Jackie Robinson's daughter, Sharon, wants to talk about race: 'We're still dealing with hate'

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Sharon Robinson, daughter of baseball great Jackie Robinson, wants to talk about racial justice. Robinson turned 13 just a day after George Wallace made his famous proclamation for segregation - now, tomorrow and forever. "It made me feel like he had just declared war," Robinson recalls in her new book, "Child of a Dream: A Memoir of 1963."

In the book, Robinson writes candidly about the challenges of being a teenager during that tumultuous time, and of the particular struggles of doing so as a black student in a mostly white school in Connecticut (the family lived in Stamford). Kids used to ask her if she bathed, and "made me feel like I was dirty," she writes.

As racial tensions heightened in her own world and beyond, Robinson was moved to join the fight for equality, and the book (recommended for ages 8-12) culminates in her participation in the March on Washington; Robinson fainted but bounced back in time to see Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech.

It was a moment that sparked a lifetime of activism. Robinson, a former nurse and midwife, is now an educational consultant for Major League Baseball, vice chairwoman of the Jackie Robinson Foundation and the author of several books for young readers, including "The Hero Two Doors Down" and "Promises to Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America."

In a phone conversation from New York, Robinson, now a 69-year-old grandmother, talked not only about her book but also about what her famous dad might have to say about where America is today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What made you write a book about 1963 in 2019?

A: We are going through many similar issues today. We're still dealing with violence; we're still dealing with hate; kids are still dealing with being accepted for who they are. I wanted to celebrate the children of 1963 and show my own experience developing a voice.

Q: You write candidly about experiencing discrimination. Why do you think it's important to share those memories with young readers?

A: Over the past 20-something years, kids I've met in schools have asked about the discrimination that happened in my childhood, to compare it to what's going on for them today. I think it's important that kids feel like they have a voice in this. We have to fight back in different ways - and part of their responsibility now is getting educated, because that gives you a way to fight back. Also to be a caring person and caring about the world beyond your immediate family and friends, to be empathetic.

Q: Toward the end of the book your father says: "Sharon, I cannot promise you that the passage of any law will eliminate hate. But the laws will give Negroes full citizenship and bring us closer to equality." How far have we come in achieving both of those goals?

A: I think there has been improvement across the board - although every day we see examples of hate and prejudice. I talk to boys ages 17 to 19 and tell them that one of the ways my dad helped support civil rights was to raise money for bombed churches. Does that sound familiar?

The world has gotten more complex - the issues of hate remain, prejudice remains. It's not just about black and white. You can see kids in a school with a large immigrant population from around the world and yet one group will still have prejudice against the other. So: How do you manage multiculturalism effectively? How do you teach kids to look at someone and not scorn them because they have a different religion and cultural values but to try to figure out what they have in common? It's not an easy thing to do. It's such a negative climate right now that it's hard for kids to figure out what's right.

Q: Do you have any suggestions of how to combat the negativity?

A: Talk about it! Talk about differences! Talk about how people are feeling. Don't be afraid to talk about the hard issues. That's what I learned in my family growing up. ... Kids are hearing it whether they watch the news or not. Along with hearing about it, talk about what we can do as a family. One of the beautiful examples you will see is when kids raise money for the homeless or send money overseas. Or they go as a family to help feed people who are compromised nutritionally. So there are all kinds of ways that say, let's do something about it.

Q: In the book you talk about the value of using celebrity — as your father did — to bring about social change. I can think of at least one athlete who suffered consequences for that. How have things changed for stars of any kind who want to speak out about politics and social change?

A: That's why some of them don't do it till they're no longer active. It's a problem, because there is a punishment associated with it - in teams of all sports. There are issues that are acceptable issues and there are those that they would rather not take a strong position on. I had one player going to a class to talk about life obstacles and he said, "My mother told us not to talk about this stuff (race)." It's not easy for them - many of us grew up in a culture where we didn't share our pain. We hid our pain. That's got to stop.

Q: Should players be able to speak more openly?

A: This is what I love that players today are doing. They are deciding what aspect of the various social crises they want to handle and doing it through their own nonprofits. They don't have to be controversial. Like Derek Jeter (who in 1996 founded Turn 2 Foundation to help motivate kids to avoid drugs and alcohol). Derek was one of my earliest players who had a social conscience and made a decision that if he was to make it to the big leagues he was going to make a contribution. And there are many others.

Q: What do you think your father might say about life in America today?

A: I never know how to answer that! He would be 100 years old. I think he would be as upset as all of us - and trying to fight back. My dad was well known for his letters to presidents. I can just imagine what kind of correspondence or the kind of newspaper article he'd be writing at this point.

Q: Not on Twitter?

A: He wouldn't be on Twitter. I think he'd be doing it the old-fashioned way.

 

Did you know?

Sharon Robinson's mother, Rachel, has a home in Salem, Connecticut.

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