Celebration of integration seen only on Broadway

September 04, 2002|By Michael Corbin

"IF LIFE were everything it should be, it would be more like Hairspray."

Thus effuses The New York Times on the opening of what Broadway boosters hope is the next big revenue stream and a measure that the death of musical theater recently proclaimed by some and feared by others in the world of a Ground Zero New York has been greatly exaggerated.

Thus hype mixes with hope that an opera buffa of 1962 Baltimore will be a hit and sate the imaginations of audiences. "For Hairspray is, above all, Nice," the Times goes on.

"This may be regarded as faint praise in New York, capital of Type A personalities. But Nice, in this instance, doesn't mean bland. Think of it spelled out in neon, perhaps in letters of purple and fuchsia. That's the kind of Nice that Hairspray is selling. And it feels awfully good to pretend, for as long as the cast keeps singing, that the world really is that way," the Times wrote.

Now no one would mistake Hair- spray for producing Brechtian alienation effects in its allegories of underdog triumph, integrationist utopias and aesthetic of nice. Camp insulates itself and us from troubling too much about our degrees of separation or anything too serious. That's entertainment, after all.

We wouldn't want to be killjoys of political correctness, and the show's reviewers are at pains to point out how Hairspray -- despite being an ironic "social problem" extravaganza -- doesn't preach to us. It doesn't ruin a good time.

So perhaps we can be forgiven in noting an ironic coincidence. The same month that Hairspray opened, in August, the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University released a report, "Race in American Public Schools: Rapidly Resegregating." It shows Baltimore to be home to perhaps the most segregated schools in the country.

Specifically, the report finds that Baltimore public school children have the highest level of "black isolation." In other words, most black kids in Baltimore attend schools where there are almost no white kids.

"The average white attends a school that is almost half white, yet white students comprise just over 10 percent of the entire student enrollment," it says.

Such separate racial worlds, of course, are not news to the children or their families in Baltimore. What is notable is the absence of such extreme segregation from anybody's political agenda, liberal or conservative, left or right. The report's authors note, matter of factly, that "many Americans believe that there is nothing that can be done about these problems and that desegregation efforts have failed."

Politicians studiously avoid discussions of race when it comes to educational reform, preferring to talk about test scores, graduation rates and Horatio Alger-esque success stories of those who made it despite the odds. To point to something like the Civil Rights Project report risks caricature and marginalization in public discussion as being merely a played "race card," as an example of tiresome "victimology," as an obfuscation of real social problems.

The report's authors gamely try to point out that the "troubling pattern" of segregation "is very strongly related" to other measures of social distress. But no electable politician makes the leap from the hard numbers of the report to what its authors' note as self-evident: "Again this is an argument for city-suburban desegregation plans, since exposure between the races cannot happen in districts lacking those racial groups."

And, indeed, "exposure between the races" has an antiquated ring, something from the past that we've already done. Like something from 1962 Baltimore, when the hopes of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision still seemed to animate a vision of America's future. "What a wonderful world of possibilities are unfolded for the children," Ralph Ellison wrote just after the Brown decision.

In today's wonderful world of possibilities, rather, standardized tests are the ostensible measures of educational success and "identity politics" and "diversity training" are concessions to figuring out how to live with each other.

A political vision of integration as a good in itself for our democracy seems rather quaint and far off for the children of Baltimore, like something in a nice show where it can feel awfully good to pretend for a while.

Michael Corbin is a free-lance writer who lives in Baltimore.

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