Burt Prelutsky / Aug. 15, 2011

Role Models (Only Blacks Need Apply)

Recently, someone asked me who my role models were when I was a kid. Having been a baseball fan all my life and a fairly precocious reader ("The Grapes of Wrath" at age 11), the names I came up with were Ted Williams, Stan Musial, John Steinbeck, William Saroyan, and Humphrey Bogart.

For someone born in Chicago in 1940, but raised in L.A. from the age of six, it wasn't a particularly unusual list, consisting, as it did, of a couple of baseball greats, two very successful California-based writers, and a movie actor who personified cool. What I now find interesting about my list is that not one of those named was Jewish.

Recently, someone asked me who my role models were when I was a kid. Having been a baseball fan all my life and a fairly precocious reader (“The Grapes of Wrath” at age 11), the names I came up with were Ted Williams, Stan Musial, John Steinbeck, William Saroyan, and Humphrey Bogart.

For someone born in Chicago in 1940, but raised in L.A. from the age of six, it wasn’t a particularly unusual list, consisting, as it did, of a couple of baseball greats, two very successful California-based writers, and a movie actor who personified cool. What I now find interesting about my list is that not one of those named was Jewish.

It should be stated that none of my friends would have mentioned our dads in this context. A dad, in our neighborhood at least, did not hit home runs or write best sellers. But he was our idea of what a grown up man was supposed to be like, except maybe a little bit thinner and with a lot more hair. Dads were honest, a little bit strict, and definitely someone we didn’t want to piss off.

I’m not suggesting I hadn’t heard of any admirable, high-profile Jews. I was very much aware of boxing great Benny Leonard, football legend Sid Luckman, Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, and any number of show business luminaries, including John Garfield, Jack Benny, George Burns, Artie Shaw, and Eddie G. Robinson. (I even knew what their original names were!) Understand, I liked them all, but, for me, they didn’t represent the very top echelon.

All of my friends, Jewish and gentile alike, were the same. In order for someone to be a sports hero or a pop culture icon, they only had to be great; they didn’t have to be Jewish or Catholic or anything, for that matter, but splendid.

When I was a kid, for instance, there was only one real boxing champion, and that was Joe Louis. We may not have paraded, as blacks did in Harlem, when he knocked out Billy Conn or Tony Galento, but we all rooted for the Brown Bomber.

And maybe to Italian-American kids, Joe DiMaggio may have been extra special, but that didn’t stop the rest of us from wanting to grow up to patrol centerfield the exact same, graceful, way the Yankee Clipper did.

So, how is it that black kids can only have other blacks as their role models?

Even when I was a youngster, I would hear that the likes of George Washington Carver, Ralph Bunche and Marian Anderson, were credits to their race, and I would wonder why they weren’t simply a credit to the human race. I mean, I never heard anyone suggest that Michelangelo or Shakespeare or Bach or even Stan Musial, for that matter, was a credit to the white race. Granted, Italy, England, Germany and St. Louis, may have taken particular pride in them, but that didn’t prevent the rest of us from hailing their talent. Why is it then that blacks only seem to recognize the achievements of other blacks?

I know for a fact that millions of walls in the bedrooms of white American teenagers are adorned with posters of black athletes, rappers and hip hoppers. I suspect, and am willing to wager, that there is not a comparable number of walls in black homes covered with posters of white or even Hispanic athletes, movie stars and musicians.

Let’s face it: back in the days when the only things O.J. Simpson was knifing through were defensive lines, his posters were to be found in more bedrooms than Warren Beatty, Wilt Chamberlin and Hugh Hefner, put together. O.J. was then supplanted by the omnipresent Michael Jordan.

My question is twofold: One, why should it be that in a society that, ideally, is supposed to be colorblind, black kids are encouraged to take notice of human accomplishment only when it’s done by people who share their pigmentation? And, two: How long will black America turn a blind eye on the sad fact that with a staggering illegitimacy rate of 70%, the only black male role models most of these kids have are those Nike ads taped to their walls?

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