02/20/2009 12:15 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Race in Black and White

Be it Groundhog Day or a la recherche du temps perdu , memory is a classic theme. How indelibly the art and actions that helped to form us can endure. Refusing to die, impacting our lives, some incidents we thought submerged in an ocean of time, require but a few words or an image to float back to the surface, writhing in exposure, alive and naked.

Are we a nation of cowards, in regard to race as Attorney-General Eric Holder suggests? Think about it. Ah yes, for the first time in two centuries, we have an African American president. Given our history of struggle for liberty and redemption, that's marvelous. But events make it clear that this historic occurrence along the road of change is merely the beginning of a long journey, instead of the destination of equality that's so desired.

"Gorillas in the mist", is only a cruel echo from King Cong, standing in for all of us bestial, brutal, rapaciously threatening black men, lusting after irresistibly fair white-womanhood! Watching the King Cong movie re-make, this had only gradually dawned on me. Why, I'd wondered, are they so furious? What makes these people who brought this bemused but magnificent animal from the jungle, in a cage, so determined to slay him now?

And then I knew I was witnessing the same mass-hysteria that had caused so many of my ancestors to be lynched without mercy. There's envy over masculine endowment and this colossal black beast has the biggest 'piece' of all. How could anyone ever even look at these little white guys again after Cong?

So, when the New York Post says their cartoon was an innocent reference to a berserk chimp in the news, it's a lie. It shows an ape in a pool of blood and two white police officers with a still smoking gun drawn. The caption tells the true story, "They'll have to get someone else to write the next stimulus bill", they say, befuddled. And that's because, in dark fantasy, racists have had the police put down the big black Commander-In-Chief responsible for the first stimulus bill.

There is at least the upside of honesty to some blatantly stereotypical defamatory assaults. A Greenwich Village pastry shop's infamous, "drunken nigger head" cookies, commemorating inauguration day, are hardly ambiguous. Neither is this despicable cartoon or the controversial New Yorker cover, depicting the Obama's as a pair of improbable black militants.

Insistent denials of harmful intent are what's most offensive; since either deliberate offense is dismissed or those causing it are too clueless or too indifferent to realize their harm? Yet, however ugly such odious examples might be, they hardly do the most damage. Those that do, include New York Magazine's fashion-week feature of a 17 year old black male, repeat shop-lifter, dubbed the "fashion thief".

True enough, blacks in fashion are few and far between. Of dozens of designers showing at the Bryant Park tents, only resilient Tracey Reece was African American. Then there is the matter of the elusive black model to consider. 'Maybe it's just that blacks aren't interested in clothes', some remark. Others, more insultingly insist that so few blacks in fashion is only a matter of a lack of our ability?

Except this isn't so and despite a lack of black prominence in the industry, there are nonetheless hundreds of African Americans hard at work on Seventh Avenue every day.

So why was a misguided waif from the projects, who sports pilfered designer clothes in order to boost his self-esteem, of greater interest than the black man who designed the red coat Mrs. Biden wore on January 20th? The answer was partially provided by the honorable Mr. Holder in his impassioned and refreshingly forthright speech. Blacks and whites are inextricably linked together in history. Like 18th century white aristocrats portrayed alongside their African slaves, the role of blacks has long been to help make whites appear whiter still.

This is why big media positions blacks in a certain way. So, apart from some famous or super-rich individuals shown once, in a year, reading the Times Home Section, one would be doubtful of the existence of black decorators, designers, collectors or shoppers. This results partly from editors having no black reporters or black friends, But, it's also caused out of a subconscious desire to neatly compartmentalize people where we belong. There's no paucity of blacks on the sports page, in entertainment news or in the crime stats, even though as there are more white people , statistically more white people commit crime.

Kept in our place, defined by old untruths, blacks are like the mystical dark substance Ralph Ellison's anonymous hero in The Invisible Man learns to add to vats of white paint. Like magic, it makes it even more glisteningly white! Denigrated still, we continue to function, to make our brothers seem to themselves and to each other, more pure, more brilliant, more good, more lovely, more dazzlingly white, than white.