No wonder it's the year's shortest monthSteve Hammer

I was spouting my usual nonsense on my NUVO message board the other day when I got a response that brought back some old, enraging memories: "Why are you always trying to be black, Hammer?" the poster said. "Look in the mirror. You are white. Quit trying to be black." I also know enough of the background story to understand that the country was built, and to some extent still operates, on millions of gallons of blood of non-white people.

Like many whites, I'm an avid consumer of the products of black culture: music, films, books. But I've never thought of myself as being black.

The person may or may not have been kidding, but the statement hit me hard, because I've heard one variation or another of it for the last 20 years of my life, starting when I enrolled in a black history class at IU and an academic advisor tried to talk me out of it.

"You don't need to take a black studies class," the advisor said. "How about something that's more your style, like medieval history?"

To answer the most recent slap, yes, I am white. I was born that way and will remain that way until I die. I wouldn't change the skin I'm in, because I'm proud of my family history and am the product of two wonderful parents.

But, as we approach the end of Black History Month - the shortest month of the year, by the way - I'm forced to look again at the issue of race and how it still dominates our public discourse just as much as it did in 1865 or 1965. Only the terms have changed.

Growing up in an all-white neighborhood on the Southside, I was insulated from the black community of Indianapolis. That area, Perry Township, is still more than 95 percent white. At one time, Realtors refused to even show homes in the area to black customers.

It's illegal, but it went on and, I'm sure, still does to some extent. Nobody raises too much fuss about it because racism is at the core of many of society's problems and to attempt to fix it would mean overhauling the entire system.

There's a code of silence that permeates America. To acknowledge the racism of the past and present would also mean examining the genocide of Native Americans, the treatment of Asians during World War 2 and the detainment and torture of alleged terrorists in Guantanamo Bay today.

Best not to raise those memories when it's easier to be overly patriotic and wave the flag and chant "USA" at sporting events. If you like doing that, fine, but understand that some of us love America yet don't want to participate in mindless nationalism.

One of my first jobs after college was at the Indianapolis Recorder, which for more than 100 years has been a voice for the African-American community. For decades, its office sat in the heart of the city's black community on Indiana Avenue.

There were still a few old-timers left from the old days of the Recorder when I was there. Houston Rogers was one of them. A self-taught journalist, he covered every kind of event over decades: church dinners, murders, race riots, prison uprisings and the urban renewal of Indianapolis.

He couldn't even go back to his childhood home and bask in nostalgia because his neighborhood, like many, was literally demolished and cleared away to make room for IUPUI. To him, it was another example of government trying to erase the past and pretend nothing wrong ever happened.

He knew every detail about the jazz clubs and soul performers who once flocked to Indianapolis to play the Indiana Avenue clubs. He remembered the names and stories of the people who hung out there, stories which are now lost to history.

Another man I was privileged to know was William "Skinny" Alexander, a legendary figure in Indianapolis black history. When I knew him, he was spending his days at the Indianapolis Police Department headquarters, reading through literally hundreds and hundreds of police reports per day, looking for cops abusing the system.

He'd walk with great effort up the stairs to the Recorder newsroom clutching a few dozen of them, telling us to check them out, that police brutality was probably involved. He knew the code words police used and could tell a false report right away.

What I learned from those men and the other great reporters I worked with - Kim L. Hooper, Eunice Trotter, Audrey Gadzekpo and others - is that being black in America means being vigilant. We fought two civil wars, 100 years apart, to assure certain rights and yet they are still routinely violated.

We honor Martin Luther King with a national holiday but while he was alive, he was wiretapped, harassed, blackmailed and threatened with violence by the same federal government that now honors him.

The only forces that quelled a total civil war in the 1960s were visionary and pragmatic political leaders such as King, Ralph David Abernathy and President Lyndon Johnson. LBJ knew that signing Civil Rights legislation would cost the Democrats the white vote for a generation or two, which it did.

But it was the right thing to do, so he did it.

So, along with the rest of the country, I celebrate the great historical figures we honor in February. But I also know enough of the backstory to understand that the country was built, and to some extent still operates, on millions of gallons of blood of non-white people.

So to answer my critic: I'm happy being white. It insulates me to some extent from police harassment, employment and housing discrimination and lets me walk through department stores without being followed.

God bless America.


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