It was time to reset my post-racial clock with one of the old films I love, hoping Casablanca wasn’t being shown for the 137th time. I can never get past the part when Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa calls Dooley Wilson’s piano-playing Sam ”boy.”
Instead, the classic channel was showing the all-black Cabin in the Sky from 1943. Watching Eddie ”Rochester” Anderson, Ethel Waters and the ethereal Lena Horne shoehorned into a vibrant yet segregated vehicle was evidence that talent wasn’t always enough for an all-American breakthrough. When Miss Horne died this year, every obituary that lauded her gifts added the bittersweet notion that she could have achieved so much more without the barriers society threw her way.
I had sadly given up on my post-racial quest by the time the Sunday-evening news came on. It ended with a profile of two African-American brothers — now 89 and 91 — who are tearing up the senior swimming circuit. As children, they couldn’t learn at public pools. They were chased out of the reflecting pool close by the Lincoln Memorial, an irony no doubt lost on the police officer who shooed them away.
Now the healthy and hearty brothers swim anytime and anywhere they want and have the medals to show for it. I was happy as I listened to the end, to the triumph that followed the heartbreak.
There is no escaping the role of race in America’s history. It is foreground and background, part of the nation’s DNA. But that’s not a bad thing. A country stripped of its history — even the bad parts — is a bland and colorless place. Shirley Sherrod’s tragedy led her to help others. It is ultimately a triumphant American story. And there’s nothing post-racial about it.