Black History Month is a celebration of the remarkable progress of African American’s in a society that is structured to oppress them. It serves as a tribute and remembrance to the millions that have died in the fight for freedom and is a time to identify and deconstruct the devices of oppression that are still functioning. Black History Month occurs annually for the entire month of February, however black culture should be celebrated daily. In today’s society there is not enough recognition and national acknowledgement for the suffering that African American’s endured for centuries and the great resilience and success that they have achieved in overcoming oppression. The Black History Month celebration put on by the San Diego Public Library, featuring Dennis Biddle and drum circles, epitomizes the resilience of Black people in America, because of Dennis’ experiences that shaped his unwavering commitment to black civil liberties, and the ancestral ties of drum circles and ring shouts whose participants endured centuries of unjustified and irreparable oppression.
On February 29, I attended the San Diego Public Library’s Black History Month celebration, which I now realize is only the second opportunity I’ve ever had to commemorate black history and culture outside of the classroom. The celebration’s main speaker was a man by the name of Dennis Biddle, who is famous for playing baseball in the Negro Baseball League. His career began in 1953 with the Chicago American Giants, when he became the youngest player to ever play in the Negro Baseball League. After a scout for the Negro Baseball league went to one of Biddle’s games and witnessed him pitch a ‘no-hitter’ in a state championship, he was on his way to the big league, or at least the big league for minorities, mostly African Americans and Latin Americans. At the young age of only seventeen years old Dennis Biddle took the mound, unaware that his career would be cut short. In 1955, many clubs in the Negro Baseball League were interested in adding Biddle to their roster, unfortuantley they never got the chance because he suffered a career ending injured while sliding into third base during pre-season. Dennis Biddle was only active in the Negro Baseball League for a short amount of time, but his contributions to the league’s history and black history as a whole are quite significant.
While Dennis Biddle’s story as a baseball player is an unfortunate, yet inspiring tale, the real question is, why was he playing in the Negro Baseball League and not in Major League Baseball with the white population? I had never even heard of the Negro Baseball League before, yet I knew the answer would be harsh, and correlate with the racist political, social, and economic agenda of the United States during the time period. First, one must understand why Biddle is still talking about a league that disbanded more than sixty years ago. The answer is clear; since he was so young when he started playing in the Negro Baseball League, not only is he one of the few players at present that is capable of traveling and talking to large groups of people, but he also feels a sort of responsibility towards the older folks that he played against and alongside, most of whom are no longer alive. To honor this responsibility Biddle carries on their legacy and the legacy of the league through the Yesterday’s Negro League Baseball Players LLC, which is an organization he founded to aid members of the Negro Baseball Leage. He also travels around the country sharing stories about the league, it’s upbringing, and some of the many struggles that African-Americans endured during the time period and that he has endured throughout his life.
The Negro League itself came as a result of the Major League Baseball management deciding to restrict black players from entering the league. Biddle emphasized that they did this because in the late 1800’s when black and white baseball players were all playing together in the MLB, many of the black players were really good and teams wanted to draft the best players they could so blacks players were taking away roster spots from white players. This conflicted with the racist social and economic structure of the United States – the mandate of black inferiority and white superiority, so almost overnight, the MLB decided to restrict black players from the draft. The Negro League was then founded to resist this hegemony on the part of the MLB and prove not only the athletic ability of black men, but also the resiliance of the communities they come from. This excerpt from “Negro National Baseball League” written by Amy Essington discusses one of the many struggles that the players in the league faced,
Segregation made extensive travel more difficult. Teams might not find hotels that would accept them or restaurants that would feed them. Members of the African American community would regularly house the players in their own homes when a team came to town.
Many people have never heard of the Negro Baseball League, which is more than unfortunate because it had a greater influence on the game of baseball than all Major League Baseball games did until Jackie Robinson took the field in 1947. Baseball is known to be America’s favorite pastime and some would argue there is nothing more American than going to ballpark and watching a good game, but after hearing from Dennis Biddle about the Negro Baseball league, and how the MLB was blatantly racist, I realize that the game of baseball, much like the creation and succes of the country, was dependant on the hard-work, determination, and relentless efforts of black communties.
Although I spent the majority of my time learning about the Negro Baseball League and Dennis Biddle’s life, the San Diego’s Public Library’s Black History Month Celebration also consisted of African music. Music is especially important in black history as it is one of the few things that the very first enslaved African Americans could find comfort in as they were stripped of their homes and forcefully settled into a new, strange land. For example, ring shouts had a huge role in the creation of an African American culture. Combining West African spiritual practices and adopting novel cultural forms unique to the Americas – it served a medium for the enslaved to communicate, relate to each other, and express themselves while communicating to God. Freedom on My Mind written by Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin Jr, stresses the importance of ring shouts and invisible churches in the creation of an African American culture. The textbook defines ring shouts as being identifiable by congregants shouting, freely dancing counterclockwise, and sometimes the presence of drums and percussion instruments. Ring shouts were an integral part of the invisible churches, which were Christian, prayer and worship gatherings of enslaved African-Americans made illegal by the slave state. This symbolizes the relationship that the enslaved formed with God and how although everything in the world was telling them they were less than equal, they knew that under God, all were created equal. This is similar to the creation of the Negro Baseball League because when hegemony from above strikes it seems the time and time again, since their first steps on American soil, African Americans will resist unequal, unjust oppression of all kinds, and their but their culture will become stronger because of it.
Reflecting on my experience, I have come to the conclusion that the themes of celebration and resilience are essential to understanding the importance of black history. My experience was not a celebration because of the food, music, bouncy house, and face paint, it was a celebration because of the examples of resilience that it provided. It was proof of the resilience of African Americans – that when they were forced out of the MLB they did not hesitate to make their own, higher level, league – when they couldn’t publicly praise God and celebrate his love publically, they took it upon themselves to ring shout. By approaching black history from a respectful celebratory standpoint, one can look at the evil devices of oppression used in the past and recognize that the resilience of the black community has been tested to its limits and comes back stronger every time.
DENNIS BIDDLE Autographed Baseball, store.mendys.com/debiauba.html. (PHOTO)
Essington, Amy. “Negro National Baseball League.” The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2020, africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1407133. Accessed 29 Apr. 2020.\
White, Deborah G., et al. Freedom on My Mind: a History of African Americans, with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins, 2017.