In Rob Franklin’s “Smith,” this week’s New Voices story, the narrator, Smith, discovers his grandfather, not Jackie Robinson, broke the color barrier in professional baseball, becoming the first Black man to play in the major leagues as the right fielder for the Chicago White Sox in 1921. “Smith” is a story about the legacy of passing and its continued manifestations.
He saw the man whom he supposed he could call his great-grandfather—fair-skinned, square-jawed—strolling into an open MLB tryout as if it were the most natural thing in the world. High on the presumption that talent would be enough to grant him success. How profoundly, inconceivably American he must have looked. Finney would’ve been his height, Smith imagined—tall, as the men of his family were—but with fair skin that belied years beneath Southern sun. Slicked black hair, combed and bound to his scalp with oil, sweat, and the kind of gel that loosens curls into one contiguous wave.
The ink had bled to the point of abstraction. Well, almost. One could make out, if vaguely, an image—eighty, maybe ninety years old—torn from The West Memphis Gazebo Gazette, a long defunct Arkansas paper whose microfiche was evidently available at the Chicago Public Library. In it, a family of ten was rendered, by the inattention to nuance that greyscale provides, almost entirely black. The single face spared from the image’s shadow hovered at its precise center, starkly white amid that unintelligible sea of brown and black, children whose expressions seemed to convey either the melancholy of the times or of their particular experience.
A Dixie Puzzler, the headline promised, and below, in font so faint it gave the impression of an eye exam: Now and then, down here in Arkansas cotton country, a stranger will excitably tell of seeing a white man, with his Negro wife and eight children, living on a small farm not far from West Memphis. Quoted was a witless local, easily cast in one’s mind as a cartoon hillbilly, his stomach distended and a single sprig of hay protruding from his toothless mouth: “He was as white as I am and there I was ‘mistering’ him, when up comes a whole litter of colored kids calling him Daddy.”
The Dixie Puzzler, then, was just this: a man named Finneas Smith who “claim[ed] to be a Negro” despite his whitemannish appearance, a then-common phenomenon, but in reverse. Whichever he was, his passing was only newsworthy given evidence that, in 1921, he’d broken the “color barrier” by walking on as a right fielder for the Chicago White Sox.