There are, too, the perhaps apocryphal stories of young children talking about their friends and playmates, describing them and their adventures together. Later, when the parents meet those young playmates, they say to their children, surprised: "but why didn't you say he/she's black?" Or white. And the child looks at the parent astonished because the color is irrelevant to the discussion. To the friendship. To the play.
As a young child in a remote part of Zambia, I came close to this idyll. Growing older, the idyll was pretty much destroyed by expensive schools in Africa and England. No non-whites in my African school and precious few in the British ones. The few who did attend put up with a kind of genial nig-nog race-baiting - "but not you, Sambo, you're one of us."
When I came to the U.S.A., the remnants of my childhood's image of America were probably still buried in the back of my mind - rock 'n roll, big cars, beaches, Charles Atlas courses that would assure the ability to attract beautiful girls on endless beaches. More to the forefront, I looked forward to the energy that powered the post-New Left, Vietnam War protests, the Civil Rights movement, and the then burgeoning independent movie business.
In there somewhere was a naïve belief in U.S. egalitarianism which, I assumed, must certainly extend to race and therefore make this society more racially enlightened than the one I was leaving behind. Quickly, I discovered my error. Anecdotally: I lived in upstate New York. The year before I arrived, the sheriff's son had brutally beaten a black youth, the only black in the local high school. The family fled the town as soon as their son had recovered and the sheriff's son, far from being sanctioned, was a hero. Needless to say, the crime had no effect on the sheriff's career.
Two years year after this event, two black friends visited me from England. Jeff was the current World Heavyweight TaeKwanDo champion; Nemon the European Light Heavyweight Champion. We took the train from Grand Central and we were about halfway home when the conductor asked for our tickets. This was a regular commute for me and the conductor and I were on a nodding acquaintance, but the presence of these two black athletes, both immaculately dressed and rather English in their manners, threw him into some strange operational mode so insulting, so offensive and yet carefully honed to within a millimeter of crossing that line which, once crossed, leads to irretrievable violence. I was enraged and humiliated and, but for my friends' restraint, would have crossed that line myself.
In the years since then, and now living in California, I've watched us regress. (Not just in matters of race, incidentally. All the social 'rights movements' seem weaker than before and, crucially, as power and wealth concentrates further and further up the ladder, those at the bottom are dehumanized. If you're poor, homeless, sick or otherwise struggling, it's your fault. If you're also in a racial minority, then it's doubly your fault and you're dangerous, too. If the Pope or any other religious or altruistic figure speaks up for the disadvantaged, for equality and against rampant greed, then he or she does not understand the message of Jesus (or… name your guru). If a politician stands for fairness, he or she is a socialist, a word that now equates to a Satanic follower. 'Liberal' and 'progressive,' noble words, are now slurs. The bigots have redefined language and rationality is trumped by fear. This applies particularly to any discussion about race and usually renders such discussion meaningless; facts are 'disproved' by feelings and indisputable argument countered by persona abuse.
As I grow older I realize that I know less and less. Once I had answers, no matter how glib. Now I have none - just more questions - which may render futile a piece like this, which attempts to examine some questions of race in today's U.S.A.
Race is a dangerous sea to navigate. The shallows of truism, the rocks of stereotype and the storms of prejudice endanger even the best intentioned voyager. Why do I bother to make the voyage? To write anything? Who cares what I think? I have no power to change anything and no great following to convert or activate. But on the other hand, post the rise of the New Left, the Civil rights movement and the constantly accelerating technology of news gathering and dissemination - not least through social media - we might expect to have made much more progress toward Morgan Freeman's ideal than we have, and that might be worth a few words, worth thinking about.
As noted earlier, we have gone backwards in the past twenty to thirty years, reversing at an accelerating pace - witness: the current rash, and white acceptance, of police brutality; support for the flag under which white men fought to maintain slavery and social dominion over back men and women; the casual bigotry of the black president's opponents; race hatred and fear fomented by one news network and one political party in particular, simply to build influence, revenues and power.
Whites, and some blacks, too, accuse those who fight for the Civil Rights idealized in Martin Luther King's passionate oratory of monetizing the struggle; fomenting outrage simply to build political and financial empires. An ironic accusation bearing in mind the white establishment's long term manipulation of race hatred and fear as a means to maintaining power. Does anyone remember Lee Atwater?
Ten years ago, could anyone have foreseen the rise of White Men's Rights movements, much less have taken them seriously?
In the face of today's racial regressions, perhaps we all have a duty to make our observations and stake out our own ground in the hope that our views may somehow make a difference. (And, yes, of course that applies to racists, too; in a free society, they have the equal right to argue their case. The hope is that the bigots' theses, generally data-challenged and driven by emotion - anger, fear and envy in particular - may be trumped by more rational views based on the one quality that separates humans from the rest of the biomass: the potential to conduct a reasoned debate in which fact is not fictionalized by emotion.)
Recently, I spent some time in New Orleans, a city I visit as often as I can. I love it - the French Quarter and its surroundings in particular. It was this visit that prompted me to write these notes about race.
New Orleans is one of the not-so-many major U.S. cities whose black population exceeds its white; but its culture is quite different from, say, Birmingham, Baltimore or Detroit - cities with a similar racial mix. I'm not knowledgeable enough to explain that cultural difference and perhaps tie it into the city's music and cultural heritage, its pre- and post-Civil War history or the earlier Spanish and French influences but one thing is undeniable: New Orleans is unique and barely North American. Some say that it's a European city but that seems ridiculous to me. It's no more European than London is American. It is sui generis.
At the time of writing, New Orleans is in a long recovery from Hurricane Katrina, which decimated many of its poorest areas and drove large number of 'minorities' to other parts of the U.S.A. The hurricane has changed the demographic, perhaps permanently, and I think that will alter the soul of the city. There is wealth here but New Orleans is not prosperous and it will take many years to come back, a process not helped by Louisiana itself being run - if that's not too strong a word - by a governor alleged to be highly intelligent and educated but acting like a stupid ignoramus driven by a hatred of knowledge (it scares his voters) and a quite clearly mendacious claim to religious conviction. He is perhaps the most despicable politician on the continent and it's a tragedy that the jewel of New Orleans is in his pocket.
The first time I walked into Rockets it was a Sunday evening. Although it's a quite famous venue, I missed it going one way because, despite its recent fame (which stems partly from being featured in a TV series) its exterior is entirely unprepossessing - barely more than a house front on a dual carriageway.
Outside the club, a handful of flash Harley's parked. Was tonight Bikers' Night?
Inside, the band was playing a kickass mix of soul, rock and reggae. Every member talented far beyond average bar band and the singer one of those performers able both to sing and engage his audience, bring them with him, sometimes integrate their voices, with compelling ease. A few days earlier, I'd been in another club, the band playing extreme up tempo versions of Bob Marley classics and its singer much more concerned with engaging - chivvying - her audience than actually singing. It was so irritating that I left.
Rockets is basically a long narrow room, a bar running down one side, a row of tables down the middle and along the wall opposite the bar. It was packed. Two hundred people? The youngest there maybe thirty; the oldest up in the indefinables. Seventies? Eighties?
It was indeed a bike night, for several men, most of them on the larger side, wore colors. One, shaved head, yellow shades, sported an embroidered vest that proclaimed him 'Big Daddy Ben - One Man Gang.' This was a tough crowd, if only in appearance - though it would take a very hard man indeed to put that appearance to the test; and why would you, since the atmosphere was so mellow, the music so tight and everyone gently grooving, drinking, dancing and having a fine time on a Sunday night.
Walking in, we were a white woman and two white men in an otherwise entirely black room. And not a glance, not a frisson, not a moment of discomfort, WTF? or even surprise. I'm pretty damned certain that if three black people walked into a Santa Monica club packed with two hundred whites, those strangers would not have felt - or been made - anywhere near as comfortable as I was. I believe, too, that if I were black I would not be this magnanimous. In the light of everything racial going on in this society, I would have wondered, and probably asked out loud, what the fuck these three whites were doing on my turf.
(To put this in further context, I visited Rockets just a couple of weeks after a white supremacist youth shot dead numerous black churchgoers in Charlotte, and was obligingly fed hamburger and fries shortly afterwards by the white cops who quite gently took him into custody. Days later, the black congregation was praying for his forgiveness.)
Glory is one of the most expensive restaurants in the French Quarter. No longer in my financial pomp, I was taken there by new friends, a wonderful and generous couple who give the lie to the generality that the mega rich are usually 'filthy' rich.
The restaurant may seat forty people. It was more or less full. There was one black couple.
Apart from one table of more or less drunk corporate types, it seemed to me that our table was the only one giving off any real energy, probably because we were fresh friends eagerly finding out about each other and sharing our delight in New Orleans. Most everyone else appeared quite glum. Certainly, if one had a device that measured Enjoyment Factor, on the face of it at least, Rockets would be right up at the top of the scale and Glory somewhere down around the dentist's office. But then Rockets is a music club and Glory a restaurant where a chateaubriand costs about the same as a small cow and the wine list runs from $65 to $2000 a bottle. Bearing in mind that the median black income here is around $25,000 and the median white $65,000, Glory's racial mix is no surprise.
Personally, much as I enjoyed the meal and the company, I'd take 80 visits to Rockets for every one to Glory, because Rockets is alive with a contagious energy where Glory is pretty much po-faced. Rockets is hanging out on the stoop, watching or being part of the street life. Glory is staying home and watching TV.
The day I feel uncomfortable in Rockets or any similar club will be a very sad day for me. It will also be an understandable day because it's hard to deny that Rockets is black turf which, regardless of income or status, a white boy can enjoy as long as he's tolerated. Glory is white turf with a very high dollar ticket price, and that pretty much keeps it white turf.
I'm not sure what the juxtaposition of a black music club and an expensive restaurant says about race in New Orleans, but perhaps it's a graphic illustration of the changes in the city.
I hope it won't become Disneyland.
Little Jimmie played his 75th birthday at another of those ramshackle clubs which any other city's fire department, police department or other bureaucratic nanny department would close down.
Little Jimmie's a compelling blues guitarist and singer, though lacking the presence and charisma of some of the late greats. On the other hand, he's touted as a direct link to an earlier era and the 'authentic blues.' Quite what authentic blues are, I'm not sure. Robert Johnson, certainly, but there are people who will tell you that once Muddy Waters invented electricity, he surrendered his authenticity. Most of those aficionados will be white and on the earnest side, not least because blues, like jazz, does not have much of a black following.
Perhaps that's why Little Jimmie's band was all white, the drummer looking as though he'd be more at home in a country western setting; the harmonica lank haired and ineffably sad of expression; the bass player young, tubby, curly haired and apparently in charge of the play list. The set up reminded me of a Chuck Berry tour. One of the three or four fathers of rock, Chuck traveled solo and picked up usually white musicians at his various venues.
Little Jimmie's audience in this fire-trap music bar was almost exclusively white, and jigging enthusiastically in that somewhat spastic style which may have something to do with following the melody rather than the rhythm; or having no feel for on- and off-beat. It's an intrusive and fundamentally uncool movement which doesn't quite gybe with electric blues and tends to spill beer on adjacent patrons.
If this reads like the classic 'they' can dance and we can't - and therefore just another racial stereotype, there are reasons for stereotypes and anyone who cannot see that, as a generality, there is a big gulf between black and white dancing is either blind or terminally infected with political correctness. The key, perhaps, is not the observation of these differences but the character and motivation of the commentator. That's generally pretty obvious, just as it is when one listens to race-based comedy. It's all in the heart. (Naturally, there are numerous exceptions to every stereotype. In a reggae club in the West End of London, Nemon's broken-legged grasshopper movements stood out against the smoothly moving dancing mass and he turned to me and grinned: "I'm the only black man in London who dances like a fucking white man.")
Listening to Little Jimmie was another wonderful New Orleans night for me but I have to say that something just did not feel right and, without being able to put my finger on it, I believe that something is race-connected. Perhaps Rockets was organic where Little Jimmie's night was constructed. One was life, the other a show.
I repeat, the older I get the less I know and I have no answers as to why we seem to be as far away from the Morgan Freeman idyll as we ever were. Because of my background - maybe - it's a subject that has exercised me all my life. I'm sure I have over-thought it, often lost my sense of humour about it and bored my friends. The discussions I have had over the years, particularly with Nemon, someone with whom I could share any opinion without having to run it through the possible offence filter, always end with this depressing conclusion:
"Nah. There's no hope, mate. It's gonna end in war. You'll be one side of the barrier and I'll be on the other. We'll both have guns and doesn't matter that we're friends, one of us is gonna shoot the other."
Which is only a variation of another possibly apocryphal story about the Matabele Rebellion. As rumors of the coming revolt spread through the white population of Rhodesia, a woman turned to her long-time servant and said: "But surely, Barnabas, you could never kill me?"
"Of course, madam. I cannot kill you. But I can kill Mrs. Van Niekirk next door and her William can come and kill you."
I do fear that the racial conflict in this country threatens to become catastrophically violent. The black population has every provocation to 'go to the mattresses.' Its forbearance is incomprehensible to me. Such an escalation will only cause both sides to retrench and perhaps now is exactly the time we need to acknowledge that we are headed into real danger.
There are many steps that could be taken to prevent or delay race war, notably the reining in of out of control law enforcement whose racism is deeply embedded in a mass of poorly trained, bullying and unaccountable officers who have no commitment to 'Protect and Serve' and no understanding that that cliché does not include a 'service optional' clause.
Another step might be to throw political correctness to the four winds and recognize that we are tribal creatures with a deeply ingrained fear of 'other' tribes. But we are also evolved and potentially intelligent, rational, creatures who ought to be able to overcome those tribal fears.
Most of the solutions to racial conflict require the kind of investment in political, economic, social and educational recalibration of which we seem to be incapable; increasingly incapable, in fact, in an age when 'fuck you' has prevailed over common cause.
For my money, if there were a way of feeding the uncommitted (as against the incorrigibly bigoted) through the music-driven transformer that is New Orleans, perhaps we might understand so much more about the racial history of the U.S.A.; we might come to embrace and respect our differences; to draw on them rather than fear them and so create a more courageous, generous and bigger-hearted society in which Morgan Freeman is simply Morgan Freeman and Mike Wallace Mike Wallace, the differences between them being matters of character and style and not of color.
I wrote the above in an attempt to straighten out some of my own views, and I thought long and hard before sharing it. I was intimidated, perhaps; not so much by the currently politically correct suspicion that no white man has the right to opine on race - though that never seems to stop Fox-demented pundits and followers from squarely placing the blame for police brutality against the black population on… the black population.
Much more important to me than the fundamentally chickenshit vagaries of P.C. is the question of spouting off about a subject which I might understand – marginally – from a cerebral or academic point of view but of which I can have no deep emotional understanding because I'm a white man in a white man's society.
With these misgivings in mind, I ran the material by a long-time friend and co-writer. Rightly or wrongly, he found no offence or gratuitous obviousness - and added the following (lightly edited):
"It's interesting that, as we’ve discussed, the U.K. is de facto more integrated than the U.S.; an apparently higher level of intermarriage, to the extent that in London and other big cities, interracial couples are so common as to be totally unremarkable.
Also, there is nothing like the residential segregation here that’s the norm in the U.S.
Americans by and large don’t seem to acknowledge (or know?) that U.S. blacks have punched way, way above their weight in their contribution to international culture. Taking music alone: the huge breadth and depth, worldwide, of popular music – which effectively is black music; everything from jazz (New Orleans, mainstream, big band, bop) blues, rhythm’n’blues, rock’n’roll, soul, swing, zydeco, etc. etc.
Black American music has become the popular music of the world, from Beyonce to Kanye West – and the deracinated R’n’B that is the lingua franca of pop is just black music without blacks.
What has the U.S. white lower and lower middle class (the most racist bloc) contributed? Country music, ninety per cent of which is crap, and which anyway doesn’t mean shit outside the U.S.
This is before we consider the contribution of black comedians, writers, actors etc. What’s also amazing is that US blacks, bearing in mind they’re outnumbered about 8 to 1, have survived at all, let alone made such a contribution.
I read somewhere whereby working class people striving towards the middle class, unless they have access to the cultural norms of middle class life – very broadly, books, theatre, cinema, art etc. – just become rich working class people. You have the phenomenon, on the whole peculiarly American, of university students who seem to be ignoramuses. Educated know-nothings; and one of the many things about which they know absolutely zero is the history and narrative of Black Americans - whether it's slavery, Jim Crow, Frederick Douglas, MLK, Charles Wright, James Baldwin, Tommie Smith, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters… the list is endless.
Not sure what this means. Perhaps, that the more widespread ignorance is (and from this side of the Atlantic, Americans seem, increasingly, to be embracing ignorance as a human virtue and excoriating education, science and the humanities as works of Satan) the less chance there is of understanding the ‘other’.
And let's not even consider Texas-style religion and other bizarre fundamental Christianism... "