Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Feb. 8, 2006--Letter from Manhattan Beach


Today's L. A. Times included a column by Erin Aubrey Kaplan opening with what I would call a sensationalistic scare headline: "I hate Black History Month." Of course, it turns out that Kaplan loves black history. He just hates what he sees as conscience assuaging, penance inspiring, public-service ad explosions that change and compensate nothing while overshadowing everything. And he does have a point, but . . .

His piece is in the vein worked so marvelously by Tom Leher in his "National Brotherhood Week" song of forty plus years past. Remember this?

Oh, the white folks hate the black folks
And the black folks hate the white folks
To hate all but the right folks
Is an old established rule
But during National Brotherhood Week
National Brotherhood Week
Lena Horne and Sheriff Clark
Are dancing cheek to cheek
It's fun to eulogize
The people you despise
As long as you don't let 'em in your school

Accurately and unfortunately, Kaplan is on fertile ground when he chooses to undercut the shallow feelings and motives so evident during Black History Month. So much of what passes for celebration and re-dedication merely massages the surface of emotions, so little pierces to the core of needs--material or intellectual. Feel good listings of Black Contributors and Contributions of the past in the face of today's failed schools, failed health care, failed job creation and the resulting smothering blanket of poverty can be fairly characterized as exercises in denial, window dressing on a store front, a facade that hides much and reveals little.

But I wouldn't go too far down the road of indignation with Kaplan. Black history does have a role to play in creating change in the here and now. Taking a month to highlight black history, and I hasten to add highlight, not spotlight and then drop the curtain until next year, is an annual project that should be seen as an opportunity not a diversion.

The problem is an old one. How do you go about creating a usable past without turning history into a bromide, or the audience for that past into fiddling antiquarians? Today, when the word "disrespect," or "dis," jumps off of every young black man's lips every five minutes, doesn't providing a modicum of historical consciousness, including real heroes out of the past, have a role to play in creating perspective on personal and the public injuries?

So yes, I wish every American by the end of this month knew something about Lena Horne's life and art. I would also see it as being a good thing if everyone knew how brave people working for change in the South reacted to Sheriff Jim Clark when he "dissed" them in ways that injured more than their self-respect, self-respect being something they had in abundance and always kept a firm grip on. Knowing this history in the full sense of the word knowing won't magically bring about the changes Kaplan rightly expects from America, but I do think it has a role to play in turning anger and disgust into deeply informed actions and solutions.

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