where are they from?
Recently, I had a conversation with a dear friend who has been spending some time in Miami. She said to me, about a Cuban man she met, "If you were walking down the street, you would have thought he was Black. You know, not Cuban." I paused and responded, "You mean, you would have thought he was African-American, you mean, right?" As I finished my comment/question she said, "Yeah, I guess." It was at that moment that I was reminded again, even the most well-read and educated and arguably open folks, have trouble rectifying who is Black and what the boundaries between race and ethncity are.
Whether it's Debra Dickerson making assanine comments about Obama not being Black or my friends telling me Black folks from Latin America are "not really Black." We see Black all too often acts as a synonym for African-American. To some this is a symantic distinction, but I think it is really important. Now my point in bringing this up is not to create a "race-war" (mind you there can't be a race war over this, we're not talking about race) but to just make you think about who consitutes authentically Black folks?
Now for a long time I've subscribed to the "cousins theory" of the African/Black diaspora. This is my colloquial name for the theory that basically goes, "Well, we're all cousins, the boat (slave ship) just dropped us off in different places." Usually this gets some chuckles, but it makes sense. The global struggle of people of African descent in the Carribean and other locales is, in many ways, akin to that of people of African decent in the United States. Now we can catalog the differences in slavery and colonial subjecthood, but that's a much larger project with little meaning to my argument... oh that's right, I should be making an argument.
Sheffield basically brought the point front and center that in America, folks who look like you, may not be you. For him, and many others, the social spaces that are occupied by AfroLatinos today may have been occupied by African-Americans before. For me, I realize that I may not be like a lot of my friends who cringe at such a transition. Come to think of it, it may have been in part because of my socialization into Black Latino folks via growing up in New Haven or watching so much baseball. I'll never forget seeing a "George Bell" card from Topps that said "Jorge Bell" I immediately grabbed it thinking it was an "error card", it was an error, but the error was my own. I'll be honest, it's only recently that I started to realize how many Black athletes that I'd pronounced in the most Anglosized ways were AfroLatinos, not African-Americans. Sheffield's comments really crystallized this phenomenon and others have commented very well on the colonial relationship between MLB and Latin America, so I won't take that on. But Sheff's comments should serve to facilitate another level of discussion around culture, identity, and representation in the global Black community. For many, these tensions become talked about in a zero-sum manner. Translation: If you (Afrolatinos) get something, we (African-Americans) lose something. But that is way too simplistic. For some, this is a question of coalition building. Translation: Can't we all just get along. That too is too simplistic. The real question is: Am I the last African-American male who still watches baseball? ;)