Henry Aaron and American MemoryRoundup
tags: racism, baseball, sports, African American history, Henry Aaron
Robert Greene II is an assistant professor of history at Claflin University and lead associate editor of Black Perspectives. He studies American history after 1945 with a focus on the American South, political history, and memory. Follow him on Twitter @robgreeneII.
The recent death of Henry Aaron sparked remembrances of both his legendary playing career and his longer fight for civil rights. Described in the New York Times as someone who “prevailed in the face of hate mail and even death threats,” Aaron’s life was eulogized by numerous people—both inside and outside the sports world—who all agreed that he faced the racism of his era with humility and grace. Aaron’s passing has served as another opportunity for American society to eulogize a pivotal figure in Black history by pushing the racism that person faced into the dustbin of history. It would be a mistake, however, to merely memorialize Aaron as a figure of “grace” or “humility.” Instead, it makes him a greater figure to remember that he was a human being stung by the racism of the era.
“It still hurts a little bit inside because I think it has chipped away at a part of my life that I will never have again,” Aaron said in 2006. Aaron’s journey from Alabama during the Great Depression to the Negro Leagues and the minor leagues of the American South in the early 1950s, to superstardom in Milwaukee and Atlanta, is symbolic of how the Great Migration was often a winding path for many Black Americans—sometimes even bringing them (or their descendants) back South. But Aaron never forgot the experiences of chasing the home run record of Babe Ruth. His experience was akin to that of Jackie Robinson, who suffered severe racist abuse during his playing career for being the first Black player in Major League Baseball in the twentieth century. But both men are now, like so many other Black American figures in history, at risk of being lionized without the American public properly understanding what they went through.
This is the same critique from Black historians and activists alike that accompanies every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and every Black History Month. Last June, on Black Perspectives, Jeanne Theoharis lamented how most public figures ignored “King’s longstanding record calling out police brutality and northern injustice.” Or, as Maurice Hobson wrote in 2018, “Today, King’s legacy has fallen prey to exploitation and capitalism and suffered a whitewashing—a revised history that simplifies his legacy into a sanitized narrative devoid of complexities.” The mainstream memory of the Black American past is often morphed into this, and that has been especially true of Jackie Robinson. It seems it will also happen to the memory of Henry Aaron.
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