28 days in the integration nation

For the white male power structure that sabotaged the Susan B.Anthony dollar, kept Chief Jay Strongbow out of the highest echelons of professional wrestlingand 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 theshortest month in the calendar year. But the gods laugh at theschemes of evil men: This year's BHM managed to cram a recordamount of history into a mere 28-day cycle.

You might not know that from the official channels, where Februaryhas mostly been an even lower-key-than-usual opportunity for yourlocal 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 (ifincreasingly dubious) milestones, the results have been impressive.In sports, the Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy became the first African-American coach to take home aSuper Bowl ring. In politics, Barack Obama's moving, Lincoln-inflected announcement of his presidential candidacy came too late to bea first. (Frederick Douglass, Shirley Chisholmand/or Clifton DeBerry, thou shouldst be living at this hour!) But Obama iscertainly the first fully viable African-American presidentialhopeful. Black performers took home half this year's acting Academy Awards, an event that has now become commonplace enough that evenBlack-Oscar diehards barely notice it. In the world of business, the monthpassed without any major achievements, but don't let that stop youfrom giving it up for Ephren W. Taylor II, 24-year-old CEO of City Capital Corporations.

As for harder news, the commonwealth of Virginia has announced"profound regret" for its role in American slavery; an official OldDominion 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-weirdstory with a frisson of A-section tragedy.

What's remarkable in most of these events is their trail ofcomplicating factors. The vagaries of NFL scheduling narrowlyrelegated Dungy to footnote-of-the-footnote status as thesecond black coach to take a team to the SuperBowl—that this was a battle between two leaders of color wasdescribed most succinctly by The Onion's headline"Lovie Smith Becomes First African-American Coach To Lose SuperBowl." And Whitaker's Oscar win achieved something than justfoiling another best-actor bid from Peter O'Toole (the purestpossible exemplar of Jane Elliot's blue-eyed devil). He won the little gold man whileplaying one of the foulest human beings of the twentiethcentury—a striking graduation from the positive-role-modelkindergarten respectable black actors tended to inhabit in yearspast. That this achievement went unnoted just adds to itssignificance.

Obama's candidacy, for its part, may end up doing less racialhealing than originally advertised. The immediate result has beento 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 appearsfar from cornering the black vote is cause for concern among his supporters, butthere's something encouraging in that demonstrated lack ofconsensus, and the rejection of the fiction that skin tone is somekind of absolute category.

As Sen. Joe Biden is quick to point out, Obama is both clean andarticulate, but his resistance to pure and simple categoriesunderscores the lingering debateabout whether Black History Month should exist at all. In aFebruary that was chock full of the kind of uplift and progressthat once typified this sort of celebration, it was the Al Sharptonstory that really sharpened the point. Even at his worst—whichis plenty bad—Sharpton has always been a likable and engagingfigure. But he's tended to lack a certain moral seriousness that we(unrealistically) expect from public figures. Ironically, therevelation that his ancestor and Thurmond's had been slave andmaster conferred on the reverend a gravity that he never managed toachieve while liberating Harlem from Jewish interlopers or pursuingthe attackers of Tawana Brawley. His ever-present cloud ofcharlatanism briefly lifted, and Al Sharpton stood revealed assomebody intimately connected to the ghastly reality of Americanhistory.

That certainly wasn't a surprise, but the reminder was jarring, andmay hint at why Black History Month, and the vaguelygoody-two-shoes progressivism it represents, may never fully goaway. The event's originator Carter G. Woodson is said to have hoped that someday the need for a blackhistory set-aside would be obviated, that black history would befully integrated into American history. Sharpton's tale of theunexpected reminds us that that hope was both valid and impossible:Black history has been American history all along, but it has alsobeen, and will remain, a special category—a field of problemsthat are improving but intractable, stories that are encouragingand heartbreaking, and divisions that are inconceivably complex andas simple as black and white.

Tim Cavanaugh is the web editor of The Times' editorial page.

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