Teen Angst And Civil Rights Meet In A New Memoir — Featuring Jackie Robinson

Sep 10, 2019
Originally published on September 11, 2019 9:39 am

In the 1960s Sharon Robinson was not living the life of a typical, African American teenager. Robinson was born a few years after her father, Jackie Robinson, became the first African American baseball player in the MLB in 1947. Her family lived in a wealthy neighborhood in Stamford, Conn.; she met celebrities on the weekends; she owned a horse.

Her new book, Child of the Dream, is a coming of age memoir chronicling the events of 1963 — the year she turned 13 and a critical year for the Civil Rights movement.

Jackie Robinson and his wife Rachel play with Jackie Jr. (left) and Sharon in the backyard of their home in Stamford, Conn., circa 1951.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

She was one of the only black children in her school and her neighborhood, and Robinson remembers feeling disconnected from the black community. Around the time she turned 12 she says she realized: "Something was really wrong here. I had to pull away from this white world in order to be a part of the black world."

Child of the Dream is written for a young audience — Robinson shares typical teen concerns as well as one-of-a-kind experiences: One moment she's worrying that no white boys will ask a black girl to dance, and in the next she's wondering how she should greet Martin Luther King Jr. when he arrives at her home for a fundraiser.

Robinson says people ask her: "Do you remember your dad playing baseball?" She was too young, she says, but instead, "What I remember was him as an activist in the Civil Rights movement — because that's where we connected. I remember him in politics and I remember him with the Civil Rights movement."

Robinson says today, when she visits children in classrooms, they see her as a "confident and accomplished" adult. "But that didn't just happen," she says. "I had my own trajectory and I wanted to share that with kids."

Interview Highlights

On whether she recognized her own privilege growing up

Oh, I understood it. We would go downtown to get our hair done, to the black side of town and my brother played pool down there so I spent a lot of time downtown. I knew it was very different.

I didn't really think of it as privileged, though. I thought of it as isolated, actually. I wished I was downtown. It was frustrating. We didn't go to a black church. We went to a white church. Which was fine when I was a little kid, but as I got older I really wanted to be a part of the black community.

Jackie Robinson and his family sit in the trophy-decorated den of their home in January 1957. From left, Jackie, Rachel, David, Jackie Jr. and Sharon.
Harry Harris / AP

On her relationship with her dad, and politics

[During] our dinner table conversation, we always had some time to talk about what was happening with us kids, but it always moved into what was happening outside of our home. So we were very focused on what kind of social changes were happening. ...

It wasn't just about the Civil Rights movement. I watched political news. I was very involved with politics with my dad. So that was part of my relationship with him. This connection with the Civil Rights movement was a big piece of it.

On wanting to join the fight for Civil Rights — and how her family hosted fundraising concerts to support the cause

I wanted to go to Birmingham to march with other kids ... to watch those children walking down the street singing — I just couldn't believe how much courage they had. ...

I asked Dad to take me with him to Birmingham. And he said, "Not now, but I'll figure this out." And when he came back he said ... "We're going to start doing fundraisers at our home and you kids are going to be as much a part of that fundraising as your mom and I are going to be. Everyone will have a role and the money we raise will go back to Birmingham or wherever the money is needed in the Civil Right movement." ...

That first jazz concert, I got it. We worked hard, and it was an incredible experience — but we also produced money. We sold hot dogs and sodas and us kids raised a significant amount of money ... a little over $1,000. It seemed like big money to us.

On the day she met Martin Luther King Jr.

Of course, Mom had told us beforehand how to behave and all that. So we get outside to greet Dr. King as he gets outs of the car. We come out of the front door. ... I'm a little bit shy and yet I'm very proud and excited.

And then Dr. King acknowledges us — because my mom and dad were telling him that we were also participating in fundraising, selling the hot dogs and sodas — Dr. King looks to us and calls us foot soldiers.

I don't think I really knew what foot soldiers were at that point, but it sounded like, "We are marching. We are a part of this march!"

Sharon Robinson attends a game between the Detroit Tigers and the New York Yankees in April 2015.
Carlos Osorio / AP

On why she wrote this memoir now

I had wanted to write about the [1963 Birmingham] children's march for years. It was a passion of mine; it was a memory that I had that I just couldn't let go. And I thought it would be helpful for kids to understand that children had a voice in the Civil Rights movement, and that helped change the tide, helped us get the passage of the Civil Rights Act. ...

For me, writing [my story] down helped me find my voice. And I wanted kids to understand that by overcoming obstacles in life, they develop character, but they also develop confidence. I felt like it was so important for kids to have confidence, especially during troubling times.

Justine Kenin and Courtney Dorning produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Andee Tagle and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


1963 was a turning point for the U.S. And as much as it was complicated for the country, it was all the more intense for one particular 13-year-old girl. Her name is Sharon Robinson. She is the only daughter of the legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson. Here's a bit of what 1963 sounded like to her.


GEORGE WALLACE: And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.


SMOKEY ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES: (Singing) You really got a hold on me. You really got a hold on me. I said you really got a hold on me.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.


MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) Whoa, everybody sing, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

CHANG: 1963 was a swirl of teenagedom, divisive politics and sometimes complicated family dynamics. Sharon Robinson writes about all that in her new memoir, "Child Of The Dream." She joins us now in our studio.


SHARON ROBINSON: Oh, thank you, Ailsa. That was an incredible introduction. It brought me right back to 1963, the music and the words (laughter).

CHANG: Well, I want people to be able to picture your life in 1963. I mean, you were one of only two black girls in your entire school, right?

ROBINSON: By 1963.

CHANG: Right. And in reading the book, it was clear that the kind of racism you had to contend with was much more subtle than the racism that your dad had to contend with as a baseball player.


CHANG: Why was it hard for you to tell your father about what kids were saying to you? I mean, 'cause you didn't tell him about it till way later.

ROBINSON: Because it seemed so minor in comparison to what the kids in the South were going through.

CHANG: Yeah.

ROBINSON: And we saw that on the television. So therefore, like, why bring up, you know, name calling. We didn't talk about bullying back then or think of it as even bullying. So I didn't realize what impact it was even having on me at the time. And so I'm really looking back as I got older and realized, oh, yeah, that's why I was so shy in school.

CHANG: Yeah. There's this really sweet moment when you were listening to records with your best friend Candy (ph), who's also African American, and you're trying to connect with your idea of what it means to be black through music. You're listening to these Motown records. And when I was reading that part, it made me feel like, wow, this girl feels disconnected from what it means to be black. Jackie Robinson's daughter feels disconnected.

ROBINSON: I did. I was very happy as a little - as a young child, you know, in my white world. You know, I had my horse. I had my best friend Christy (ph) who lived down the street. But I realized when we were turning 12 that something was very wrong here. And I had to pull away from this white world in order to be a part of the black world. And I really wanted that.

CHANG: Well - because of your dad's fame, you had a front-row seat to the civil rights movement in a way the vast majority of 13-year-olds in the Northeast in 1963 did not. Your family hosted jazz concerts at your house to raise money. Martin Luther King Jr. came for a visit. In a way, it felt like the civil rights movement was delivered to your doorstep, but you were still shielded from the most terrifying aspects of it. Did that make it harder for you to figure out how you fit in to the struggle?

ROBINSON: These kids were my age, and I found it frightening. I found it exciting. I wanted to be a part of that and not, you know, sort of isolated in Connecticut where we were doing our own thing. But, you know, no one talked about it or paid much attention to what we were doing.

CHANG: Yeah.

ROBINSON: And I sort of envied these kids, that they had each other and they were part of something bigger than themselves because we knew that that's what we were - we should be working towards.

CHANG: Were you frustrated with your father when he wouldn't let you go down to Birmingham and march?

ROBINSON: You know, I wasn't frustrated so much as, like, well, when is it - when do we get connected, you know? When I'm watching these children, I felt, you know, sick in my stomach, you know, that - I was frightened for them and also very proud of them. But I didn't know how it was going to turn out. You know, all I saw was them going to jail. And then we go back the next night and watch it on television again. And I'm like, what's going on? What's going to happen to these kids, you know? And so I was - I continued to be worried about them until my father came back from Birmingham finally and could give me a more full report. Well, did you meet any of the kids? You know, what's happening? You know, are they going to be punished? Are they out of jail? Are they safe? And that's when he gave us an action.

CHANG: Right.

ROBINSON: He came back and said, we're going to start doing fundraisers at our home. And you kids are going to be as much a part of that fundraising as, you know, your mom and I are going to be. And everyone will have a role, and the money we raise will go back to Birmingham or wherever the money is needed in the civil rights movement. And that first jazz concert, I got it. We - I mean, we worked hard, and it was an incredible experience. But we also produced money.

CHANG: Yeah. There you are getting the hot dogs ready - the hot dog buns, the sodas, the plates. And just give me an idea of what it was like to be in it?

ROBINSON: When we're getting up in the morning to clean our rooms and get it ready for the artists, we're also wonder, well, maybe Dr. King will see my room, you know? So...


ROBINSON: You know, it's a very...

CHANG: You cleaned it up extra good.

ROBINSON: Extra good, you know - it's - and then we didn't also know what it was going to be like; you know, whether he was going to be a distant figure even though he's in the house, you know, whether we would be introduced him. But then, you know, we - he wouldn't have anything to say to us. And then to Dr. King acknowledges us and looks to us and says - you know, calls us foot soldiers. And I don't think I really knew what foot soldiers were at that point.

CHANG: But it sounded really important.

ROBINSON: But it sounded like, you know, we are marching, you know? We are part of this march.


CHANG: So you have written several kids books now. Why write this particular book at this point in time? Why choose only this moment in 1963?

ROBINSON: I thought it would be helpful for kids to understand that children had a voice in the civil rights movement and that helped change the tide, helped us get the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

CHANG: Right.

ROBINSON: And turning 13 is - to me, was, you know, such a big deal.

CHANG: Right.

ROBINSON: You know, it was really a big deal, so I wanted to...

CHANG: I think it was the year you had your first kiss but...

ROBINSON: Right - first kiss.

CHANG: ...Also the year the civil rights movement...


CHANG: ...Had launched, at least in your consciousness.

ROBINSON: Exactly, so it was just wonderful to be able to pair these things. I felt this - you know, this is important for kids to know, that I didn't - you know, now I come to your classrooms, and you see me as a confident and accomplished woman. But I didn't - that didn't just happen. You know, I had my own trajectory, and I wanted to share that with kids.

CHANG: Sharon Robinson's new book is called "Child Of The Dream: A Memoir Of 1963."

Thank you so much for coming in today.

ROBINSON: Oh, thank you.


THE FREEDOM SINGERS: (Singing) Everywhere I go, I'm going to let it shine. Everywhere I go, I'm going to let it shine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.