Native Sons: Courage and dignity

For one child of the '60s, Black History Month is a "living, breathing daily thing." ESPN.com Illustration

The column steps out of the rush and tumble of deadline sporting events this week.

Let's talk instead for a few minutes about the hot mess of history; about the tangle of memory and hope and music, about loss and belonging, about responsibility and original sin. About high ideals and low places. About courage and about decency and about the indelibility of dignity.

Let's speak instead about how universal a thing is love, and how intimate a thing is hate.

Let's take up the nature of grace.

Because today begins Black History Month.

Which, for sports fans, almost always means a month's worth of earnest editorial keening and lamentation about another generation of millionaire athletes with no sense of how they came to be.

And, yes, let's stipulate as well that there's often something a little stiff about officially sanctioned cultural/sociological/educational celebrations like these. Something dull and lifeless and with the astringent whiff of do-gooder organization and do-your-duty cultural post-mortem. Something with the empty ring of corporate correctness and obligation. Something guilty. Something limiting.

Because although the intentions behind commemorations such as Black History Month are among our best, our noblest, the actual effect of them is to somehow embalm the very thing we seek to experience.

Rather than breathe life into the vibrant idea of our common humanity, or celebrate the beautiful differences and the emphatic distinctions among us, somehow the classroom posters and the dance recitals and the essay contests and the public service announcements just as often preserve conventional wisdom, pickling our preconceptions. Canning our experience of one another. By formalizing these celebrations, by making of them only "teachable moments," we inadvertently continue to harden and wall off the best of ourselves. This was certainly not Dr. Woodson's intention all those years ago.

Nor was this meant to be just another month of cheap political debate, an annual winter argument over the good or bad of affirmative action or the self-sufficiency myths of the American bootstrap. Or getting your foot into or out of your mouth.

This isn't about any of that.

This is just a few sentences about me and about old fire and about what it was like to grow up 50 years ago.

Like all kids everywhere, I had my heroes. Of these, three of the greatest were Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali and John Coltrane.

I suppose looking back that it all has a lot to do with television. Otherwise, how else to explain it? How to explain a white, Northeastern, suburban kid like me hanging on the words of a young preacher from Atlanta? Hanging on the grace of Cassius Clay in the ring? Riveted by the metamorphosis of Clay into Ali, a rebirth weirdly mediated and midwifed by Howard Cosell?

On the other hand, there is no rational explanation for what happened the first time I heard a recording of John Coltrane playing "My Favorite Things" on that upholstered Magnavox hi-fi in our living room. "Rational" never applies to music. But my world and my head and my heart were cracked wide open. That was 1963.

And in 1963, when I was 5 years old, they killed President Kennedy and Medgar Evers. When I was 7 years old, February 1965, they shotgunned Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom up on 165th and Broadway. Three years later, they killed Dr. King in Memphis then shot Bobby Kennedy out in Los Angeles.

And Watts burned, and Newark and Chicago too, and Harlem and Saigon, and the whole thing, the whole chrome-plated American apparatus seemed to teeter on the brink.

Everyone everywhere scared at so much blood and struggle.

Maybe the roll call of the martyrs is strong medicine for a sports column. But maybe it's important to remember (especially among those thoughtless millionaire children of our professional leagues) that sports is of this world, not out of it; and that change comes at a price, however painful, and overtakes everything. From Jackie Robinson to Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

And in a multibillion-dollar business such as this, now built on profit taking and fake sincerity and on contrived heroics and ersatz simplicity, it is worth remembering the reality and complexity of prior sacrifice. Sports is now an enterprise best suited to printing money, to avoiding controversy and to accommodating questions no more inflammatory than "Does Kurt Warner belong in the Hall of Fame?"

Today, it struggles to answer -- in fact to even ask -- what it cost Jim Brown to become Jim Brown.

Maybe the least we can do for the rest of the month is remember the names. Like Marshall Taylor and Charles Follis and Moses Walker. Jimmy Winkfield and Jack Johnson and James Baldwin and Richard Wright. Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, Toni Morrison and Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong.

Maybe in simple remembrance is the restoration of Adam to the state of grace, to the moment before the stain of sin. Or maybe remembrance only eases the pain of it.

Louis Farrakhan once famously asked white America of Malcolm X, "Was he your traitor or ours?" I suggest the better question all these years and sacrifices later might be, "Was he your hero or ours?"

Malcolm begets Oprah begets Serena begets Barack.

Black or white, race is hard. We all want something that is different but not different. We all want something that is the same but not the same. We all want peace and we all want love and we are all entitled to our dignity. We are all the same but not the same.

Last week, a black U.S. president gave the State of the Union address. Last week, a black woman won the Australian Open. Last week, people looked at one another and didn't think "black" and didn't think "white."

That's history.

This living, breathing, daily thing upon which we all have such a tentative grasp. Over which we all stumble. That's history.

History is what you see coming at you from the corner of your eye. History is fear and history is love and history is a cold night sky or fire in the streets. History is panic and injustice and regret, bravery and sacrifice and blood. History is a handshake. History looks a man in the eye. History is beating wings and a beating heart.

History is coming at you sideways at every moment. It comes right now and it comes for us all because maybe history, insatiable, rewards heroism and punishes cowardice. Maybe. Turn from it, run from it, embrace it -- which side of history will you be on today?

I remember Malcolm X and I remember Medgar Evers and I remember Dr. King. I remember Bobby Kennedy and three young men in Mississippi and four little girls in Birmingham, Ala.

I remember and I hold them dear. The least I can do.

I am only the bearer of these memories, these old horrors. I am their keeper, but not their jailer. Nor are they mine. They are my inheritance. My burden of half a century, and my birthright. These ghosts and the stories they tell are my responsibility. As they are yours. Take them up. Be grateful for them.

Refuse to make a prison of your sorrows, your injustices, your hatreds, your fears. Refuse to make a prison of your history.

Celebrate instead where we find ourselves now and how far we've come; celebrate a world that spins toward justice, however slowly, and grinds toward fairness and peace.

In a perfect world, race is forgotten. To make a perfect world, we must always remember.

As stated, race is hard.

So honor in remembrance this small thing Malcolm X said 45 years ago this month, just a few hours before he walked into the Audubon Ballroom:

That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days -- I'm glad to be free of them.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.