Categories
FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Atlanta Reconstructed

In mass murder as well as in war, the great darkness of death can often inspire a sentimentality that distorts our perception of the intricate human struggles that preceded and will prevail beyond the body count. Such is the case of Atlanta, a city in which the grand ideals of democracy and the mid­night oil necessaa Joury to achieve them have come together in ways which relate to the Civil Rights Movement in much the same way that Reconstruction relates to the Civ­il War. Yet the miscegenated identity of its political history, its culture, its alliances and antipathies are shrouded by the pain and terror felt locally and nationally each time the body of an adolescent black man is pulled freshly dead or in some stage of decomposition from a river or other hiding place.

But the texture of terror is not im­mediately experienced in Atlanta. What one first notices after traveling the interminable distance through the ugly Hartsfield Airport — the world’s largest­ — is the spring air and the brightness of the sun. Then there are pine trees that seem primitive and gargantuan bottle brushes, slopes that give the city a roller coaster effect, many churches made of wood or stone, and more than a few fronted by Grecian columns, and finally the new of­fice buildings and hotels and entertain­ments for conventioneers and locals that spread out from the center of town to impinge upon what classical American structures were left unharmed by the as­sault of Sherman’s troops and the march of modern age. There is a terror there, how­ever, and it brutally counterpoints the city’s typically Southern relaxation, elo­quence, humor, and fatalistic sullenness. It is expressed in the somber understatement of a fine preacher quietly describing Satan, or it stutters the rhythm of speech like a loose fan belt. It is sometimes wrapped in a mystified outrage or dressed up like a grim Christmas tree with statistics of ar­rests, leads, time lags between disap­pearance and discoveries. Nothing, how­ever, has led to a significant arrest or a solution to any of the killings.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725686″ /]

= 1 =
THE HERITAGE OF RECONSTRUCTION

Atlanta is a city far more complex and far more segregated and given to bloody battles above and below the surface than most accounts allow us to see. The city proper consists of two counties, Fulton and DeKalb, and except for pine-filled woods and slopes, it is predominantly flat, with the nearest mountain range 400 miles away and the ocean 300 miles away. Over the last 10 years, 102,000 white people have moved out of the city proper, while 27,000 black people have moved in, making the population of 450,000 65 per cent black and leaving white Atlantans two thirds removed from political control.

1981 Village Voice article by Stanley Crouch about Atlanta

The fossils of classic segregation exist in streets that change names beyond certain points because, in the old days, whites didn’t want to live on streets with the same names as those where Negroes lived. Many neighborhood schools were built for black children following the desegregation ruling of 1954. Present segregation works, as it does in the North, by neighborhood. Most of the black population now lives in the south, southeast, and southwest ends of Atlanta, while most of the whites live in the north end, with midtown the most integrated. At the turn of the century, the well-to-do Negroes had lived on the south­east side of town, at the outskirts. Slowly they moved west, unavoidably leaving the poor behind. Presently, the more am­bitious black business people are taking their trade to Campbellton Road, the main street of the Southwest area, where the upwardly mobile Negroes have been buying houses as a result of white flight to the north and the suburbs (an interesting historical twist in that whites on the run from black political control now turn, as runaway slaves once did, to the north, albeit a local one).

The Atlanta University Center, because it has long provided the black braintrust of the city and the South as well, is largely responsible for making Atlanta so dif­ferent from every other city in the South. Examples of those associated with that braintrust are: James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. DuBois, Benjamin Mays, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Atlanta Univer­sity, which was founded literally in a box­car in 1867 — 18 years before Georgia Tech — was the first of the city’s five black colleges, the others being Morehouse, Spelman, Morris Brown, and Clark (there are also the Interdenominational Theolog­ical Center and the Atlanta University Summer School, both cooperatives). The black colleges, in conjunction with the black churches, businesses, and social clubs, not only produced a developing intellectual and economic elite that inspired many Negroes to move to Atlanta, but also built a network of social organizations de­signed to address the problems of reloca­tion and community development. As At­lanta University’s Dr. Edyth L. Ross wrote in the December 1976 issue of the college’s review of race and culture, Phylon: “These organizations, varying in social structure from relatively amorphous social movements to highly formal voluntary associa­tions, constitute a legacy which looms large in the structure of social welfare today.”

Ross goes on to point out that the or­ganizations expanded upon the settlement houses created as adjustment centers for European immigrants; these were full community efforts designed to provide ev­erything from care for the aged to recrea­tion for teenagers and homes for colored girls, from medical care and housing improvement to remedial reading and legal assistance. As early as 1873, 100 years before Maynard Jackson took office, a black church ran three health centers so successful that the death rate among those it served was one-third less than that of the white population. It was this tradition of educational advance and social change that enabled the city’s Negro community to continue the work of Reconstruction up through the election of Maynard Jackson. The colleges, churches, and businesses provided the city with theorists, re­searchers, organizers, sponsors, and, even­tually, politicians who would parlay their growing strength in votes to a power posi­tion in the middle of city negotiations, not on the outskirts.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719253″ /]

The long march from the first phase of Reconstruction to its present man­ifestation has not come without enmities, for though Maynard Jackson’s adminis­tration is predominantly black, Atlanta’s economic power is almost completely white, with each side convinced that the opposition will only gain greater ground or maintain its strength at the other’s ex­pense. As an architect from an old Atlanta Jewish family says, “The financial strength is in the white community and it is being clutched more tightly than ever before because of the black political power. I think there needs to be a sharing of the financial power. But the mayor’s in­terpretation of joint ventures has soured much of the white community because it sees the mayor’s city government as serv­ing a black constituency above all else. And the mayor’s list of power positions in city government is quite considerable. The ma­jority of the city council, the commissioner of public safety, the police chief, the presi­dent of the Atlanta Chamber of Com­merce, and the chairman of the Fulton County Commission are all black. I don’t care what the color of somebody is, but I do care about what they consider their consti­tuency to be.”

Yet except for its understandable suspi­cion of white people, that black consti­tuency is far from monolithic and is given to considerable infighting, most of it based on color, class, and what part of the coun­try one is from. It has also thrown its share of punches at Maynard Jackson and his staff, at his appointments and his firings. As with most light-skinned Negroes in positions of power, when Jackson does something the black community likes, the entire group takes credit for it; when mis­takes or unpopular decisions come down, he is seen as a “high yellow” selling out blacks or working for whites. Writer Toni Cade will tell you that success in the city can depend on whether or not you’re light-­skinned and are part of the middle-class Morehouse-Spelman crowd to which Jackson and many of his appointees belong. Since Negroes from rural Georgia and just about every other place in the country now migrate to Atlanta seeking better lives, just as they did right after the Civil War, a television executive will tell you that though he is successful, it took him almost four years to get local Negroes to see him as something other than part of a wave of black carpetbaggers come to take jobs away from the city’s black, brown, beige, and bone sons and daughters. One of the mayor’s appointees charged that jealousy is behind it all, that most of the native black Atlantans don’t have enough drive and ambition to achieve success or prominence. Jackson’s job then, is to balance his credibility in both racial groups while continuing the traditional involvement of Atlanta’s black middle class with the greater black community. The two strata have al­ways been close, because racism made it difficult, if not impossible, for a Negro to achieve a significant position outside the black community if he or she happened not to be an entertainer. Consequently, the city’s black leaders in business, medicine, education, and religion achieved their prominence through the trade, the pa­tients, the students, and the congregations provided by the bulk of the city’s Negroes.

Because of Maynard Jackson’s de­termination to better Atlanta, his adminis­tration has had to live up to its progressive heritage at the same time that it has been forced to scuffle with the riddles of black political power and the aforementioned white money, the complications of race and class and the ills of poverty and crime that exist as appendages which bruise and wound a growing city that is still, for all the media talk of cosmopolitanism, an urban country town quite schizophrenic in its mix of eloquent sophistication and mumbl­ing naivete. As Janet Douglass, executive director of the Community Relations Commission and the Committee on the Status of Women says, “Sharing power never comes without pain.” That pain, as well as a complex kind of pride, is felt on both sides, black and white. For certain whites, the pain results from Jackson’s playing a kind of political hardball Ne­groes have never played in Atlanta; for lower-income Negroes the pain is con­nected to expectations that impose upon Jackson’s leadership a messianic mantle that fits like a yoke; and for still others, both black and white, there is a pride in the fact that Atlanta has long been an oasis of relative political enlightenment sur­rounded by the redneck mandates of the rest of the state.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719613″ /]

= 2 =
VARIETIES OF PATERNALISM

The versions of that political history are quite different if one is talking with an older white Atlantan as opposed to almost any black person who worked to break down segregation during the Civil Rights Movement. Those older whites will point with pride to William B. Hartsfield, the city’s mayor from 1937 to 1960. As de­scribed by local white historian Franklin Garrett, Hartsfield was a man “who could be a hairshirt at times because of his quick temper but he could also be quite man­nerable and genial. He discovered the charm of reading as a child and, though the son of a tinsmith and a man who came up the hard way, he got his law degree by reading law on his own. He wanted the city to become part of the aviation industry, which is why our airport is named after him. His desire was to see the city develop the standing it had as a transportation center which dates back to its significance as the most important railroad center in the Southeast with four major railroads by 1860, when Atlanta became the manufac­turing hub of the Confederacy and turned out railroad ties and steel plates for the navy. He created the term, ‘Atlanta, the city too busy to hate,’ and realized that, with the Primus King Decision of 1946, which ruled that blacks couldn’t be barred from local and general primaries, he could build a coalition since the city was 50-50 black and white, and had an educated claas of blacks with which you could deal without a lot of loud rabble-rousing.”

Hartsfield’s coalition of upper-class whites and middle-and lower-class Ne­groes was formed to stave off the politics of redneck whites. This was a considerable achievement: on September 8, 1948, dur­ing the period when Hartsfield was integrating Atlanta’s police force, Herman Talmadge gave his acceptance speech as governor of Georgia with Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Sam Green on the podium. Soon afterwards, Talmadge attacked the Atlanta Negro Voters League, of which Maynard Jackson’s grandfather was a leader, and boasted that he’d keep prima­ries as white as possible. When asked if the black police would be allowed to arrest white people, Hartsfield is quoted as saying, “When somebody’s breaking in your house and you yell, ‘Police,’ you don’t care what color he is, all you want is for him to get that man out of your house.” But these same policemen had put on their uniforms at the black Butler Street YMCA because they weren’t permitted to change in the station house.

1981 Village Voice article by Stanley Crouch about Atlanta

Many black people saw Hartsfield as a benevolent dictator whose paternalistic politics used the black vote only to determine contests between white can­didates. The same is said of his successor, Ivan Allen, a wealthy merchant prince who was mayor from 1961 to 1969. Lonnie King, one of the organizers of the de­segregation protests during the Civil Rights era, says of Allen: “He was a pater­nalistic man whom some white people would say had noblesse oblige. Black folks know better, however. The best example is the Peyton Road wall which Allen had put up in the southwest when black people were getting ready to take advantage of other housing opportunities. It was a sym­bol that meant, ‘Black people stop here. These homes aren’t for you.’ But Allen later took down the wall and went through a strange metamorphosis which led him to testify in Washington in support of the Civil Rights Bills of 1964 and 1965. He did it, by the way, against the advice of his affluent black supporters who had weaseled into a corner of the power structure. You know how some slaves look out for the master. But I think Allen saw beyond what they were telling him and realized the image of racism would, finally, do damage to the business interests of the city and discourage investors from coming to a town that might be constantly shaken by racial confrontation, which could mess up conventions, property, and profit.”

Economics are pivotal, as usual. White businessman George Goodwin says, “In the late ’40s, I wrote for the Atlanta Jour­nal that the property tax digest was just up to what it was in 1860, when slaves were considered property. What is now Atlan­ta’s First National Bank was started in 1865 and it was 10 years before it had $1 million on deposit and 1917 before it had $10 million. In 1929, mergers led to $100 million for a few days before the Great Crash. It was the late ’30s before it got back to $100 million. After World War II, the pent-up buying power began and didn’t really take off until the 1960s, which produced the array of office buildings you see in the city now. Though we were hit by the ’70s depression, Atlanta is now a trans­portation center, wholesale center, retail center, financial and insurance center. In recent years, it’s become a convention center, probably the third-largest in the coun­try. This provides jobs in hotels and serv­ices for visitors. The rest of the South may not be aware of it, but Atlanta knows we lost that Civil War. Sherman burned At­lanta because if he hadn’t, it would have gone back to functioning in the same way for that time which it does now.”

Following Allen was Sam Massell, a real estate man who was Atlanta’s first Jewish mayor. Jews had been coming to Atlanta since before the Civil War and had often done well, but the city was hardly free of anti-Semitism, which was most brutally exhibited in the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, who had been convicted of raping and murdering a young Christian woman on circumstantial evidence supplied by a black janitor. Atlanta Jews often sup­ported progressive causes, but many blacks recall that Jewish merchants were no quicker to desegregate than anybody else in Atlanta’s white power structure. Rich’s, the city’s largest department store, opened its lunchroom to blacks only when faced with the embarrassment of having to put Martin Luther King, Jr. in jail in his own too-busy-to-hate home town. To this day, there are clubs in Atlanta that Jews can’t join and more than a few are bitter about it, just as some ruefully recall the bombing of a synagogue during the Civil Rights era.

Massell’s appeals to the black com­munity had been instrumental in his vic­tory over an apparently more conservative opponent, Rodney King, who also lacked the New South image preferred by many affluent white voters. The flaps involved his brother, Howard, who had been ac­cused by nightclub owners of traveling around in a police car to gather campaign funds with the promise that the city would become wide open if Massell were elected. Sam Massell claimed his brother’s ap­proaches were misinterpreted, only to watch him leave town for Miami after an­other scandal involving people with sup­posed connections to organized crime. Un­der Massell, the new police chief was John Inman. By 1973, Atlanta police led the nation in per capita police killings, with 29 civilians slain — 27 black, 12 under the age of 14.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721023″ /]

= 3 =
MAYNARD JACKSON’S NEW DESIGN

Maynard Jackson entered politics in 1968 by running against Herman Talmadge for U.S. senator. Jackson lost, but carried Atlanta by 6000 votes, and in 1969 was elected the city’s first Negro vice­-mayor. Although expected to run again for vice-mayor in 1973, he instead took on Massell and defeated him handily. Soon after he took office on January 7, 1974, Reconstruction returned to Atlanta. Prior to Jackson, the City Council was both administrative and legislative. In effect, the department heads ran the city, which gave it what George Goodwin calls a “weak mayor form.” Jackson made all the committee heads responsible to him, which resulted in a “strong mayor form.” This didn’t sit well with entrenched whites, who no longer had the power to distribute jobs and money on the basis of friendship and familial connections. It also gave the mayor a more complicated job and made him less accessible to individual visits from businesses and others who had been accustomed to visiting the Mayor’s office. Even so, there are those who feel that Jackson is far less effective one-on-one than when addressing masses of people, that the very distance itself is more comfortable to him.

Jackson’s confrontation came with Chief Inman. Under Inman’s predecessor, Herbert Jenkins, there had been a chosen few black officers, most of whom were disgruntled because they rarely got promotions almost entirely by briefly assigning his favorite whites to acting of temporary positions and then, when time came to promote, pushing those whites into the slots, claiming that they had more experience than black officers who had been on the force longer.

1981 Village Voice article by Stanley Crouch about Atlanta

Jackson initially moved to replace Inman with a white man named Clint Chasen. Inman confronted Chasen, eventually calling the SWAT squad into Chasen’s office with guns drawn. Chasen decided that there were better jobs available in the world and Inman took his case to the Supreme Court, claiming that he had an eight-year appointment through the former mayor and could not be fired, demoted, or replaced. The resentful legal staff which Jackson was saddled is thought to have sold him out by botching the case. But Inman was unpopular with the District Attorney’s Office, and a case in which Inman was obliquely involved set the stage for another approach. Inman had been living on the estate of pesticide tycoon Billy Orkin, who attempted to get a police officer to kill the husband of a woman he was dating. The officer went to the district attorney’s office and an out-of-state policeman was brought in for an undercover investigation which led to the jailing of Orkin. Inman wasn’t specifically implicated in the conspiracy, but a lot of questions were raised about how and why Orkin came to believe he could get an Atlanta police officer to commit the murder.

Jackson’s new city design included a commissioner of public safety, charged with administering the police and fire departments as well as civil defense. Reginald Eaves, a Bostonian who had gone to Morehouse with Jackson and participated in his campaign, was appointed to that slot even though he had no experience in police work. The white press in Atlanta, which immediately proved itself hostile to Jackson’s designs, statements, and policies, dubbed the position “Super Chief.” Inman was assigned to an office in a roach-infested basement and later left.

Eaves gained attention on his first work day by demoting 37 white policemen, and he busted 14 more by the end of the week. Soon he became a villain in the white press and a hero in the black community. Even after it was revealed that Eaves’s secretary had a heroin conviction in New York and that one of his relatives had gotten a CETA job, his popularity in the black com­munity was undiminished, primarily be­cause he announced that he would person­ally charge with murder any police officer who killed without reasonable cause. Po­lice homicides ceased. Over a two-year pe­riod, Eaves got press by going on police raids, rigged to allow him to kick in doors and collar criminals for the cameras, much as J. Edgar Hoover had done in his day.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720527″ /]

“Reggie,” says another Jackson appointee, “took off in that job. Where he had kind of stood in Maynard’s shadow before, he developed into an incredible speaker and was suddenly everywhere — at churches, picnics, socials, and everything in the community you could imagine. He was single, so the bitches liked him, and he took a hard line on crime, like Maynard did. He defined criminals as parasites within the community and let it be known he would give no quarter to a lawbreaker, regardless of color. He transferred cops with bad brutality records into jobs like guarding airplane runways and fire sta­tions and made strong efforts to get the community to see the police as public ser­vants, not trigger-happy parts of an occu­pying force. Quiet as it’s kept, he was using the office to run for mayor and Maynard didn’t know it. Then the shit hit the fan.”

In the fall of 1977, Eaves was accused by officers within the department of sup­plying the answers to the civil service ex­amination for the police force to black men he wanted to hire. Jackson was forced to call for an investigation that was handled by two private lawyers, one black, one white. The 300-page report proved that certain cops had memorized the tests beforehand since they gave the same se­quence of answers when retested even though the questions were reordered. Eaves took a lie detector test that proved inconclusive. When the results were made public, 300 black people were gathered on the steps of city hall. For the cameras they asserted their belief in Eaves’s innocence, but privately they said things like, “So what if he cheated? White folks have al­ways been cheating.” Some white liberals argued that there was no other way to balance the force.

Jackson had long taken the position that affirmative action was only a response to racist hiring practice, that it was neither a means of forcing the unqualified into jobs nor a form of reverse racism. But at the same time he was burdened with what those close to him consider his greatest weakness: an almost aristocratic sense of loyalty. Some kind of showdown was in­evitable. Eaves was speaking in churches and at rallies, opening his statements with phrases like, “Though my skin is dark and my lips are thick,” implying, some that if he was removed it would have more to do with in-group color prejudice than a mis­handling of authority. Cannon fodder from the University Center was hot to trot in support of Eaves and the press was making much of Jackson’s deliberations. Eaves finally agreed behind closed doors to ten­der his resignation, promising it on a certain day, then another, then yet another. Jackson started getting angry at demands from the street that Eaves not be fired. “Maynard started saying,” quotes one aide, “‘I hired him and he carried out my policies, not his. Now these people want to act like I didn’t have anything to do with bettering the police force.'” Finally, in the middle of the night, the resignation was delivered to Jackson’s chief of staff, Gerri Elder. On the same night, much later, Eaves called Elder and said he’d changed his mind and would send his bodyguards to get it back. Elder, in a panic, called Jack­son, who blew up and ordered her not to return anything, then sent his own body­guard for the resignation.

The next day, in a cold, formal tone and in front of witnesses, Jackson called Eaves and told him his comment to the press was to be no comment and that he was to maintain a low profile. Eaves agreed, but in a matter of hours he was speaking to the press on television. “Maynard went through the roof,” reports an appointee, “and called a press conference immediate­ly at which he announced that Commissioner Eaves had been suspended. From that moment on, it was over because, you know Maynard’s sister married a Nigerian, and he said, ‘Even if my sister pickets me in Yoruba, Reggie Eaves is gone!'”

Jackson responded to continuing ten­sion in the black community by appointing Lee Brown to replace Eaves and George Napper to take the slot vacated by Inman. Both were black and had doctorates in criminology. The resentment cooled.

Then there were the murders.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719763″ /]

= 4 =
EVERY MOTHER’S CHILD

I arrived in Atlanta the Friday before Reagan was shot and Timothy Hill’s body was pulled from the Chattahoochee River. I checked in at the Hotel Georgian Terrace, a grand old midtown place with stone columns out front, plenty of marble in the lobby, and each of its first-floor wings given over to the hybrids only modernization, can produce. To the left of the entrance is a 24-hour German deli and to the right, the bar, which has high ceilings and many potted plants, a few pinball and electronic space games, and a sound system that blurts out disco tunes at what seems the highest possible volume. After touring the city with newswoman Alexis Scott Reeves, I returned at early evening to find the lobby filled with black homosexual couples. Throughout the week, I was to find that the hotel was an evening meeting place not only for homosexuals but for certain integrated couples of whatever persuasion and that the midtown area had become the hub of the city’s homosexual world. I also found out that Atlanta is the homosexual capital of the Deep South. Organized crime control the city’s homosexual bathhouses, discos, and gay bars, and as a result, the Atlanta Police Depart­ment’s tough Organized Crime Division bumps heads with homosexuals as it moves to keep the mob from getting a toehold. The black female community, which some say outnumbers black men as much as nine to one, is hostile to both homosexuals and integrated heterosexual couple.

The next day I went on the search party for the then-missing children, which met at Ralph Abernathy’s West Hunter Street Baptist Church, now a stone-columned structure on Gordon Street next door to the Wren’s Nest, the home of Joel Chandler Harris, which was long controlled by a group of old white ladies who made it a segregated historical site until the 1960s. The search parties, of course, accept all comers, some of whom I was surprised to see that Saturday morning.

A light spring wind had set in, flipping Caucasian hair and that loose enough among the Negroes to move to so easy a touch. Green ribbons were in motion, tied to arms and the broom handles used for searching through bushes, or pinned to the fronts of coats, shirts, and blouses. The fancy patterns in which some of the rib­bons were tied marked how long the searches had been going on, although per­sonal style is never very far behind the establishment of insignias and symbols. Yet it seemed at first like a picnic gather­ing or preparation for an Easter egg hunt. This impression lasted only as long as it took to notice the search dogs and the ambience of sorrowful expectations cast­ing an ambivalent mood in its wake, a mood that made the laughter and the jokes of those searchers who had become famil­iar with each other through the 25 weekends seem as much reactions to strain as expressions of humor or camaraderie.

1981 Village Voice article by Stanley Crouch about Atlanta

The ironic flip-flops of history were also evident, for here were white men dressed in army surplus, sometimes driving panel trucks and sometimes possessing classic red necks, who had brought their dogs to work in combination with black men, women, and children to find the bodies of dead black children, not capture runaway slaves. Also ironic was the fact that more of the white girls wore what used to be con­sidered exclusively black, even militant, hairdos as well as the gerri curl look favored by many of today’s black men and women. Acknowledging the scavengers who gather around tragedies, a representa­tive of the church’s United Youth Adult Conference announced to the volunteers as they gathered in the cold gymnasium be­hind West Hunter Baptist, “We are here only to find the lost children and hope to God we find them alive. If you have any other reason than that, please don’t go. We don’t want anybody trying to convert any­body to be a Democrat, a Republican, a Black Nationalist, a Ku Klux Klan, or anything else.”

The word for the day was going house­-to-house within the lower and lower­-middle-class black community to find out if anyone had been the most recent of the missing children, Timothy Hill and Joseph Bell, who had disappeared a few blocks from each other. Canvassers armed with photographs of the two boys boarded  buses to work in areas of roughly 10 blocks. ­No one in the strip we covered, on and off a main thoroughfare called Simpson Street, had seen any of the children, but all communicated the dismay, the sorrow, the rage, and the wounded hope of those who had felt so much optimism since Jackson’s election. The reports that Jackson, who had battled down a huge waistline, was gaining it back on ice cream binges in the wake of the crisis, were then understandable. The murders constituted a growing weight that promised to sink the administration’s achievements.

In fact, the computer technology and the the task force directed by the relatively new commissioner of public safety, Lee Brown, seemed to increase the burden rather than ease the populace. Whenever anyone was asked if he or she thought the ­police were working as hard as they could, the response was disillusionment. “I hate to say so, but I really don’t think so. No, not with all this time has passed. Seem like they would have come up with something by now. They got all the best equipment and plenty of money. No, sir, they can’t be doing much as they can do.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”720494″ /]

That sentiment was expressed often that week, usually by people at the lower end of the economic ladder and those for whom literacy wasn’t important or didn’t have much to do with their daily lives. They were the black people who gathered most of their information and opinions from television and conversation. The up-shot was that the television cop shows had created in them unrealistic expectations of the police. Unlike the television-show vil­lain who announces himself at the start of the hour and is captured within 10 minutes of the next hour, the criminal or group working outside the established crime world is very difficult to capture, especially if he has even average intelligence, which is something most criminals don’t possess. When a criminal or criminals work outside the underworld network, the effectiveness of bribes and rewards is limited. With $100,000 being offered, Atlantans can be sure the crimi­nals of the city are on the lookout for the killers, as is everyone else who could use that kind of money. The lower-echelon criminal world is particularly concerned, according to Julian Bond, because the heavy presence of police during this period has greatly reduced the rapes, robberies, and car thefts that make Atlanta a typical urban center.

Atlanta is experiencing the paradoxes of success in the modern age and no one seems ready, the police any more than  anybody else. Jackson’s push for conventions, international investment, and the image of a cultured town — complete with dance troupes, jazz musicians, community theatre, and free city-wide festivals — has attracted representatives of every one of the Fortune’s 500 to the city. It has also at­tracted Northern-style crime. Vern Smith of Newsweek, though observing that black-on-white crime can make headlines while black-on-black crime is rarely reported in the white press, adds that street crime in general is far less pervasive than what he saw when assigned to Detroit. “The crime Atlanta may have to worry about is drug traffic,” observes Julian Bond, “because changes in vacationing patterns and the frequency of internation­al visitors to the Southeast make for big profits in tourism and a lot of popping in and out of the airport. With any conven­tion centers come vice, and there is now so much pressure on Miami dope smuggling that gangsters take advantage of the many little airports in Georgia that exist for private planes and quick jaunts by businessmen.” Both black and white point out that the popularity of cocaine as an upper-middle-class drug results in grand profits for gangsters. Those who believe that the murders may involve the killing off of rival couriers in a dope war explain that in that world a $100,000 reward means very little.

During the first press tour of the task force office the question of homosexual killers was raised again and again. Com­missioner Brown would only answer that there was no evidence of homosexual connections though the investigation wasn’t ruling out any possibilities. Local tele­vision, however, reported that, according to task force sources, two or three of the victims were thought or known to be guilty of petty theft or burglary, 10 of drug violations, and 10 of homosexual prostitution. A teacher interviewed on the show cor­roborated that at least three of the chil­dren were known to travel with adult homosexuals, and that the boy found the day Reagan was shot, Timothy Hill, had often been seen in their company. (This was also attested to by one of the cleaning women in the Hotel Georgian Terrace, who knew the boy and lived in the same neigh­borhood). An FBI source I interviewed agreed that homosexual prostitution could be connected to some of the cases. He went on to say that the local police weren’t experienced or sophisticated enough to handle this kind of big-city crime and were no further along than they were four or five months ago, adding that he knew federal agents who believed the obvious serial murders could be solved within two or three weeks. He observed that the initial belief that the killings were racially motivated may have cost many leads if, say there is a black judas goat involved, which seems more probable by the day, and that the black community’s ingrained distrust of police black or white had hampered the investigation. In all fairness, however, neither big city police forces nor the F.B.J. always apprehend highly publicized killers or fugitives immediately, if at all. In San Francisco, the Zodiac Killer was never cap­tured; the Boston Strangler remained at large for years, and the Weather Under­ground surrendered on its own schedule.

[related_posts post_id_1=”726204″ /]

Since 1979, county prosecutor Hinson McAuliffe, in conjunction with Lieutenant F. L. Townley’s organized crime unit, has closed down or run out of town 80 porno­graphic bookstores, 12 X-rated theatres, and all bathhouses, and are now moving on homosexual street prostitution. This has been a difficult and dangerous process. When Townley’s unit began pressuring vice operations run by Tony Romano from Cleveland, he was subjected to death threats, a dead horse’s head was put in his daughter’s car, Xs were painted on his home’s doors and windows, and a detec­tive’s car was blown up. Townley, a white man who has been on the force for 20 years, disparages charges of inefficiency that old Eaves supporters and other impatient citizens have leveled at Brown. “I think he’s going to be the salvation of this city. He’s a man’s man; he’s not afraid of any­thing, you can’t buy him, and I feel more comfortable and have more confidence in him than anybody I’ve worked under in this department. If it hadn’t been for him, I would have left here when those threats started. My wife and daughter were telling me to quit, officers in my unit were fright­ened for me, and Lee Brown stepped in, personally made sure my family was pro­tected and backed me until we got Tony Romano, his wife, Virginia, and his son, Greg, several years in prison. They got it for prostitution escort services, bath­houses, bookmaking, pandering by com­pulsion, and communicating gambling in­formation.”

Townley couldn’t corroborate the rumors that bitter white officers who had left the department after problems with black administrators were attempting to botch the investigation by leaking per­tinent information they received from friends still on the force. He did say the leaking of plans for investigating organized crime was a problem within the depart­ment and there were other examples of corruption. He cited the recent arrests of a Fulton County officer for running a whore house, and an Atlanta officer found driving three stolen expensive cars when a $500,000 car-theft ring was-bro . n,e sponse to the homosexual murder theories, Townley reported that a house of homo­sexual child prostitution had been smashed a few weeks earlier but the 40 boys were all white. Townley added that boy prostitution wasn’t the problem it is in the North but that informants were close to the network in the black community, though no substantial leads had yet turned up. He concluded simply: “We know that whatever happens in the North eventually comes to Atlanta. The kind of money and resources these killings have brought in are almost what we need on a regular basis. If I had six more people in my unit, I could rotate them and be twice as effective, and we’re not doing a bad job as it is. It’s just we’re overworked as hell.”

However frustrated the police may be, the strain is obviously felt more deeply in the black community, with responses that range from habitual paranoia to irrational condemnation. The reduction in normal amiability is signaled by the questioning stares that arise when adult strangers enter black neighborhoods. The young restlessly resent the lack of mobility necessitated by the crisis; one parent, reporting a growing callousness in the children, repealed this comment by his 12-year-old son: “They found another one today. Bet they won’t get me.” The murders have taken on an obsessive quality for the mothers of the victims and for those who join search parties every weekend. But there’s still no excuse for the black sentimentalists who complain that city officials take a business-as-usual attitude once they’ve publicly decried the horror of it all, as if the officials would have had any other choice were the dead children white-or as if the critics themselves have stopped the business of their own lives in the face of the present murders.

[related_posts post_id_1=”727310″ /]

= 5 =
A CRISIS OF IMAGE

Those who criticize Jackson’s concern that the killings mar the image of Atlanta his administration has worked so hard to create do not appreciate the nature of social and economic change in this society. They will dismiss local media claims about great improvements in public education with reports that the schools are terrible and frequently graduate illiterates, not realizing that improvement is impossible unless the tax base is increased, which means coaxing runaway whites back to the city. Blacks complain with considerable justice that a poverty level twice that of the na­tion, 23 per cent, belies the image of a growing international metropolis. But the plight of Atlanta’s poor doesn’t move those affluent whites who believe their home town is now perceived as a black city, and who lend their voices, to periodic rumbl­ings about incorporating greater Atlanta’s other 13 counties to bring about a resurgence of white political control.

“The entire population of all the counties is over two million and majority white,” says Dr. Richard Long of Atlanta University. “But what black folk don’t un­derstand is that Jackson, even in face of certain bad and embarrassing appointments, didn’t have to do what he did; he could have made some gestures like the improvement of police relations and gone on to placate the whites with money. His greatest achievement was the airport, which he demanded be a joint venture with both black and white contractors involved. Whites had never noticed when their competitors were white but they definitely did when they were black for the first time. Jackson also got 40 per cent of the concessions — the shops, the duty-free busi­nesses, and so on-for black en­trepreneurs. This made the whites even madder. But black business here is, like every place else in the world, a joke. The myth of a successful black city does haz­ardous things to those Negroes who think they’ve been left out of the pot of gold. If there is a pot of gold, it’s tin painted over. Almost every black in this city is on somebody else’s payroll. But you know how susceptible blacks are to the myth of alchemy and always have been. At the same lime, there is this image of an inter­national city which Jackson has pushed very hard for by getting direct flights to and from London into the airport’s schedule, foreign consulates to open offices here, and so on. This isn’t liked much by the whites in or out of the press. They say he’s the only mayor who has a foreign policy. Obviously, they’ve never heard of Ed Koch.”

Though embattled and accused of ar­rogant sanctimoniousness by his de­tractors, criticized by his own staff for standing by bad appointees on sinking ships until the water reaches his nose, and convinced that his greatest victory was over the police department, Maynard Jackson’s place in history will have most to do with what his supporters call “the poli­tics of inclusion rather than exclusion.” In the great tradition of Atlanta University Center and the many historic figures it has produced, he has not only striven for a contemporary vision of the full community efforts that date back to 1873 but has brought Negroes into positions of authority, involvement, and decision making that have not existed in the South since the first phase of Reconstruction and were nowhere near as comprehensive even then.

[related_posts post_id_1=”729457″ /]

Eugene Duffy, Jackson’s youngest ap­pointee, says, “Maynard got them to bring that airport in under budget and early. The federal government can’t do that with a Trident missile or a shuttle. He’s marched with the striking garbage workers and has made sure that the black community gets exactly the same public services as the white people. He also plays hardball these white boys aren’t used to from a black man. For instance, when Arrow Shirts wanted to move its factory outside Atlanta and sell the land to the Transit Authority for the subway route, Maynard knew it would cost the city 800 jobs and dwindle the tax base further. He called them and let them know if they tried to leave, he would inform the Transit Au­thority they would be denied a demolition permit. Arrow agreed to relocate inside Atlanta. Black folks don’t appreciate that kind of stuff, unfortunately, because most don’t know what high power politics is. Maynard does, though.”

The city’s cultural texture is, finally, much more subtle and complicated than the obvious struggles for political power and money initially reveal. It is as interwoven as the genetic histories of its people, histories affirmed by the broad range of features, hair textures, and miscegenated skin tones that also illustrate the failure of African-American representational painting. As one middle-aged white woman said, “I got Cherokee mixed in me and probably some other things. People brag about the Indian in them, but they’s a whole lot of things they know and everybody else knows about the family blood that don’t get talked too much about.” That is just as true of the Negro community — ’60s nationalism has in­fluenced many younger, light-skinned Ne­groes, who frequently speak of racial matters so snottily that they seem to be suggesting they themselves are pure black, just as certain even lighter ones used to try and pass for pure white. Yet blacks and whites retain almost identical taste in foods, and their sense of humor is much the same. The good old boy, the gen­tleman, the belle, the orator, the scholar, the tale-spinner, and the fool-cutter also have idiomatic Southern variations on both sides. For all the huffing and puffing about who’s got what, the geniality in more than a few integrated circumstances equals when it does not surpass that of almost all similar situations in the North.

The afternoon I left Atlanta was the 13th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination and there were funerals for the two black youths found dead that week, one of whom was in his early twenties and retarded. I thought of the in­evitable sentimentality and the observation by State Representative Tyrone Brooks that the fund appeals had become “a pimp circus; all kinds of people pretend­ing to be raising money for the mothers and putting it in their own pockets.” By then, green ribbons symbolized moral pomposity and avarice as much as they did empathy.

As the cab traveled to the airport past the beautiful colors and trees and red clay in the gorgeous spring sun, I thought of Sherman’s observation as his troops pulled out of the ravaged city: “We turned our horses’ heads to the east. Atlanta was soon lost behind a screen of trees, and became a thing of the past. Around it clings many a thought of desperate battle, of hope and fear, that now seem the memory of a dream.” ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Into Africa

Where the Heat Comes From

Africa is one of the centerpieces of fantasy in our time. Its ambiguity and variety have always challenged the imagination, partly through dark and brutal acts, partly through a vitality that interweaves the subtle and the sizzling. Though Africa’s cooperation fueled the Atlantic slave trade, though its conquest stands as a repulsive record of colonial misjudgments and excesses, and though its periodic coups are usually the work of blue­-ribbon brutes, the continent’s people constitute a startling and inspiring catalogue of languages, customs, and physical types.

When I was there two summers ago, traveling in quick stopovers from Dakar to Monrovia to Lagos and then spanning the continent to Nairobi, where I remained for two weeks, it was easy to see that if you want to know where the heat comes from, Africa will set you straight. If you have a passion for the scorching rendition of the human story by drums and percussively elastic dancing, Africa will run rhythmic rings through your nose and teach you new stanzas of the poetry of the pelvis. Not that there isn’t abysmal poverty reminiscent of Belzoni, Mississippi, in Shauri Moyo, which means “You Are Hot,” not that there isn’t a gloom as wide as the waist of an elephant standing on its hind legs. But you see and feel a will in­tent on reducing the hold of ignorance, filth, and imprecision, intent on fusing African poetry and Western fact into a fresh interpretation of mod­ern life.

So Africa is moving through the mist of its — and our — misunderstand­ings. If history is benevolent, the wounds suffered from within and with­out, from the worst of colonial history and contemporary African corrup­tion, greed, and gangster politics, will all someday become no more than the ritual scars of an initiation into world status. We see only the fore­head of Africa now, but it is levitating through the steam of its own heat.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716138″ /]

1. MIDDLE PASSAGE REVERSE

On the plane I sat with a couple of Nigerians, one a tall, maple-syrup­-brown student studying in Chicago, the other reddish beige, stocky, and recently graduated into the world of computer software. The student was comical, his accent and look that of a young trend-addicted Texan — a leather tie around the collar of a red shirt, that shirt covered by a black suit, his nappy hair oiled and a small suitcase of Jheri curl solution to keep those kinks under control once home and to provide friends and family entry to the circle of black American style. Both were aware of the Buhari takeover, which felled a democracy, albeit a corrupt one, and wondered whether or not the new (and since deposed) leader’s submis­sion to Islam would make much difference. It was concluded that tribal roots were deeper and thicker than religion or politics. “In our country, it is not who you know but who you are related to that makes the differ­ence between being in the jail or out on the street, begging for your money or getting the very good job. That is how we are. But this Buhari guy, he might try to be honest. That is very dangerous in Africa, how­ever.”

The software African, an Ibo who as a child had been a terrified wit­ness to the Biafran war of 1967-70, sat in front of me. As soon as he mentioned the war, I remembered the photograph of an Ibo mother gone mad, her huge breasts black and flaccid, her embraced baby starved dead, her hand filled with a rotted chicken she swung to taunt the hungry. He spoke softly because the other Nigerian was a Hausa, a member of the once largely ignorant tribe that the educated lbos meant to free them­selves from when they seceded. But all of that was past and he became disgruntled about other business as the flight progressed. “Look at this plane. It is filthy. I wonder if this plane is so dirty because it is going to Africa.” He wrote a note to the stewardess on a napkin: I hate you Pan Am. You have no respect for the African. You think all we deserve is dirt. But since he wanted a second helping of food — “I am really hungry, miss” — he chose not to hand it over. I joked with him that I would give her the napkin and they would never let him fly Pan Am again. Except on the wing. Of course, when he was asked why his people weren’t interested in planes, one African witch doctor answered, “We fly in our minds.”

When the plane landed in Dakar and I was on the land of Africa for the first time, I didn’t experence any special excitement because the greens and the low trees and the milky brown earth reminded me of the arid parts of the American Southwest. But on the low hills that surrounded the airport like a badly tattered sombrero brim, five or six long, nilotic bodies were moving in a percussive gait akin to dancing, their robes shift­ing position in the dry air as if measuring the wind. As we lay over, I left the plane and walked across the field, passing first a shed in which auto­mobiles were being repaired, then a guard near the wire gate that opened to the dirt road running parallel to the landing strip. There were lots of Peugeots and Africans whose small body types counterpointed those so tall they seemed to balance the sky and the clouds on their shoulders. The wind was a hot glove, thick with invisible fur covering your every movement. But as more clouds gathered, the air cooled and the light changed, transforming the milling Senegalese in the distance into shadows in robes. I had now become accustomed once again to the African smell I’d first encountered 20 years before in college, that scent reminiscent of grease and condiments that sometimes becomes a smooth stench. And there was also the somber pride that inhabits the eyes of many and that appeared by the end of the trip to be the most universal aspect of African people, cutting across the whirlpool of religions, languages, and historical enmities.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720527″ /]

Senegal was the land of Ousmane Sembene, that muckraking Marxist and sardonic weaver of celluloid tragedies; and the land of Leopold Senghor, whose 1930s poetry of negritude had saluted Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” as a salve for the lonely African blues in Paris, but whose regime, for all his stanzas’ pandering to the Baudelairean appetite for ersatz savagery, had been largely a flight from the bush to the Louvre. Here, according to the films of Sembene, the African was tied to the ground more by tribal custom, Islam, and corruption than by the oft­criticized attraction to French elegance. After all, it was the work of European scholars and explorers that informed provincial tribes which knew little of each other that there were not only more varieties of culture than they could imagine but that there was, in fact, an African continent. Yes, for all the huffing and puffing, for all the black kingdoms that de­cayed mysteriously back into pre-history, Africa is largely a European idea, the result of bigger maps and the will to knowledge as well as the desire to exploit labor and raw materials. A huge woman I saw hobbling under her blubber, a babushka spun around her head and her body cov­ered with a print dress of smoldering color, gave me a feeling of the easeful warmth I forever associate with the American South, while the passing men who seemed formed of flesh and stilts had an effortless grace that presaged the African basketball I would see in Kenya. As the plane rose from the airstrip and headed for Liberia, an odd melancholy melted down through my skin as I sensed the long, hard march Africans would have to make. A steaming road of asphalt caked with blood lay before so many of them, just as the monstrous records of dictatorships lay imme­diately behind them. The mood was perfect for a sky ride to the next domain.

Monrovia was very different from Dakar. Its greenness was sweet to the eye and its air a smooth and warm rejoinder to the droning noise of the airstrip. In the airport, the shine boys were on it, after dollars, their almond eyes and high cheekbones capable of instant pathos or entranc­ing smiles. There was warm beer for sale, and the customary picture of the president in every shop revealed a nearly comical severity much like that of Sapphire’s photograph in the old Amos and Andy television show. Except that there was little comic to it when you thought of the blood let to destroy one order and push Dr. Samuel K. Doe up to the top. The army men who walked about with the vicious arrogance of pit bulls left no question as to how power was maintained in this country. What we have read of the Reign of Terror is almost always a few seconds away in Africa, the distance only as far as the gathering of enough guns to wrest control.

In 1980, Doe had brought off a coup, storming the palace with fewer than twenty men, who gouged out the eye of the former president and disemboweled him, after which their leader called for public executions. The doomed were wounded as many times as possible before a shell bit off the top of a head or plowed fatally into a body. Perhaps that was the cost of a tradition in which the 60 local tribes had been living for over 130 years under the condescending weight of a regime begun by freed American slaves. Thinking of themselves as black pioneers, they took the land with America’s military backing and formed the first African re­public in 1847. Those colonizing Negroes saw their African cousins — ­”brothers” and “sisters” has always been an absurdly maudlin exaggera­tion — as no more than savage labor sources. Some think they emulated the antebellum ways of the whites they knew in America, yet in a way they were really no more than an intrusive “tribe” anticipating a monstrous aspect of Africa’s political future. And they would probably have reacted in much the same way had they been put in command of droves of illiterate black Americans, given the fact that some ruthless ex-slaves had chattels themselves when they could afford them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724836″ /]

In the airport I met a black American businessman getting a shoeshine who had been working deals in Africa since 1976. He immediately pointed out what he considered the differences between the aggressive Monro­vian shine boys and young U.S. Negroes. “If they had half the hustle these kids have got, we could get this goddamn welfare and all that crap up off our backs. Work is the only solution to our trouble.” He had become well acquainted with West Africa and laughed at the local newspaper. “I buy these things to cop a giggle. They’re ridiculous. ‘Today the president looked out the window. Today the president put his pants on. Today the president wiped his ass with his left hand. Today the president blinked twice before sunrise.’ They’re all on that level. News is an unknown commodity in Africa. But one thing is sure: there are big bucks to be made over here. Big bucks. So far, the fattest deal I’ve done was 20 mil­lion, but that’s not the top. It’s our time over here — those who got their stuff together and can handle the funny ways you got to deal with these Africans. You can offend your way out of a million dollars in five minutes. No telling what the man with money looks like. He can be a dirty, nasty, greasy-looking sonofabitch. He can be in a robe or a suit with raggedy sandals and his hair hasn’t been washed in only the crystal ball knows how long. But this guy can be sitting on some money, buddy. You’ve got to be cool. You can’t look down on anybody. It’s always a mystery. And the most interesting thing about it is that they prefer dealing with us, not white folks. Same thing with the Japanese. They choose spooks, too. It’s our time. But it ain’t going to be about the niggers in that joke back in the ’60s about going back to Africa. You know the one where the boat hits the shore and all these greasy motherfuckers get off in robes and plastic beads and want to know, ‘Hey, do the welfare checks come on the first and the 15th or the 10th and the 25th?’ That won’t do it.”

As we came down in Lagos, where the greens were even more various than in Monrovia, the pilot announced that the use of camera equipment was forbidden. I was pushed back down into gloom, wondering what Nigeria’s new regime preferred to keep off the photographic record. I bid farewell to the businessman and listened to a missionary explain how conversion worked and what he had learned through dealing with the spiritual concerns of Africans. “The Western version of the Joseph story is that wherever Joseph went, he never forgot God. The African version is that wherever Joseph went, he never forgot his family. So when asked what salvation means in African terms, you always got the answer that a man who goes home to his village and follows his father’s orders will be a safe and happy man. The point for a missionary is that God the Father can be explained in those terms. That the Father of everyone is, finally, spiritual, and that doing his moral bidding will make one safe and happy.” Much later, in Nairobi, I met a superbly dressed Irish lawyer, his hair silver, his gin tonic atilt, and the lines of intelligence and wit section­ing off his face, who soberly told me something I would never have im­agined:
In the next century, this continent will be the center of Christianity. When the pope came here three years ago, we had the biggest crowd ever seen in Kenya. Kenyatta never drew crowds like that. In the West, we think Christianity is old hat. For the African, it is the good news. It is a release from the grip of superstition. Everything takes time to seep through, and our first legacy — our worst — was ravenous materialism. Now, very slowly, mind you, we are seeing the arrival of Western high-mindedness. It is very humbling and has that pecu­liar intensity you come to expect of Africans. At their best, they seem as though they could make stones come alive through the Power and the sincerity of their emotion.

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article

2. EAST AFRICAN ENTRY

We landed in Nairobi at half past midnight and the array of Africans was as provocative as that of any people I have ever seen: Africa, like a long and legged serpent, writhes over the chessboard of time, at once primeval and contemporary. There were Africans splendidly dressed in tweed jackets, silk shirts, and magnificently woven trousers who carried them­selves as though they were to the rest of the world what the sun is to our solar system. Then there were others in brilliant robes and glistening Italian shoes; Africans in cowboy hats who had gold teeth, tribal scarifi­cation, and remarkably mismatched attire; Africans in deeply wrinkled $400 suits and terribly scuffed shoes, their hair as filthy as unshaken dust mops; Africans in berets and military dress, in smocks with official airport buttons. I appreciated most the arrogance and the enthusiasm, those eyes exuding temperaments as aloof as the ears of a giraffe but given the grace of bristling affection.

Everything fit together, I have long thought of this century as poly-rhythmic, an era at one with the transmogrified African sensibilities of jazz, perhaps the most sophisticated performing art in Western history. But ours is also a century of speed. In that respect, the speed with which Africans moved from prehistory to software and the telex has provided a shattering but impressive compression of European history: the move from the world of magic to that of speculation, deduction, and scientific experiment. Sophisticated technology bespeaks an accurate understanding of natural law far beyond the explanation in metaphor of animist super­stitution. The agony of the long fight to separate church and state hap­pened more quickly and with a brutality that did not allow African convention to suppress science or new political ideas. The moment Afri­cans were colonized, their church was separated from the government, and the imposition of borders agreed upon by Europeans in Berlin in 1884 created pluralistic nations that tribalism in contemporary Africa has yet to truly accept. Though they were colonized, their conquest also meant access. Just as the white man changed Africa and Africa changed him, the adventure of the African in Europe’s and America’s libraries and laboratories means a safari into the intellect and technology that will, eventually, lead to a mutual transformation, a fresh combination, yet another bittersweet conjoining rife with uplift and destruction. It is one of the signal ironies of our time that the totally selfish or geopolitical concerns of empire also made for a redefinition in the wake of rebellion and decolonization which expanded our conception of human talent and dignity.

[related_posts post_id_1=”418189″ /]

The drive from the airport was comfortable and the pleasantly heated Kenyan air came in the open windows after passing through fields of tall grass. It was early in the morning and I checked in at the New Stanley Hotel, located at the intersection of Kenyatta and Kimathi avenues, names that acknowledged the combination of eloquence and bushlord bloodshed that coaxed and hacked the way to independence: Jomo Kenyatta was the first president of Kenya and Dedan Kimathi had been the last butch­ering desperado of what the British call Mau Mau. In a few hours, I was looking out from my seventh-floor balcony as Nairobi came to, with night some dark capsule that dissolved into the morning light. Cars and old buses filled with workers began roaring and rattling down Kenyatta Avenue and the people of the city — walking swiftly, ever so swiftly — appeared from every direction and in every size, shape, skin tone, and imaginable sort of dress. There was a wood smell in the air and a chill that leaned subtly inside the wind and I could see the rectangles and cyl­inders of modern architecture surrounding the golden peaks of a mosque from which the muezzin chanted his guttural calls to prayer. Five times a day, above the percussion of jackhammers, car horns, and whistles, the caustic melancholy of Islam flared, taking control of an unplanned orches­tration of human and mechanized sound.

It was time to hit the streets. I put on my black knit shirt, my olive British khakis, my slender leather Italian dress suspenders, my silk and wool Irish motoring cap, my beige Henri de Vignon high-topped shoes. That sartorial combination was in keeping with the cosmopolitan qualities of my bloodline — African and Asian from Madagascar, Irish from Atlanta, Choctaw from Mississippi, and some tribe I will probably recognize on another trip, perhaps to West Africa.

The pulsation out in the streets had its own uplift and I found myself wandering around, looking this way and that, not focusing on anything, only seeking the feeling of the city. It was a city all right and the popu­lace ranged from the very rich to the terribly impoverished. The beggars came crawling forward, eyes crowded with the harsh lessons of penury. One man, his legs bone-thin and twisted around each other, pulled him­self down the street with a long pole he used in rowing strokes; it struck me as I looked at all the people who had been reduced to cripples by po­lio that what we consider abstraction in African sculpture might just as often be realistic. Then there were others with slashes in their cheeks or their ear lobes stretched to brown loops that dangled against their collars. Those who shined shoes were setting up their businesses, as were people who sold elephant-hair bracelets, batiks, carved statues, and the ma­chetes called pangas. As I walked it was obvious that they knew I wasn’t an African. Some assumed more than that.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719253″ /]

When I neared what I later heard was a dangerous part of town, I passed three young African men sitting on the ground, barefoot, ragged, and filthy. Soon one had passed me and was walking in front while the other two were behind, close enough to smell. I knew what that was. I suddenly put my back to a wall and they turned to face me. I let them know that I would defend myself. There was a brief exchange and they moved on. Had they been armed, things might have been different.

That was my first brush with street crime, and I was to have a second that was almost identical on a Sunday morning walk, though it didn’t get as close to attack. In front of the New Stanley, I spoke with a man I’ll call Boniface, who dealt marijuana, cocaine, and provided walking tours and sex with a chocolate topping for German women especially. A cosmopoli­tan man who had traveled as a sailor and was quite wily, Boniface told me about Nairobi crime.

These people, they come in from the bush every day. Every day. They think there is work here and there is none and they do not want to become beggars. They are too proud. They would rather rob. But you were lucky. You were near River Road. There you can hire a man to kill someone you want dead for 50 shillings. They kill him. They come back and you don’t have the money, they kill you. You see that white woman over there, the one crossing the street? That man right behind her, he can see she is too busy enjoying to know she is in danger. When she turns a corner, he will rob her. He will snatch her purse. If he cannot get her purse, he will take one of the bags she is carrying. He will get something and she will be disap­pointed in Africans. But Europeans they are scared in their heart of the black because if the child is bad, they say, “Go to sleep or I call the Negro.” This happened to me in a small village in Germany. I was working the lift. This German girl see me when the door open: AHHHH! And she go down. We had to pick her up. All her life she was told as a threat: “If you are bad I will get the Negro.” If that woman across the street whose money is doomed to be stolen is from Germany, she might feel she is punished for coming to Africa!

[related_posts post_id_1=”727310″ /]

Since then, wandering robbers known as the “five-minute gangs” have been breaking into homes in the suburbs, taking what they can and get­ting away before the police arrive in the conventional six minutes. Even so, like any modern city, Nairobi doesn’t feel dangerous and isn’t, except for those who don’t know where the limits are or who are “too busy en­joying” to feel the presence of a predator.

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article

3. THE ONLY MODERN BLACK MAN

By the time I got back to the hotel on that first morning, breakfast was be­ing served and the waiters in green coats, white shirts, black ties, and black pants moved quickly. The New Stanley’s restaurant and the Thorn Bush, the hotel’s enclosed sidewalk patio where drinks and food were served, became my meeting places. When I wasn’t there, I was taking long rides in a cab I hired daily, listening to the driver disparage other tribes or explain how the tea and coffee plantations worked when we traveled far out of the city into the Aberdare. Or I was at the Jockey Club, a remarkable race track, sitting up in the boxes with the Anglo­-Africans who owned horses, betting the way they suggested and winning almost every time out. Or I was on foot, walking here and there, striking up conversations with eyery kind of African I could talk with, most friendly, some con men playing on what they expected would be a black American sentimentality about “the motherland.” I could hang out with the rich black son of a coffee business owner, an athlete who had played rugby in Scotland and wondered why Africans who went to America came back so big. Or I might be dancing at the New Florida or the Sky­light Room or partying with the teams of the NBA, the Nairobi Basketball Association. In all, it didn’t take me long to know that I was an American, which was no news, or that the kind of American I was had a special sig­nificance to Africans, at least the Africans of Kenya. As one young man told me in the Nairobi market:

We keep wanting you to come back, to help us build our country. The American black man is the only black man in the world who is his own man. You send an African to France, he comes back a French African; to England he comes back a British African. He will not come back the way you American black people are. You are the only ones who have learned all of the white man’s knowledge and have put it out your own way. In his heart, the African knows this. In our country, this is what we need. We need to be Africans in a modem way. Now we are half old-fashioned and half European, or all of one. When we see you on the television and in the movies, on the cassettes of the basketball games and such things, we see a truly modem black man. That is our struggle and we hope you will come back to Africa and help us build this new thing completely.

I heard that many times and from many different levels of society, al­ways said with an earnestness that made a bigger joke of the ersatz Afri­cans of America who confused identity with pretentious name changing, costumes, and rituals that turned ethnicity into a hysterically nostalgic so­cial club. But ethnic nationalist black Americans had no comer on imbe­cility. One conversation that was as illuminating as it was terrifying re­minded me how unreasonable defense of African tradition could sustain barbarism. At breakfast one morning, I talked with a couple on vacation who lived in the Sudan, where Numeiri had recently sought support from the Muslim majority and allowed them to slaughter thousands of Chris­tians in the south. Numeiri had refused to let the press into the areas where the murders were taking place, but those who lived in the country knew the facts and the rough figures. (Numeiri recently fell to a group of military men whose epaulets are large enough to suggest — if my epaulet theory is correct — that they will be as repressive and vicious as he was.) They also went on to talk about how tribal customs called for a clitoridec­tomy following the birth of each child. “They continue to cut away until nothing is left but an opening.” I wondered how the ersatz Africans of Brooklyn would justify that. Who knows? After all, when the issue of female circumcision was raised at an international women’s conference held in Europe a few years ago, the delegation from Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) stormed out in protest, castigating the European feminists for im­posing their standards on a Third World culture. Well, there’s nothing like uncompromising ethnic self-regard at high tide.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720490″ /]

4. THE OLD MAN

It was the end of June and the drought was on. The Railway Club golf course, where Africans in floppy hats and plaid pants strolled in front of their caddies, was filled with green trees, but a long hay-colored stretch showed the effects of the devastating wait for rain. The Kenyatta Mauso­leum, across from the Hotel International Nairobi, next to the Nairobi City Council, across from the Kenyatta International Conference Center, was parched. The grass was yellow or replaced in patches by brown or red earth, the bushes interrupted by the stone and steel gate were faded and sagging toward what looked like death from thirst, but through that gate, in a black cap with a shining badge on it, rifle at rest, in a red jacket that stopped halfway above the knees with five brass buttons lining down to a white belt, the legs covered by dark trousers either-sided with a red stripe and glistening boots, was a single African soldier as impressive as any soldier I’ve ever seen, standing guard out in front of the monument that contained the old man’s remains. On each side of the guard were 10 flagpoles from which the red, black, green, and white national colors flew, their emblem crossed spears behind a shield. Across the street, the green pavilion next to the conference center had long stretches of earth turned red by relentless sun, only three of the spotlights intended to light the path leading to the old man’s statue over an empty fountain were left in­tact — the other 40-odd metal poles, victims of the intended coup in Au­gust of 1982, stood like dead and slightly bent gray stalks. The pavilion itself was falling apart and the octagonal and square motif of its pave­ment gave way to rebellious patches of uncovered stone, combining the structured and the anarchic as perfectly as anything in Kenya. The steps were loose and some of the stone was missing. But the bronze of the old man stared into the desiccation with a stoicism that bespoke his endur­ance and eloquence on the long trek to independence. That African voice is still legendary and the name “the old man” calls forth the culture.

In Africa, it takes a long time to really become a man. A man is one who knows. When you have become a man, your respect is very big. The years give you the gift of power. Each hour, each day a man lives turns him stronger in knowledge. So the African has, as the European says, reverence. Our old people are respected because their spirits take on the strength that the body loses to time. When the old man spoke, he could make the air around your ears very hot. He could raise bubbles in your blood. Kenyatta was force, an African voice. That is why be put on the symbol of the country a shield, two lions holding spears, and a cock with a hatchet in the center of the shield. This is not the British lion; this is the African lion. There are no lions in England; the lions are in the British mind. They took from us that symbol and Kenyatta took it back just as he took our land back. The cock is the power. It is all African and it is all very simple. It is also very strong and very patient. In Africa you must learn to wait and to remain powerful. That is the test of the world and all old men who are not mad or foolish know how it is done. Kenyatta knew. He was the old man. Yes.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721686″ /]

Jomo Kenyatta was a Kikuyu born around 1892. His was a life that em­bodied the transition of the African from the world of magic and supersti­tion to the complexity of modern life, which he could learn about only through contact with the Western world. Were it not for surgery, Kenyatta would have been dead early on, the victim of a spinal disease corrected at a mission when he was ten. It was there that Kenyatta became fascinated by papers that the missionaries referred to as objects that said things or gave orders. Once, when everyone had left after a proclamation had been read, Kenyatta returned and spoke to the paper. The paper did not an­swer. He raised his voice. The paper remained silent. Kenyatta decided that he had to get to the bottom of that magic, and once he did, he so in­tensified the power of his oral tradition that he developed into a spokesman for nascent tribal nationalism and anti-colonial feeling. The hand­some and charismatic African traveled to Europe, flirted with communism, increased his skills as an orator, and returned in 1946 to Kenya, where he quickly came to symbolize the desire for independence and an end to the inferior status of the African in his own land. When the so-called Mau Mau Emergency took off in 1952, Kenyatta was arrested and accused of leading the guerrilla forces which were slaughtering Africans, whites, and livestock. The Kikuyu rebels were defeated in 1956. As David Lamb wrote in his excellent The Africans, the death toll following the rebellion “stood at 11,500 Mau Mau guerrillas and African civilians, 2000 African troops fighting for the British, 58 members of the British security forces and 37 British settlers.” Nonviolent agitation continued, and, finally, Kenya became independent a few years after Kenyatta was released from prison in 1959, then exiled. In 1960, he was elected president of the new Kenya African National Union. He became prime minister of the independent nation on December 12, 1963. Those who wished him to follow the largely unsuccessful path of African socialism were disappointed. Kenyatta turned his back on the Marxist models and made sure that Kenya maintained its status as a capitalist, multiracial society, albeit one dominated by his own tribe. His decision to downplay race in favor of pluralism and incentive made him a hero to Africans and Europeans. Though the investigation was dropped when Kenyatta’s daughter was discovered at the center of an ivory-smuggling ring, though Tom Mboya and a few other political en­emies were assassinated, though there were some politically motivated ar­rests, the corruption and bloodletting were so comparatively modest that the old man is still revered. Since the nature of African independence has reduced almost everything to good or bad kings, Kenyans are largely philosophical about Kenyatta and see him as an essentially fair and in­telligent ruler whose occasional ruthlessness never overshadowed what he gave to his country. Perhaps his greatest achievement was cooling the tribal animosities to such a degree that there was no national outbreak of violence when the old man died in August of 1978 and was succeeded by Daniel arap Moi, a member of the small Tugen tribe. Since the at­tempted coup of 1982, however, Moi has been replacing the Kikuyu in the armed services with the Tugen, which makes Kenyans nervous across ethnic lines.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717668″ /]

5. THE UNIT

In the backwaters of our minds hovers the nightmare of the bestial Afri­can, human blood dripping from his panga. This is what many think of when they hear the term Mau Mau, a name accepted by the British but still denied by the fighters who had to reach for a primordial savagery to express their outrage in face of colonial repression. They committed the murders of rebellion in the most unspeakable ways, sometimes drinking human blood, eating human flesh, mutilating livestock, burning. It all ended with the demon run of Dedan Kimathi, the last desperado. A clerk who would be king, who seemed to have gone mad in the middle of his journey, whose fury against colonial domination created an appetite for blood among his followers, Kimathi had called himself Field Marshal, Commander-in-Chief, Knight Commander of the African Empire, Prime Minister of the Southern Hemisphere. None of those names protected him in court, and none of the magical powers he claimed for himself traveled beyond the Aberdare forest where he fell, wounded in a leopard-skin coat. His photograph after capture shows long woolly snakes of hair matted beneath his head as he lies supine, the British handcuffs looking like metal bones or talismans, the light cast from his eyes that of a man nearly over­come by contempt for his captors. Kimathi was hanged and the revolt crushed.

Pages upon pages have been written, reports made, accusations leveled and denied, the breakthrough coming when a British soldier, an Anglo­-African who had been reared near the Kikuyu, began interrogating the captured rebel General China, making his way through the labyrinthine meanings of a protean tongue. By achieving linguistic entry into the Ki­kuyu world, the British were able to isolate the rebels, and an end came to four years of terror, manic whiskey-guzzling, and gauche flamboyance of the sort exhibited when white ladies wore pistols with their evening gowns. Most important was the fact that the British were able to enlist ex-rebels to help them track and fight the continued resistance, a device as important as General Crook’s recruiting Indians to fight with the Amer­ican cavalry in the wars of the Plains and the Southwest. As Fred Majdalany wrote in State of Emergency: “The whittling down of the increas­ingly disrupted gangs was from now on left more and more to Special Forces, whose use of ex-terrorists had reached the point where they were now regularly tracking down and killing their former leaders.”

I had read about it, I had heard about it, I was told stories by the left­over British from the days when Africans felt smothered under the heavy red robe of empire. The central clash was with those who had fought for British control when far outnumbered— 30,000 settlers to a million and a half Kikuyu — and had long been admonished by dignitaries back in England to give up the ship and let the Africans sail or flounder; and there were those baptized in the inevitably bloody dream of change, who took oaths in the bush and came away remade, the steel of pangas in their hearts, pangas that eventually made their way into human flesh. They would fight. Yes, they would fight. One of them told me about it. A cab driver.

[related_posts post_id_1=”726949″ /]

My regular cabbie was Juma, a Kikuyu whose love for White Cap beer kept him from showing up on my final Sunday in Nairobi, when I went to the track for the last time. Irritated, I hired another driver and he took me out on the road to the Jockey Club, passing the African women who carried loads on their heads, the trees, the occasional spavined dog, the homes that were large and the buses that were raggedy, making a left turn into the track, where the backdrop became green and the Indians ran much of the gambling, where the owners had a clubhouse and talked excitedly about their horses, where tar-black Africans in British khaki sat under poles and a tarpaulin roof tooting marches, where the members of various tribes would entertain with exciting dances and drumming be­tween the races. The African, European, Asian, and Arab crowd, filling the stands and the field, betting, cheering, and drinking with friends, fam­ily, and children, had an entrancing epic variety, ranging from those in robes and tribal beads to Saudi Arabian silk suits and diamonds, from the palest skin tones possible to the deepest ebony, from the squat and homely to the breathtakingly tall and handsome. Then there were the jockeys, jet­-dark Africans and rosy-faced Irishmen armed with crops and educated knees. They came out of the stables seated on little saddles, the brims of their caps in the air, the straps beneath their chins, their silks brilliant in the afternoon sun, all moving on the backs of the bays, the chestnuts, and the grays, the creatures’ musculature pulsive insignias of breeding.

They are coming out on the track now, some bucking and rearing, cantering to the gate. The sky is a particularly African blue, gray, and white; the vegetative geometry of the green shaping, the horizon beyond the track has its own textures; and invisible patterns are cut across it all by big and little African birds that redefine the meaning of their hues in the light.

When it is all over and the sun is going down, my driver is waiting for me. He takes me to see a friend who lives near the Jockey Club, where I chat for an hour, and we head back for the New Stanley. When we are stopped by African policemen who have spread a long white piece of wood run through with spikes across the road, my driver is delighted in­stead of annoyed, and suddenly intuition pushes me to ask him if he knows anything about the Mau Mau. He is silent, leaning forward against the wheel, then back, slouching. He asks me why I want to know. I tell him I am a writer and I have heard what the white people have to say but I have found no one who was on the other side who could tell me what the Africans really thought and really did. He smiles and tells me he is very happy that I am a writer, that I can put my words on paper. There was no Mau Mau. He has never told anyone this before but be will tell me. He says he likes me. He bas watched me every day when I rode with Juma. I remind him of a black American who came back to Africa and dedicated his life to educating Africans. Because of this and this only, he will tell me. His voice has a melancholy so thick the words seem to sink in the air after they are uttered.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725434″ /]

I am a poor man but somehow I am happy for what I see. Africans can go to the New Stanley, Norfolk. It used to be European here, the Asian there, the African back down. You could own nothing. If you are there you must only service. You must only whisper. I saw this, My father was a cooker. If you want food — no. Water — no. Coffee — ­no. A European could write D.C. — district commissioner — that you are wrong. No word from you, no fair trial. But in 1945 the African learned from the war — if you cut a European, he bleed; if you shoot him, he die. This was new! The old people did not go to learn this. The European could not be killed. If you strike him, you die. Ahl Old was wrong. This was very important.

We needed unit, unit: our people, our land. We Kikuyu took the oath. I have been shot in the leg one time, two times. Two bullets in me right here and behind the ear. But all people are not equal. Some they do not have heart. Courage is to them the poison you spit out. They were royalist. We make it if you loyal to the British here, you die. You die! It was necessary because the British is very clever. He had command us, but he did not know us. How we live, how we move, Kikuyu knew. If he tell, he must die! In the bush in one month you become like animal. Smell, hear, quick, strong. You cannot eat for seven whole days. You can go for six months, for a full year with­out a wash, and now, even after 30 days, the animals let you pass. Ha! You see, you see?

The British thought the Kikuyu had lost to remember the forest, that we could not lie still as the trees and wait to kill them. We did not have the good guns of them. Ours had been made by ourselves and had only the one bullet. When you shoot, barrel is hot. You must wait to cool. Our orders were to use the rifles we had made ourselves only to defend. Only defend, you understand. To kill, we use only the long silent knife. If you use a bullet not to defend, you die. The knife because the European hates the sharp edge. He would rather be shot. He hates to burn covered with petrol. You kill him this way it is an African way. The knife, the flame make his heart stampede. It stampede.

I was scout. Young boy. Go here. Go there. No one knows what it is I am doing. We cut him here. We disappear. We smile to talk to him. We say we know nothing when he ask. Soon, when he looks at us and he does not know, he sees his own grave, his own family, his horses all floating in a grave of warm blood, all covered with petrol and he smells the flesh of British burning.

But the most we kill are not British — the loyal Royalist African. Why do we kill him most? I want you to understand this. He did not know that the African is a human being. He did not that the British is not God. He did not that he was more important than the British was to England. If he believe British is God, the European go home and rule with the royalist right here for him. Do you understand? The British will not have to be here. If an African must cut another Afri­can to death so that more will know the European is not God, it must be so. From that blood come the tree of respect. You must — only for emergency — fear the Kikuyu more than British.

We all must die, but what must we die for? If we must die to prove we are human beings, if we must kill to prove so, if we must love to know so, it is these things to do that are done. My heart has happi­ness somehow, even though I am a poor man. I hope you understand this because I did not get an indication — to read, to speak, to write. My eyes, my ears, my skin, what all I remember: This is my indication.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720494″ /]

6. A PANGA IS NOT A FEATHER

Given the history of postcolonial Africa, all Kenyans are concerned about the ever-present possibility of a coup, something they learned about when the air force attempted to take command of the country in the August dog days of 1982. The insurrection was put down quickly by the army, when the radio was recovered and broadcasts announcing a new regime were ended and the violent animosities of the African poor were beaten down. Those animosities sweep color, culture, and even class before them. As the wife of a coffee grower said to me, “They were going to get the Wa­hindi — the Indians; the Wabenzi — the rich Africans who drive Mercedes; and the Wazungu — us, the white people. They got a bit of the first two, but they never really got around to the Wazungu.”

The hatred of the Indians is the enduring contempt for the go-between, the person who has risen with absolute determination and mercantile wiles but relates to those below in the condescending terms established by the rulers of the society. Three young men who worked in the market selling chess sets, carved statues, and printed cloth that women wrapped around them as dresses told me over beer in my hotel room that the Indi­ans printed fake batiks which they sold for almost nothing or gave away as bonuses so as to corner the market. That was but one of the tricks In­dians used to push Africans out of the business world, wanting everything for themselves. But they also admitted that the Indians were often more industrious than the Africans and that they were willing to sacrifice in or­der to build income.

The Indian will be your friend only if he is fooling you!l He is no good. One of the independence we do not have is economic. But we are different from the Wahindi. He will pile his money up and up and up. I cannot do this. I must go to the disco and drink beer and I must have a new pair of “levees.” If I do not do this, I will have much sadness. I will feel like I am a dirt road and life is rolling over. But when I buy new clothes and dance and drink, then I am more.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719613″ /]

A German businesswoman in her eighties told me that the Indians wor­shiped a god given over to currency, a ruthless mythological bitch whose vision of life was that anything done to gain money was all right. But she was equally aware of the notorious African inclination to corruption: “In the African mind, there is no stigma to corruption. It’s just being smart.” So a bribe in the hand is far more important than skill or talent in too many instances. Though Kenya claims a more honest governmental and social structure than almost any other African country, both black and white complain of the bribery in everything from licensing to acquiring land. Where things are not decided on the basis of tribal or familial al­legiance, money commands favors. A Kikuyu businessman’s son told me:

These men in government can be no good! When it was proposed that we might get a loan to build an underground so that people could travel better, when they could not discover the way to steal most of the money, they would not accept the loan and said that Nairobi was too small a city to have an underground!

This kind of hanky panky has led to a bitterness that found its limited release during the attempted coup and said a great deal about the changes in the country since independence. Twenty-five years ago, the whites might have been the most hated, then the Indians, then the Africans loyal to empire. But time and bribes and tribes had changed that pecking order, which was dwarfed by the fire and terror that resulted when the air force tried to throttle the Moi regime.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724152″ /]

Before the army, the people did not know what is coup. But the army teach them. At first, there is running and shouting. The people were happy in the streets, then they see. They see what is coup. Is when you can do nothing but watch and hope nothing happen to you or happen to your family. This is what took place on those few days. The people were happy to destroy business of Wahindi because they have been treated so bad by them. But the army took whatever they want. This was the pay they give themselves. Many Indian homes were broken into and they took sex with the Indian girls and the Indian wives. They feel this is their only chance because in certain places the Indian will threaten to kill an Indian woman if she is seen with an African. What the army did to them is not in the newspapers. So many disgraced their fathers had to marry them, or their brothers or their cousins. This is not talked about. But the Wahindi, they do not learn ever. Money is all they understand. Money will not stop the soldier who kicks in the door. He will take the money and then still do what he came for — to kill you, to rape you, to wound you. Wa­hindi do not understand that the African is a human being. This the British knows, this the Wahindi will never understand. A panga is hanging over his head and he pretends it is a feather.

One Sunday morning I took a long walk, traveling up Harry Thuku Road, and passed a fenced-in area where soldiers were living. It was the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Voice of Kenya, the radio sta­tion that had been taken by the air force. At the gate in berets and fa­tigues were the two surliest black men I have ever seen. Viciousness seemed to seep from their pores and the only answer they had to any ques­tion was a sullen, “We are all right.” They weren’t impressed in the least by a writer from America and it was clear that their job was to kill any­one who tried to come into that station without the appropriate papers. Beyond the guardhouse at the gate, as I moved on, was a lot filled with broken-down cars and trucks. I looked for bullet holes in them and saw none. All I could think of was how terrible it must have been when men like those at the gate were allowed to do what they wished. The idea of a country taken over by cool black killers was as nightmarish as anything I could ever imagine. But then, anything could happen in Africa.

Harry Thuku Road became Hotel Boulevard and I heard “Polly Wolly Doodle” in what sounded like Swahili floating from a restaurant. Eventu­ally, after walking up a bill and passing eucalyptus trees and a large ho­tel, I began descending and the Aga Khan Nursery School came into view, next to a playground filled with Asian children joyously playing soccer in white uniforms and expensive tennis shoes. Against the fence of the playground was a shack made of slats, flattened rectangular three­gallon cans, and cardboard. It was a store and inside it old African men sat at a table eating maize with powdered milk. Every so often a Mer­cedes filled with giggling Indians passed. Directly across from the play­ground there was a sunken field of pineapple trees, corrugated shacks, ragged, shoeless people, stacked burlap sacks, and a child collecting coal, but near the end of the street, seated at a table in a torn and filthy dress, her feet wide from never having worn shoes, sat a young girl of about 10. She was playing a card game by herself, alternately excited or laughing, her big eyes, long neck, and long arms predictions of a great beauty. In the way she turned her head, stuck her tongue out of the side of her mouth, and sighed the accompaniment to what was possibly a dream, this girl suddenly became an index of the indomitable. I knew that as Jong as Kenya could produce children like her, it would have a chance to handle whatever burdens history and circumstance placed upon its shoulders. Or, as it was once written. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” ❖

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Michael Jackson: Man in the Mirror

Because Afro-Americans have presented challenges to one order or another almost as long as they have been here, fear and contempt have frequently influenced the way black behavior is assessed. The controversy over Michael Jackson is the most recent example, resulting in a good number of jokes, articles in this periodical and others, and even the barely articulate letter by the singer himself that was published in People. Jackson has inspired debate over his cosmetic decisions because the residue of the ’60s black nationalism and the condescension of those who would pity or mock black Americans have met over the issue of his face, his skin tone, his hair.

Since the ’60s, there has been a tendency among a substantial number of Afro-Americans to promulgate a recipe for the model black person. That model has taken many forms, but all of them are based on presumptions of cultural segregation between black and white Americans. The symbols of that purported segregation were supposed to permeate the ways in which black people lived, dressed, wore their hair, ate, thought voted, walked, talked and addressed their African heritage. And though the grip of such nationalism weakened over the years, it continues to influence even those who were lucky enough not to have been adolescents during its period of dominance.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719613″ /]

Greg Tate is clearly one who has been taken in, and his recent article on Jackson illustrates the provincialism inherent in such thinking. Jackson alarms Tate, who sees the singer’s experience under the scalpel as proof of self-hatred. The trouble with Tate’s vision is that it ignores the substance of the American dream and the inevitabilities of a free society. Though no one other than Jackson could know what he seeks, to automatically assume that the pop star’s cosmetic surgery was solely intended to eradicate Negroid features in order to “look white” seems far too simple, ignoring both African and American cultural elements.

Présence Africaine published some 20 years ago a compendium of papers delivered in Senegal at the World Festival of Negro Arts. One of the lecturers made note of the fact that a number of African tribes considered the lighter-skinned the more attractive. This vision of beauty was free of colonial influence and probably had more to do with the quality of exoticism that is as central to magnetism as to repulsion. Further, Jackson could just as easily be opting for the mulatto look–if not that of the Latin lover and dandy–that has resulted from the collusion of gene pools whenever light and dark folk have coupled on the Basin Streets of history. Or he could be taken by the keen noses and “refined” features of Ethiopians?

The fact that Michael Jackson is not only a person of African descent, but is also an American should never be excluded from a discussion of his behavior. The American dream is actually the idea that an identity can be improvised and can function socially if it doesn’t intrude upon the freedom of anyone else. With that freedom comes eccentric behavior as well as the upward mobility resulting from talent, discipline, and good fortune- the downward mobility observed in some of those who inhabit the skid rows of this country because they prefer the world f poverty and alcoholism to the middle-upper-middle-, or upper-class backgrounds they grew up in. As one bum who had obviously seen better days said to a waiter as he was being ushered out of the now defunct Tin Palace for panhandling, “People come from all over the world to be bums on the Bowery. Why should I deny myself the right?”

[related_posts post_id_1=”717668″ /]

Tate should easily understand this since he is from a well-to-do black family in Washington, D.C., but has chose to wear dreadlocks in a hairdo that crosses the Rasta world with that of the Mohawk and, eschewing the conservative dress of his background, looks as often as not like a borderline homeless person. That Tate is a bohemian by choice rather than birth means that he has plotted out an identity he prefers to that of his social origins and has found the costumes that he feels most appropriate for his personal theater piece. Though it is much easier for Tate to get another haircut and change his dress than it would be for Jackson to return to his “African physiognomy,” each reflects the willingness to opt for imagery that repudiates some aspect of the past.

That sense of improvising an identity shouldn’t be thought of as separate from the American–and universal–love of masks. Nor should it be seen as at all separate from the “African retentions” Afro-American cultural nationalists and social anthropologists refer to so frequently. The love of masks, of makeup, and of costumes is often much more than the pursuit of high fashion or the adherence to ritual convention; it is also the expression of that freedom to invent the self and of the literal fun Americans have often gotten from scandalizing expectations.

As Constance Rourke observed and as Albert Murray reminds us in his invaluable The Omni-Americans, those colonial rebels dressed up as Indians for the Boston Tea Party might have enjoyed the masquerade itself as much as they did dumping the cargo in the ocean. Considered within the spectrum of the happy to hostile masquerade that has since evolved, Michael Jackson’s affection for his mirror image veering off from what nature intended places him right in the center of one of the whirlpools of national sensibility. One needs only to look at any book or photographs from the ’60s to see how the connection between protest, politics and the love of masks was most broadly played out–SNCC workers donned overalls; hippies took to long hair and tie-dyed outfits; black nationalists wore Figi haircuts and robes; and self-styled Afro-American revolutionaries put on black berets, black leather jackets, black shirts, pants, and shoes, or appropriated the combat dress of Third World military men. And no one who looks at the various costumes worn today, from dotted, yellow “power ties” to gargoyle pun fashions, should have any problem seeing their connection to the masking inclinations rooted in the joy of assumed identities. That love is still so embedded in the national personality that the people of New Orleans are admired as much for the costumes and false faces of Mardi Gras as for their cuisine and their music. And those of us in New York know how much pleasure the grease paint, sequins, feathers, and satins of the Labor Day parade in Brooklyn bring to spectators and participants.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720494″ /]

As far as further African retentions are concerned, it could easily be argued that Michael Jackson is much more in line with the well-documented argument many primitive African cultures have had with the dictates of nature. Have the people of any other culture so perfectly prefigured plastic surgery or been more willing to accept the pain of traditionally approved mutilation? It is doubtful. In photograph after photograph, Africans are shown wearing plates in their lips to extend them, rings around their necks to lengthen them, plopping red mud in their hair for homemade conks that emulate the manes of lions, filing their teeth, and suffering through the slashes and the rubbed-in ashes that result in spectacular scarification. Whatever one wants to say about “different standards of beauty” and so forth, to conclude that such cultures are at all concerned with “being natural” is to actually reveal one’s refusal to see things as they are.

That willingness to suffer under the tribal knife is obviously addressed with much greater technical sophistication in the world of plastic surgery. In fact, the so-called self-hatred of black Americans, whenever it does exist, is perhaps no more than a racial variation on the national attitude that has made the beauty industry so successful. In those offices and in those operating rooms where plans are made and carried out that result in millions of dollars in profit, the supposed self-hatred of black Americans has little to do with the wealth earned by plastic surgeons. Far and away, the bulk of their clients are Caucasians in flight from the evidence of age, Caucasians dissatisfied with their profiles, their eyes, their ears, their chins, their necks, their breasts, the fat around their knees, their waists, their thighs, and so forth. Nipped, tucked, carrying implants and vacuumed free of fat, they face their mirrors with glee.

Where there is so much talk about Afro-Americans fawning over the lighter-skinned among them, what is one to make of all the bottle blondes this country contains and all of those who make themselves sometimes look orange by using lotions for counterfeit tans? It is a certainty that if some Negro American genius were to invent a marketable procedure that would result in harmlessly emitting the desired levels of melanin for those Caucasians enthralled by tans so that they could remain as dark as they wished throughout the year, his or her riches would surpass those off Bill Cosby. Would this imaginary genius be exploiting Caucasian self-hatred?

[related_posts post_id_1=”724836″ /]

Then there is the problem some have with Jackson’s apparent softness, his supposed effeminacy. That, too, has a precedent with Afro-American culture itself. The late writer Lionel Mitchell once pointed out that certain black me were bothered about the black church because they were made uncomfortable by those choir directors and pretty-boy lead singers who wore glistening marcelled hair and were obviously homosexual. A friend of Mitchell’s extended the writer’s position by observing that those very gospel songs were just as often masks through which homosexual romance was crooned. “What do you think is going through their minds when the songs talk about being held close to His?” (What a variation on the ways slaves secretly signaled each other through spirituals, planning flight or rebellion!) This is not to say that ever homosexual gospel singer thought of things more secular than spiritual when chirping those songs in which love is felt for and from an almighty He or Him, but it is to say that those who feel Jackson has somehow sold out his masculine duties have not looked as closely at their own tradition as perhaps they should.

There is also the fact that Jackson, both as an androgynous performer and surgical veteran purportedly seeking to look like Diana Ross, has precursors in the minstrel shows of the middle 19th century. It is there that the tradition of the romantic balladeer actually begins, at least as a phenomenon of mass entertainment. As Robert C. Toll observes in Blackening Up, white minstrels became very popular with women because they were able to publicly express tender emotion through the convention of burnt cork and were sometimes able to become national stars for their performances as giddy mulatto beauties. “Female impersonators excited more interest than any other minstrel specialist,” writes Toll. “Men in the audience probably were titillated by the alluring stage characters whom they were momentarily drawn to, and they probably got equal pleasure from mocking and laughing at them….At a time when anxiety about social roles was intense, the female impersonator, who actually changed roles, fascinated the public. As a mode of properly ‘giddy’ femininity, he could reassure men that women were in their places while at the same time showing women how to behave without competing with them. Thus, in some ways, he functioned like the blackface ‘fool’ who educated audiences while also reassuring them that he was their inferior. Neither man nor woman, the female impersonator threatened no one.”

Jackson quite clearly bothers more than a few, from Eddie Murphy to the rappers interviewed by Guy Trebay in the article that accompanied Greg Tate’s. The pit bull of Murphy’s paranoia over pansies has often been unleashed on Jackson and the fact that the rappers were disturbed by Jackson’s persona suggests something other than what it seems. Perhaps what bothers them most is that the singer’s roots in minstrelsy are so different from their own. As Harry Allen revealed not so long ago, more than a few rappers are actually middle-class Negroes acting out their version of a “gangster aesthetic.” Instead of a minstrel mugging, you have counterfeit thugging, more than a tad in line with the faddish cracker sensibility of acting bad to bust the ass of the middle class on the rack of rock and roll.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716138″ /]

Yet the actual sorrow and the pity of the Michael Jackson story is that he has had to carry the cross of an imposed significance far beyond what his music merits. Jackson comes from rhythm and blues, which is itself a dilution of blues, a descent from the profound emotion of America’s first truly adult, secular music. As a pop star, Jackson’s fame and riches have come from the expression of adolescent passion, but he is also the product of an era in which profundity has been forced on music actually intended to function as no more than the soundtrack for teenage romance and the backbeat for the bouts of self-pity young people suffer while assaulted by their hormones. Rock criticism changed all of that, bootlegging the rhetoric of aesthetic evaluation to elevate the symbols of adolescent frenzy and influencing the way pop stars viewed themselves. So when a man’s power is found in an adolescent form, time impinges upon his vitality. If he is sufficiently spooked, he might be moved to invent a world for himself in which all evidence that he was ever born a particular person at a particular time is removed. That removal might itself become the strongest comment upon the inevitable gloom that comes not of having been given too much too soon but of having been convinced that one is important only so long as he or she is not too old. ❖

Categories
From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Bernie Goetz: The Black Community at Gunpoint

“I, The Jury”

The Bernhard Goetz affair is but part of a remarkable confluence of events, all of which illustrate the rage, indifference, corruption, arro­gance, and hysteria surrounding crime in this city and this nation. This clairvoyant shootist has been called the father of a new rainbow coalition, since his support initially dissolved racial lines. Legislators report that a multibillion-dollar crime bill expiring on its knees in Washington was snatched to its feet by the elevation of Goetz to heroic status. One televi­sion interviewer was assigned to learn what he had for breakfast, and though we have yet to find out his shoe size or whether be wears any bawdy tattoos, we do have the word of the impeccably public-minded Myra Friedman that she heard Goetz say at a community meeting: “The only way we’re going to clean up this street is to get rid of the spics and niggers.”

When it first got out that a blond man in glasses had shot four black teenagers on the subway, Goetz received broad sympathy in the Negro community, even though there was still heat in the air over the Bumpurs shooting. Many agreed with Roy Innis, who had lost one son to street vio­lence and had seen another wounded: The man was right in defending himself. Perhaps this would teach some of those kids a lesson; maybe it would discourage those emboldened by the vulnerability of the subway rider and the lack of support most victims fear if attacked. Race was one thing, crime another. It was no longer second nature for black people to take the side of the impoverished colored teenager who created so many of their own problems: “The thing is you start hating these young people out here today. They don’t have any respect for anybody. They curse around anybody, play those goddamn boxes loud as they can, write that dumb graffiti all over everything — their own building, a subway car, what­ever. They don’t care. Then they knock people in the head, too.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”726188″ /]

This Harlemite was clearly describing teenagers like two from Bedford-­Stuyvesant I overheard as they sat behind me on a bus and discussed the world in which they live, a world so savage it seemed a universe of tall tales. They were traveling upstate to a correctional camp where they were supposed to study and get away from bad influences. They spoke some­times at the tops of their voices, cursing and giggling as they reminded each other of the violent deeds they had brought off as a team or independently: robberies, rapes, beatings, shootings. Both young men detailed how street-crime fads had changed over the years. “Yo, you remember when it was them sheepskin coats, then it was boxes, then it was running shoes, gold chains, and now these sunglass frames?” When I later asked them if they thought there was any racial connection, one said, “Hell no. Jealousy, man. You see a motherfucker with something you ain’t got and you get mad. You start thinking, ‘Now, why he got it? How come I can’t have it?’ So you get your tool and you stick it in his face. He gives it up. It can happen to you, too. At school, I was in the hall with my sheepskin, you know? So the next thing I know is this nigger got his tool in my face and I’m trying to look and see if he has bullets in the chambers or if he’s bluffing but the light was in my eyes. It wasn’t cocked so the chamber has to move for the bullet to get under the hammer. If it was empty on both sides, he was bullshitting, but I couldn’t see. So I let him have it, but like a fool he didn’t search me, just took my coat. Then I pulled my tool on him but I cocked it. You ever seen,” he laughed, “the way a motherfucker will stop when he hears that sound? He thought I was go­ing to kill him. All I wanted was my coat back. Plus I had another gun. His.”

Young men like that create understandable reactions. Linda, married with two small children, lives on Edgecombe Avenue in a building once famous for its celebrities. There are still show-business legends behind the multilocked doors but for all the wonderful living spaces no contem­porary stars have joined them; today, 160th Street is perilous. As he re­turned home one evening, Linda’s husband, a carpenter and painter, found himself staring into the barrel of a pistol held by a burglar who promised to blow his head off if he spoke or moved. This did not make Linda, who comes from an affluent Philadelphia family, feel any safer. So her routine became even more careful.

When she prepares to leave home for work in the morning, Linda opens the door slowly and looks both ways, making sure there is no one she doesn’t know in the hall. At the elevator, she stands so that she can see the entire inside of the car. If there is an unfamiliar man in the elevator, Linda says she’s going up if he’s going down, down if he’s going up. In­side the car, she is ever prepared to leap out and start screaming if some­one tries to trap her. On the way to the subway, she walks close to the curb so she can jump into the street and start shouting for help if neces­sary. At the train station, Linda doesn’t stand near the tracks for fear of being pushed and always looks for an escape route or space to struggle in. Once on the train, she makes sure that she is situated near a door, since it is so easy to get rolled or intimidated in between, where the only exit would be a window.

[related_posts post_id_1=”727312″ /]

But the feeling of being cut off from a vandalized environment, unsafe in crowds, and ignored by public institutions funded to protect society was replaced with something different the first few days after Goetz shot his way into the news. “When I first heard about the shooting,” Linda says, “I was glad. I thought it served them right. I was actually happy for a few days, and the mood in the subway cars was a kind of camaraderie I had never felt before. Everybody seemed closer. It was like we all had won one. Nobody said anything, but you could feel it. It didn’t have any­thing at all to do with race. Everybody was in agreement: Goetz had done something for all of us.”

Goetz seemed to focus the perhaps unprecedented public anger, cyni­cism, and sense of victimization that results from what Dr. Willard Gaylin, author of The Rage Within, calls “the vulgarization and destruction of the public space.” In 1940, says Gaylin, a citizen of New York had only a one-in-ten chance of witnessing a serious crime; 30 years later he or she had a one-in-ten chance of not seeing one.

As further details came to light, Goetz seemed both more and less than what he was touted as. Blue-collar Caucasians saluted him on talk shows, white intellectuals analyzed his expression of urban frustration, the Guard­ian Angels praised him. But soon the literal writing on the walls con­veyed meanings that seemed to belie those first few days of subway close­ness. “Goetz was wrong” is answered on the bathroom wall of a Sheridan Square coffee shop by “Why don’t you baboons go back to the South Bronx where you belong!” Voice writer Carol Cooper noticed pickpocket warnings on the subway with a note written next to the illustration of the thief’s fingers — “The hand should be black.” A Voice messenger was stopped on Central Park West by police one night and told to leave the neighborhood because he looked like a mugger. They didn’t go into de­tail about what they meant, but he guessed.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724831″ /]

Clearly, there was more to Goetz’s support than tabloid attention, more than admiration for a person who had stood up to danger. The Hawkins family in Los Angeles had been much more heroic, holding off gangs that attacked its home with pistols and Molotov cocktails in 1982. Quite re­cently, an elderly man in Chicago shot and killed an attacker bent on rob­bing him. He spent one night in jail and was released. When asked if he would so defend himself again if necessary, the old fellow said he would and was forgotten. There was even the grandmother from the South who scared off a pack of muggers when she pulled her pistol in the Port Au­thority Building a couple of years ago. Her story made the papers for a day or two, but soon she went on to line bird cages and cat boxes with the rest of the briefly famous. But Bernhard Goetz hasn’t been briefly famous, because, unlike those others, he is white. Goetz seems to have become the Gerry Cooney of urban America, the white hope on whose shoulders rest the burdens of contemporary Caucasian uneasiness.

That mood entails a selective process focused on class and color. Obvi­ously the white people who helped make The Cosby Show the most popular television program, who bought so many Michael Jackson records, who were thrilled by the performances of black athletes at last year’s Olympics, and so on, aren’t troubled by Negroes per se. Their nemesis is the violent criminal who is too often construed as emblematic of the black underclass. I would suggest that their anger isn’t so different from that of anyone humiliated by a person inferior in every way other than his ruth­less willingness to intimidate or assault. So the white person in the city feels like an easy kill for an impoverished, illiterate brute with his hat turned sideways, his mouth full of vulgar epithets, his running shoes can­vas-and-rubber cushions for quick getaways. Then Bernhard Goetz steps forward, looking for all the world like a piece of meat ready for the predator’s platter. But not Bernhard! The wimp who would save the world, Goetz is transformed with a few bullets into Clark Kent, the mild­-mannered bachelor ready to shoot a mugger before he makes a single bound.

Given the new information about Goetz, most recently revelations of how callously Goetz fired twice at one of his victims, his smallest swallow of judicial castor oil should have been four counts of attempted man­slaughter as well as the illegal weapons charge. But his case converges with the indictment of Sullivan for the Bumpurs shooting, the indictment of six transit cops in the Michael Stewart case, and allegations that medi­cal examiner Elliot Gross falsified autopsies in favor of the police. Individ­ual and bureaucratic immorality intensify the crisis of public morale — the emotional dues of anxiety, disgust, and uncertainty that go with the streets, the dilapidated subways, and the quick claw of robbery. Already as im­patient as anyone else with courts that seem to favor criminals, black peo­ple feel even deeper ambivalence toward those in public service when thousands of police gather in the Bronx to support Sullivan and one sign reads: “If Goetz is a hero, Sullivan is a saint.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”725990″ /]

Videotape notwithstanding, the Goetz grand jury was not so different from others, according to Queens district attorney John Santucci. On Feb­ruary 3, he told ABC’s Milton Lewis that in many cases a store owner had shot a robber with an unregistered gun and the grand jury refused to in­dict even for illegal possession of a firearm. Though the grand jury was consistent, I doubt that if a black man, say, bus driver Willie Turks, had shot those white guys who had attacked and killed him then skedaddled home, the Queens police would have left a polite note under Turk’s door requesting that he come in for questioning as the Manhattan division did in the Goetz case. This double standard erodes whatever confidence black people might have in the police. But the confidence of the entire city should have been shaken when Philip Caruso, president of the Patrol­men’s Benevolent Association, explained to Gabe Pressman on NBC on February 10 that he thought citizens shouldn’t be allowed to decide cases involving purported infractions by officers in the line of duty because lay­men are incapable of evaluating subtle points of law. This becomes even more disturbing when the police make statements implying that the word of Sullivan and a few of his co-workers should take precedence over the findings of an autopsy. The fact that Michael Baden, who was drummed out of the coroner’s office and replaced by Gross, is the man who faced down the Rockefeller regime’s explanation of the hostage killings at At­tica, makes the importance of the Gross case even clearer. Caruso’s belief that people who decide so many other complex cases should stay out of police affairs is as close to the call for a police state as anyone could imag­ine a contemporary official making. And though I feel the term “police state,” like “fascism,” has been beaten past pulp to liquification since the ’60s, it is difficult to find a better explanation for Caruso’s vision.

Ironically, the metaphor of victimization is now so well circulated that it is used to explain everybody’s predicament: the teenagers wounded by Goetz were victims of poverty and barren social services; Goetz was the pawn of frustration in face of threat, flagrant dope dealing, and the jus­tice system’s revolving door; Bumpurs was victimized by police callous­ness or racism; Sullivan suffered as fall guy for the failures of the society and District Attorney Mario Merola’s antipathy toward the police; while he was apparently defacing public property, Michael Stewart became a casualty of color prejudice; the six transit cops were wrongly charged be­cause of the hysteria whipped up by the media; and our poor boy down among the corpses, Elliot Gross, is the target of professional enemies. Such a sweeping sense of victimization implies that the idea of individual responsibility has fallen by the wayside and no one, purported mugger or clairvoyant shootist, policeman or casualty, coroner or grand juror, is truly accountable for his or her actions. Human beings are no more than silly putty pulled and shaped by forces beyond their control. That might be meat for a Marxist or behaviorist analysis in which human beings are piano keys that go out of pitch when the weather is inclement and need only a master tuner to get them in order, but such explanations are the antithesis of civilization, brought into battle by so many different parties in these cases because they have worked so well for criminals — prompting even police to use them!

Such developments could intensify the cynicism tantamount to fatalism that neither this city nor this nation can afford. The only way solu­tions can be reached is for people to stop acting as though America is a monarchy — this is a democracy, and the responsibility for bird-dogging elected officials is theirs. This is especially important in terms of the black community. As playwright Charles Fuller says, “We have to take back the streets. Us. Black people. We have to involve ourselves in the workings of society and play our role in what is not only good for us but good for the general society. There is no truly segregated reality in America. All we have is different styles. Crime is the same for all of us. Fear is the same to all of us. Education and safety are equally important to all of us. We can­not abrogate our role as participants in American life.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”726861″ /]

Nor can black people ignore the truth. Less than 1 percent of the peo­ple in the most dire economic conditions deface public property, commit violent crimes, or frighten residents from the streets of their own commu­nities after dark. Those who do are by and large black teenagers and the children of teenage mothers. As Dorothy I. Height, president of the Na­tional Council of Negro Women, points out in the March 1985 Ebony: “We find that in 1950 only about 18 percent of all black infants were born out of wedlock, and only about 36 percent of all black infants born to teenage mothers were born to unmarried women. In 1981, 65 percent of all births to black women were out of wedlock. Among black women un­der 20 the proportion was over 86 percent. The fastest growing black fam­ily formation today is that headed by teenaged mothers.” From these households come many of the violent criminals who lord over the night. As one resident of 152nd Street reports, “You see these kids throw a cat on the tracks and watch it get run over. They have no compassion because they’ve never felt any. It has never happened to them — the feeling of love, I’m talking about. All they know is life on an animal level. They’re only conscious of their needs; they lack the capacity for self-conscious aware­ness of right and wrong. Right is what you can get away with; wrong is the mistake that keeps you from getting away. That’s all they know. They’re beasts. Savages. Capital punishment, hard, hard labor, and long sentences in the penitentiary are the only things that will straighten them out.”

You hear the word savages quite often, though it never comes trip­pingly off the tongue. It is usually uttered with a combination of pity and bitterness, knowledge of how dangerous things become when teenaged mothers discover that parenthood is at least a 20-year sentence and be­come abusive. In too many cases the male children deflect that abuse onto the society itself. One man I know threatened to take his daughter to court and fight for the custody of her son if she didn’t stop letting his but­tocks become raw because the cost of changing the boy’s Pampers would cut into her nickel bags. She had married too early, gotten tired of moth­erhood, and treated her son with a malicious indifference. “She has no sense of sacrifice,” he says. “She thinks that if she doesn’t come first some­thing is wrong. I told her she was a barbarian, and when I heard her try to read, I was convinced of it. Illiterate, selfish, and incapable of compre­hending any kind of subtle ideas. Her mother was ignorant, my mistake was getting her pregnant and letting her raise the girl on welfare. But I’m not going to let my grandson be destroyed like his mother was.”

According to Ulysses S. Kilgore III of the Bedford Stuyvesant Family Health Center, 40 percent of the mothers of these girls with teenage preg­nancies don’t know the most fertile time of the month themselves. “These children are surrounded by ignorance and the only thing that is going to change the situation is rolling up our sleeves and putting aside the text­book rhetoric for a while — a long, long while,” he says. Kilgore under­stands that black people themselves must act to solve this problem; what he terms “textbook rhetoric” is no more than the defeatist sneering at des­tiny rather than wrestling with it. That the cases under discussion rise from the subway to an eviction, descend from the grand jury to the morgue, accentuate the need for accountability from law enforcement agencies and call into question the quality of urban life and the necessary support systems that define it, suggests that Fuller’s observation about the need for Negro participation in the workings of American life is abso­lutely on the mark. It is only through participation that the social morale of both the black community and the nation at large can be raised. “It all has to come from us,” says Kilgore. “If we make the thrust, roll up our sleeves and work at fighting the things that hamper the progress of black people, others will follow. But now, I think we have to make the first move and the second and however many more are necessary to get some­ thing going.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”727098″ /]

Getting something going is obviously a big job that calls for a new vi­sion of social action from Negroes, not as outsiders but as voters, taxpay­ers, and sober thinkers. All civilized societies know that unless what is largely the sexual energy of adolescent men is channeled, anarchic behavior is almost automatic. Unless people get education sufficient to compete in the world, they will either become criminals or welfare leeches draining off funds that could be used to better life rather than sustain dead-end poverty. Unless there is a reciprocal respect between citizens and law enforcement agencies, an adversary relationship develops that creates mutual contempt and paranoia. Unless young women learn that this is the best time in history for them to take on careers and explore their talents, they will continue to give birth to children with dubious futures. The history of Negro Americans, for all its heartbreak and tragedy, is also one of extraordinary accomplishment in face of ruthless resistance. If all the shootings and the controversies serve to alert both Negroes and the society at large to a grander struggle, none of the shock and despair will have been in vain. ❖

1985 Village Voice article by Stanley Crouch on Bernie Goetz

1985 Village Voice article by Stanley Crouch on Bernie Goetz

1985 Village Voice article by Stanley Crouch on Bernie Goetz

1985 Village Voice article by Stanley Crouch on Bernie Goetz

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Laughin’ Louis Armstrong

It was quite a long time before I discovered that Louis Armstrong was a genius. In fact, it was quite a while before I knew what to make of him at all. Born in 1945, I grew up with television. That meant growing up on Louis Armstrong, who was a favored guest on talk and variety shows and could be seen as everything from star to supporting actor or cameo performer in films from the thirties and forties. All I knew was that he was the most unusual of all the celebrated personalities who guested on television. He was a man whose size changed from sleek to proverbial butterball in the many films I saw, celebrated or imitated by every comedian at loss for an impersonation. I found him very mysterious.

Armstrong’s sound, his manner, his facial expressions, all added up, for me, to some kind of secret language with which he consumed, reshaped, and reiterated songs, words, and music. Music I had become familiar with through radio, or television time, would dissolve in gravel, mugging, and a forward-leaning slight or broad trembling of the body which was physicalization of a vibrato. As he reared back while singing, say, “St. James Infirmary,” the width of his smile was heroic, yet it was more closely related to a grimace or the shadow world of irony and ambiguity than was suggested by the clapping of the audience or by the laughing of my mother as he would make an aside that held sentimentality or self-pity up for mockery, underlining it all with a handkerchief descending across his face, an open-armed gesture, or the motion of his head from side to side.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720527″ /]

Unlike my mother, my father didn’t find Armstrong charming or amusing; he found him despicable. My old man had been baptized in Lunceford, Ellington, and bebop. He considered Armstrong an embarrassment, a return to an unpleasant identity, or a man who had allowed white people to impose a ridiculous mask on him. In short, an Uncle Tom. But for all my old man’s fervor, I wasn’t going for it. Though I had no idea what was actually going on, I found Armstrong still mysterious.

But it wasn’t until I saw Armstrong in a film with Danny Kaye about the white cornetist Red Nichols that I got a glimpse of the master behind the mask. Nichols goes uptown to hear “the new bugler” play in Harlem. Drunk and laughing, he interrupts Armstrong (who is playing himself) as he gloriously trumpets the blues, and tells him that he is not as great as his father, the senior Nichols, who plays in the Midwest. With a gravity and confidence, a contempt and actuality that is rarely heard from Armstrong in any film when he is not performing musically, he replies, “If he ain’t Gabriel, he’s in trouble.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”722117″ /]

Nothing else Armstrong says or does in the film other than play is that authoritative, but that was enough. It prepared me for the photographs of Armstrong from the twenties with King Oliver or Fletcher Henderson. There we see an arrogant, surly young man who seemed to think himself handsome and was not to be fucked with. In Jazz Masters of the 1930’s, trumpeter Rex Stewart remembers Armstrong as a man who arrived in the North wearing a box-back suit, a cap cocked to the side, and some high-topped shoes, all of which were emblematic of a street tough. Armstrong himself has written of knife fights he witnessed, of women who sold their bodies for his benefit, and women who threatened him with knives — one eventually stabbed him in the shoulder. He also spoke of the many gangsters for whom he worked and the shootings he witnessed. At times, he carried two pistols himself.

In many ways, the genial persona Armstrong cultivated in the thirties was the result of advice from his manager, Joe Glaser. Glaser encouraged Armstrong to mug and sing, and many thought of the great brassman as no more than his lapdog. But one musician claims to have opened Armstrong’s dressing room door one evening to find him holding a knife to Glaser’s throat, saying, “I can’t prove it, but if I find out you’ve stolen one dime from me, I’ll cut your goddam throat.” Another says Armstrong knocked trombonist Jack Teagarden out cold one evening backstage for getting too familiar. He then calmly went onstage to grin broadly and speak through his teeth, saying, “Thank you very much, ladies, gen’mens. Our first number this evening is dedicated to our trombonist brother Jack Teagarden, who won’t be playing this show with us, and it’s called — ‘When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.”‘ And of course, very little is ever said about how strongly Armstrong spoke out about President Eisenhower’s indecisive­ness at Little Rock, and the fact that the next string of gigs he played was so bereft of audiences, artillery shells could’ve sailed through the rooms and harmed no one. Then there was the irony of his yucking it up on screen with white stars who never invited him to their houses. All of those things made Armstrong more than a little tough. No man of his background born in 1900 who was a professional musician for fifty years could even aspire to being a square, a lame, or a chump. The pressure flushed all punks.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716138” /]

A recent RCA reissue on Bluebird, Young Louis Armstrong 1932-1933 (AXM2-5519), is invaluable to this discussion, just as it is musically invaluable. The double album contains material from a period most critics find lacking in artistic greatness, which is absurd. Not only does this recording contain some of the finest trumpet playing ever documented, it very clearly shows how influential Armstrong was on singers as different as Bing Crosby, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Dean Martin. The emotional range of the work is exemplary and the variety of things Armstrong does with the horn often startles. Without a doubt, Armstrong was the greatest trumpet player of the century — the most powerful, the most touching, the most varied.

One performance,”Laughin’ Louie,” perfectly expresses the enigma of the great musician. It opens with a trite theme that collapses into a burlesque of sad jokes and buffoonery from both Armstrong and his band members. The music starts back up and, again, breaks into laughter, Armstrong and the band bantering back and forth. Then, out of nowhere, the trumpeter decides to play something from his New Orleans past. First, he sputters some individual notes; then there is a lovely passage, then more laughter before he quiets the band down for “the beautiful part.” Armstrong then plays in unaccompanied melody. Its rich tone conveys a chilling pathos and achieves a transcendence in the upper register that summons the cleansing agony of the greatest spirituals. The band drops a chord under him and it is over. The feeling one is left with is of great mystery. ❖

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

James Baldwin: The Rage of Race

By 1963, when he pub­lished The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin’s writing had become al­most exclusively polemi­cal, foreshadowing the narrowing of black com­mentary into strident prosecution or spiteful apology. Considered the intellectual component of the Civil Rights movement, Baldwin was a seminal influence on the subsequent era of regression in which Stokely Carmi­chael, Rap Brown, Leroi Jones, and El­dridge Cleaver transformed white Ameri­ca into Big Daddy and the Negro movement into an obnoxious, pouting ad­olescent demanding the car keys.

The increasing bile and cynicism of Baldwin’s generalized charges and his willingness to remove free will from the black lower-class through what he called the “doom” of color, helped foster a dis­position that put the Negro movement into the hands of those who had failed at taking it over before: the trickle-down Marxist revolutionaries and cultural na­tionalists whose flops and follies of imagination Harold Cruse documented so well in Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Those people led many up paths that resulted in imprisonment, spiritual col­lapse, and death for goals far less logical than acquiring political power through inclusion into the social contract. The alienation of abstract facelessness that Martin Luther King and the civil rights workers had won so many battles against was given greater strength when black political talk became progressively anti-­white, anticapitalist, and made threats of overthrowing the system itself.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722119″ /]

Before he was swept into the position of a media spokesman, Baldwin had been much more ambitious and much more willing to address the subtleties of being a serious writer. His first book of essays, Notes of a Native Son, contains “Every­body’s Protest Novel,” which was written in 1949 and observes that “…the avowed aim of the American protest nov­el is to bring greater freedom to the op­pressed. They are forgiven, on the strength of these good intentions, what­ever violence they do to language, what­ever excessive demands they make of credibility. It is, indeed, considered the sign of frivolity so intense as to approach decadence to suggest that these books are both badly written and wildly improba­ble. One is told to put first things first, the good of society coming before the niceties of style or characterization. Even if this were incontestable… it argues an insuperable confusion, since literature and sociology are not one and the same; it is impossible to discuss them as if they were.”

The turmoil that would so twist Bal­dwin’s intelligence and abuse the possibil­ities of his talent is also evident in that first book of essays, much of the trouble circulating around his sense of himself as “an interloper,” “a bastard of the West.” “Stranger in the Village” finds him reel­ing toward the emblematic as he writes of some Swiss hicks in an Alpine town, “These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as in­deed would New York’s Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few cen­turies and they are in their full glory — but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.”

Such thinking led to the problem we still face in which too many so-called nonwhite people look upon “the West” as some catchall in which every European or person of European descent is somehow part of a structure bent solely on exclud­ing or intimidating the Baldwins of the world. Were Roland Hayes, Marian An­derson, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, or Kiri Te Kanawa to have taken such a position, they would have locked them­selves out of a world of music that origi­nated neither among Afro-Americans nor Maoris. Further, his ahistorical ignorance is remarkable, and perhaps willful.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720527″ /]

But breaking through the mask of collective whiteness — and collective guilt­ — that Baldwin imposes would demand recognition of the fact that, as history and national chauvinism prove, Europe is not a one-celled organism. Such simplifications are akin to the kind of reasoning that manipulated illiterate rednecks into violent attempts at keeping “their” uni­versities clean of Negro interlopers. Or convinced black nationalist automatons that they were the descendants of “kings and queens” brought to America in slave ships and should, therefore, uncritically identify with Africa. Rather than address the possibilities that come both of ethnic cultural identity and of accepting the in­ternational wonder of human heritage per se, people are expected to relate to the world only through race and the most stifling conceptions of group history. The root of that vision is perhaps what Shaw spoke of in Major Barbara, hatred as the coward’s revenge for ever having been intimidated. Baldwin would call it rage, and write, “Rage can only with difficulty, and never entirely, be brought under the domination of the intelligence and is therefore not susceptible to any argu­ments whatever.”

Though his second book of essays, No­body Knows My Name, is the work of a gritty and subtle intelligence, there are more than a few indications of the talent that would soon be lost to polemics. Per­haps the most illuminating is “Princes and Powers,” where he takes a remark­ably sober look at the Conference of Ne­gro-African Writers and Artists, held in Paris in 1956. Baldwin was faced with an international gathering of black people who were rejecting the justifications used to maintain the colonial structures they groaned under. Here Baldwin introduced themes he would later adapt to the Amer­ican context: the denial by Europeans of non-Western cultural complexity — or parity; the social function of the inferior­ity complex colonialism threw over the native like a net; the alignment of Christianity and cruelty under colonialism, and the idea that world views were at odds, European versus the “spirit of Bandung,” or the West in the ring with the Third World.

At the time, Baldwin understood quite well the difference between colonized and Afro-American people, whom he rightful­ly referred to as “the most real and cer­tainly the most shocking contributions to Western cultural life.” Though Afro-Americans also suffered under institu­tionalized prejudice, the nature of their experience was the manifestation of a very specific context. “This results in a psychology very different — at its best and at its worst — from the psychology that is produced by a sense of having been in­vaded and overrun, the sense of having no recourse whatever against oppression other than overthrowing the machinery of the oppressor. We had been dealing with, had been made and mangled by, another machinery altogether. It had nev­er been in our interest to overthrow it. It had been necessary to make the machin­ery work for our benefit and the possibili­ty of doing so had been, so to speak, built in.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”722046″ /]

In assessing the performance of Rich­ard Wright, Baldwin understood the dan­ger of apologizing for brutal, Third World politics that the older writer was condon­ing. Baldwin didn’t miss the implications of Wright’s address: “…that the West, having created an African and Asian elite, should now ‘give them their heads’ and ‘refuse to be shocked’ at the ‘meth­ods they will be compelled to use’ in uni­fying their countries… Presumably, this left us in no position to throw stones at Nehru, Nasser, Sukarno, etc., should they decide as they almost surely would, to use dictatorial methods in order to hasten the ‘social evolution.’ In any case, Wright said, these men, the leaders of their coun­tries, once the new social order was established, would voluntarily surrender the ‘personal power.’ He did not say what would happen then, but I supposed it would be the second coming.”

Listening then to Aimee Cesaire, Bal­dwin wrote, “I felt stirred in a very strange and disagreeable way. For Ce­saire’s case against Europe, which was watertight, was also a very easy case to make… Cesaire’s speech left out of ac­count one of the great effects of the colo­nial experience: its creation, precisely, of men like himself.” Baldwin could see that Cesaire was a modern man, a writer whose bearing and confidence were proof that, “He had penetrated into the heart of the great wilderness which was Europe and stolen the sacred fire. And this, which was the promise of their freedom, was also the assurance of his power.”

Such good sense wouldn’t last long in Baldwin’s writing. Once he settled into astonishingly lyrical rants such as The Fire Next Time, Negro neighborhoods were described as relentlessly grim and so inevitably deforming that only the most naive could accept Baldwin’s having come from such a “ghetto.” Ignoring the epic intricacy of Afro-American life, Baldwin began to espouse the kinds of simplistic conceptions Malcolm X became famous for: “It is a fact that every American Negro bears a name that originally be­longed to the white man whose chattel he was. I am called Baldwin because I was either sold by my African tribe or kidnapped out of it into the hands of a white Christian named Baldwin, who forced me to kneel at the foot of the cross.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”721686″ /]

Actually, a good number of Negroes named themselves after freedom came and the issue of converting slaves to Christianity was a subject of major de­bate because it broached the idea of slaves having souls. But such facts were of no interest to Baldwin. Rather, he chose to combine the Nation of Islam’s venom toward Christianity and toward whites with an overview so committed to determinism that it paralleled the explan­atory recipes of the left. When mature thinking was most desperately needed, Baldwin was losing the ability to look at things the way they actually were.

In effect, Baldwin sold out to rage, de­spair, self-righteousness, and a will to scandalize. The mood he submitted to was one he had pinned down in “Princes and Powers.” Alioune Diop, editor of Presence Africaine, had delivered a talk and Baldwin perceptively noticed this: “His speech won a great deal of applause. Yet, I felt that among the dark people in the hall there was, perhaps, some disap­pointment that he had not been more specific, more bitter, in a word, more demagogical.” In America, there was a very similar attitude among those fat­-mouthing Negroes who chose to sneer at the heroic optimism of the Civil Rights Movement; they developed their own rad­ical chic and spoke of Malcolm X as being beyond compromise, of his unwill­ingness to cooperate with the white man, and of his ideas being too radical for assimilation. Baldwin was sucked into this world of intellectual airlessness. By The Fire Next Time, Baldwin is so happy to see white policemen made uncomfort­able by Muslim rallies, and so willing to embrace almost anything that disturbs whites in general, that he starts compet­ing with the apocalyptic tone of the Na­tion of Islam.

[related_posts post_id_1=”419403″ /]

Perhaps it is understandable that Bal­dwin could not resist the contemptuous pose of militance that gave focus to all of his anger for being the homely duckling who never became a swan, the writer who would perhaps never have been read by so many black people otherwise, and the homosexual who lived abroad most of his adult life in order to enjoy his prefer­ences. Baldwin’s increasing virulence had perhaps more than a bit to do with his homosexuality. As a small, even frail, man who wrote of being physically abused by his father, the police, and racists in the Greenwich Village; Baldwin was prone to admire and despise those who handled the world in a two-fisted manner (which comes out clearly in his essay on Norman Mailer, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy”). He was also given to the outsider’s joy when in­timidation was possible: “black has be­come a beautiful color — not because it is loved but because it is feared.” This same attraction to fear permeated his ambiva­lent attitude toward Christianity. Con­demned to hell as an erotic pariah by Christian doctrine, he was understand­ably relentless in his counterattacks; at the same time, his alienation did not pre­vent him from being awed by the particular power and majesty Negroes had brought to the religion. Boldly, though unconvincingly, in Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, he presented an alternative order in which homosexuals served as priests in a religion based on love.

Baldwin’s prose was sometimes coated with the effete sheen of the homosexual straining to present himself as part of an elite, or it could be pickled with the self­-defensive snits and bitchiness Lionel Mitchell called “our macho.” Beware ye who would condescend: Baldwin’s atti­tude wasn’t substantially different from the aggressive defensiveness of any out­siders, be they black nationalists who cel­ebrate Africa at Europe’s expense, those feminists who elevate women over men, or any other group at odds with or at a loss for social and political power.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716036″ /]

It is also true that Baldwin was the first of his kind, and perhaps the last we shall see for some time: the Negro writer made a celebrity and thrust into the na­tional political dialogue. He had no mod­els to learn from and settled for sassing the white folks when ideas of substance would have been much more valuable. His considerable gift for making some­thing of his own from the language of Henry James and the rhetoric of the black church was largely squandered on surface charges and protest fiction. The talent for writing fiction that Baldwin showed in his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, never achieved maturity. Though the rest of the novels are uni­formly bad, almost every one contains brilliant passages in which Baldwin’s long, long sentences were indicative of his intricate sense of consciousness, boasting finely orchestrated details, declarations, and nuances of feeling. But they are, with the exception of the all-white homosexual melodrama Giovanni’s Room, ruined by the writer’s contrived and sentimental conception of race. The purple trumpet in his soul played the same tune over and over, one which depicted Negro life as insufferable, saintly, and infinitely supe­rior to that of whites.

Though homosexuality loomed ever larger in his fiction as the years passed, by the last long essay, Evidence of Things Unseen, Baldwin streaks away from the issues surrounding the Atlanta child mur­ders, ignoring particularly the exploita­tion of so many impoverished Negro boys by the homosexual subculture of that city. His eloquence gone, Baldwin reads as though his mind had so eroded that he no longer knew how to build an argu­ment. Very little connects and any subject is an occasion for a forced harangue against the West, the profit motive, Christianity, and so on. It is a disturbing­ly dishonest book.

One cannot deny James Baldwin his powers, but it is tragic that he was never strong enough to defend and nurture his substantial talent and become the writer even such imposing gifts do not make inevitable. Finally, Baldwin’s description of his success as a boy preacher in The Fire Next Time says much about the de­cay of a writer who once seemed poised on greatness: “That was the most fright­ening time of my life, and quite the most dishonest, and the resulting hysteria lent great passion to my sermons — for a while. I relished the attention and the relative immunity from punishment that my new status gave me…” ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Black Music: Bringing Atlantis Up to the Top

Black Music: A Special Section

…the rhythm is so hip that it can comple­ment all that intellectual shit that’s been going on, which is cool to a point. 
—George Clinton to Chip Stern

One of the great problems of the develop­ment of jazz over the last 20 years is that the aesthetic battles engendered by the innovations of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and John Coltrane took place in a community that was far removed from the sources of the music. In Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side, musicians played for people whose only contact with the rich layers of African-­American culture that the music so often symbolized was through the proxy of bohe­mian social life and interracial romance. As a result, the music frequently sounded very European despite the proclamations about its blackness: The dance rhythms and the ten­sions of syncopation against a pulse were deemphasized; limited tonal vocabularies were often employed; and an abundance of absolute fakes, or players of small talent and much con, justified their ramblings with a fraudulent and pretentious mysticism (if one played as horribly as some of those men did, one should have been praying all the time — ­for talent if nothing else). Under the pres­sures of rejection and hostility a few very good players made use of inept or ignorant musicians, dismissing craft and knowledge as too restricting. Even Coleman, Coltrane, and Taylor sometimes hired musicians who were “avant-garde” only because they could not fulfill the technical requirements of any other jazz style.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716127″ /]

Yet at the same time there was an incred­ible confusion over the nature of the black identity. It infested art as well as politics and resulted in a great deal of rather simplistic and ludicrous ancestor worship, intellectual irresponsibility, primitive mask-wearing, and counterfeit militancy that frequently had more to do with renegade dilettante romance than more fascinating combinations of notes, sounds, colors, and rhythms. It proved once again that there is some sort of pendulum within the black arts community that swings back and forth between intellectual ambition and the rejection of intellect in favor of a willed savagery. Of course, as with Duke Ell­ington, an unpretentious melding of the two would not only be ideal aesthetically but would probably achieve what the most intel­ligent of 20th-century people are trying to do: Combine intellect with emotional, spirit­ual, and physical vitality.

The upshot of the confusion, however, was a scorning of intellect in favor of “energy” and a narrowing of stylistic possibilities that resulted from rejecting tempo, meter, har­mony, intonation, repeating form as symbol­ized by the chorus, and even swing as “European.” Consequently, some very talented players were caught saying things as stupid as “You’ll never play bebop better than Bird so why try? Do something new.” At one point, genuine artists such as Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp were considered old hat or reactionary because they swung, were lyrical, or reminded one of the richness and breadth of the tradition. Not only had the baby been thrown out with the bath water but the tub as well. Thus, the avant-garde received an audi­ence only in Lower Manhattan and Europe. Coltrane alone led a band at the Apollo.

Coltrane had a black following while most of the avant-garde didn’t because Elvin Jones had orchestrated the triplet blues beat into a sophisticated style that pivoted on the boody­-butt sway of black dance. In tandem, Col­trane and Jones created a saxophone and drum team that reached way back to the sax­ophone of the sanctified church shouting over the clicking of those sisters’ heels on the floor and the jingling, slapping pulsation of tambourines. The sound was lifted even higher by the antiphonal chants of the piano and bass played by McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison, whose percussive phrasing helped extend Jones’s drumming into tonal areas. In fact, one could say that both Coltrane and Coleman were the most sophisticated of blues shouters. Yet Coltrane’s fascination with African music gave him an edge, for he was to discover in his own way the relationship between harmonic simplicity and rhythmic complexity held together by repeated figures played on the bass and piano. In fact, one could say that the actual time or the central pulsation was marked by the piano and bass while the complex variations were made by saxophone and drums.

What made Coltrane’s conception so significant was that it coincided with the interest in African or African-related dance rhythms and percussion that has been re­vived at the end of each decade for the last 40 years. One saxophone player even told me that the first time he heard Coltrane, around 1961, he thought that a new kind of Latin jazz was being invented. I recall, too, that during those high school years the mambo and the cha-cha were gauntlets of elegance. Norman Whitfield’s writing at Motown for the Temptations and Marvin Gaye leaned on congas and bongos, and the dance power of the drums came to the fore, sometimes light­ly and elegantly, as in the bossa nova. The very nature of most black African music, which is layers of rhythm in timbral and me­lodic counterpoint, and the exploration of the blues were the sources of the dominant aes­thetic directions in jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock. For the jazz players those reinvestigations of roots called for the kinds of virtuosity developed by Elvin Jones and Tony Williams if another level of polyrhythm was to be achieved; James Brown’s big band, while alluding to Gillespie and Basie, evolved a style in which guitars became percussive to­nal instruments staggered against chanting bass lines, two drummers, and arrangements that were riffish, percussive, antiphonal; rock players began to investigate the electronic textures and contrapuntal possibilities of Point overdubbing.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717075″ /]

Point of fact: all of the musics became more complex in one way or another. And they all influenced each other in one way or another. Percussion, multi-layered struc­tures, modality, social consciousness, and mysticism traveled through them all.

But with the death of Coltrane in 1967 and the media dominance of rock, the new jazz began to receive less and less attention. Jazz itself seemed to exist outside the huge dance-­oriented rituals such as Woodstock or the concerts and dances given by men like James Brown. Almost comically in tune with the times, Brown flipped over from “America is my home,” which has one of the great lines — “I got a jet!” — to “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Militancy to dance by.

What was so important about Brown, however, was he had the best band in rhythm and blues and he could out-dance everybody. He had the kind of performance power men like Mick Jagger were looking for, but it never seemed to fall into hysteria or the stiffness blacks associate with white dancers. Yet the way white people were singing and dancing seemed to say more about their actual ambitions than much of the nationalistic political talk in the black community. That is to say, I believe Mick Jagger and all those others wanted much more to enter the world of pul­sating grace and erotic elegance they recog­nized in black music and dance than black people of the same generation actually want­ed to be Africans. Today black people are back to trying to make their way into America. Mick Jagger is still coon-shouting and -­shaking. And if John Travolta, who was laughed at in Saturday Night Fever by many black dancers I know, is not a body snatcher, what is he? Did America ever see Soul Train?

Younger black people in pursuit of identi­ties separate from those of both mainstream and alternate-culture America rejected traditional figures such as B.B. King, Howling Wolf, and others because they felt those mu­sicians had been taken over by hippies, whom they found crude, lame, bizarre, and nasty. It was also true that Chuck Berry’s rhythm was outdated for black dancing — the dominant beats were those of Motown, James Brown, Otis Redding, and Sly Stone. Aretha Franklin reinvented the gospel beat for popular music as Ray Charles had earlier. The phrasing of Marvin Gaye, Smokey Ro­binson, Gladys Knight, Diana Ross, the Impressions, the Temptations, and Dionne Warwick was much more supple than that of the rock singers, suggesting the influence of jazz in the ways they soared through or syn­copated the time.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713841″ /]

Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix became the gods of the black drug culture, which attracted black people who were — unlike sanctimonious nationalists — social adventurers, traveling from white to black circles, learning the language of the psychedelic world and transforming it for their own ends, keeping up with the dances and music of rhythm and blues while embracing the intellectual context of rock musicians’ experiments with electronics. Stone and Hendrix muscled in on that, Stone anchoring himself in the musi­cal blueprints of James Brown’s Live at the Apollo albums and Hendrix in the innate avant-garde high-handedness of the blues guitar tradition, folk to urban. Both worked with an audacity like that of Muhammad Ali or the basketball players who were using “the hang” and turning the game into a high-­speed and illusive African-American dance. For the blacks within the drug culture Hen­drix not only avoided much of the clunkiness of rock but seemed to have conquered the form. “Jimi’s out there castrating those acid­-head white boys,” they used to say. When he died, some told me, “I bet all them white boys — Jagger, Eric Burdon, and the rest of them — are glad he’s dead. It’s like this: the kinds of white boys who get over with white girls because they remind them of nigguhs without the nappy hair and the big lips, they get nervous when the real thing comes around.”

Around that time legend had it that the Funkadelics came on stage naked at Mave­rick’s Flat in Los Angeles. Things were get­ting even looser than Hendrix had set up. Yet, there had been important rumblings in the jazz world as well. Most obvious was Ornette Coleman’s performance at Town Hall in De­cember of 1962, when he combined his regular trio with r&b players for a piece entitled “Blues Misused.” It was recorded, but never released. I have heard it. It predicts the fu­sion era in no uncertain terms. 1962. In 1967, Archie Shepp recorded Mama Too Tight, which was a bow to James Brown, just as Brown’s Super Bad included a tenor saxo­phone solo that seemed a bow to Albert Ay­ler, if not Coltrane.

Then Miles Davis stepped into the game. I consider Filles de Kilamanjaro his last totally masterful recording and “Mademoiselle Mabry,” which is included in the album, an absolute innovation in jazz rhythm that stands alone and has yet to be investigated. It was recorded in 1968, apparently. But, of course, Bitches Brew was his blockbuster and the record that unarguably announced the beginning of an enduring trend. The record never really gassed me, but I found the music on At Fillmore fascinating for it was often phrased with such angularity, suspense, gloom, and wit that it made me think of how Thelonious Monk might have played funk. In retrospect, it was obviously funk not rock, that Miles Davis was scuffling with there.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716694″ /]

Most of all, it is clear now that Davis had deemphasized complex melody and harmony in favor of percussion and sound. Almost every piece from those years was too long for my taste, and was usually rough, sometimes brilliant, off-handed, and sloppy at the same time. Still, the sitars, tablas, conga drums, Fender basses, electric keyboards, reeds, and trumpet (first acoustic then electric) came together in very original ways. By the early ’70s, Davis had recreated in jazz-funk lan­guage an African percussion ensemble fleshed out with electric instruments. The master drummer in the African ensemble sig­nals the end of a section and cues the players to change up gears and directions; Davis sig­nals either with his horn or with his raised and lowered arm. (James Brown uses verbal cues.) In Concert is an example, though it is so poorly recorded that the colors Davis was trying to develop don’t come through with clarity.

Since Davis began his experiments, jazz musicians have recorded a great deal of music which has been called crossover, fusion, jazz­rock, and what have you. Most of it is, to my ears, garbage. Not because crossing idioms is a bad idea, but because so few of the players believe in the music, and because, as Herbie Hancock once pointed out, many jazz players have problems playing the more intricate funk rhythms and phrases with any imagination or subtlety. R&b musicians like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, on the other hand, have done very well with influences from jazz (e.g., the bridge of Wonder’s “Too High” comes from the piano vamp of Duke Ellington’s “Purple Gazelle”).

Nevertheless, there is now a search for a combination of the sophistication of jazz and the fluidity of the polyrhythms that have developed within the black dance world over the last 15 years, or at least since James Brown’s “Cold Sweat.” But we are also in a period of percussion fever. Drums are everywhere and dancers are doing things with the individual parts of the arrangements, not just dancing to the obvious accents, which makes for an extremely intricate array of styles. There is also a reaction against the pretentiously intellectual directions certain wings of the jazz avant-garde have taken recently. Also, more and more jazzmen are beginning to feel as though they are segregated from the black community. The bridge could be dance rhythm.

[related_posts post_id_1=”612104″ /]

George Clinton is the man many younger jazz players are listening to now, and Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear is often discussed. Clinton is the Sun Ra of funk; his work exemplifies Miles Davis’s observation that things are now so slick an artist can play the entire music of the last decade in a few phrases. In other words, whole worlds of as­sociation can be summoned with the appropriately chosen notes. In a Parliament selec­tion, for instance, Sly Stone will be suggested in one phrase, Marvin Gaye in another; a flash of harmony will recall the Impressions, just as a few grunts on “Anger,” (Here, My Dear) will reinvent in one’s mind the entire arrangement of Sam Cook’s “Chain Gang.” It seems as though the comprehensiveness one hears in the music of Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, the AACM, and Arthur Blythe is now coming into r&b.

What seems to be about to happen is what LeRoi Jones called Unity Music in 1966. It will include the entire range of black music, maybe in one long performance, but pivoting on the drums. Jerome Cooper has developed a totally original style of solo percussion that includes simultaneous use of trap drum set, African balafon, and a double-reed Mexican wind instrument. He writes compositions that are the blues and funk another way. In fact, I believe that when Clinton gets wind of Cooper he might use him. Someone will. Ju­lius Hemphill has often worked with those rhythms; “Skin 2” on Coon Bidness and the monumental Dogon A.D. (both on Arista) show more than a little potential. James “Blood” Ulmer has not only created the most original guitar style and system since Wes Montgomery but is now getting ready to ex­tend the possibilities of funk. After having conquered the European orchestra on his own terms, Ornette Coleman is now trying to foment revolution in the world of dance rhythms; Dancing in Your Head and Body Meta show that he is right around the corner from the world George Clinton’s music is implying. David Murray has written a few songs that have the touch of popular hits and his background in funk gives, him command of the idiomatic nuances of the style.

None of this is to say that everybody in jazz will go over to funk, but I do believe that the way in which Marvin Gaye organized rhythms on Here, My Dear‘s “Time To Get It Together” shows that certain r&b musicians have been much more successful than many jazz players in organizing multiple rhythms that sustain the dance groove and the uses of drums, not only for rhythms but colors and contrasting lines, is the key to what is going on now. And wasn’t Charles Mingus’s last great com­position entitled Cumbia and Jazz Fusion?

[related_posts post_id_1=”419403″ /]

The reluctant maestro of the Miles Davis school could be Wayne Shorter, while trum­peter Olu Dara seems to have most success­fully expanded on the more viable elements of the Davis style since 1969. In his collaboration with Milton Nascimento, Native Dancer, Shorter managed to maintain lyri­cism, intervallic boldness, great rhythmic au­thority, and swing. Having begun in 1976 what he calls the Okra Orchestra, Dara, who is the adventurous equal of any contempo­rary trumpet player, develops written and improvised music over orchestrated percus­sion, voices, acoustic bass, and electric strings. An album that could set new trends was recorded by Dara for Alan Douglas, but was never released. It was a superb combina­tion of ethnic and popular rhythms with sim­ple or intricate melodies and the vanguard improvising of Dara, Hamiet Bluiett, David Murray, and Arthur Blythe. Blythe’s two newest releases are also central to the discussion. Bush Baby (Adelphi) finds the leader’s alto accompanied by tuba and single conga drum, comprising the most original sounding rhythm section in recent memory. The al­bum is an extraordinary exploration of the blues, of tempo, and of swing, while “Down San Diego Way” (Lenox Avenue Break­down — Columbia) perfectly places modern improvising in a dance situation. It can be danced to or listened to.

I am confident we are on the verge of hear­ing some exceptional music, music that will cut across more lines than ever, and will be much richer than the mechanical get-down music and would-be dancing of motor-booty affairs. As George Clinton says, “The rhythm of vision is a dancer.” I am sure that the new combinations of rhythm will allow jazz to maintain its sophistication and yet be more easily communicated. It is as though what used to be avant-garde is now old hat in cer­tain respects if it does not swing. In musical terms we are moving toward what literary scholar Werner Sollers has called “populist modernism.” I think so, anyway. ■

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES show-old-images THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Voice Writers Wrangle Over Michael Jackson in 1987

I’m White!

By Greg Tate
September 22, 1987

There are other ways to read Michael Jackson’s blanched skin and disfigured African features than as signs of black self-hatred become self-mutilation. Waxing fanciful, we can imagine the-boy-who-would-be-white a William Gibson-ish work of science fiction: harbinger of a transracial tomorrow where genetic deconstruction has become the norm and Narcissism wears the face of all human Desire. Musing empathetic, we may put the question, whom does Mikey want to be today? The Pied Piper, Peter Pan, Christopher Reeve, Skeletor, or Miss Diana Ross? Our Howard Hughes? Digging into our black nationalist bag, Jackson emerges a casualty of America’s ongoing race war–another Negro gone mad because his mirror reports that his face does not conform to the Nordic ideal.

To fully appreciate the sickness of Jackson’s savaging of his African physiognomy you have to recall that back when he wore the face he was born with, black folk thought he was the prettiest thing since sliced sushi. (My own mother called Michael pretty so many time s I almost got a complex.) Jackson and I are the same age, damn near 30, and I’ve always had a love-hate thing going with the brother. When we were both moppets I envied him, the better dancer, for being able to arouse the virginal desires of my female schoolmates, shameless oglers of his (and Jermaine’s) tenderoni beefcake in 16 magazine. Even so, no way in those say-it-loud-I’m-black-and-I’m-proud days could you not dig Jackson heir to the James Brown dance throne. At age 10, Jackson’s footwork and vocal machismo seemed to scream volumes about the role of genetics in the cult of soul and the black sexuality of myth. The older folk might laugh when he sang shake it, shake it baby, ooh, ooh or teacher’s gonna show you, all about loving. Yet part of the tyke’s appeal was being able to simulate being lost in the hot sauce way before he was supposed to know what the hot sauce even smelt like. No denying he sounded like he knew the real deal.

In this respect, Jackson was the under-weaned creating of two black working-class traditions: That of boys being forced to bypass childhood along the fast track to manhood, and that of rhythm and blues auctioning off the race’s passion for song, dance, sex, and spectacle. Accelerated development became a life-imperative after slavery, and r&b remains the redemption of minstrelsy–at least it was until Jackson made crossover mean lightening your skin and whitening your nose.

Slavery, minstrelsy, and black bourgeoisie aspirations are responsible for three of the more pejorative notions about blacks in this country–blacks as property, as ethnographic commodities, and as imitation rich white people. Given this history, there’s a fine line between a black entertainer who appeals to white people and one who sells out the race in pursuit of white appeal. Berry Gordy, burghermeister of crossover’s Bauhaus, walked that line with such finesse that some black folk were shocked to discover via The Big Chill that many whites considered Motown their music. Needless to say, Michael Jackson has crossed so way far over the line that there ain’t no coming back–assuming through surgical transmutation of his face a singular infamy in the annals of tomming.

The difference between Gordy’s crossover dream world and Jackson’s is that Gordy’s didn’t preclude the notion that black is beautiful. For him the problem was his pupils not being ready for prime time. Motown has raised brows for its grooming of Detroit ghetto kids in colored genteel manners, so maybe there were people who thought Gordy was trying to make his charges over into pseudo-Caucasoids. Certainly this insinuation isn’t foreign to the work of rhythm and blues historians Charles Keil and Peter Guralnick, both of whom write of Motown as if it weren’t hot and black enough to suit their blood, or at least their conception of bloods. But the inter-mingling of working-class origins and middle-class acculturation are too mixed up in black music’s evolution to allow for simpleminded purist demands for a black music free of European influence, or of the black desire for a higher standard of living and more cultural mobility. As an expression of ’60s black consciousness, Motown symbolized the desire of blacks to get their foot in the bank door of the American dream. In the history of affirmative action Motown warrants more than a footnote beneath the riot accounts and NAACP legal maneuvers.

As a black American success story the Michael Jackson of Thriller is an extension of the Motown integrationist legacy. But the Michael Jackson as skin job represents the carpetbagging side of black advancement in the affirmative action era. The fact that we are not producing young black men and women who conceive of their African inheritance as little more than a means to cold-crash mainstream American and then cold-dis–if not merely put considerable distance between–the brothers and sisters left behind. In this sense Jackson’s decolorized flesh reads as a buppy version of Dorian Gray, a blaxploitation nightmare that offers this moral: Stop, the face you save may be your own.

Three years ago black people cherished Thriller’s breakthrough as if it were their own battering ram apartheid. Never mind how many of those kerzillion LPs were bought, forget how much Jackson product we had bought all those years before that–even with his deconstructed head, we wanted this cat to tear the roof off the all -time-greatest-sales sucker bad as he did. It’s like Thriller was this generation’s answer to the Louis-Schmeling fight or something. Oh, the Pyrrhic victories of the disenfranchised. Who would’ve thought this culture hero would be cut down to just the times. To those living in a New York City and currently witnessing a rebirth of black consciousness in protest politics, advocacy journalism (read The City Sun! read The City Sun! and the arts, Jackson seems dangerously absurd.

Proof that God don’t like ugly, the title of Michael’s new LP, Bad (Epic) accurately describes the contents in standard English. (Jackson apparently believes that bad can apply to both him and L.L. Cool J.) No need to get stuck on making comparison’s with Thriller, Bad sounds like home demos Michael cut over a long weekend. There’s not one song here that any urban contemporary hack couldn’t have laid out in a week, let alone two years. Several of the up-tempo numbers wobble in with hokey bass lines out of the Lalo Schifrin fakebook, and an inordinate number begin with ominous science fiction synthnoise–invariably preceding an anticlimax. Bad has hooks, sure, and most are searching for a song, none more pitifully than the fly-weight title track, which throws its chorus around like a three-year-old brat.

The only thing Bad has going for it is that it was made by the same artist who made Thriller. No amount of disgust for Jackson’s even newer face (cleft in the chin) takes anything away from Thriller Everything on that record manages a savvy balance between machine language and human intervention, between palpitating heart and precision tuning. Thriller is a record that doesn’t even know how to stop giving pleasure. Every note on the mutha sings and breathes masterful pop instincts: the drumbeats, the bass lines, the guitar chicken scratches, the aleatoric elements. The weaving of discrete details into fine polyphonic mesh reminds me of those African field records where simultaneity and participatory democracy, not European harmony, serve as the ordering principle.

Bad, as songless as Thriller is songful, finds Jackson performing material that he has absolutely no emotion commitment to–with the exception of spitefully named “Dirty Diana,” a groupie fantasy. The passion and compassion of “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” seemed genuine, generated by Jackson’s perverse attraction to the ills of teen violence and teen pregnancy. There was something frightful and compelling about this mollycoddled mama’s boy delivering lapidary pronouncements from his Xanadu like “If you can’t feed your baby, then don’t have a baby.” While the world will hold its breath and turn blue in the face awaiting the first successful Michael Jackson paternity suit, he had the nerve to sing “The kid is not my son.” Not even David Bowie could create a subtext that coy and rakish on the surface and grotesque at its depths.

Only in the twisted aspects does Bad, mostly via the “Bad” video, outdo Thriller. After becoming an artificial white man, now he wants to trade on his ethnicity. Here’s Jackson’s sickest fantasy yet: playing the role of a black preppie returning to the ghetto, he now only offers himself as a role model he literally screams at the brothers “You ain’t nothin’!” Translation: Niggers ain’t shit. In Jackson’s loathsome conception of the black experience, you’re either a criminal stereotype or one of the Beautiful People. Having sold the world pure pop pleasure on Thriller, Jackson returns on Bad to sell his own race hatred. If there’s 35 million sales in that, be ready for the hills ya’ll.

 

The Boy Can’t Help It

Guy Trebay
September 22, 1987

There’s no longer any question that Michael Jackson is America’s preeminent geek. Even New Yorkers, who traditionally give a lot of latitude to the strange, can’t seem to get over the inscrutable and surgically airbrushed creature Jackson’s become. It appeared that, in the weeks following release of Bad and his primetime video, all you heard people talking about on radio, on the subways, and the streets was the sad gnome with the Porcelana complexion, the dated dance steps, and a terminal case of Jheri curl.

“I think Michael went too far in the white direction,” said John Hightower, portaging his Peugeot to work last week on the subway. Hightower and some fellow bike messengers were wedged into the last car of the IRT #6.

“Jackson had some kind of face peel,” Hightower added. “They had it in the News.”
“You mean,” asked a dark-skinned companion, “I’m that color inside?”

“To get that, man,” Hightower replied. “They’d have to peel you to the bone.”

The damn-with-faint-praise consensus on the subway that morning was that Jackson’s video was dramatic but too Hollywood, despite the New York locations, and that the song was okay though not remotely bad.

“And another thing,” said Hightower, “it should have been starring another person. Michael just looked too much like a woman to strut around like a homeboy in chains.”

As the Def Jam rap groups promoted the Madison Square Garden finale of their nationwide tour, Whodini’s Jalil Hutchins had one message for Michael Jackson fans. “We just want to say,” Hutchins admonished the WBLS audience one Tuesday afternoon, “you got to stop wearing those gloves and those leg wraps and those greasy looking curls because YOU LOOK LIKE A BUNCH OF JERKS.”

Hutchins and the members of Stetsasonic were in the studio giving a chaotic interview, when Jackson’s album came up. “We really don’t like to dis another artist,” said a member of Stetsasonic, before the rappers launched into a capella version of Jackson’s song in lisping falsetto. When DJ Bugsy dropped the needle on Whodini’s new tune, “Be Yourself.”

“You know the part I couldn’t look at was when Michael kept grabbing at his nonexistent crotch.” Jackson’s gender and virility were the topics during a break in rehearsal of Travis Preston’s Paradise Bound, Part II, a boom-box-and-chorus piece created for the Bandshell in Central Park. Sitting in the hot sunshine on Wednesday, some cast members couldn’t keep their minds on the performance. They were debating whether Michael and his sister Janet Jackson had ever been seen together at one time.

“I don’t think he exists,” said a singer. “I think he’s her. Or she’s him in drag.”

“Oh, no,” said Christine Satchell, a young actress from the Bronx. “That’s Michael. He just wears a lot of makeup.”

“That’s the problem, said another actor, “he’s jumping around singing, ‘I’m Bad,’ and then they breaks and Michael asks, ‘Can I borrow your mascara?'”
Everyone agreed director Martin Scorsese should have hired an actor for Jackson’s part.
“Like who?” a bystander asked.

“Oh, anybody,” said the singer, “just so he looked like a man.”

On television, Jackson provided comics with a weeklong gift of nasty riffs. Mining the limitless trove of Jackson’s peccadilloes, the funnyman cracked wise about the singer’s pet chimpanzee, the special language he invented to talk to his menagerie, and the life-sized mannequin of Elizabeth Taylor that he reputedly dresses every day. Jackson has become a monologist’s dream. Jay Leno scored the capper with a joke involving Jackson’s unsuccessful bid to purchase the Elephant Man’s remains. During his nightly stint, Leno broke up the Tonight Show millions with news that the Elephant Man’s descendants had made a counteroffer for the purchase of Jackson’s original nose.

Jackson hysteria attained a memorable plateau with the People and Rolling Stone covers, but a more lasting contribution to schlock journalism was the Daily News’s takeout entitled “Wizard of Odd.” On the second day of that three-part series, the newspaper included now notorious before and after pictures of Jackson’s transformations under the knife. With arrowed captions readers got to follow the surgical reduction of Michael’s upper lip, his nose, his lower eyelid, the addition of cheekbone implants, and the artfully cleft chin.

“People think he’s a big mystery,” said midtown news vendor Dalaedeet Singh. “Like Howard Hughes. When he’s on the cover of a magazine, we sell out very quickly.”

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the new album, at least not in Thriller terms. Bad’s initial sales surge leveled off swiftly after its August 31 release. “Under three million,” said one spokesman for Epic Records. “In excess of three million,” another claimed.

“Eh,” said Phil McGowan, soul music salesclerk at Tower’s flagship store on lower Broadway. As Bad blared from speakers mounted beneath a stupendous cutout of Jackson, McGowan said, “It’s selling okay, but a funny thing happened. The Michael came in and we got a new shipment of Prince at the same time.” He motioned to eight boxes of unsold Jackson. “Prince sold out in a couple hours. Michael’s still kind of sitting in the stacks.”

 

Man in the Mirror

By Stanley Crouch
November 17, 1987

Because Afro-Americans have presented challenges to one order or another almost as long as they have been here, fear and contempt have frequently influenced the way black behavior is assessed. The controversy over Michael Jackson is the most recent example, resulting in a good number of jokes, articles in this periodical and others, and even the barely articulate letter by the singer himself that was published in People. Jackson has inspired debate over his cosmetic decisions because the residue of the ’60s black nationalism and the condescension of those who would pity or mock black Americans have met over the issue of his face, his skin tone, his hair.

Since the ’60s, there has been a tendency among a substantial number of Afro-Americans to promulgate a recipe for the model black person. That model has taken many forms, but all of them are based on presumptions of cultural segregation between black and white Americans. The symbols of that purported segregation were supposed to permeate the ways in which black people lived, dressed, wore their hair, ate, thought voted, walked, talked and addressed their African heritage. And though the grip of such nationalism weakened over the years, it continues to influence even those who were lucky enough not to have been adolescents during its period of dominance.

Greg Tate is clearly one who has been taken in, and his recent article on Jackson illustrates the provincialism inherent in such thinking. Jackson alarms Tate, who sees the singer’s experience under the scalpel as proof of self-hatred. The trouble with Tate’s vision is that it ignores the substance of the American dream and the inevitabilities of a free society. Though no one other than Jackson could know what he seeks, to automatically assume that the pop star’s cosmetic surgery was solely intended to eradicate Negroid features in order to “look white” seems far too simple, ignoring both African and American cultural elements.

Présence Africaine published some 20 years ago a compendium of papers delivered in Senegal at the World Festival of Negro Arts. One of the lecturers made note of the fact that a number of African tribes considered the lighter-skinned the more attractive. This vision of beauty was free of colonial influence and probably had more to do with the quality of exoticism that is as central to magnetism as to repulsion. Further, Jackson could just as easily be opting for the mulatto look–if not that of the Latin lover and dandy–that has resulted from the collusion of gene pools whenever light and dark folk have coupled on the Basin Streets of history. Or he could be taken by the keen noses and “refined” features of Ethiopians?

The fact that Michael Jackson is not only a person of African descent, but is also an American should never be excluded from a discussion of his behavior. The American dream is actually the idea that an identity can be improvised and can function socially if it doesn’t intrude upon the freedom of anyone else. With that freedom comes eccentric behavior as well as the upward mobility resulting from talent, discipline, and good fortune- the downward mobility observed in some of those who inhabit the skid rows of this country because they prefer the world f poverty and alcoholism to the middle-upper-middle-, or upper-class backgrounds they grew up in. As one bum who had obviously seen better days said to a waiter as he was being ushered out of the now defunct Tin Palace for panhandling, “People come from all over the world to be bums on the Bowery. Why should I deny myself the right?”

Tate should easily understand this since he is from a well-to-do black family in Washington, D.C., but has chose, to wear dreadlocks in a hairdo that crosses the Rasta world with that of the Mohawk and, eschewing the conservative dress of his background, looks as often as not like a borderline homeless person. That Tate is a bohemian by choice rather than birth means that he has plotted out an identity he prefers to that of his social origins and has found the costumes that he feels most appropriate for his personal theater piece. Though it is much easier for Tate to get another haircut and change his dress than it would be for Jackson to return to his “African physiognomy,” each reflects the willingness to opt for imagery that repudiates some aspect of the past.

That sense of improvising an identity shouldn’t be thought of as separate from the American–and universal–love of masks. Nor should it be seen as at all separate from the “African retentions” Afro-American cultural nationalists and social anthropologists refer to so frequently. The love of masks, of makeup, and of costumes is often much more than the pursuit of high fashion or the adherence to ritual convention; it is also the expression of that freedom to invent the self and of the literal fun Americans have often gotten from scandalizing expectations.

As Constance Rourke observed and as Albert Murray reminds us in his invaluable The Omni-Americans, those colonial rebels dressed up as Indians for the Boston Tea Party might have enjoyed the masquerade itself as much as they did dumping the cargo in the ocean. Considered within the spectrum of the happy to hostile masquerade that has since evolved, Michael Jackson’s affection for his mirror image veering off from what nature intended places him right in the center of one of the whirlpools of national sensibility. One needs only to look at any book or photographs from the ’60s to see how the connection between protest, politics and the love of masks was most broadly played out–SNCC workers donned overalls; hippies took to long hair and tie-dyed outfits; black nationalists wore Figi haircuts and robes; and self-styled Afro-American revolutionaries put on black berets, black leather jackets, black shirts, pants, and shoes, or appropriated the combat dress of Third World military men. And no one who looks at the various costumes worn today, from dotted, yellow “power ties” to gargoyle pun fashions, should have any problem seeing their connection to the masking inclinations rooted in the joy of assumed identities. That love is still so embedded in the national personality that the people of New Orleans are admired as much for the costumes and false faces of Mardi Gras as for their cuisine and their music. And those of us in New York know how much pleasure the grease paint, sequins, feathers, and satins of the Labor Day parade in Brooklyn bring to spectators and participants.

As far as further African retentions are concerned, it could easily be argued that Michael Jackson is much more in line with the well-documented argument many primitive African cultures have had with the dictates of nature. Have the people of any other culture so perfectly prefigured plastic surgery or been more willing to accept the pain of traditionally approved mutilation? It is doubtful. In photograph after photograph, Africans are shown wearing plates in their lips to extend them, rings around their necks to lengthen them, plopping red mud in their hair for homemade conks that emulate the manes of lions, filing their teeth, and suffering through the slashes and the rubbed-in ashes that result in spectacular scarification. Whatever one wants to say about “different standards of beauty” and so forth, to conclude that such cultures are at all concerned with “being natural” is to actually reveal one’s refusal to see things as they are.

That willingness to suffer under the tribal knife is obviously addressed with much greater technical sophistication in the world of plastic surgery. In fact, the so-called self-hatred of black Americans, whenever it does exist, is perhaps no more than a racial variation on the national attitude that has made the beauty industry so successful. In those offices and in those operating rooms where plans are made and carried out that result in millions of dollars in profit, the supposed self-hatred of black Americans has little to do with the wealth earned by plastic surgeons. Far and away, the bulk of their clients are Caucasians in flight from the evidence of age, Caucasians dissatisfied with their profiles, their eyes, their ears, their chins, their necks, their breasts, the fat around their knees, their waists, their thighs, and so forth. Nipped, tucked, carrying implants and vacuumed free of fat, they face their mirrors with glee.

Where there is so much talk about Afro-Americans fawning over the lighter-skinned among them, what is one to make of all the bottle blondes this country contains and all of those who make themselves sometimes look orange by using lotions for counterfeit tans? It is a certainty that if some Negro American genius were to invent a marketable procedure that would result in harmlessly emitting the desired levels of melanin for those Caucasians enthralled by tans so that they could remain as dark as they wished throughout the year, his or her riches would surpass those off Bill Cosby. Would this imaginary genius be exploiting Caucasian self-hatred?

Then there is the problem some have with Jackson’s apparent softness, his supposed effeminacy. That, too, has a precedent with Afro-American culture itself. The late writer Lionel Mitchell once pointed out that certain black me were bothered about the black church because they were made uncomfortable by those choir directors and pretty-boy lead singers who wore glistening marcelled hair and were obviously homosexual. A friend of Mitchell’s extended the writer’s position by observing that those very gospel songs were just as often masks through which homosexual romance was crooned. “What do you think is going through their minds when the songs talk about being held close to His?” (What a variation on the ways slaves secretly signaled each other through spirituals, planning flight or rebellion!) This is not to say that ever homosexual gospel singer thought of things more secular than spiritual when chirping those songs in which love is felt for and from an almighty He or Him, but it is to say that those who feel Jackson has somehow sold out his masculine duties have not looked as closely at their own tradition as perhaps they should.

There is also the fact that Jackson, both as an androgynous performer and surgical veteran purportedly seeking to look like Diana Ross, has precursors in the minstrel shows of the middle 19th century. It is there that the tradition of the romantic balladeer actually begins, at least as a phenomenon of mass entertainment. As Robert C. Toll observes in Blackening Up, white minstrels became very popular with women because they were able to publicly express tender emotion through the convention of burnt cork and were sometimes able to become national stars for their performances as giddy mulatto beauties. “Female impersonators excited more interest than any other minstrel specialist,” writes Toll. “Men in the audience probably were titillated by the alluring stage characters whom they were momentarily drawn to, and they probably got equal pleasure from mocking and laughing at them….At a time when anxiety about social roles was intense, the female impersonator, who actually changed roles, fascinated the public. As a mode of properly ‘giddy’ femininity, he could reassure men that women were in their places while at the same time showing women how to behave without competing with them. Thus, in some ways, he functioned like the blackface ‘fool’ who educated audiences while also reassuring them that he was their inferior. Neither man nor woman, the female impersonator threatened no one.”

Jackson quite clearly bothers more than a few, from Eddie Murphy to the rappers interviewed by Guy Trebay in the article that accompanied Greg Tate’s. The pit bull of Murphy’s paranoia over pansies has often been unleashed on Jackson and the fact that the rappers were disturbed by Jackson’s persona suggests something other than what it seems. Perhaps what bothers them most is that the singer’s roots in minstrelsy are so different from their own. As Harry Allen revealed not so long ago, more than a few rappers are actually middle-class Negroes acting out their version of a “gangster aesthetic.” Instead of a minstrel mugging, you have counterfeit thugging, more than a tad in line with the faddish cracker sensibility of acting bad to bust the ass of the middle class on the rack of rock and roll.

Yet the actual sorrow and the pity of the Michael Jackson story is that he has had to carry the cross of an imposed significance far beyond what his music merits. Jackson comes from rhythm and blues, which is itself a dilution of blues, a descent from the profound emotion of America’s first truly adult, secular music. As a pop star, Jackson’s fame and riches have come from the expression of adolescent passion, but he is also the product of an era in which profundity has been forced on music actually intended to function as no more than the soundtrack for teenage romance and the backbeat for the bouts of self-pity young people suffer while assaulted by their hormones. Rock criticism changed all of that, bootlegging the rhetoric of aesthetic evaluation to elevate the symbols of adolescent frenzy and influencing the way pop stars viewed themselves. So when a man’s power is found in an adolescent form, time impinges upon his vitality. If he is sufficiently spooked, he might be moved to invent a world for himself in which all evidence that he was ever born a particular person at a particular time is removed. That removal might itself become the strongest comment upon the inevitable gloom that comes not of having been given too much too soon but of having been convinced that one is important only so long as he or she is not too old.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES

Bill Cosby’s Badfoot Brown

Forty years ago, Bill Cosby was the closest America came to a black president, garbed as he was in I Spy tennis whites. Unfortunately, the role of ambassador is a thoroughfare, and Cosby—along with other crosstown-traffic ’60s crossovers like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier—bore a burden of both mainstream and radical expectations that would inhibit anyone’s attempt at leading a normal life. No surprise that he’s been speaking out these days, trading in Jell-O for pound cake via the multimillionaire’s relentless assaults on black materialism and hip-hop culture. (Look for his own contribution to the genre soon.) The fact that he’s been lumped in with modern-day conservatism would at first appear to echo the tragicomic descent of Charlton Heston from civil-rights marches to bloodshot libertarianism. But it says more about how our culture has changed, rather than Cosby, and that’s reflected in this semi-anonymous tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., originally released in 1971. Never at a loss for words, Cosby included more than 2,000 of them in the original liner notes, an evocative snapshot of black bourgie radicalism at the time, which is to say that Cosby reveals an anger at his former tentativeness.

Yet the music is wordless, two side-long Sun Ra–esque modal kozmik grooves that share the wooziness of Albert Ayler’s work (the Dusty Groove label has never released an album that so aptly described the sonic temperament of its appellative) as well as Ayler’s mournfulness: The bassist on “Martin’s Funeral” breaks into “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” for a stretch, while the harmonica on “Hybish, Shybish” echoes desperately. Recalling a stretched-out version of pre-sparkly Earth, Wind & Fire circa Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the record’s personnel info has been sketchy, though there’s reason to believe that Charles Wright’s Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band (of “Express Yourself” fame) may be the primary players, as the album does recall the stoned, off-kilter jamming of their “High as Apple Pie” series.

Cosby has always possessed a taste for avant-jazz, and Badfoot Brown reminds us that musically and philosophically, he’s no Stanley Crouch. Then again, Crouch wasn’t always Stanley Crouch, either—the passage of time does fatten us up to protect us from our better instincts. Former guest host Cosby forgot Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s name during a recent Tonight Show appearance, and I’ve been told by Dusty Groove that they’ve hesitated checking specific details with the notably irascible Cos, as he might not wish to relive this blast from the past. But that’s why memorials like this exist, isn’t it?

Categories
Datebook Events Milestones NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

License to Ill

I began reading the Voice because of Stanley Crouch, who in 1977 was the epicenter of frontline jazz criticism in America at the most auspicious moment in the music’s progression since the early 1960s. That period saw the communal clustering in New York of the music’s last generation of rebellious, high-concept pioneers and Crouch pretty much kept those of us interested parties in the hinterlands up on what they were doing night to night in various lofts, dives, and haunts. Besides his wartime dispatches on the ’70s avant-garde, though, Crouch also produced long-form gems like “Bringing Atlantis to the Top,” his epic essay on the promising way newjacks like Olu Dara, David Murray, Henry Threadgill, and Julius Hemphill were commingling funk, avant-garde, and other Afro-diasporic forms. “Atlantis” was as significant a thesis on the topic as had been written since Amiri Baraka’s “The Changing Same (R&B and the New Music)”—and one that only would have appeared in the Voice.

Having been inducted into the ranks of Voice readers by Crouch, I also got to read the first major piece on hiphop and dance when Sally Banes’s breakthrough article on breakdancing was published here in 1981. Being down with the VV in those years also meant reading the scant but intimate work on the ‘hood and its tragedies by an amazing and forgotten sister named Ianthe Thomas, Clayton Riley’s innovative and comparative analysis of improvisatory technique in basketball and bebop, and a Thulani Davis screed on James Brown—all of which said to me that the Voice was where it was at for an intellectually curious young Negro like myself.

It was largely due to Thulani Davis’s encouragement that I sent my first demos in 1981 to Robert Christgau, whose response was, “The more writing like this I get in this paper the more I’ll like it.” Talk about a license to ill. Christgau became a one-man affirmative action committee in the 1980s, largely responsible for the paper recruiting and employing not only moi but Nelson George, Barry Michael Cooper, Thulani Davis, Carol Cooper, Pablo Yoruba Guzman, and Enrique Fernandez. His roster also included those impressive Negro sympathizers Gary Giddins and Chip Stern—all because he believed Afro-diasporic musics should on occasion be covered by people who weren’t strangers to those communities.

When Lisa Jones joined the paper in 1984 she became a one-woman Ivy League affirmative action conduit for a whole generation of predominantly Yale graduate African Americans who gradually invaded the paper as copy editors, writers, and editors—these notably including Lisa Kennedy, Ben Mapp, and Donald Suggs. (The Yale mafia also included Voice luminaries Joe Wood, Erik Davis, Joe Levy, and Julian Dibbell.) The twentysomething group also came to include James Hannaham, Scott Poulson-Bryant, and Public Enemy’s media assassin Harry Allen. The Voice‘s coverage of Black culture and politics became the most trenchant and erudite to be found anywhere in the country, thanks to the aforementioned and to the arrival of Peter Noel and his exceptional coverage of the grassroots Black politics that dominated New York progressive politics in the late ’80s and early ’90s. So when hiphop and the new Black nationalism were transforming the zeitgeist, the Voice‘s incredible cadre of young African American writers were thinking deeply about the meaning of Black identity, culture, and politics as emerging figures like Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, bell hooks, Tricia Rose, and Michele Wallace were bringing their brio to a resurrected Black Identity debate, and as equally dynamic figures from Black bohemia like Spike Lee, errant Voice contributor Vernon Reid, Tracy Chapman, Chuck D, Trey Ellis, the Hudlin Brothers—all of whom were prominently covered in the paper before and after they became household names—began to make work that helped elucidate and complicate that same debate.

The attrition of that corral of talent was to some degree inevitable. People like Lisa Jones and Barry Michael Cooper became players in the film industry; Nelson George focused on film and book projects; others departed because of burnout. Vibe and The Source emerged to become the more logical choices for the next generation of hiphop writer-activists like dream hampton, Karen Good, Robert Marriott, and Paul Miller, who all the same helped keep the paper’s hiphop coverage vital and informative.

The Voice never stopped featuring hiphop, but as it became a more dominant staple of American popular culture and developed its own reportorial outlets, the paper’s coverage became less central to the discussion—certainly far less than it had been in the early ’80s when George and Cooper pretty much single-handedly invented hiphop journalism, and I became, by default, the crackpot inventor of hiphop semiotics (there being few Black writers around at the time who gave much of a damn about either deconstruction or theories of boom-bap-itude).

When I moved to New York in 1982 I got a call from Crouch, who pointedly asked me, what did I see myself as trying to do in New York? I puckishly replied that my intention was to be a moving target. The nature of the Voice easily made that radical pipe dream of a career plan a reality. I can’t think of anywhere else my impudent ass would have been able to do the history of Harlem one week, George Clinton and hermeneutics the next, or routinely be encouraged to dispense my arcane opinions on Bootsy Collins, King Sunny Ade, Cecil Taylor, and the Bad Brains, or be given major space to theorize on the trial of eight Black revolutionaries whose sympathies lay with members of the Black Liberation Army and the Weather Underground.

This doesn’t even begin to talk about the utterly outrageous liberties I got to take with the English language high and low here because, as was explained to me—by that amazing staff of editors who midwifed and made the paper sing in the ’80s: Christgau, M. Mark, Kit Rachlis, Vince Aletti, Ross Wetzsteon, et. al—the Voice was a writer’s paper, where editors were encouraged to help you say what you wanted to say in the way you wanted to say it and stay vaguely consistent with the style manual. The degree to which I and others were able to take this notion and run buck wild with it was confirmed for me years later when Vernon Reid told me that upon first encountering my early work here, he didn’t know what the hell I was talking about but he knew I had to be a brother. Point being that for myself and Nelson, Stanley, Barry, Lisa, Thulani, and others, the Voice was once upon a time a place where you could actually get published (and get paid) to think long and hard about the meaning of being Black in a style and form that was racially motivated, and maybe even racially overdetermined for some overwhelmed readers’ tastes, but never dull, if only because of how furiously we were all riding our own prose dilznicks and cliznits. We were the sheet, knew it was our time, and let the record show, we all wrote as if we knew it.