Mom and I have been watching a lot of "Andy Griffith Show" reruns on MeTV lately, because they happen to fall in the otherwise dead zone between the local news and the Wheel/Jeopardy hour. (Yes, I share the TV with an 80-year-old woman. You got a problem with that?) The other day, an oddness in my peripheral vision finally came into focus: there are no black people in Mayberry. None. Not just no African-American guest stars, but not even any black citizens wandering the streets.
At the time, I was going to post a flippant Facebook status, pondering whether cozy Mayberry had actually been one of them "sundown towns" all along. (Google it if you're unfamiliar with the term. I sincerely hope you'll be revulsed.) But then it occurred to me that this was the early '60s, and it would have been a politically daring act, maybe even a radical act, just to have employed black extras. Particularly in a show set in the (then) present-day South. And even Andy Griffith, who was politically progressive throughout his life and ran one of the most popular shows in America, obviously didn't feel comfortable rocking the boat on this issue.
Which brings us to Michael Sam, and "the kiss."
Bigots are predictable in the trajectory of their reactions to any civil rights movement. Eventually there comes a tipping point after which open displays of hatred for Group X become socially unacceptable - when bigots have to precede their expressions of distaste with a disclaimer that they don't have a "problem" with Group X, no, honest they don't.
The next thing that comes up is almost always the question of visibility. I don't mind Group X - no, really, some of my best friends belong to Group X - but why, WHY must they "rub it in our faces," or "ram it down our throats," or [insert your own bodily-violation metaphor here]? Remember Mayberry? Can you doubt that if Andy Griffith and Sheldon Leonard had deliberately included African-American extras on the streets of Mayberry in 1961, the comments would have sounded eerily similar?
In short: Bigots have an unhappy lot, once their airtight rational arguments about Group X deserving to be treated as second-class citizens lose favor. They can't even express open distaste for Group X any more, without someone suggesting they're, you know, bigots. So they retreat, and just hope to get through their day without constantly being reminded that there are Group X members out there, shamelessly existing and interacting with us normal folk - just as though they were human beings too or something, rather than a purely political issue to be discussed in a vacuum. Don't those Group X people know their existence is controversial, and that they should spare us the sight of themselves while we work out our trust issues?
For a while now, professional sports has been an oasis for those poor persecuted bigot-Americans. One of the last places where they could spend a day in front of the TV and never once be reminded that gay people exist. Michael Sam has burst their bubble, the same way Jackie Robinson once did. I've watched the NFL draft too - and Sam and his boyfriend didn't do anything that a thousand other draftees and their girlfriends, wives or family members don't do.
And that is the entire point. He IS just like all those other draftees, and even ESPN is treating him accordingly. The reaction to "the kiss" is the exasperated cry of a group of people who find themselves no longer able to escape the future. Or rather, the present.
Edited (5/13/14. 12:57pm EDT): I have been informed that there WERE eventually a few African-Americans that showed up in Mayberry, including a major guest character in a Season 7 episode. Good to know! For what it's worth, MeTV has largely been showing just episodes from the first couple of seasons. My point remains: the very presence of African-Americans on the show, even as extras, was enough of a politically-charged issue that it took quite a while for it to happen.