By Leonard Adame
My dad, a pro boxer before World War II absorbed him, was also a cook. So the Army Air Force decided that he should prepare meals for thousands of GIs three times a day. Soon, he was quite the chef. But after Nagasaki was nuked, ending the war, he mustered out, returned to Fresno and went to work for a couple of local restaurants before he and my uncle opened their own place on Fresno Street. That didn’t last long because the state decided to run Highway 99 through the kitchen and the dining room. Soon, though, they found the Belmont and Stafford location and bought what was at one time known as The Barrel, a hamburger and milkshake place across the street from the Mars Drive-In.
Once the place got going, having renamed it Gus and Trino’s, many of my dad’s friends came around. They had all attended Lincoln Elementary School, and there were others he had beaten up on West Fresno’s streets. Blackie was one such rival.
So when Blackie came around after work, he and my dad invariably went out back to the parking lot and began slap boxing one another. This went on until the two of them nearly passed out from being out of shape and having imbibed too many beers beforehand. Afterward, they talked about the past, Blackie insisting he would have eventually kicked my dad’s ass had he not been drafted.
I mention these things because history is important, not only personal history but also the history of this country. I have to mention that while in the service of his country, my father encountered many White southerners, as he was stationed at Fort Benning, Ga. This, in turn, led to his being called a spic, a beaner, a wetback and assorted other names. Hence, he put his boxing skills to good use, which surprised many of the South’s finest as they awoke on their backs, an eye or two swelling.
Blackie had his share of names shot at him in the army as well, and he too developed his fighting skills.
So it’s ironic that Blackie was called Blackie, though I don’t know how he got that name as he was of Mexican descent. But his skin was nearly black. In Mexico, he might have been called, without negative connotations, El Negrito or Negro. Naturally, whenever I saw him I called him Blackie.
One day, Blackie, who worked for the city streets division, was laboring in front of Fresno High School, my alma mater. A Black man was working with him. I walked toward him and yelled, “Hey Blackie” in greeting. The Black man jerked his head up and looked at me, intense fire in his eyes. I think he would have hit me had not Blackie intervened, an explanation I would liked to have heard. Somewhat appeased, the Black man went back to work and Blackie came over and said hello. He didn’t say anything about the Black man, just that he had to get back to work. That was the last time I saw Blackie. It was 1965, just 20 years after Jackie Robinson had joined organized baseball.
In 1947, the year I was born, Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. His arrival was not well received by some players: Robinson endured hatred, racism, racial epithets and mental anguish (all more painful than knife cuts as those verbal wounds don’t heal) because he could not retaliate. Had he done so, he might have been kicked off of the team—or killed.
Robinson’s rookie year was phenomenal, not only because of his baseball prowess but also because of his granite-like psychological foundation.
Robinson’s influence on society and sports is well documented. And I hope people have learned that a person of any color can excel in any sphere, sports or otherwise, even though there are those who can’t or won’t accept that this is so.
Mark Borba, former chair of Community Medical Center’s board, is one person who hasn’t gotten the message. Borba called President Obama “Blackie.” And I don’t think he meant it in the same way my dad’s friend was called Blackie. In fact, there have been many people with that nickname but without its racist intent.
Predictably, Borba apologized. My questions: Why did he apologize after the fact? Why hadn’t he realized before he used the term that his action was racist?
In the film 42, people called Robinson terrible names during games. They believed that doing so was normal and that no Black person belonged in a White man’s game. They said, with complete conviction, that they weren’t racists. It’s not hard to figure out that they believed themselves superior, smart and godly. I have no doubt Borba believes the same of himself. And I don’t doubt he used racial epithets long before his recent racist attack on the President. Racists always have a long history of expressing their ignorance and hatred.
Robinson let his athleticism speak for him. He was an extraordinary man, biblical in his endurance and principles.
My dad and Blackie were targets of White racists during their stint in the military. The difference was they fought back physically because, unlike Robinson, they had no other choice given that many times the racists were in their barracks and platoons—in their face.
Still, Robinson’s legacy leaves us with hope and admiration for the pioneer that he was. And I hope that soon a nickname like Blackie won’t carry the connotation it did during Robinson’s time. My father and his friend Blackie would approve of that even if they did slap each other around in jest and friendship.
Leonard Adame has retired from teaching college English. He now plays drums in various bands, takes photographs, reads mystery novels to a fault and has published poetry in college anthologies. He most enjoys re-learning about human beings from his grandkids. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.