In Review: October 22, 1997
Jackie Robinson, ballplayer and civil rights leader
Rampersad offers a richly detailed portrait of discrimination
Jackie Robinson: A Biography
Alfred A. Knopf, $27.50
IN JACK ROOSEVELT ROBINSON, Arnold Rampersad has chosen a fine subject for a biography. Jackie Robinson, it is widely remembered, is the man who overcame the taunts of opposing players and fans, as well as the deep-seated prejudice of most baseball owners, in breaking major league baseball's racial barrier. It is less widely remembered that, before his premature death in 1972, Robinson became a prominent--if maverick--force in civil rights and electoral politics.
Rampersad, a professor of English and Afro-American studies at Princeton, handles his subject sensitively and with exquisite clarity. He marshals a masterful attention to detail, and he almost never overplays his material. This last habit, however, is also his prime failing. Rampersad's biography dwells on lists of award-dinners, speeches and quotations from letters, all the while giving short shrift to the colorful narratives that infused Robinson's life. Perhaps most frustrating is Rampersad's tendency to avoid almost every opportunity to analyze Robinson's life within the context of American race relations, particularly considering how much race relations have evolved during the 25 years since Robinson's death.
Rampersad avoids the temptation to airbrush Robinson's warts, especially his on-field temper, which, as he correctly points out, was not always triggered by the racist actions of others. And he describes with sensitivity Robinson's relationship with Branch Rickey, the Dodger executive who hired him, as well as Jack's lifelong devotion to his wife, Rachel.
Above all, Rampersad deserves credit for his richly detailed portrait of discrimination. The prejudice begins early, with the story of how the Robinsons--a rural Georgia family into which Jack was the last-born--decided to move to California. It was common in the deep South for local police to prevent black families from fleeing, but the Robinsons were not hindered. Although Pasadena, where the family settled, was noticeably more welcoming, it, too, was imperfect. For instance, we are told that the Pasadena city pool only allowed nonwhites as patrons during a weekly "International Day," after which, officials assured residents, the pool was drained and refilled.
During World War II, Robinson toiled on the homefront as an officer in several racist training camps, which led to his widely publicized acquittal on charges stemming from an episode of discrimination he had refused to tolerate. The court-martial experience, no doubt, steeled Robinson for the rigors of integrating baseball.
Later, in both the old Negro Leagues and in the majors, Robinson suffered the torment of Florida's Jim Crow laws during spring training--even after becoming a national celebrity. At least once, after being refused at several Miami restaurants, he and his black teammates were reduced to buying bread and meat to eat in the street.
Most breathtaking of all is the harrowing tale of how Jack and Rachel had to travel from California to Florida in 1946, his first season in the Dodger organization. That passage is one of the rare ones in which Rampersad really shines as a narrative stylist. Unfortunately, Rampersad's interpretive hand does not show itself enough. For instance, the Robinson family's monumental decision to leave the South for California is handled in about three sentences. Similarly, how Jack passed from wild youth to strictly religious adult is insufficiently explained.
The chapters on Robinson's political pursuits show most glaringly the book's analytical deficit. There is no question that Robinson's politics were imbued with selflessness and high-mindedness; working from within the Republican Party, Robinson sought to promote a civil rights agenda, usually in cooperation with whites, and especially Jews, who had been quick to support him as a player in Brooklyn.
On occasion, Robinson's political insight was keen, yet the author comments too little about situations in which Robinson seemed naive, as when he avidly supported Richard Nixon for president in 1960 based on flimsy evidence and when he urged the Republican Party to simultaneously compete for both black and white votes in the South. Rampersad also leaves under-explored the meaning of Robinson's position as a vice-president of the Chock Full o' Nuts restaurant chain.
And the author misses a chance to plumb the obvious question of why Robinson's status as hero was ultimately eclipsed by Muhammad Ali. Indeed, what is most striking about Robinson's (and to a lesser extent, Ali's) activities is how much more serious they are from the typical off-season pursuits of today's generation of highly paid athletes.
The fact that Rampersad glancingly raises most of these issues indicates that he's aware of them. But it remains a pity that this distinguished scholar does not use the 50th anniversary of Robinson's major-league debut to mull the ultimate significance of integration, both in baseball and the rest of society.
--Louis Jacobson '92
Louis Jacobson received a certificate in Afro-American studies and writes frequently about baseball.
In the American university system, Princeton is far from the norm
ANNE MATTHEWS, who holds a 1981 M.F.A. in art history from Princeton, ran the university's undergraduate writing program for four years. She currently teaches at New York University. Her book, Bright College Years (Simon and Schuster), has been reprinted four times since its initial publication earlier this year. Designated a recommended book by the New York Times, it also has reached the top of the education best-seller list compiled by the online bookseller Amazon.com. Anne Matthews was interviewed recently by Justin Harmon '78, the university's director of communications.
Q. Bright College Years closes with a rendering of a Princeton Reunions. How much of the book is based on your experiences at the university?
A. The book ends at Princeton, but it also began there. In the time I ran the Writing Program, I probably worked with 2,000 undergraduates. Sitting in the basement of McCosh Hall, listening and reading, I realized I was in the middle of one of the great untold stories of our time. People don't know what goes on in the minds and hearts of college students, what it is that happens to them and for them on the American campus. So, some of the voices in the book are Princetonians. Most of them aren't. I spent months visiting hundreds of campuses around the country, passing from friend to friend. Faculty introduced me to their students, then handed me off to their colleagues.
Q. What did you learn in researching the book that you didn't expect?
A. The biggest surprise was how much life there is beyond the two educational systems I grew up with: the large land-grant universities like the University of Wisconsin, where my father taught, and the elite private schools like the Princeton University I encountered at age 21. I learned there are excellent opportunities for undergraduates at virtually any college in the country. Many of them are doing inspiring work with skimpy financial resources and devoted faculty. Good students are everywhere: They study hard and they care enormously about what they are learning.
Unfortunately, however, a two-tiered system of colleges and universities is forming. There are perhaps 50 schools in the country that are relatively well-off. Then there are campuses of grinding poverty.
The demographics of education have also changed markedly. As recently as the period following World War II, the campus held a very different place in American life. Not as many people went to college. Not everybody cared who went. But as the economy became more knowledge-based, everybody began to want in. What we used to think of as the typical college student--the 22-year-old male living on campus--is becoming extinct, an anachronism of sorts. The more typical student today is an older female, in debt, attending school part-time on a public campus. Only one student in five still fits the Princeton model of the residential undergraduate attending full-time.
Q. To what extent does the American system of higher education require defending?
A. People don't understand the campus until they are in the middle of it. And yet, the extreme otherness of campus life is precisely what gives it value.
If there are 800,000 faculty teaching at colleges and universities across the country, there may be 8,000 who, in the course of their careers, will have a really good idea that contributes in an important way to a particular discipline. Maybe eight will have an idea that will quite literally change the world. That's hard to explain to folks on the outside. Not everybody sees that it's worth it.
Q. How do you think Americans view the professoriate?
A. Most Americans seem to view education as a business transaction. At most campuses, people are interested in outcomes: how directly this experience will guarantee a good job. What people most seem to want is consistency of experience. It enrages them that a credit costs as much when the teacher is lousy as it does when the teacher is marvelous. Faculty are the most important variable in the equation.
Q. What are your own most vivid impressions of Princeton as a former teacher and as an alumna?
A. My teaching experience at Princeton allowed me to watch intelligent students come up against an established academic culture and deal with it. You accommodate to Princeton, not the other way around. The intensity of the experience surprises some students.
Most Princeton alumni I've talked to tend to remember the friendships they made first and foremost. I've spent 20 years watching, and I find Reunions and the P-rade very gallant. I love the notion that you bond with people in the freshman dorm and somehow stay with them to the grave.
--Justin Harmon '78
Das Intellectual Capital
Pete du Pont '56's Web magazine features debate on policy ideas
PETE DU PONT '56, the former Republican congressman and governor of Delaware, and now director of a Wilmington law firm and policy director of the National Center for Policy Analysis, edits Intellectualcapital.com, a well-designed and well-written Web magazine on public affairs. The site's motto is "Today's Ideas, Tomorrow's Policies."
Intellectualcapital.com eschews a party line--the masthead of contributors lists both conservatives and liberals, including Randall Kennedy '77 (Harvard Law School), Gary L. Bauer (Family Research Council), Faye Wattleton (Center for Gender Equity), John H. Fund (Wall Street Journal editorial board), and Nadine Strossen (ACLU). The goal, as du Pont said in a June column marking the first anniversary of IC.com, is "to enlighten and improve the debate."
While his own columns are conservative, du Pont welcomes liberal views. Updated weekly, IC.com is organized around a main topic that is explored through opposing viewpoints and related essays.
The August 21 issue, for example, spotlighted "Demographic Shifts." One article by John Miller, of the Center for Equal Opportunity, examined the racial and ethnic composition of the U.S. in the 21st century. His view: "The United States isn't a great country because a bunch of white people live here, but because it's dedicated to a proposition." Author Peter Brimelow weighed in from another direction, with "Praying at the False Altar of Diversity."
IC.com also carries opinions, features, book reviews, and policy debates, all of them intelligent and clear.
One of IC.com's great strengths is the way it presents context and encourages feedback. Each essay has links to the author's biography and previous IC.com essays. Readers are urged to post comments that follow essays.
The strong positions draw equally spirited responses. Du Pont's July 31 piece, "No More Primary Colors," trying to explain "how the Republicans got into Kremlin politics," drew 40 responses, including a call to arms that ended, "Long live Newt!! Forbes [Steve Forbes '70] in 2000!!"
All told, IC.com is well worth a look.
--Van Wallach '80
Van Wallach, a writer in Westport, Connecticut, is an avid Web watcher.
VISUAL REVELATIONS: GRAPHICAL TALES OF FATE AND DECEPTION FROM NAPOLEON BONAPARTE TO ROSS PEROT, by Howard Wainer *68; (Copernicus, $35). Howard Wainer, by profession a research scientist at Educational Testing Service, in Princeton, has made the study of graphic charts and data the intellectual love of his life. In his book, Wainer reveals the beauty, as well as flaws, of charts in much the same way an enthusiast explains everything about a challenging sport--the great, the bad, the dangerous.
Wainer gives a brief history of the use of graphics to convey information and an explanation of the word "deception" in the book's subtitle. In the first chapter, he includes a number of charts that intentionally deceive, explaining how the deception is done and how to be on greater alert.
Wainer's sense of humor is evident in much of his writing--this is how he begins the chapter on double Y-axis graphs: "The use of a pie chart is sinful, but the sin is venial. The sin of a 'double Y-axis' is mortal. If there is a just God, I am sure that there is a special place in the inferno reserved for its perpetrators."
The book, largely adapted and expanded from articles that appeared in Chance magazine, should be dipped into, rather than read all in a sitting. And some chapters should be read slowly to grasp, as Wainer claims, the beauty of the thing.
THE PARENTS' GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVES IN EDUCATION, by Ronald E. Koetzsch '65; (Shambhala Publications, $17). Ronald E. Koetzsch '65, who believes parents should take as much care choosing a school for their children as they do choosing a new house or car, has written a consumers' guide to 22 educational approaches available outside the country's public-school system.
Koetzsch, a teacher at Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks, California, doesn't endorse any one method, but spotlights the philosophical goals of each educational system. These include international movements such as Montessori and Waldorf, religious options such as Jewish Day and Friends schools, and progressive approaches such as multiple-intelligences education. His reports of on-site visits to classrooms and interviews with teachers and administrators are helpful, as well as his overview of American education. He also includes practical advice on choosing a school or creating a school of one's own. The book, conversational in tone, is a good starting point for parents.
GOVERNING IDEAS: STRATEGIES FOR INNOVATION IN FRANCE AND GERMANY, by J. Nicholas Ziegler '76 (Cornell, $35)--an examination of French and German political strategies for promoting technological innovation. Ziegler is an associate professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management.
DSP PROCESSOR FUNDAMENTALS: ARCHITECTURES AND FEATURES, by Phil Lapsley, Jeff Bier '87, et al. (Berkeley Design Technology, 510-665-1600)--an introductory textbook on programmable digital signal processors.
REVOLUTION OF THE MIND: HIGHER LEARNING AMONG THE BOLSHEVIKS, 1918-1929, by Michael David-Fox '87 (Cornell, $45)--with access to newly declassified materials, David-Fox, an assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland at College Park, examines the intellectual institutions created by the Bolsheviks in the wake of the October Revolution of 1917.
LIFECYCLES: JEWISH WOMEN ON BIBLICAL THEMES IN CONTEMPORARY LIFE, edited by Rabbi Debra Orenstein '83 and Rabbi Jane Rachel Litman (Jewish Lights, $24.95)--the second of three volumes in a series that examines the Jewish lifecycle from the perspective of women. This volume focuses on bibilical texts and their contemporary relevance. Orenstein, the creator of the series, is a senior fellow at the Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies.
The vampire strikes back
Carol Dunne '87 appears as Mini in an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula through November 8 at the Cleveland Play House. Dunne, who makes her home in Shaker Heights, Ohio, has appeared in several Play House productions as well as in work produced by the Great Lakes Theatre Festival, the Connecticut Repertory Theatre, and other regional companies.
Chip Monk '82 rocks
WHEN YOU GO through life answering to the name Chip Monk, you quickly acquire a rather quirky sense of humor. People expect you to do some crazy things. Sometimes you oblige them.
A few years ago, Monk was in the midst of building an impressive career as a Washington, D.C., lawyer, but when he was offered a plum job working for the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, he didn't jump at it. Instead he surrendered to his first love--music--a decision his button-down colleagues might secretly have envied. "Most lawyers I know have been very supportive," he says with a chuckle. "They like my gumption."
They'll like his music, too, if they possess even an ounce of soul. Chip Monk is an impressive debut, a pungent stew of rock, folk, country, and gospel that earned him a Washington Area Music Association (Wammie) nomination for best debut recording. "Monk's finest songs have the ring of truth," wrote Mike Joyce in the Washington Post. No wonder. He shared a cradle with much of the best American roots music, growing up in Mobile, Alabama, and Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where his father, Charlie, was a DJ. "People used to hang out at our house, rich and poor, black and white," recalls Monk. "In a small southern town, you spent Saturday night listening to records and talking about them."
The richness of that musical heritage is reflected in the many styles to be found on Chip Monk, from the country gospel of "Thank You Lord for Sharing Her With Me," to the snappy strut of "Wait a Little Longer." "Mickey Mantle Rookie Card," the sad tale of a childhood talisman mom threw away, is energetic rock 'n' roll, propelled by an exuberant organ. Monk plays rhythm guitar on most cuts and sings lead on all of them. Indeed, though his voice is an expressive, twangy tenor, it would be nice to hear another singer somewhere, a fact made clear when jazz and gospel specialist Reggie Moore joins him for call-and-response on the funky gospel song "The Prodigal."
Next month Monk will release a single, "Every Week That Has a Monday," which he describes as R&B, and begin touring the East Coast to promote it. For more information, check out Monk's website: www.geo-cities.com/Bourbon Street/6140.
--Merrell Noden '78
Merrell Noden contributes regularly to Sports Illustrated and a variety of music magazines.