I tried to be very post-racial this weekend. It didn't take.
Let me explain. The saga of Shirley Sherrod that mesmerized the country stopped me in my tracks. I covered it as a writer. I lived it as an American, an African American. This latest attempt to start a national conversation on race ended as so many have — in cross-talk, misunderstandings and as a reminder, as if we needed one, that the racial divide isn't an easy one to cross.
That Shirley Sherrod survived with her humanity intact is a tribute to her, not to our culture. She refused to be reduced to a pawn in the battle of the NAACP vs. the Tea Party or a stand-in for an African-American president or a symbol of retribution and rage.
The woman who sought justice for others after it was denied in the case of her father's murder ended the week in the arms of the white farmers whose land she saved. I ended it taking some satisfaction in that American story, and looking to heal. After all, my profession didn't come off too well, either.
When I'm accused of obsessing over race, I say that the opposite is true. I never think about race — until I'm reminded of it. The thing is, I'm reminded of it a lot.
This weekend, I decided to ignore even hints of our less-than-perfect union, to try to occupy this post-racial nirvana that's more hope than reality. I would have to turn off the TV chat fests, where every inch of the Sherrod case was overanalyzed. I escaped to that all-American equalizer, the shopping mall, into the crowded Apple store, where people of all ages and races speak the language of iPad, even when that language isn't English.
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.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.