Sunday, August 29, 2010

Albert Murray's Blues

Earlier today I read an old New Yorker profile of Albert Murray by Henry Louis Gates. In it, Gates talks about Murray's ideas about the blues. Murray and Ralph Ellison, college friends who later reunited in New York City, developed their very similar understandings of the blues' significance over many letters and conversations with each other. Both men wrote about the endurance at the heart of the blues, its power to help its performers and listeners overcome life's brutality with an awareness both tragic and comic.

Ellison and Murray also shared an impatience with black nationalists. And though the separatists accused Ellison and Murray of not being strident enough, Gates makes a compelling case that Ellison and Murray, who argued that blackness is essential to what it means to be American, had an agenda that was even more ambitious.

... as the clenched-fist crowd was scrambling for cultural crumbs, Murray was declaring the entire harvest board of American civilization to be his birthright. In a sense, Murray was the ultimate black nationalist. And the fact that people so easily mistook his vision for its opposite proved how radical it was.

I especially like Murray's comment to Gates about James Baldwin's celebrated essay "The Fire Next Time," the 1962 jeremiad in which Baldwin suggests a coming racial apocalypse if America does not quickly extend justice to Negroes. Murray's remark—in both its humor and tragic awareness of the realities of power in America—seems to come right out of the blues tradition that he celebrated:

He says, in that distinctively Murrayesque tone of zestful exasperation, "Let's talk about 'the fire next time.' You know damn well they can put out the fire by Wednesday."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Beck, Obama, and Innocence

In his now-classic essay "I'm Black, You're White, Who's Innocent?" Shelby Steele argues that "the racial struggle in America has always been primarily a struggle for innocence."

White racism from the beginning has been a claim of white innocence and, therefore, of white entitlement to subjugate blacks. And in the ’60s, as went innocence so went power. Blacks used the innocence that grew out of their long subjugation to seize more power, while whites lost some of their innocence and so lost a degree of power over blacks. Both races instinctively understand that to lose innocence is to lose power (in relation to each other). Now to be innocent someone else must be guilty, a natural law that leads the races to forge their innocence on each other’s backs.

Steele uses this concept of innocence to frame his narrative about the Civil Rights Movement, which I think in many ways has become the dominant narrative, especially among white people in America:

Non-violent passive resistance is a bargainer’s strategy. It assumes the power that is the object of the protest has the genuine innocence to morally respond, and puts the protesters at the mercy of that innocence. I think this movement won so many concessions precisely because of its belief in the capacity of whites to be moral. It did not so much demand that whites change as offer them relentlessly the opportunity to live by their own morality—to attain a true innocence based on the sacrifice of their racial privilege, rather than a false innocence based on presumed racial superiority. Blacks always bargain with or challenge the larger society; but I believe that in the early civil rights years, these forms of negotiation achieved a degree of integrity and genuineness never seen before or since.

In the mid-’60s all this changed. Suddenly a sharp racial consciousness emerged to compete with the moral consciousness that had defined the movement to that point. Whites were no longer welcome in the movement, and a vocal “black power” minority gained dramatic visibility. Increasingly, the movement began to seek racial as well as moral power, and thus it fell into a fundamental contradiction that plagues it to this day. Moral power precludes racial power by denouncing race as a means to power. Now suddenly the movement itself was using race as a means to power, and thereby affirming the very union of race and power it was born to redress. In the end, black power can claim no higher moral standing than white power.

This narrative appears to omit a couple important points: 1) The "sharp racial consciousness" that Steele says emerged in the mid-'60s has always been a part of the movement, in which Martin Delany and Marcus Garvey are clear antecedents of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panthers. 2) Martin Luther King's saintly, Gandhian bargaining ended when he was murdered by a white racist. (As were white civil rights workers like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.) The path of strategically using innocence has problems too. Bargaining and challenging are probably both necessary strategies for blacks in America.

Nevertheless, Steele's formulation tells us much about the current Tea Party movement and Glenn Beck's rally today—the anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington—on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The Tea Partiers see themselves as oppressed innocents, inheritors of the moral righteousness of Martin Luther King. From the NY Times:

Tea Party Patriots, the largest umbrella organization for thousands of local groups across the country, posted a petition on its Web site calling for the N.A.A.C.P. to revoke its resolution “condemning the Tea Party movement as ‘racist.’ ”

“It is nothing less than ‘hate speech’ for the N.A.A.C.P. to be smearing us as ‘racists’ and ‘bigots,’ ” the petition declared. “We believe, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in a colorblind, postracial society. And we believe that when an organization lies and resorts to desperate tactics of racial division and hatred, they should be publicly called on it.”

Entrepreneurial demagogue Glenn Beck is cashing in on this sentiment:

“We are the people of the civil rights movement. We are the ones that must stand for civil and equal rights, justice, equal justice. Not special justice, not social justice. We are the inheritors and protectors of the civil rights movement. They are perverting it.”

One problem with this formulation is evident in Beck's "us/them" formulation. As Steele asserts, "Innocence imposes, demands, division and conflict." Barack Obama, in Beck's view and that of the Tea Partiers, can't be a democratically elected American president who is interested in a substantive debate about how to make our country work better. Instead, he must be a foreign Manchurian candidate secret Muslim bent on a Marxist subversion of all that is good and true and American.

In Steele's formulation, Obama is a highly successful bargainer—a black man who assures white Americans of their innocence in order to gain entry into the mainstream. Stanley Crouch puts it somewhat differently, asserting that Obama's appeal stems from his ability to present "an American history that is common to us all:

Obama does that by building a blues- and glory-bound train. He has shown himself to be a master of making couplers that should have functioned before.... He takes his listeners to the station and shows them how well the train is built and how all of the cars are linked to each other by importance. The couplers of perception that Obama has designed link the Revolutionary War to the abolition movement against slavery. Those two are coupled to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. He then couples those four to women getting the vote and the emergence of organized labor. The train has become more impressive as those six are linked to defeating European fascism during World War II, saving the world from people driven mad by the superstitions of bigotry. That's seven cars held together by strong couplers made from facts, not dreams; timeless actualities, not nostalgia. The last car so far is the Civil Rights struggle in which white and black people, some young, some not, brought this country much closer to its democratic destiny. (from "The High Ground," published in Best African American Essays 2009)

Contrast that with the warped versions of history that Beck presents on his programs, and that permeate Tea Party rhetoric.

Crouch makes a strong case that Obama has reclaimed the high ground that Martin Luther King occupied—that he bargains (to use Steele's term) with white America by granting us our innocence and asking us to live up to it, to live up to the best of the American tradition.

Beck and the Tea Partiers reject the bargain, as many white Americans (including the federal government, as represented by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, who considered King a Marxist threat and spied on him as if he were a terrorist) rejected Martin Luther King's bargain and helped add fire to the climate in which King was assassinated.

What scares me most is that Beck, the Tea Partiers, and their ilk are stoking a climate that may eventuate in some nutjob's attempting to assassinate the President. And the Secret Service's failure to keep the White House party crashers from gaining access to the President does not encourage me about his safety. And that's why, after I read to my daughters before their bedtime, I pray for Barack Obama.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Beck to Where You Once Belonged

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Glenn Beck's upcoming rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, expertly eviscerated by Jon Stewart above, is a scary illustration of something that Hua Hsu talks about in his fine essay "The End of White America?"


... a racial pride that dares not speak its name and that defines itself through cultural cues instead—a suspicion of intellectual elites and city dwellers, a preference for folksiness and plainness of speech (whether real or feigned), and the association of a working-class white minority with "the real America" .... Arguably, this white identity politics helped swing the 2000 and 2004 elecitons, serving as the powerful counterpunch to urban white liberals, and the McCain-Palin campaign relied on it almost to the point of absurdity (as when a McCain surrogate dismissed Northern Virginia as somehow not part of "the real Virginia") as a bulwark against the threatening multiculturalism of Barack Obama. Their strategy failed, of course, but it's possible to imagine white identity politics growing more potent and more forthright in its racial identifications in the future, as "the real America" becomes an ever-smaller portion of, well, the real America, and as the soon-to-be white minority's sense of being besieged and disdained by a multicultural majority grows apace.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

An Innocent Man

This passage, from Shelby Steele's 1988 essay "I'm Black, You're White, Who's Innocent?" struck me as particularly perceptive:

I’m convinced that the secret of Reagan’s “teflon” coating, his personal popularity apart from his policies and actions, has been his ability to offer mainstream America a vision of itself as innocent and entitled (unlike Jimmy Carter, who seemed to offer only guilt and obligation). Probably his most far-reaching accomplishment has been to reverse somewhat the pattern by which innocence came to be distributed in the ’60s, when outsiders were innocent and insiders were guilty. Corporations, the middle class, entrepreneurs, the military—all villains in the ’60s—either took on a new innocence in Reagan’s vision or were designated as protectors of innocence. But again, for one man to be innocent another man must be bad or guilty. Innocence imposes, demands, division and conflict, a right/wrong view of the world. And this, I feel, has led to the underside of Reagan’s achievement. His posture of innocence draws him into a partisanship that undermines the universality of his values. He can’t sell these values to blacks and others because he has made blacks into the bad guys and outsiders who justify his power. It is humiliating for a black person to like Reagan because Reagan’s power is so clearly derived from a distribution of innocence that leaves a black with less of it, and the white man with more.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Abolition and Integration

A very interesting passage from Derrick Bell's gripping book And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice:

... racial integration is this era's idealistic equivalent of abolition in the pre–Civil War years. Each represented in its time a polestar by which those seeking reform could guide their course during a desperately hard journey—away from slavery in the last century and away from segregation in ours. While pointing the way, these beacons fail to provide us with a detailed blueprint of what to do upon arrival. They do not tell us how to ensure that those who have been long exploited by the evil now removed shall be recompensed for their losses in pocket, psyche, and public regard. Confusion arises from the failure to recognize the difference between the beacon we have and the blueprint we need. We inevitably lose our way and wander back to the situations of subordination from which we worked so hard to escape.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Ole Miss

Over at the New Yorker blog, Hendrik Hertzberg opens up the mail bag and finds a couple complaints, including this one, about a recent column of his:

I wish that Hendrik Hertzberg (“Comment,” June 28th), had not been so juvenile as to slander an entire diverse and long-suffering state by inserting the word “although” into his otherwise accurate reference to “Ray Mabus, the Secretary of the Navy, who, although a former governor of Mississippi, is an enlightened and competent public servant.”

His graceful
apology takes note of Mississippi's troubled, complicated, rich history (it's not part of the heartland but part of the "bluesland," Hertzberg notes) and is a pleasure to read.

It reminded me of a less nuanced but still powerful take on the state, Phil Ochs' Civil Rights-era jeremiad "Here's to the State of Mississippi":

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Advance Thoughts on Freedom

I'm still looking forward to reading Jonathan Franzen's upcoming novel Freedom, although this critique from NPR sounds all too familiar:

... despite the brilliance, or maybe even because of it, I found the novel quite unappealing, maybe because every line, every insight, seems covered with a light film of disdain. Franzen seems never to have met a normal, decent, struggling human being whom he didn't want to make us feel ever so slightly superior to. His book just has too much brightness and not enough color.

Thinking back on the two excerpts from this novel that have been published in the New Yorker, I can definitely see what the reviewer means. Franzen satirizes his protagonist, Patty Berglund, pretty sharply in "Bad Neighbors," along with every other character in the piece. Yet even though "Agreeable" certainly stands aloof from its events and showers its characters with the film of disdain mentioned in the review, I thought I detected in that snippet the possibility of some real empathy for Patty, a desire to understand her as a human being—which I hope comes to greater fruition in the novel as a whole.

I guess I'll have to wait and see for myself.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Country Time

Although I've never really listened to any of Brad Paisley's music, I enjoyed Kelefa Sanneh's New Yorker profile of him. The piece has some great insights about country music, race, and Paisley himself, who comes across as a funny, down-to-earth, and likable guy.

Sanneh pulls no punches, however. I loved this passage, about Paisley's second single, "in which a boy pays tribute to his mother's new husband":

It built to a chorus—"I hope I'm at least half the dad that he didn't have to be"—that was designed to make remarried mothers cry.... The song was a deft and novel articulation of family values, and it was Paisley's first No. 1 hit. It was also profoundly square, with plaintive piano chords and cozy lyrics about a happy family "crowded 'round the nursery window," and the literal-minded music video looked a lot like a commercial for something (maybe a mortgage company, or powdered lemonade).

It may have struck me as especially funny since I've been drinking a lot of powdered lemonade lately. It's my replacement for fountain soda, which was starting to give me stomachaches.

Paisley may also be a New Yorker reader. He's entered the Cartoon Caption Contest at least twice, and his captions are actually pretty good.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Two Guys, Opposite Directions

This anecdote, from David Mendell's excellent article about the former governor of Illinois, in whose trial the jury is still deliberating, actually makes me like the guy:

Leaving his radio show the next weekend, Blagojevich was greeted in the lobby by an autograph-seeker, a deeply tanned man wearing lipstick, a strawberry-blond wig, and a dress. The cross-dresser handed Blagojevich a photograph to sign: a picture of Blagojevich and Obama sitting together at a Democratic Party event several years earlier. He scrawled in black cursive, "Here are two guys whose careers have gone in opposite directions. Best, Rod Blagojevich."