“The Color of Truth,” August 8, 1955
Sam Beckett’s first leap into an African-American takes him to the Deep South in the 1950s, where he finds himself inhabiting the life of Jesse Tyler, chauffeur and general assistant to the elderly Miss Melanie. Melanie is the widow of a former Alabama governor, and a pillar of her community. She’s feisty, stubborn and less of a racist than most of the people around her... which, naturally, isn’t saying much.
If some of you are thinking this all sounds suspiciously like the plot of the 1985 film Driving Miss Daisy (or the stage play it is derived from), you’re not wrong. What makes this admittedly derivative set-up worthwhile, first, is Sam’s initial glee when he discovers he can leap across racial boundaries. His joy in seeing his experiment’s potential unfold—despite the fact that he’s still stuck in the past, and not a great part of it, either—his irrepressible spirit and sense of childlike curiosity are just another part of what makes this character so very likable.
Sam’s upbeat take on this leap offsets a reality that Al, for one, doesn’t find nearly as diverting: just to be a black man, in this place and time, is dangerous. And Sam promptly puts himself on the local rednecks’ radar by sitting down at a lunch counter, two feet from its Whites Only sign.
From that moment forward “The Color of Truth” puts Sam on a collision course with just about everyone he encounters. Al wants him to keep his head down and complete his cosmically assigned task: saving Miss Melanie from a terrible car wreck. Jesse’s son begs him to lay low before the wrath of the white townspeople can descend on their whole family, Miss Melanie doesn’t want her privileged cage rattled and, of course, the two local thugs are already plenty provoked by the time Sam figures out who he is and why everyone’s so upset that he’s taken it upon himself to order lunch in the middle of the day.
Sam and Al’s conflict plays out in a low-key fashion in this episode. Sam’s on board with saving Miss Melanie, of course, but he can’t rein in his busybody tendencies: since he’s here anyway, he reasons, why not kickstart the Civil Rights movement? Al, meanwhile, has established that he’s in total agreement with the cause—in fact, he marched for it in the 1960s, and even went to jail with other activists. But that doesn’t mean he wants to see Sam get lynched, and the risk is one Sam never takes seriously. This is appropriate: he may be walking a mile in Jesse’s shoes, but his youth, optimism and upbringing leave him with a false sense of security the original Jesse could never feel. Sam ignores the segregation laws, expresses his outrage at every escalation of the conflict, tries to formally report the racist thugs to the Sheriff (imagine!) and blunders about insisting on rights nobody thinks he’s entitled to...until inevitably someone gets hurt, and Miss Melanie’s conscience kicks in.
“The Color of Truth” is a less edgy examination of race relations in the U.S. than subsequent Quantum Leap episodes that also tackle the issue, like “Black on White on Fire,” for example, or “Justice,” where Sam leaps into a newly sworn-in member of the Klu Klux Klan (no boyish glee there!). But it doesn’t pull its punches, and in the end Sam is able to make things a little better—for Jesse, his family, and Melanie too.
Then, as always, he leaps out, leaving Jesse to enjoy the reward.
A.M. Dellamonica writes novels and short fiction and teaches writing online. She is passionate about environmentalism, food and drink, and art in every form, and dabbles in several: photography, choral music, theater, dance, cooking and crafts. Catch up with her on her blog here.