Really the Blues — soulful reflections on a racist dawn
It’s easy to be disgusted by the woman in West Virginia who dared to call the First Lady ‘an ape in heels’ on Facebook the other day. That someone could glorify the accession of Melania Trump while denigrating Mishele Obama — a superb role model who has inspired millions — merely on account of her ethnicity, is beneath contempt. But for Pamela Taylor — a public official, no less — to presume that it would be OK to post it on social media, where it received the jolly thumbs-up from the local mayor, points to a deeper problem. Both of these asinine individuals have since lost their jobs, thank goodness, but I’m still having trouble washing the stain out of my mind.
At times like this, when one despairs of one’s fellow human beings, it often helps to turn to a book for comfort. In this instance I picked up a wise old friend, “Really the Blues” by Mezz Mezzrow (in reprint from Barnes & Noble). Here he is, a well-travelled old white boy from the south side of Chicago, son of Russian Jews, writing in the 50s about the Jazz scene of the early 20s, offering up his appreciation of the leading colored ladies of his erstwhile milieu. No doubt FLOTUS would find his musings somewhat quaint, but I’ve copied this passage to illustrate by way of contrast the poverty of sentiment of those pitiful people — small town, mean-minded reactionaries that are coming out of the woodwork in frightening numbers following the electoral coup of Donald Trump, like pond life worming its way to the surface once the flood waters have receded. There is an awful lot of hatred swirling around the system right now, and it’s going to be a challenge figuring out how to fight fire with fire, without letting the hatred into our own hearts and warping our capacity to sense the inner beauty of those around us.
“What hit me about Twinkle and Alberta and another fine singer named Florence… was their grace and their dignified, relaxed attitude… A good colored singer doesn’t have to wrap her sex in a package and peddle it to the customers like a cootch dancer in a sideshow. She seldom goes in for the nympho kick — she can take it easy and be more genuine, because she isn’t doing any high-pressure selling. The music really moves her, and she passes it on to the audience with the lazy way she handles her body. To me there’s more natural suggestion in the snap of a colored singer’s fingers than you get from all the acrobatic routines of these so-called “hot” singers.
“The most action a solid Negro singer will give you is a subdued touch of the boogie, hardly anything closer to home than her index fingers. Most of the time she’ll just stand still and concentrate on putting real meaning and feeling into the song itself. A woman who really knows how to sing and means it can make your love come down even if she’s buried in a block of cement up to her neck — all she needs are healthy vocal chords and a soul, not a chassis with a seven-year itch. Most white singers made me feel their message was full of larceny, but when I heard these songbirds at the De Luxe I almost blew my top. Sex was all clean and simple and good, the way it came out of them.”
BOOM! Like many storytellers with a penchant for dance music, I have a long smoldering Freudian relationship with the big black mama that is bursting out of my skinny white man’s body, and I am proud to admit it. For me, it’s a connection to a world of emotion and spiritual fulfillment that I never got from my church or Anglo Saxon cultural institutions. Ella, Aretha, Diana, Lolleatta Holloway, Sharon Jones (RIP), you can name your soul or disco diva but all I can say is R-E-S-P-E-C-T for each and every one of them, and to think that they could be demeaned by racist slander the way they of course had to put up with throughout their careers, and Mishele Obama just revealed to the New Yorker that she has repeatedly suffered throughout her husband’s days in office (“You have no idea” she tells David Remnick, reporting from deep inside the Obama camp these past tumultuous weeks)… well, it really brings out the anger in me.
Then on comes that inner warning light about double standards that seem to trouble those of a liberal frame of mind more than they do conservatives, because we’re always falling over ourselves to be so balanced and tolerant and correct, aren’t we? “What about those conscientious Hollywood snarks like Bill Maher poking fun at The Donald for resembling an orangutang?” it says. Well, it doesn’t take much to tell a joke from a racist joke: white celebs teasing other white celebs about their ginger hair-dos and brutish behavior, just ain’t the same thing as making ape comments about the President’s elegant Afro-American wife. If you’re too blind to see the distinction on the obvious grounds of taste and reason, try working 200 years of hate, pain, injustice and oppression into the calculus and see where we all net out.
But here we go again, picking away at the scab. For good measure, Mezz Mezzrow on our racial heritage, this from the previous chapter about his time in jail:
“The white man is a spoiled child, and when he gets the blues he goes neurotic… When he’s brought down he gets ugly, works himself up into a fighting mood and comes out nasty. He’s got the idea that because he feels bad, someone’s done him wrong, and he means to take it out on somebody. The colored man, like as not, can toss it off with a laugh and a mournful, but not too mournful, song about it. It’s easy to say he’s shiftless and happy-go-lucky and doesn’t give a damn — that’s how a lot of white folks explain away this quality in the Negro, but that’s not the real story. The colored man doesn’t often get sullen and tight-lipped and evil, because his philosophy goes deeper than that. Maybe he hasn’t got all the hyped up words and theories to explain how he thinks. That’s all right. He knows. He tells about it in his music. You’ll find the answer there, if you know what to look for.
“In Pontiac I learned something important — that there aren’t many people in the world with as much sensitivity and plain human respect for a guy as the Negroes. I’d be stepping along in the line, feeling low and lonesome, and all of a sudden one of the boys in the colored line, Yellow or King or maybe somebody I didn’t even know, would call out, ‘Hey boy, watcha know,” and smile, and I’d feel good all over. I never found many white men with that kind of right instinct and plain friendly feeling that hits you at the psychological moment like a tonic. The message you get from just a couple of ordinary words and the smile in a man’s eyes — that’s what saved me many a time from going to the shady side of the street in that jailhouse. I had plenty to thank those colored boys for. They not only taught me their fine music; they made me feel good.”
To those of you watching on black and white sets (as the TV announcers used to say), he’s talking about compassion. If ever there was a time when we could use an overdose of compassion, it’s surely now. But it carries a risk of naively playing into the hands of the enemy. For example, take the current talk of how anti-immigration activists are not all racist. Jon Stewart made a huge deal about this the other day. Sure they’ve got a legitimate grievance; and sure, it’s a nuanced question, but let’s not lose sight of the big facts this past week: the President-elect has appointed a flaming right wing extremist — Steve Bannon of Brietbart News — as his Chief Strategist. The KKK is planning a victory parade on December 2nd. Reports of race-hate-related incidents have spiked nationwide since the race-baiting candidate won on 11/9. As Maciej Ceglowolski said in his excellent “Who Controls the Robots” deck doing the rounds, of Obama’s conciliatory approach to Trump: “You can be so open-minded that your brain falls out.” Just because it’s time for compassion, does not necessarily mean it is time for reconciliation. Back to the Mezz:
“On Saturday afternoons and Sundays, we were allowed in the yard for some ball playing… The yard was divided into two factions — the colored and white boys who hang out with them, and the Southern white boys who were always throwing sneers at us when they passed… [This] gang was led by some mean, stringy guys who always looked hard and never cracked a smile. They all had names like Texas and Tennessee, as though they were clippings from some geography text book rather than real flesh and blood human beings…
“I began to realize right there what the Civil War really meant. I’d been in plenty of rough fights back in Chicago, but never anything as bad as this one. The Tennessees and Texases wanted to kill every Negro they could lay their mitts on — you could see it in their faces. I’d never seen such murdering hate before.”
The pattern was clear to any impartial observer of Trump’s rallies leading up the election, that the driving force of his campaign, the thing that gave it so much of that ‘momentum’, was the visceral emotion of angry rural white folk. Indeed the main difference between Trump’s and HRC’s bland and garbled political messages, along with their mutual mud-slinging, were his appeals to bigotry against Muslims, Mexicans, women of intelligence and so on (plus his bogus promise to ‘shake up Washington’ and ‘drain the swamp’, whatever that means). That was what made him stand out from her, and they rallied to his banner. There’s no way to gloss over this. Racial resentment going back 150 years has been the driving force of this so-called political ‘revolution’, and it needs to be called out for what it is: Backward-thinking, inbred, hypocritical, bigoted, blinkered, ugly racism. For which there should be zero tolerance, and anyone trying to fudge the issue or normalize these acts or explain them away as ‘sarcasm, you shouldn’t take it literally’ or ‘just the boys having a joke’, or ‘only a headline on a fake news site’ has to be held to account and prosecuted. That is surely the dividing line that needs to be focused on, to uncouple these forces in the Republican coalition that now looms over us. (Compelling piece by Forsetti’s Justice on the destructive legacy of rural culture and religion, http://forsetti.tumblr.com/post/153181757500/on-rural-america-understanding-isnt-the-problem).
This is a time for people to decide on which side of that jailhouse yard they are standing. Before Trump and his sinister goon squad make monkeys of us all.