For the white male power structure that sabotaged the Susan B. Anthony dollar, kept Chief Jay Strongbow out of the highest echelons of professional wrestling and posited a "White Christmas" as the last word in holiday cheer, it must have seemed like a great coup to shovel Black History Month into the shortest month in the calendar year. But the gods laugh at the schemes of evil men: This year's BHM managed to cram a record amount of history into a mere 28-day cycle.
You might not know that from the official channels, where February
has mostly been an even lower-key-than-usual opportunity for your
local public library to put up displays of Beloved, The
Autobiography of Malcolm X and Sister Souljah's The Coldest
Winter Ever. But from the perspective of historic (if
increasingly dubious) milestones, the results have been impressive.
In sports, the Indianapolis Colts' Tony
Dungy became the first African-American coach to take home a
Super Bowl ring. In politics, Barack Obama's moving, Lincoln-inflected
announcement of his presidential candidacy came too late to be
a first. (Frederick
Douglass, Shirley Chisholm
DeBerry, thou shouldst be living at this hour!) But Obama is
certainly the first fully viable African-American presidential
hopeful. Black performers took home half this year's acting Academy
Awards, an event that has now become commonplace enough that even
diehards barely notice it. In the world of business, the month
passed without any major achievements, but don't let that stop you
from giving it up for Ephren
W. Taylor II, 24-year-old CEO of City Capital Corporations.
"profound regret" for its role in American slavery; an official Old
Dominion apology for allowing George
Allen anywhere near the U.S. Senate is surely in the offing.
Louis Farrakhan's long career ended
with a whimper. And Rev. Al Sharpton discovered his shocking slavery-era
connection to the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, a news-of-the-weird
story with a frisson of A-section tragedy.
What's remarkable in most of these events is their trail of
complicating factors. The vagaries of NFL scheduling narrowly
relegated Dungy to footnote-of-the-footnote status as the
second black coach to take a team to the Super
Bowlthat this was a battle between two leaders of color was
described most succinctly by The Onion's headline
"Lovie Smith Becomes First African-American Coach To Lose Super
Bowl." And Whitaker's Oscar win achieved something than just
foiling another best-actor bid from Peter O'Toole (the purest
possible exemplar of Jane
Elliot's blue-eyed devil). He won the little gold man while
playing one of the foulest human beings of the twentieth
centurya striking graduation from the positive-role-model
kindergarten respectable black actors tended to inhabit in years
past. That this achievement went unnoted just adds to its
Obama's candidacy, for its part, may end up doing less racial
healing than originally advertised. The immediate result has been
to open a national controversy on just how black, or how American,
or how authentic, or how something, the mixed-race,
first-generation-American candidate really is. That Obama appears
far from cornering
the black vote is cause for concern among his supporters, but
there's something encouraging in that demonstrated lack of
consensus, and the rejection of the fiction that skin tone is some
kind of absolute category.
As Sen. Joe Biden is quick to point out, Obama is both clean and
articulate, but his resistance to pure and simple categories
underscores the lingering debate
about whether Black History Month should exist at all. In a
February that was chock full of the kind of uplift and progress
that once typified this sort of celebration, it was the Al Sharpton
story that really sharpened the point. Even at his worstwhich
is plenty badSharpton has always been a likable and engaging
figure. But he's tended to lack a certain moral seriousness that we
(unrealistically) expect from public figures. Ironically, the
revelation that his ancestor and Thurmond's had been slave and
master conferred on the reverend a gravity that he never managed to
achieve while liberating Harlem from Jewish interlopers or pursuing
the attackers of Tawana Brawley. His ever-present cloud of
charlatanism briefly lifted, and Al Sharpton stood revealed as
somebody intimately connected to the ghastly reality of American
That certainly wasn't a surprise, but the reminder was jarring, and
may hint at why Black History Month, and the vaguely
goody-two-shoes progressivism it represents, may never fully go
away. The event's originator Carter G.
Woodson is said to have hoped that someday the need for a black
history set-aside would be obviated, that black history would be
fully integrated into American history. Sharpton's tale of the
unexpected reminds us that that hope was both valid and impossible:
Black history has been American history all along, but it has also
been, and will remain, a special categorya field of problems
that are improving but intractable, stories that are encouraging
and heartbreaking, and divisions that are inconceivably complex and
as simple as black and white.
Tim Cavanaugh is the web editor of The Times' editorial
28 days in the integration nation
An eventful Black History Month passes almost unnoticed.
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