Blackness, Leisure and an American Dream


R.L. Nave

My dad started buying me baseball cards when I was 7. By then, baseball was becoming whiter (or there was a perception that it was), but me and my friends were big into the sport.

Since our parents could afford ranch-style houses in the suburbs, they could also supply us with bats, pro-style leather gloves and pocket change to spend on packs of cardboard featuring ballplayers' pictures.

Every year, I tried to collect as many St. Louis Cardinals players' cards as I could and, if they made the playoffs, for each game I would lay all my Cardinals in a grid and cheer them on.

Like a Wall Street insider, I got serious about the mechanics of the card market. Beckett Baseball Card Monthly was my Wall Street Journal; I studied Beckett's price guides intensely and knew how to spot a winner.

I also attended card conventions. Sometime, probably in the early 1990s, my parents dropped me and my younger cousin, Michael, off at a sports memorabilia collectibles show at the St. Louis Convention Center.

We stopped at one booth where the gimmick was to pile thousands of cards into a shallow crate for treasure seekers (think the $5 movie bin at Walmart) in hopes of finding a few gems. Michael and I set about sifting through the heap. I would set some cards aside, then put them back.

After a bit, I wasn't feeling any of the finds, so I tossed my cards back into the pile and started to leave the table.

When the booth operator, a white man in his late 20s or early 30s, saw us leaving, he ran after us and shouted: "Hey, where did those cards go?" Really, he was accusing me of stealing. Luckily, I'd seen where I'd tossed the five or six cards that I'd set aside before discarding. I picked one up and showed it to him before flipping it back in his general direction (although I wanted to flick it right into his face, Gambit-style) before walking away.

I can't recall many overt acts of racism from my childhood. Mostly, it's the tone of white adults who seemed to resent having me around that I remember most. When I became a Boy Scout, whenever our racially diverse troop went to camporees in rural Missouri, we seemed to be picked on by other scout leaders. Another time, my cousins and I were hanging out at a baseball field near their house when a group of white men showed up for a baseball game. For some reason, they assumed we 9- and 10-year-olds were members of the park's grounds crew and scolded us for the shabby condition of the field they had reserved to play on.

In cities everywhere—including St. Louis and Jackson—when white flight follows new malls to the outskirts of town, the black middle class usually isn't far behind, first as consumers then, maybe, as residents. The driving force is the same for everyone: neighborhoods and schools with fewer problems, less crime. Peace.

But we forget that white folks also define their peace in terms of the spatial distance between themselves and blackness. Psychological distance, too. I go back to my experience with baseball, which—right or not—is somewhat of a white thing. For many whites, it's their thing. And this came into full focus last fall when St. Louis Cardinals fans clashed with Ferguson protesters outside Busch Stadium. At one point, a white crowd turned a chant of "Let's Go Cardinals" into "Let's Go Darren," referring to Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed teenager Mike Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.

Recreational spaces have long been battlegrounds over racial inequality, which is why Jackie Robinson's introduction to the major leagues was such a big deal at the time. As court-mandated integration spread throughout American culture, we also saw racial barriers come down in schools, restaurants, playing fields and swimming pools.

In a piece for Grist last year, my friend Brentin Mock examined the relationship between African Americans, swimming pools and residential segregation. "Black kids couldn't access public pools because they were placed in neighborhoods that black people couldn't access," he wrote.

James Baldwin observed that in his time, the black experience in America was largely about trying to make white people comfortable with us. I do think one of the achievements of integration is that we now have a whole generation of young blacks, maybe myself included, who move relatively freely about the world without a thought about white folks' comfort.

However, in many corners of America, black freedom is still unwelcome. A painful reminder of this came last weekend, when black teenagers showed up for a pool party in the Dallas suburb of McKinney, Texas, and, according to media accounts, were told by white adults to go back to "Section 8 housing."

What came next was horrifying and heartbreaking—and I'm not easily horrified or heartbroken.

A video shows Eric Casebolt, a patrol officer with the McKinney Police Department, grabbing just about every small black body within arm's reach, including a 14-year-old, whom he used as a rest stool after he tired himself wrestling her to the ground.

One of the most striking things about the McKinney video, which a white teenager named Brandon Brooks recorded, is how freely Casebolt let whites move about the chaotic scene, how close he let whites get to him. At one point in the video, Brooks walks up to Casebolt to return a flashlight the officer had dropped.

We don't need to wonder what would have happened had a black teen approached Casebolt holding a small, silver object.

Later in the video, when a group of boys rushed toward Casebolt, presumably to help the girl, Casebolt drew his sidearm.

It's not clear where the black kids came from, but it also doesn't matter. The person who called the police said the children hadn't been invited so it's possible they did come from a public-housing project, wanting an afternoon escape to suburbia for a dip at a friend's pool party. Maybe they were black suburban kids who had the good fortune of growing up not thinking they had a place that they're supposed to stay in.

It's another reminder that, for a lot of us, closeness to whiteness always means safety; proximity to blackness, danger.

Of course, I don't fault my parents, or anyone else, for wanting to raise their families where their kids might receive better-quality schooling, have a community pool to cool off in the hot summer months and open space in which to run freely and play safely.

After all, everyone was sold on the American Dream. The trouble is, when scenes like McKinney play out, it's hard to make a case that black people who bought into the dream shouldn't get every penny of their money back.


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