Their history, our history

What does it say about us that we deem February, the shortest and (in the Upper Midwest, at least) most miserable month of the year as a time to reflect on black history? I have no idea how the designation came about, but the cynic in me has always regarded this segregation of  history as indicative of our country’s utterly dysfunctional approach to race relations. Luckily, I’m able to set the cynicism aside enough to appreciate the value of bringing a much-needed spotlight on black Americans’ contributions to our nation. And it’s not just about doing those folks a favor; it enriches me in return.

Without Black History Month, for instance, would I have been able to see original Freedom Rider Hank Thomas speak to a rapt audience of students and faculty at UW-Green Bay a few years ago? Probably not. I know the Freedom Riders’ story well, but to hear a flesh-and-blood participant relate the terror and the triumph of their mission was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I wouldn’t have seen students of both races, some shaking, others near tears or stuttering as though addressing a demigod during the Q&A session. Nor would I have gone home with the comforting notion that Thomas’ message of nonviolent resistance, of quiet but determined commitment to social change, represented a measure of hope for our society, even if that message reached just one student.

Without Black History Month, would I have learned of Vel Phillips, who despite her contributions to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and U.S. history escaped mention in my school textbooks and classes? While we were studying the adventures of Jean Nicolet and Bob La Follette, Phillips was breaking down racial and gender barriers and fighting for a downtrodden class of people that 95 percent of us Wisconsinites never knew existed. No, it took Black History Month to bring her story to my  attention. Suddenly it wasn’t just something that happened in the South, or in New York City. I don’t think it was a deliberate omission by the people charged with educating Wisconsin school children, but I do feel I was deprived for having missed this chapter of our state’s history, and richer for having subsequently discovered it through the flurry of dedicated promotion that occurs in February.

The cynic in me returns, however, as I wonder what happens to these stories on March 1. Why are we content, having done our annual duty, to put that book back on the “blacks only” shelf, only to collect dust until next February? Such is the quandary of Black History Month, which, by its designation, obscures the underlying principle that what we’re really seeing is, after all, American history.


Homesick blues

Maybe because it’s the spring over there, but all of a sudden I’m longing for Berlin. Here, in the everlasting summer, I really miss that. I think back to late afternoons in a car with the top down (down for the first time that season), heading along the Kurfürstendamm, and, for no apparent reason, a chuckle in my throat. Perhaps it was because we were young and at home. I am fighting so hard against feeling dead here and against feeling dead in general, against the hollow feeling inside. I keep giving, and I get nothing in return. The child is all grown up now.

— Marlene Dietrich, letter to a friend, Hollywood, April 1934

Taking care of business

There are times in football when a running back or receiver busts loose, with nothing between him and the end zone but a smaller, lighter defensive back. The DB has a choice: 1) sacrifice his body any way he can to bring down the charging runner, or 2) half-heartedly grasp at an arm or leg in hopes of slowing him down or wrangling him toward the sideline. The second option, not uncommon, is what’s known as a “business decision.” A significant injury can derail a player’s season and possibly shorten a career that’s worth millions of dollars for each year it can continue. Why risk that to prevent one touchdown in a game that can turn on so many other plays?

I saw a lot of business decisions in Super Bowl 50, but not on the playing field. It happened in between the action, during the commercial breaks, when advertisers call out the big guns for their annual bonanza of the comical, the outlandish, and in some cases, the just plain bizarre. Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer shilled for Bud Light, Willem Dafoe channeled Marilyn Monroe for Snickers, and Steven Tyler was doing some sort of schtick for Skittles (I think?).

What prompted these A-listers, each well established in their respective fields, to take on these gigs? We can guess it has little or nothing to do with the quality of the product they’re selling. Perhaps the wheelbarrows of cash parked under their noses? Yes, there’s that, but beyond the sheer dollars, there’s the power of name recognition. In show business (there’s that word again), talent is part of the equation — and these people have it in spades — but if your name isn’t known out there, you may as well be nothing. Just ask Betty White, who revived her career for the umpteenth time with a Super Bowl commercial a few years back. Few people may remember what the ad was for (our old friend Snickers!), but she’s enjoyed plenty of legitimate success since then.

Dafoe, for instance, must be aware that film producers have to consider more than acting ability alone when casting roles. They need a name that will sell tickets (or DVDs or streams) off the marquee, so to speak. Had Will Smith, for instance, not taken the lead role in “Concussion,” would the movie currently be enjoying the company of Oscar heavyweights?

So guess what: Rogen, Schumer, Dafoe and Tyler all made business decisions. It’s likely Aerosmith saw a bump in downloads/streams in the days after Tyler’s Super Bowl spot. And maybe plans for a concert tour have a little more juice than they did a week ago. So who am I to judge? A cornerback opting to bail on a tackle may realize several additional years of million-dollar contracts. Even his coach may prefer having a healthy, effective player at that position long term rather than saving one stinkin’ touchdown in one stinkin’ game. That’s between them. The bottom line is that, more often than not, the business decisions people make are nobody’s business but theirs.