As a lifelong baseball fan, I look forward to the World Series. Even when my team isn’t in it, I tune in and turn into a kid again during the fall classic. I stay up too late, inching to the edge of my seat for the full count, the struggling reliever, the squinting batter with runners going. But this year’s Series hasn’t been the same. This year has been hard to watch.
It began with Cleveland’s first batter, who stepped to the plate and squared up with an ugly image on his sleeve. It was a red-faced racist caricature of a Native American. Fans have come to call it Chief Wahoo, and it has been a part of Cleveland’s logo since 1947. The cartoon has been controversial ever since, but despite the protests of Native American and religious groups, the team has kept the logo, which is a top seller.
Watching the game, I wondered why we stand for such an explicitly racist symbol. I wondered if we’d sit still if another group was portrayed in such a manner. Can you imagine a team with a cartoon African-American or Asian-American, stylized in black or yellowface and sewn onto caps and jerseys? I can’t. Unless it’s one of those alleged infamously decorated watermelons from an Academic Magnet football game. Which brings us to Charleston.
We, of all people, know about the use of symbols steeped in racist caricature. In the past few years, the symbols have brought us to a boiling point. There were the aforementioned watermelons, allegedly drawn to look like black stereotypes. There was the Confederate battle flag, hoisted above our statehouse in 1961 in order to oppose racial integration. There were the smiling, contented slaves of a recent children’s book, and a similar rendering in advertisement for a holiday program to be held in a historic Charleston home. Why are these symbols, which demean and degrade people of color, still so prevalent? And why do we have to fight for the common decency of replacing them? Surely a football team, a statehouse, or a holiday program can come up with a different image. Surely a baseball team can, too. But Chief Wahoo sells. As does that old idea of Charleston as a charming antebellum Shangri-La where everyone was happy, grinning in their cartoon costumes.
The truth, of course, is much better than that, richer and more interesting. If you look you can find it. We are now beginning to mark our history differently. These days you can skip the carriage tours downtown and walk slowly from marker to marker, learning about Robert Smalls, who freed his family and fought for the Union, the Grimke Sisters and their abolitionist efforts, and Paul Robeson and the organizers and activists with whom he worked. Thank God, you can even drive to the statehouse without that old segregationist eyesore flying on the lawn. It really does belong in a museum. As does Chief Wahoo.
Native American writer Thomas King says that if we want a different ethic we should tell a different story. The symbols we choose help us tell that story. Maybe now is the time to finally trade in all our watermelons and Wahoos, lower our flags and fold up our programs, and search for something better. Because behind every cartoon caricature is a real person. When we peel back the stereotypes, we might find some tender human skin underneath. There’s no reason Cleveland couldn’t take off that red-faced patch once and for all. They could replace it with Larry Doby or one of his eagles. Then maybe we could all watch the game and root for the home team.
Jeremy Rutledge is a writer and pastor of Circular Congregational Church downtown.