By now, the Religious Right is on Red (Pink?) Alert over the news that an upcoming episode of a PBS kids show about a cartoon rabbit, Buster, features a same-sex couple engaging in the shamefully lubricious act of - hide the women and women - eating dinner. Personally, I've always felt public television's greatest threat to America's youth was Teletubbies.
As expected, every conservative organization, institute, and alliance from the Whigs to the Illegitimate Daughters of Strom Thurmond have decried this development as the latest incontrovertible evidence that the liberal media is leading America further away from the traditional values of places like Helena, Montana, and escorting our country instead straight to Helena handbasket.
But before we throw the bunny out with the bathwater, take note of the paean paid to Johnny Carson, who died last month. Did you see the footage of Johnny's song-and-dance number with Pearl Bailey? The year was 1964. Black-and-white wasn't just the way people watched TV back then. It was how so many of us lived, certainly when it came to race relations. When Pearl met Johnny that night 40 years ago, white men didn't dance with black women, not in polite company anyway. They just didn't. But there was the fully-integrated Carson - and, mind you, merely a budding comedian with a career to build circa '64, not the undisputed and eternal King of Late Night - gettin' jiggy with Bailey, so talented, so pretty, but so very...you know, black. You can still hear the echo of sets across the Deep South and other pockets of white superiority shutting off en masse at such an abomination.
Indeed while Carson fiddled four decades ago, Christian America still burned with the fire of segregation. Most of our fair schools, synagogues, and churches remained free from the scourge of socializing with Negroes. Christian college students who stayed up late that night witnessed two things on their TV screens they'd never seen on their campus:
1) a white man fellowshipping a black woman
and 2) people of any skin color actually dancing.
Instead of taking the lead in welcoming blacks into a lily-white world, God's people by and large were wallflowers while the entertainment industry asked the African-American community if it could have this dance. The Civil Rights Movement accompanied Carson's derring-duet in the mid-'60s, but here's guessing nothing in Washington had a more profound impact on normalizing integration than what was coming into living rooms outside the Beltway from television studios like Carson's in New York.
As with most of us, the entertainment world often misses the mark (see After M*A*S*H and any of the disasters perpetrated by erstwhile Seinfeld cast members). And it's not as if African-Americans have had it easy in Hollywood. Far from it. But Show Business gets it right a lot, too. Sometimes uncomfortably so. And on that night in 1964, Carson got it right.
For that, the least I can do is join Johnny's inseparable sidekick Ed Mc Mahon in offering a posthumous but hearty "Hi-oooooooooo!"