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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 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 and/or Clifton 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 Black-Oscar 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.
As for harder news, the commonwealth of Virginia has announced "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 significance.
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 history.
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 page.