What Hank Aaron and Barack Obama have in common
Thirty-five years after Hank defied threats and hate mail to break Babe Ruth’s home-run record Obama is also showing us a deeper realm of courage, resilience, and justice.
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Aaron grew up in segregated Mobile, Ala.; in 1953, at age 19, he broke the color barrier in the deep-South Sally League, enduring (with teammates Felix Mantilla and Horace Garner) the kind of racist fury Jackie Robinson had felt a few years earlier in the North. John Lewis, the US congressman and civil rights leader, suggests Aaron was endowed with "that extra ounce of grace" that allows someone to endure extreme hardship. And for a black man in America, especially in the South, that meant not showing your anger.Skip to next paragraph
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"I think that in order to grow up black in the South, you had to learn that people were trying to do all kinds of things to try to intimidate you," said Mr. Young, recalling Aaron's struggle. "You never got angry. Anger was seen as weakness in the context of civil rights."
In a later generation, Mr. Obama built this understanding into his presidential campaign.
The famously calm demeanor of Obama – like Aaron, he is Number 44 (the 44th president) – can be understood not simply as a character trait, or explained by his never having felt the battering hatred of segregation. Just as significant is Obama's understanding of the psychological and historical dynamics laid out by Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint: "Because of slavery and all the oppression, the lynchings, there's a feeling that the black man is a very threatening creature."
Both Poussaint and Obama used that understanding to help transform the bogeyman stereotype. The psychiatrist worked with Bill Cosby to create the characters in television's Huxtable family. The candidate did so by his remarkable steadiness and by not taking the bait despite unsubtle jabs (consider the Sarah Palin "real America" comment, which many took to be racial code language). The ultimate transformation of the scary black man image was in how America began to see a young African-American as a cool, steady presence. Beside John McCain, who sometimes came across as frenetic, Obama was the steady one we looked to for guidance.
For Aaron, there was a price to be paid for swallowing his anger and enduring the death threats, racist catcalls, and hundreds of thousands of hate-filled letters. "It carved a part of me out that I will never restore, never regain," he said.
Yet he persisted in part because he felt like he was "in the middle of something." Thus, as he rounded the bases in Atlanta on April 8, 1974, he shed not only the ghost of Babe Ruth, but the burden of the struggle which he was in – a struggle that transcended sports, to a deeper realm of courage, resilience, and justice.