Black History Month for Whites

We're coming to the end of Black History Month, and I think it's fair to assume that not too many white adults were paying attention. (Today's white school children are more likely exposed to lessons about black history and the achievements of great African-Americans, making up for years of neglect of those topics.) But for many whites, there's doubtless some indifference to what they may see as special attention devoted to a single ethnic group; they likely see it as a form of special-interest pandering they'd rather ignore.

But for those of us who are white, that's truly a shame, because of the richness black culture has contributed to American life and the central role of race in American history. One great way to catch up is to check out the series of black-themed movies airing on HBO this month and next, and still available on HBO on Demand. They include Jeffrey Wright's stirring portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King during the Montogmery bus boycott in Boycott, Spike Lee's 4 Little Girls documentary about the Birmingham church bombings, and Halle Berry in Introducing Dorothy Dandrige.

Black and white cultures have been intertwined for centuries in this country, and we're all better for it, even if white suburban moms don't like their kids spouting hip-hop in the same way that earlier generations were warned away from the "devil's music" of R&B and jazz. (Personally, I prefer the earlier R&B, blues and rock music to today's tuneless recitations, a shift documented in Martha Bayles' book, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music.)

One of the most exiting chroniclings of the black role in shaping popular culture is John Leland's book, Hip: The History, which looks at the growth of the counterculture and anti-establishment creativity over the centuries, with a strong emphasis on the influence of African-American music and styles on the wider culture.

Leland's book is filled with insights and wit: "The critic Richard Meltzer lined up the affinities of postwar hip this way: Kerouac was Charlie Parker -- the meteoric alpha soloist, a fuckup and ingrate, blowing chrous after chorus of his personal asymmetries into art that was neither happy nor sad, but contained excesses of both. Ginsberg was Dizzy Gillespie -- the articulator of principles, self-promoter, persevering while his peers flamed out, deceptively brilliant underneath the showman's spiel. William Burroughs was the sphinxlike Thelonious Monk, deconstructing paragraphs rather than chords -- opage and uncompromising, wary of all group identity, cult or mass. Coming together in the same years as the bop musicians, the writers formed a parallel subculture that was just as self-mythologizing, exploratory and defiantly young, refusing the era's most insistent demand: that they grow up and out of such curiousities. Both groups made exile a lifestyle choice. These six writers and musicians are all gone now, many at an early age, but their life-affirming refusal has held sway ever since." The whole book sings with such energy, grace and provocative thinking.

Other compelling books released in the last few months also remind us of our shared past. These include the final installment of Taylor Branch's extraordinary biographical series on Dr. King, At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68. There's also a well-received coming-of-age novel, New Boy, written by an African-American author, Julian Houston, that looks at a black youth from the South going to an all-white prep school while drawn back home to participate in the civil rights struggles of the late 50s. (Full disclosure: He's my brother-in-law.) In one scene, he describes black and white soldiers crossing the Mason-Dixon line on a train passing through Wasington to Richmond where normally the blacks would have to move to the rear of the train. But this time, because some are Korean War veterans, the conductor, whose son died in the war, allows them to stay where they are -- and the mood changes. Houston writes (using the anachronistic word "colored" to add period flavor):

"As the train rolled along, I leaned back again in my seat and thought perhaps things really were changing in the South. The conductor moved on to the next coach. Nearby, someone had a portable radio turned up loud so that everyone in our coach could hear it. After a while, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters came on the air. Clyde McPhatter was singing his silky, falsetto rendition of 'White Christmas' and the Drifters were singing in the background, and after a few bars, all the colored soldiers were singing along. 'I'm -- doop doop --dreaming of a white -- doop doop -- Christ-ma-as, with ev-er-ry Christmas ca-a-rd I write.'

"In their spit-polished shoes and their trim uniforms, some of the colored soldiers were even standing in the aisles and swaying back and forth, popping their fingers to keep time with the beat, and, as we barreled down the tracks in the darkness, it seemed that life in the coach had entered a state of temporary suspension. The rules had been relaxed and the burdens of history had been lifted...even some of the white soldiers sang along, keeping time with the music, as though we were all in the show together, on the stage at the Apollo or the Majestic or on a corner under a lamppost. Everybody was keeping time with Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, waiting for Christmas to arrive."

Houston read these and other, more troubling passages to aborbed, integrated audiences during a recent book tour in Norfolk, Richmond and Washington, a reminder for young people of a harsh time they never knew and a memory seared in the minds of older black people who will never forget their segregated past. Whites shouldn't forget either, even as disparities in white and black lives and incomes continue today, as Hurricane Katrina reminded us all.

Perhaps whites should pay more attention to Black History Month, too.