The last time I was in Hope, Ark., headed for my father's birthplace in Earle, something ugly happened. My parents had stopped at a gas station and my mother had asked if she could come inside to heat my bottle. It was the winter of 1951, and I was 5 months old. My mother was told no. "Coloreds" were not allowed. I would just have to drink cold milk or go hungry.

Of course, I don't remember the incident. In fact, I didn't even hear about it until last Christmas, when my parents came to Washington. That's how I learn about my past, mostly during holidays, when a racial tidbit gets coughed up like an old bone that has been lodged in a family member's throat.

In the aftermath of Bill Clinton's election as president, the newspapers were carrying stories about quaint old "Arkansaw," the land of Li'l Abner, but nobody in my family was laughing.

One story mentioned the odd way a Clinton volunteer pronounced the name of a town in Arkansas called McGehee, where she used to drive a combine. Turns out that was the town where a Ku Klux Klansman posing as a sheriff's deputy had shot and killed my grandfather.

I mention this as a backdrop for saying how much I had hoped today's ringing of the "Bells for Hope" would signal a real desire on Clinton's part for genuine racial healing in this country. And how disappointed I am that, in the wake of his change of heart for the suffering of Haitian refugees, the whole inauguration has taken on a hollow ring.

Call me naive, but I really wanted to believe that Clinton meant it when he told Morehouse College students in February that "the cheap politics of division in the 1980s have kept America divided and dumber and poorer than we ought to have been."

Before his election, Clinton had called the Bush administration's policy of forcibly returning Haitian refugees "morally wrong." But now, after announcing his support for Bush's blockade of Haiti, Clinton is scheduled to kick off his inaugural activities at the historic Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, which makes freedom for Haitians and South Africans a hallmark of its ministry.

As governor of Arkansas, this is how Clinton played the game: schmoozing with blacks to James Brown music on one side of town, then heading off to play golf at an all-white country club on the other. This may be acceptable backwater politicking, but I don't see how he can withstand such a clash of symbols under a national spotlight.

Here in Washington, something as mundane as a parade of inauguration performers has mushroomed into madness. Consider the selection of "blond soul" singer Michael Bolton to perform "A Change Is Gonna Come." This is Sam Cooke's most precious work. The song meant so much to Cooke, in fact, that Cooke's estate has allowed it to be played in a for-profit situation only once -- in the scene in Spike Lee's movie in which Malcolm X is about to be assassinated.

Enter Bolton, who never met a black man's music that he couldn't use to make himself a million bucks. In a presidential inauguration that is supposed to be about change, there is certainly nothing new about that.

Another headliner is Michael Jackson. Here is a black man who has surgically narrowed his nose and chemically whitened his skin. According to a recent news report, Jackson wanted a white kid to play him as a child in an upcoming commercial.

So the Clinton-Bloodworth- Thomason production gives us a white man who makes a killing sounding like a constipated black man and a black man who literally looks like he is dying to be white.

The symbolism has gone haywire. Then again, what else might one expect from a television production team who brought us "Designing Women," which features three white women and their neutered black ex-con servant?

Sometimes, the patronizing of the liberal white elite can be as offensive as the outright hatred of racist white conservatives.

Seizing on Clinton's Haitian policy switch, comedian Mark Russell recently quipped that when it comes to Bells for Hope, "count one gong for every Haitian sent back home."

How ironic that Clinton, campaigning among black audiences, passionately spoke up for Haiti while addressing racial polarization and inequality here at home. Asking Maya Angelou to compose a poem was a nice touch. But it's going to take more than kind words from her to heal our deep racial wounds.

Clinton told students at Morehouse that his racial awareness went back to when he was 5 years old and lived with his grandparents in the town of Hope. His grandfather, Eldridge Cassidy, ran a store that was patronized by blacks and whites. It certainly sounded like a friendlier place than the one my parents had visited with me in 1951.

By Clinton's own recollection, Cassidy used to talk with him about the evils of racism. If, indeed, that is true, Clinton might want to visit his grandfather's grave and have another chat.