Quantum Leap (Season 1, Ep 7): The Color of Truth

[Episode Warning: This episode deals a lot with issues of race and the Civil Rights Movement. You may feel it handles some of those issues poorly. The episode also uses the “n word” on several occasions.]

The episode begins with Sam narrating to us how fun Quantum Leaping has been so far while he recounts his successes.

Sam leaps into a new body. “Since I’m here and I’m hungry, how bout somethin’ to eat.” So he sits down at a restaurant bar. When he does, the room goes silent. He looks up into the mirror and sees that he’s black.

Just as a couple of racist white patrons are calling him boy, and planning to harm him, the woman behind the bar advises the patrons that she does not want to clean up blood and she advises Sam to “take Miz Melny’s lunch… and get” (going.) It’s looking as though this will not be a fun leap for Sam this time.

He has arrived at The Colony of Truth on August 8, 1955.

“I didn’t know exactly where I was but it was obviously too far south to be a black man.”

As Sam is looking around outside the restaurant, an old white woman shouts at him “Jesse. Jesse Tyler. You come over here this instant.” Are we getting a “Driving Miss Daisy” episode?

As she’s lecturing him about leaving her outside in the heat, we get to see Sam fumble through the difficulties of being a black man in the Deep South in 1955. He pretends that he took a bump to the head as a way to get Miz Melny to explain where he is supposed to drive her. He is apparently driving her in the direction of the hospital to see someone named Charles.

As it turns out, they stop at a cemetery and Charles is a late husband.

Miz Melny is immediately furious that her late husband’s grave is covered with weeds. She gets down on her hands and knees and starts pulling them, shouting that she had been promised that they will pull the weeds. Sam gently helps her stand and asks her to let him do this.

As they are talking, we learn that Miz Melny lost one son. And that Sam and his “Sally” lost four children. Charles apparently thought very highly of Sally. As Sam is taking a large pile of weeds to put in the trash, Al finally appears. Sam is excited about the possibilities for himself if leaping into a black man is on the table. Al reminds Sam – who is holding those weeds looking for a trash can – that public trash cans were not a thing until the 70s. He also points out that it might be dangerous to leap into the body of a black man in the 1950s.

Side Note: Al is wearing… a pink jumpsuit? With a suit jacket?

Ziggy thinks Sam is with Miz Melny to prevent her death. In 24 hours, she’s slated to die in a car accident when said car is hit by a train at the intersection directly adjacent to the cemetery. Records for Jesse are so lacking that Ziggy does not know whether or not he also died in the car crash.

Al reveals some more layers to the onion of his personal character. He knows a lot about the Civil Rights Movement. He implies he was at Selma and says he was arrested and beaten during Civil Rights protests. And he refers to their current location as the place from which Autherine Lucy came, before later integrating the University of Alabama.

Later… Sam is carrying groceries into Miz Melny’s kitchen. A man named Clayton is waiting for the two returnees and wants to speak with Sam/Jesse about what happened at the restaurant earlier. After finding out that he had upset “nearly the whole town,” Sam says he sat down at the counter because he was hungry. At this point, Clayton asks why he would do something so stupid. And he asks if “one of them uppity northern n*****s” had been talking to him.

In the next scene we find out that Clayton is Miz Melny’s son. We further find out that Miz Melny is the widow of the former governor of Alabama. Clayton warns her that people will take particular notice if her negro starts acting uppity.

Shortly after her son leaves, Miz Melny has what appears to be a dizzy spell. It is implied that the dizziness was caused by what her son just told her. When Sam tries to check on her medically, she gets offended. “Since when did you get a medical degree?” And she advises him to keep his hands to himself and to go fetch her a glass of lemonade.

A young black woman approaches Jesse at the backdoor of the house to let him know how proud of him she is. I think this is Jesse’s daughter but we are not told that just yet. When he checks in with Miz Melny about going home, we find out that the young woman at the door was Jesse’s granddaughter, Nell.

As Nell is driving him home (was it progressive in 1955 for a black woman to have a car and drive?) she is clearly excited about what he did at the lunch counter. An ominous couple of notes play in the show’s musical score as a couple of white guys in a truck pull out onto the road behind them. She goes on listing several things that she wants to do that would “make white folks mad.”

Jesse is supposed to make chitlins for the church picnic that evening so Nell is driving him home quickly. I get the impression Sam has never made (or eaten) chitlins. Fortunately, Al claims to have a killer recipe. As they are discussing the recipe, Jesse’s son walks in on Sam/Jesse “talking to himself.”

The topic of whether or not Jesse is crazy was a good lead-in to a discussion about what happened earlier in the day at the food counter. Apparently for Al this is brand new information. His son pleads with him not to do anything like that again.

Al is mad at Sam because he failed to mention that incident when they met up earlier. He reminds Sam that his job is to save Miz Melny, not start the Civil Rights Movement. Sam launches into a speech about how maybe he can do both and how the people should have seen him as a hungry man, not as a black man. Just then, one of the family member screams. They all run to the front door where they see a burning cross planted in their front yard.

The next day, we see Sam talking to a police officer about what happened. He seems to be having trouble remembering that he’s a time-traveler inhabiting the body of a black man in the Jim Crow Deep South. The 1950s police officer tells him to go home, clean up his yard, and forget about it. As he is aggressively asking the officer about the two men he can identify, the officer says “you leave my son to me.” Suddenly it seems to dawn on Sam, once more, than he is a black man, in the Deep South, in the 1950s.

But he forget again in about 5 seconds as he takes a drink from a water fountain outside the police station. The two men who set the cross on fire outside of Jesse’s house see him drinking from the water fountain. We are assured that there will be more consequences for Jesse.

When we next see Sam, he is fixing a pipe at Miz Melny’s house. Miz Melny made tea for him. But when he goes to sit with her, she explains in an exasperated tone that “coloreds and whites don’t eat at the same table.” Sam has fully embraced starting the Civil Rights Movement so he asks her “why not?”

Sam explains that things will change. She says “hogwash.”

His granddaughter Nell knocks on the door to pick him up and he sends her back to their home by herself because he is taking Miz Melny’s car to their house that night. She is very surprised by this. The two angry white racists from the water fountain are watching Nell’s car go by and apparently have a plan to teach Jesse a lesson. They believe Jesse is in the car so they cause her to crash her car. Then they take off while she is on the ground and bleeding. Apparently that crash went farther than they were intending. Sam is driving Miz Melny to the store to buy a pipe, to fix her leaky faucet, when he finds Nell on the road. The three of them set off for the hospital. He’s apparently planning to take her to a white hospital.

Ugh. He’s surprised again when the hospital staff does not want to treat Nell. However, Miz Melny insists that they do. So they take her inside. Not long after, someone on the hospital staff calls the police and has Jesse arrested.

The version of Al that takes his time traveler helper job seriously is here this week. I prefer this version so I hope he sticks around going forward. He’s worried that Miz Melny is doomed to die by train. That fear is worsened when Sam/Jesse is taken away in handcuffs and Miz Melny starts her own car to follow after the police.

Al – who nobody can see or hear – is yelling at her to stop as she backs her car up and sets off. He appears to her in her car and is still futilely trying to give her advice about driving as we hear a train whistle blow. As the whistle blows louder, and as Al yells more loudly for her to pull over, she seems to hear “Charles” tell her to pull over. Disaster is averted.

Al appears to Sam in his jail cell and is talking all of this over with him. Al takes from this lesson something his perpetually horny alter-ego can appreciate: “Think of the possibilities. Maybe I can reach other women. Younger women.” The jailer lets Jesse go and also lets him know that his granddaughter Nell is going to be fine. He also lets him know that “them boys are sorry.”

When Sam gets out of jail, he is picked up by Clayton and Miz Melny. He thanks her, but she insists, to Sam’s disbelief, that they move on and let life go back to normal. So she sends him back to that diner from the beginning of the episode to pick up her lunch. When he walks in, the place goes silent. Miz Melny walks in behind him and publicly asks Jesse to join her for lunch. More stunned silence. Sam leaps away.

Reaction:

I am a guy who watches old TV shows. I would not consider myself learned, experienced, or well read enough to say anything thoughtful or profound on the topic of racism in America. I think racism is utterly stupid and evil. But I’m not breaking new ground to say so. Quantum Leap apparently thought it was absurd and stupid 30 years ago. Nevertheless, my own deficiencies on the topic well understood, I do consider this episode a massive misstep, however well intended at the time. The Civil Rights Movement was led by brave black men and women. They knew the real danger they faced when doing something as innocuous as taking a drink from the “wrong” water fountain. Those were acts of courage and defiance. It felt wrong to steal the choice to sit at that counter away from the real Jesse.

That said, would a naive idealist who suddenly finds himself in the body of a black man in the Jim Crow Deep South be faced with hard, dangerous choices? Certainly. Would he have a hard time adjusting to the role of a black man in the Deep South. No question. Even if he wanted to blend in, and make no waves, he would have a hard time succeeding. My problem with this episode (well, one problem) is that Sam’s success, as Jesse, just did not feel earned. Everything came too easily for him.

So here I am watching this episode: “Oh, yeah, uh huh, sure sure, a white guy started the Civil Rights Movement by accident but then he felt really bad and surprised about how black people are treated, so he successfully changed an important mind within about 48 hours. Leave him there a few weeks, with people who could have their minds changed with a few words and gestures, and he might end racism for good.”

If a few well reasoned words or gestures were all that it took to change minds, then you steal the “struggle” from the movement. In that sense, this episode is just… absurd.

Putting this episode in the context of the late 1980s, I suspect at least some of the intention of the story is to show that late 80s audience how absurd racism in the Deep South had been a generation earlier. Sitting down at a restaurant is bad if you’re black? Sitting with a white person is bad? There are correct and incorrect water fountains? People were so insane that if you violated these “norms” they would set a cross on fire in your yard, threaten you with (or actually cause you) physical harm, or they might even run your car off the road and kill you?

Well, yes, that was real life in the Jim Crow South. Highlighting that history is important.

And considering that so many of those 1950s racists were still alive in 1989, maybe this episode served as something of a reminder to those viewers of their prior ignorance.

From the year 2020, looking backward toward 1989 when this episode aired, it is of some comfort that the Deep South seemed incomprehensible to a late 80s TV audience… even in the Deep South. Sam is something of a fill-in for the audience who was watching at home at the time. He keeps doing things by accident because he cannot comprehend their society.

For some perspective, it has been 31 years since this episode aired. 31 years prior to that episode was 1958 – a mere three years after the events of that episode. I suppose the progress made in our society between 1958 and 1989 is something to be proud of. We are currently (2020) having a national debate about the progress (or lack of progress) since 1989.

I was initially surprised at how passionate Al was about the Civil Rights Movement. Most of his passions are very self-centered. He seems to care more about his libido than anything else. But we find out that he was arrested and beaten for participating in the Civil Rights protests. I’d like to find out more about what motivates Al. We know he had a horrible childhood. We know he overcame that and was motivated to do some pretty incredible things. This is just another aspect of his character to explore further. Sam’s naivety about racism was jarring, though. He was born in the 1950s so he was also old enough to remember some of the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath. And he is allegedly a genius. Didn’t he read a history textbook at some point along the way?

Within the structure of the episode, I am not sure how Ziggy could have guessed that Sam’s job was not only to save Miz Melny, but also to change her mind on the subject of race relations. To some extent, it seemed to me that the real Jesse had made progress changing her mind as to all of that before Sam’s leap.

QUOTES:

“Is that why you want to do it? Because it would make white folks mad?”
“Yeah. And because it’s right.”

“I never realized they were pig intestines. The smell was like something that had been kept around for too long in autopsy class.”

“If you want to go off and change the world, you are welcome to it. But if you want to work for me, we will close this conversation forever.”

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