Posts from ‘Personal’

Jul
10

I was born and raised up north in New York City. My mother came from the south, Atlanta to be specific. Her family moved to New York when she was about 10 years old during the Great Depression. I say “about” because she often shall we say misrepresented her age and was pretty vague about when the move occurred. Nevertheless (as I learned as I got older) the south still played an important although scarcely acknowledged part in my upbringing. The cuisine with which I grew up was unbeknownst to me a southern one. We ate all kind of greens (mustard, collard, and turnip), many parts of the pig that shall remain nameless here, grits for breakfast, sweet potato pie on holidays, and what I later learned was “hoppin’ john” (black-eyed peas). All of these were brought up north by families like my mother’s who came from the south during the great migration. My mother was too young to have brought the deference to whites and the expectation of segregation that was endemic to blacks growing up in the South, so she didn’t pass that along to me. New York during the 30’s 40’s and 50’s was certainly not immune to the racism that gripped and still grips America. However, my mother was a feisty little woman and she passed that along to us kids. I saw the flip side of this in my wife’s step father who had grown to adulthood in the south. He never did overcome his deference around whites and waited in his car at restaurants to see if blacks were allowed in before he would enter.

As Isabel Wilkerson has documented in The Warmth of Other Suns, African Americans believed that up north there were opportunities for jobs, advancement, and homeownership that were not possible in the south. My mother married a northerner and through hard work scratched out a lower middle class living for us in the north. We were able to move into previously white areas in Brooklyn and then Queens during the 1950’s and although those areas eventually became mostly black, I always went to integrated schools and had many white friends. The violence and hatred against “uppity” blacks that was often displayed on my television screen during the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s made me cross off the south as a place to live. As feisty (as my mother had taught me) and uppity as my educational and career path were making me, meant that if I had lived in the south my life would have been full of conflict. Although professional engagements occasionally took me to the south, I stayed in my professional enclaves as much as possible, watched over my shoulder often, and left as soon as I could. That is not to say I had any unpleasant experiences, and in fact had many pleasant ones, only that the threat of a racist encounter always loomed (at least in my head) the few times I went to the south.

I spent most of my life in New England ironically mostly in Maine, statistically the whitest state in the Union. My location at a small liberal arts college and in a college town minimized any unpleasant racial experiences that occurred. As cold and stand-offish as the Mainer stereotype is, I found that once you broke through that exterior Mainers were as friendly, independent, and as feisty as I was. I certainly look back at my time there with fondness. Upon retirement we looked for a warmer climate and better weather. Again, we avoided the south since my wife was even feistier than I and suffered fools even less than I did. We eventually settled in New Mexico where the rich diversity of cultures (white, Native American, Latino and African American) promised an intriguing set of experiences, different biospheres, and warmer weather still with seasons. I lived there quite happily for eight years, before my wife passed away. I then went to live with my son, daughter in law, and granddaughter in a suburb of Houston.

Approaching age 70 this was the first time I had actually lived in the south. The South of 2019 was a far cry from the south of the 1950’s and 60’s. The mayor of Houston is an African American, the police chief is a Latino American. Even the police chief in Birmingham, Alabama has changed from Bull Connor and his ilk to an African American. There are African Americans in the state legislature, there are judges who are people of color throughout the south, there are now people of color in the professional classes including lawyers, doctors and entrepreneurs. I live in a wealthy suburban enclave that has a diverse population including Latino Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans. The middle-class jobs, civil service jobs, the bank officers, grocery managers or clerks are no longer exclusively white. There are black folks everywhere. There are no legally segregated schools, hotels, or restaurants (my late father-in-law would be pleased.)

Yet despite these changes (which are much more than cosmetic) there is still an under-stratum of that south I always feared and avoided. I have heard it said that the south is comprised of people of color held hostage by a white political class supported by rural whites for whom racism and Republicanism is the bedrock of their existence. I have found this to be too true. There are still too many people stuck in old ways of thinking about the world many of whom are in the authority structures. In light of this I find the recent Democratic victories in Georgia and my mother’s old hometown of Atlanta, give me hope. Through a massive get out the vote effort by progressive and people of color groups, they were able to prevail against the Republican voter suppression, rural white voters, conservatives, and racists that have dominated statewide and federal politics for so long. It may not last more than two years, but they have shown it can be done. Texas is a long way from being able to do this and its size alone makes it even more difficult to do. We need to find our own Stacey Abrams who can organize a massive grassroots campaign to turn the south of my nightmares into the south of my dreams.

Aug
23

You know how when you are watching a horror film you want to scream don’t go in there as the protagonist is about to open a door because you know some new horror is behind it? That’s how I am feeling about the news today. I don’t want to see whatever horror the Trump administration has tweeted, committed or had revealed. So I thought I’d just write about a childhood memory I was thinking about recently. My father was a working man who we only got to spend time with infrequently on weekdays. Oh he lived with us, but it was over an hour commute to his job. As a building superintendent he had to be the first one in most mornings and he had to take both a bus and subway to get there. So he had to leave earlier than we got up. In fact he would get up extra early to have a quiet hour to0 himself before he had to leave. Once I became a parent I understood why that brief time to yourself was so cherished. He would work all day and return home in the evening after my sister and I had eaten dinner at 6 pm every day (my mother was a stickler for routine.) Each night my mother would make a plate for him when we ate and then reheat his dinner when he finally returned by putting it on a boiling widemouthed pot with the cover on top of the plate. This was long before the days of microwaves and such. For some reason an image of the pot just popped into my mind recently. It was battered, had scorch marks, and we never knew what its original color had been. Sometimes my mother would eat with him, sometimes he ate alone. He usually returned while we were finishing homework, watching television or on late nights preparing for bed. I remember one winter night when a blizzard had shut down all bus traffic, he actually walked from the subway station home, a distance of a few miles. This was before cell phones and such so we had no idea of what was going on. We just waited anxiously as it got later and later. When he finally arrived a relieved wife simply heated up his dinner on that old pot as usual as he explained what had happened and what he had done.

During the last few years of his life he had a couple of heart attacks and had to leave his job. I remember keenly one Saturday morning when I had to drive him into work so he could clear out his locker. He was proud of me because I took the same route he would have to get into midtown Manhattan. To him this meant that the torch had been passed and he had raised me right. On our way back we stopped somewhere and I got him a coffee to drink in the car. I placed it right next to him. After a few minutes he asked me if I had gotten it while it was sitting right next to him. I suddenly realized at that point he couldn’t see out of his left eye. It was one of the saddest days of my life when I realized that this man who had been so strong throughout his life had been reduced by time and illness. I think he eventually regained his sight in that eye, but we never talked about it. I went on with my life eventually got married and I chose him to be my best man. I went away to graduate school in California. I called home every Sunday to talk to my parents. One day when I called home my mother answered, we talked for a while, then I asked to speak to my father. There was a long pause and then my father appeared on the phone. We exchanged pleasantries for a couple of minutes and then he put my mother back on. She paused for a minute and then whispered to me that that was one of the bravest things she had ever seen. Apparently my father wasn’t doing well at that time and had to make a supreme effort to get to the phone, but wanted to speak to his son.

His 58th birthday was in 1975. It fell on a Friday. I thought about calling him for his birthday, but decided that I would wait and talk to him in my usual Sunday phone call. That never happened. On that Saturday I received a phone call from my cousin that he had died from what was at least his fifth heart attack that I knew about. It taught me a lesson that I carry with me to this day. You never know when you will speak to someone for the last time, so never put off speaking to them. My father taught me lessons of steadfastness, responsibility, courage and quiet love that have served me well over my own life. So I remember that pot heating up his dinner. It encapsulated it all.

May
05

Legendary Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke formulated three “laws” or adages the third and most famous of which is “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Whenever a hear it I am am transported back to my first trip to Africa to do my dissertation research. I was doing research on the effect of a Lutheran mission on the religious beliefs in a village about a hundred miles from the capital. When we went there the foreign missionaries had been replaced by a home grown Lutheran church who were only to eager to rent a house on the old mission grounds to cash paying Americans. It was a small, comfy, one bedroom house with a fireplace with a large cross sculpted into the wall above. We lived there for eight months and never had occasion to use the fireplace.

It had indoor plumbing, but the source of water was stone platform higher than the house with three 55 gallon interconnected drums. There was another 55 gallon drum on the ground connected by pipes to the drums on the platform. One filled the ground level drum with water and then used a waggle pump to push the water up to the drums on the platform. Then gravity would bring water to the pipes, sink and toilet in the house upon demand. It was a quite ingenious system. The hard part was in bringing water to the ground drum from a creek somewhere between a half and three quarters mile away.  We hired a young man to do this for us. His name was Larry. It was hard work but he was willing to do this as we were one of the only sources of income available in the village. He did many other things (e.g. killing the occasional snake that got into the house,  wringing the neck of chickens so we could eat them, harvesting avocados from the backyard trees etc.) and in general took care of us for the months we were there.

One of the first questions he asked us had to do with entertainer James Brown. Brown had a hit record at that time that had made it all the way to Africa called “I got ants in my pants and I’ve got to dance.” Larry’s question was “he doesn’t really have ants in his pants does he?” I answered “no” and explained that it was just that he had an urge to dance. Larry was quite bright and while we were away for a few days getting supplies from the capital, we returned to find that he had rigged up a system so that rainwater could be caught and directed into the upper water drums. He therefore lightened his work load by not having to make as many trips to haul water for us. It was using his ingenuity and taking initiative to make his (and our) life better.

Enough setting the scene let’s get to the main event. We often talked and I told them if there was anything about America that he wanted to know he could ask me. He thought for a while and then asked “is it true that in America you can put pads on your hands and take a hot pan off the stove or out of the fire without getting burned.”   Of all the things different about America I was shocked that the thing he wanted most to know about was a potholder. Yet here was a simple thing which seemed almost magical to him. I hadn’t thought much about potholders before, but with insulation and silicone, a truly “magical” thing had been created to perform one of the daily and most useful of tasks. I admitted to him that it was true to his amazement. We had many more talks about more important subjects, but I never forgot his amazement at this simple thing that I took for granted. There have been more sophisticated and complex changes in tech have brought to our lives. I look with awe at the cellphone in my hand which  is a digital camera, video recorder, personal communication device, more powerful computer than NASA had for its early space flights, and a link to the most extensive data-bank of information (and misinformation) ever created by humans (the Internet.) I know that tech has been used by the profit-driven to wreak havoc on our planet, it is unevenly distributed by geopolitics and social inequality, and it has been misused to create a sedentary and obese population in our country. These are problems with humans not with the tech itself.

It is now over forty-five years later and I think of Larry often and I remind myself I must stop and marvel at the magic around me. So should you.

Apr
26

Many, many years ago when I was studying French I was required to read the pithy maxims of French philosopher and wit Francois VI Duke de La Rochefoucauld. He was an elitist French nobleman of the seventeenth century who commented on the foibles of humans. He wrote hundreds of quotes some good, some too pessimistic and some that are just irrelevant or too relevant for my life. Reading them again fifty years later here are 20 I have found to be true:

 

“How is it that our memory is good enough to retain the least triviality that happens to us, and yet not good enough to recollect how often we have told it to the same person? ~François Duc de La Rochefoucauld”

“We rarely think people have good sense unless they agree with us.”
― Francois de La Rochefoucauld

“The truest way to be deceived is to think oneself more knowing than others.”
― Francois de La Rochefoucauld, Maxims

“As it is the characteristic of great wits to say much in few words, so small wits seem to have the gift of speaking much and saying nothing. ”
― François de La Rochefoucauld

“Old men delight in giving good advice as a consolation for the fact that they can no longer set bad examples.”
― François de La Rochefoucauld, Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims

“Our minds are lazier than our bodies.”
― François de La Rochefoucauld

“It is far easier to be wise for others than to be so for oneself.”
― Francois Duc de La Rochefoucauld

“Few know how to be old.”
― François Duc De La Rochefoucauld, Reflections: Or, Sentences and Moral Maxims

“There exists an excess of good and evil which surpasses our comprehension”
― François Duc De La Rochefoucauld, Reflections: Or, Sentences and Moral Maxims

“Little minds are too much wounded by little things; great minds see all and are not even hurt.”
― François Duc De La Rochefoucauld, Reflections: Or, Sentences and Moral Maxims

The principal point of cleverness is to know how to value things just as they deserve. Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Read more at https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/francois-de-la-rochefouca-quotes

No men are oftener wrong than those that can least bear to be so.
Read more at https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/francois-de-la-rochefouca-quotes

It’s the height of folly to want to be the only wise one. Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Read more at https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/francois-de-la-rochefouca-quotes

Whatever good things people say of us, they tell us nothing new. Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Read more at https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/francois-de-la-rochefouca-quotes

A wise man thinks it more advantageous not to join the battle than to win. Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Read more at https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/francois-de-la-rochefouca-quotes

One is never fortunate or as unfortunate as one imagines. Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Read more at https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/francois-de-la-rochefouca-quotes

If we had no faults of our own, we should not take so much pleasure in noticing those in others.
Read more at https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/francois-de-la-rochefouca-quotes

We only confess our little faults to persuade people that we have no big ones. Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Read more at https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/francois-de-la-rochefouca-quotes

The only thing that should surprise us is that there are still some things that can surprise us. Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Read more at https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/francois-de-la-rochefouca-quotes

The accent of one’s birthplace remains in the mind and in the heart as in one’s speech. Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Hope, deceiving as it is, serves at least to lead us to the end of our lives by an agreeable route. Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Read more at https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/francois-de-la-rochefouca-quotes

Jan
23

I have stopped talking about what a vile human being Donald Trump is. Most of you already know, those who don’t know by now are hopeless.

I have stopped being surprised by the depths of depravity, inhumane acts, and lack of concern for others, demonstrated by the Trump administration. Who knew that rock bottom had a basement?

I have stopped being surprised by the obliviousness of people to their own racism. This doesn’t mean that I have stopped working on alleviating it, but that you cannot underestimate the racism of American society.

I have stopped being surprised at the random acts of kindness I perceive. When people are giving, concerned for others, and genuinely want to improve the world, they can make up for the selfish, narrow-minded, and offhandedly cruel people who dominate the news cycle.

I have stopped watching network news. It gives a distorted view of the world that ignores how things in actuality are.

I have stopped listening to stories about Mueller and the possibility of impeachment. Impeachment will not come. The way to get rid of Trump is the 2020 election. All my efforts will be directed toward that goal.

I have stopped craving steak. I eat red meat about once or twice a month. The rest is chicken and fish.

I have stopped thinking vegans are weird people. I can now see the virtue in what they are doing. The first vegan I met was a guy who went to McDonald’s but only ordered the french fries. I now appreciate healthy eating.

I have stopped taking unlimited hot water for granted. A couple of weeks without it cured me of that.

I have stopped expecting people to be reasonable. Some are, some aren’t. I am now pleasantly surprised when I meet someone reasonable, but not disappointed when someone doesn’t listen to reason. At least I tried.

I have stopped expecting to go through the day without some part of me hurting. Getting old is a bitch.

I have stopped expecting to win the lottery. Now I dream of what I would do with all that money, but without buying a ticket. That way I get the best benefit of the lottery without the disappointment or the hassle.

I have stopped expecting others to live according to my principles. In exchange I have stopped living up to others’ expectations. Fair trade.

I have stopped bemoaning what I can’t do and either try to get better at it, stop doing it, or concentrate on the things I can do.

I have stopped expecting my boyhood favorite New York sports teams to be good and just accept them for what they are.

I have stopped expecting Tom Brady to get old.

I have stopped assuming things about people until they reveal them to me.

I have stopped watching so much television and read more instead.

I have stopped thinking travel to vacation spots is a waste of time. One just needs to be particular about where one goes.

I have stopped hoping the world will get better on its own and realize that I have to be part of the change I want to see. (Actually I did this a long time ago.)

 

 

 

 

May
03

The first group of responses to George Yancy’s New York Times op ed piece that I want to talk about are those responses which deny that he could be an intellectual or even someone who reasons. He received comments like: “This belief that niggers even reason is blatant pseudo-intellectualism,” “The concept of there being an intellectual Negro is a joke,” “Another uppity Nigger. Calling a Nigger a professor is like calling White Black and Wet Dry,” “This coon is a philosopher in the same way Martin King was a PHD and the same way that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are ‘Reverends’,” “Just another jive assed nigger with a new way to pimp,” and “Hey Georgie boy. You’re the fucking racist, asshole. You wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for affirmative action.” The mere fact that he is a professor at a prestigious university is a threat both to their stereotypes and to them personally.

I have experienced this myself. In my third year of teaching I went to the wedding of a dear white friend of mine. As I was mingling with the other guests an inebriated white guest came over to me and asked me who I was. I introduced my self and said I was a professor at Bowdoin College. He looked at me in astonishment. “A black intellectual,” he said, “I didn’t believe there could be such a thing.” Before I could respond another guest who could see what was going on, came over and hustled him away to break up the conversation. Naive historian that I am I was about to explain that there had been black intellectuals and college professors for well over a century and a half and mention Alexander Crummell, Carter Woodson, E. Franklin Frazier and W.E.B. DuBois. Upon later reflection I realized that this response would have been woefully inadequate. Not only wouldn’t he have heard of any of these people, their existence wouldn’t have made a dent in his incredulity. He presumed that black people were incapable of intellectual thought and that was a fixed part of his worldview.

I had never given a thought to the fact that there were people like him. I had spent ten years of my life in undergraduate or graduate school learning from black academics among others and the last couple in the rarefied air of a college where my colleagues never challenged (at least to my face) my right to be there. I held power over students so their challenges directly to me were minimal, although I had no way of knowing what they said in private. I remember one morning I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that students reacted differently to African American professors than they did to white professors. At my first class, a class of less than 20 students, I began class by asking if it made a difference to them that I was an African American professor. They hemmed and hawed a bit before one young lady said, “you are so completely yourself that the fact that you are an African American does enter into our thinking about you.” That was one of the nicest things a student ever said to me. It was not the “I don’t see color” bs that you sometimes hear, but an acknowledgement that being an African American was so much a part of who I was that they could not single it out as a defining characteristic.

Nevertheless the incident at the wedding revealed a truth to me. Part of my role as a professor was to show that black folk could in fact be professors and that this might, I say might, influence some to change their stereotypes of black people. When Barack Obama was elected president he is supposed to have explained to his daughters that he would be the first black president. One of them is supposed to have said “Wow, you better be good.” I always felt the same way. I was usually over-prepared for class and I cared about the quality that colleagues would see me, and later the Africana Studies program that I headed, exhibit. Like most folks it took me a while to fully learn my craft, but I had learned even before this that you should always try your best because you never knew who could be watching you. A couple of years ago, seven years after I had taught my final class, my college invited me back to participate in a teach-in they were having. I gave a lecture on jazz, Motown, hip-hop and the environment. At the end one first-year student came over to me and said that was the best presentation she had ever seen. She had only been in college six weeks at that point so I took what she said with a grain of salt. I did take it as a sign that after 30 years I knew what I was doing and had learned how to do it.

I have also learned that it is important that I did so. Yes, our scholarship is important. It usually adds new perspectives to our fields and will be here after we’ve gone. All that work we put into our institutions is also important, as is the teaching of our students. However for some folks who will never read our books or hear us speak or show up in our classes, we still have a contribution to make by simply existing. Whether we realize it or not, whether we want to or not, whether we embrace it or not, we stand as a counterargument to the demeaning stereotypes of African American intelligence.

Apr
10

On this day four months ago my wife of many years, who I had been with for two thirds of my life, passed away. I have dealt with my grief many ways. I have stayed busy with chores, done those things which I avoided doing with her (like eat red meat, she couldn’t, eating shrimp, she was allergic), spent more time with my son and his family, cleaned the house, and did the things I normally do as well as those things I haven’t in a long time (e.g. cooking and going to the gym.) Many friends, colleagues and former students have reached out to console me and they have my sincere gratitude. Time and all of those things have dulled the edge of grief. As is my wont I think I’ll try thinking and writing about it too.

A long time ago I read something by C.S. Lewis to the effect that humans are the only ones who want to repeat a pleasure exactly. Not to just have another pleasure or another version of that pleasure, but to have that specific pleasure with all its feelings, smells, tastes, and sounds exactly the same. This is of course impossible, just as you can never step in the same stream twice. Time has gone on, circumstances have moved on, and that experience is now part of you thus changing you forever. I met my wife when I was 22 years old. I will never be 22 again. I am now entering the last stage of my life, older, more experienced and I hope wiser. More to the point I now have 45 years of experience living with someone else who was usually wiser than I, sometimes funnier than I, and always more practical than I. Those lessons and experiences now shape all that I do. They shape how I approach life now.

I made some gumbo the other day. I loved both the making and the eating of it. I am making it again today and following the same recipe. I have tweaked it a little; I have added some new ingredients (Hatch green chilies which are a great delicacy here in New Mexico) and left out a few (black pepper.) The gumbo I cook today will be different from the one I cooked last week. I will try to look at it not relatively (better or worse than last week’s) but as an entire new experience (a new pleasure I hope.) So will be my new life without her. I can no longer have the blush of first love nor the deepening experience of sharing one’s life with another for over 40 years. Of course that does not mean I cannot have an enjoyable, productive, and still meaningful life, nor that I will never smile or laugh again. I must admit I feel that way sometimes, but my granddaughter will do something surprising and a smile comes unbidden to my face.

So I will reorganize some cabinets,  rearrange the house, take care of the finances, and move on as she wanted me too. We always knew one of us was going to have to go on without the other. I didn’t think it would happen this soon nor that I would be the one. She would probably be better at it than me. I will do my best to build a new life, to cook a new gumbo with tweaked ingredients, but just as satisfying. I choose to believe she is somewhere saying “bon appetit.”

Mar
04

If you are lucky, and I mean really lucky, you have a friend you haven’t seen in a long time with whom you pick up where you left off as if it were just yesterday. One of my friends like that just visited me for a few days and little in our friendship had changed. Oh sure we had a few more pounds between us and our hair was grayer, retreating, or both, but the core of our friendship was as strong as ever. If you have spent time in the foxhole of undergraduate college together, supporting each other from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” as old Will Shakespeare once said, you form a bond that time doesn’t break. Whenever you interact you slip into those old relationships like a comfortable, well worn shoe. My wife used to say she could always tell when I was talking on the phone with him because all the diction and polish would disappear and I sounded like that naive kid from New York again rather than the worldly professor I presented to others.

Sure, we reminisced and many sentences began with “remember the time we…” or “remember so and so or such and such,” but that wasn’t the totality of our conversation.  Memory being among the first casualties of old age many times we could not recall names or incidents that were seared into the memories of the other. We had progressed from the callow youths we were when we first met into grizzled old veterans of life with many experiences, places, people, and lessons along the way. We told stories of our travels, things we had done, people we had met. We talked about growing older, raising kids, (and now grand-kids,) things in hindsight we should have done differently, failures and successes and everything in between, situations we had been lucky to emerge from alive, scars we still bore. We spoke about current things too: difficulties we were facing, aches and pains, how the world is going to hell (a common topic among old folks,) losses we were facing or about to face, and plans for the future. We saw the film “Black Panther” together through the same sixties radical lens and were amazed by it as a film, but distressed a bit by its politics. In fact its director, Ryan Coogler, and my son were at the University of Southern California film school at the same time and I was reassured that at least one of them was now able to repay his student loans. We had excellent meals (2 of them prepared by my son who loves to cook and is very good at it) and at some of my favorite restaurants nearby. As I was dropping him off at the airport for his flight home I told him I was going to the gym right afterward he said “Well, you earned it.” We ate well.

What I take from the experience of this visit is that we are never truly alone. There are people in the world who just “get us” even if we are not in constant contact with them. In times of loss and when despair threatens we should never lose sight of that fact. I hope you all have such friends because they are what allows us to get through this thorny world.

Jun
27

Back in the 1960’s I remember seeing a cartoon by Jules Feiffer in which a black hipster said “I dug jazz then whitey picked up on it…” then repeated it in the next few panels with some other thing that whites had appropriated (to use contemporary language.) The cartoon’s last panel said “Then I dug freedom…and finally lost him.” This comes to mind whenever I read about some black folk complaining that this white person has adopted a black style or black music or hairdo.

The discussions about appropriation I read about today usually revolve around three issues. First, white artists are making money, sometimes a lot of money, by adapting black music which then becomes popular to white and black audiences. Black artists usually don’t have this reach and don’t make as much money. Sometimes there are blatant ripoff’s like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” stealing of Marvin Gaye’s music. Other times it is just perhaps well meaning people like Justin Timberlake for example. The second argument is about inauthenticity. The white person born and bred in the suburbs is claiming to express the same feelings of those born in lesser circumstances. They are claiming the benefits of black artistry born in oppression without experiencing the conditions which brought it about. They have not earned the right to use black culture and they are not entitled to it. The third argument I hear boils down to they are stealing something from me, something which is very important to me: my identity. Their use of language, hairstyles, music is taking something which was marking me as a member of a unique ethnicity. Even when they have stolen my humanity there was something I could cling to, something esoteric that was uniquely mine. Now they are taking that too.

I must admit that at first I felt this way too. Back in the sixties I wouldn’t buy music (particularly jazz) by a white artist. I reasoned that the whites in the music market would provide enough financial support for that artist. I was going to put my few dollars to support black artists. For so many white artists their music lacked creativity, soul, true emotion, or cutting edge innovation. Years later I offered a history class on jazz. It was a class of about fifty and there was an elderly white gentleman auditor who didn’t talk but avidly listened to what was going down. One day I played a song by Paul Whiteman (a more appropriately named person I have never known) who was a white bandleader popular in the 1930’s and 40’s. I played the cut and then asked a general question of the class, “What do you think of that?” There was awkward silence that stretched on into several minutes. Finally from the back of the room the elderly auditor said, “Sounded pretty good at the time.” With the ice broken we could talk about how Whiteman’s music differed from say Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington or Count Basie.

Nowadays I don’t think of appropriation the same way. White musical artists have been covering and adapting black music for generations so getting upset about it serves no purpose. One could argue that there would be no white American popular music without it. Downbeat magazine ( a jazz magazine) had an annual critics poll that had a category “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition.” Wags used to argue that they should also have a category “Recognition deserving Wider Talent.” Regardless of who makes it there is good music and bad music, period.

I don’t care that Rachel Dolezal wears braids or has adopted an African name. To be truthful I don’t care about Ms. Dolezal at all.  What others claim takes nothing from me. As long as I go on presenting the identity I have honestly, doing the things I do openly, and saying the things I believe, let the chips fall where they may. At this point in my life I don’t have the time or inclination to do otherwise. Some folks will accept it and some won’t. Life goes on. Just as I have the right to project what I think of as my identity, so do other people. I am free to accept or reject their claims. I reject Ms. Dolezal’s claim of transraciality. I reject the claim that a Trump supporter is not racist. I reject that Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is good music. I accept Dave Brubeck’s claim that he is a jazz artist. I accept Eminem’s claims that he is a rap artist, I accept Bruno Mars as a winner of BET awards because all make some good music.

So what then is appropriate appropriation? First, the appropriator has to acknowledge the source of the appropriation and try to share the financial success that comes with it. With the English blues wave of the sixties blues artists like Eric Clapton also brought legendary blues performers like Muddy Waters on tour with him so Muddy could get a little taste of Clapton’s financial success. Second, the appropriation must not denigrate, belittle or stereotype the culture from which it is taken. Whites in blackface or wearing sombreros I’m talking about you. I have seen such “celebrations” in South Africa and the Netherlands too. Such appropriations are an abuse of power and a naked display of white privilege. Just don’t do it. If you really thought about it you would ask how does it make people of that culture or ethnicity feel? Finally, does the appropriation exalt the culture or simply copy it?  Having just returned from Mexico I have tasted the difference between a street taco made fresh and expensive restaurants offering  “fancified” versions of Mexican cuisine. Some street tacos were cheap, simple, delicious, and way better than some restaurants that offered expensive “copies.” A few restaurants however offered interesting twists on the taco formula that raised the bar for my appreciation of Mexican food. Here I offer the same critique I do of artists covering songs. If you can’t add something of your own that makes it different and your own, brings out something we didn’t know was there, or makes it good in a new way, then you shouldn’t do it unless it is an homage to the original.

May
06

The narrow approval of the House of Representatives to repeal the ACA and replace it with a new health care act that will ultimately leave millions without health insurance, is an act so callous and cruel that I struggle to understand why the congresspeople did it. A New York Times editorial savages it: (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/04/opinion/obamacare-house-vote.html?smid=tw-share ) Yes there is a large money saving element to it and it will probably pay for a tax cut that will benefit the wealthy most. However that is not all there is to it. The conservative argument is based on the idea that health care is a private good like all others and should be allowed to follow the rules of the free market. Let those who need the most of it (the old, sick and infirm) pay more and those who need little of it (the young, healthy and active) pay less. Other supporters have expressed the view that one’s health is the result of a choice of lifestyles. Why should I pay for the poor choices e.g. smoking, drug use,lack of exercise etc. of others that result in poor health. Others came on board because the health care act leaves each state free to decide many of the rules it wants to follow. This has led to ignorant quotes like “There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”( https://thinkprogress.org/roger-marshall-poor-people-do-not-want-health-care-obamacare-repeal-b49325664fd9).  In other words there are deserving and undeserving sick.

I would argue that health care is not like the other private goods that the free market is supposed to regulate, that health is not just the result of life choices, and that it calls for a national rather than state by state approach because it is a public good not a private one. Think about national defense for just a minute. No one would argue that it is something that should be left to the states rather than something the country as a whole should address. That is because “defense of the homeland” is thought of as a public good. We should think of health care the same way. Not just a Center for Disease Control to stop “invading” illness like Ebola, but also to stop the spread of diseases like cancer or to prevent birth defects. These diseases “attack” the country  because they limit the country’s productivity, shorten lifetimes of people who could be contributing to society,  and in the case of communicable diseases threaten our citizens. Even if the one percent may try to segregate themselves from the ill they are not immune. They should want excellent health care for people who care for their children, work in their homes, are employed by their businesses, and serve in their country clubs. How many of the ill are because they worked in mines or other dangerous businesses owned by the 1%? How about veterans who are suffering illness caused by their service or even people who just lived near where nuclear weapons or waste was stored?

I will not try to argue that some diseases are not the result of lifestyle choices. My father died of heart disease at 58, my mother of lung cancer at 69, my only sister of a stroke at 53 and all were heavy smokers. I do believe that smoking contributed to shortening their too short lives. We can argue how much of their smoking was individual choice and how much was insidious advertising, the corporate greed of Big Tobacco, governmental support of the industry, and outright lies about the safety of smoking. My point here is that rather than condemn them for their choices or point fingers at who is responsible, they would have been better served by the health industry working to extend their lives to make them longer-lived contributors to society. Although they all died too young, each of their lives was extended for a few years by medical care. Imagine a health industry that got from the federal government even a tenth of what we are spending on the military. Imagine a health care industry actually devoted to preventing disease as much as treating it. Imagine a health care system devoted to delivering health care to all rather than one priced so only the wealthy can get adequate health care or that is priced higher for those who need it most. All of these would be the result of changing our thinking about health care to considering it a public good rather than a private one. This health care “nirvana” is not beyond our resources or capabilities; at this point it is only beyond our will.