Rosa Parks, Shirley Horn, and America’s Enduring Schism

Rosa Parks Booking PhotoRosa Parks, an unintentional maker of history, was buried this weekend. She was an ordinary citizen of the United States who did something extraordinary, something that today seems so normal and reasonable that the courage Parks must have summoned at the time is easily forgotten. She refused to abide a transparently unjust law, and she was willing to face the consequences of following her conscience. By many measures she was a true American hero.

Shirley Horn was buried the previous weekend. She was an ordinary citizen of the United States who did something extraordinary. She made music that today — and, we reckon, forevermore — transcends the usual laudatory adjectives and soars into that rare firmament we call art. She swung hard and was suffused with soul, but more than anything else Shirley Horn redefined the way a ballad could be sung. Her glacial pacing, which emphasized each word as though it were the keystone in a towering poetic edifice, broke the musical rules that said toes should be tapping and heads bobbing. By many measures she was a true American artist.

Rosa Parks and Shirley Horn were people of uncommon dignity and grace. And they were black.Shirly Horn You Won't Forget Me

One day we will be able to note their accomplishments without reference to skin color.

America remains a country in the midst of a great experiment in democracy and equality. Those of us born after 1950 sometimes forget that our country was legally segregated up until a few decades ago. That citizens of different skin colors may congregate together in diners and buses, nightclubs and churches, movie houses and schools, is a relatively recent phenomenon, one that shouldn’t be taken for granted. (Indeed, given our nation’s recent drift toward Christian fundamentalism/intolerance, nothing can be taken for granted, including cherished civil liberties.) Ours is an ongoing struggle for equality and fairness, two increasingly rare commodities in our venal world. People like Rosa Parks and Shirley Horn give lie to the racist assumption that dark-skinned people are niggers, and that the only attributes “those people” possess are the ability to throw a ball through a hoop or to make rap records.

Bill Cosby, the wealthy comedian, got into some trouble recently for criticizing avatars of black culture who spoke poorly, dressed badly, and generally promulgated the myth of the slow-witted, sexually predatory Negro. He was asked by “community leaders” to explain himself. What he meant, Cosby explained, was that it’s time for African-Americans to simply be Americans, not self-defeating stereotype perpetuators. Stop acting undignified and ignorant and start acting dignified and enlightened. Be less like Allen Iverson and 50 Cent and more like Rosa Parks and Shirley Horn.

We all know how America “should” be. It’s about time all of us — of every skin color — started behaving as though we’ve learned the lessons great Americans like Parks and Horn tried to teach us.

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