Without taking to the streets and protesting, can simply being yourself have political consequences? In the remarkable story of Louis Armstrong, it did.
Picture a young college freshman in 1931 going to a club in Austin, Texas because he heard there would be girls to dance with. Imagine his hopes that he would get lucky and find one to go off in the corner with to kiss, court and spark. That’s what a white Southern-raised young gentleman named Charlie Black had on his mind when he walked into that club. But when he heard the music from the live band, his life changed forever. He stood mesmerized, transfixed, disbelieving of the sounds he heard coming from the horn of the man on stage, stunned by the “steam whistle power blended with lyric grace” of his playing. That man was Louis Armstrong and when Charlie heard him, the world stopped, all of time stood still and everything he had thought was true up until this moment was shattered, was revealed as a shabby lie overcome by the real truth he was witnessing. As he described it:
“Louis played mostly with his eyes closed, letting flow from that inner space of music things that have never before existed…He was the first genius I had ever seen. The moment of being in the presence of a genius is a solemn moment. It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen-year old Southern boy seeing genius, for the first time, in a black man. You don’t get over that.
Louis opened my eyes wide and put to me a choice. Black, the saying went, were ‘all right in their place.’ But was the place of such a man and of the people from which he sprung?”
Charlie Black went on to become a lawyer and 23 years after that fateful night, became a major player in influencing the Supreme Court to rule for de-segregation in the famous 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case. Who could have predicted? Did Louis ever know the effect he had?
The entire edifice of Southern culture was built on one story—the ‘natural’ inferiority of the black race. It was a purposeful propaganda carefully crafted to allow slave-owners to sleep peacefully at night, propped up by shameless ministers and priests claiming back-up from the Bible, scientists concocting theories of racial superiority based on not a single shred of scientific evidence, politicians manipulating the system to jockey for power by declaring the 3/5ths of a man status and adding it to the Constitution. Later the Minstrel Show kept the story of the happy slave better off than he was in Africa story circulating, Sir Walter Raleigh fed the mythos of Southern gentility overpowering the evidence of Southern brutality and Jim Crow added fuel to the fiction with its “separate but equal” fantasy.
But how could such a story hold up in the face of the spiritual courage of a Harriet Tubman, the eloquence of a Frederick Douglass or W.E Dubois, the scientific contributions of a George Washington Carver, the musical genius of a Louis Armstrong or a Duke Ellington, the remarkable expressive dancing of a Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers, the athleticism of a Jesse Owens or Jackie Robinson? Extraordinary accomplishment in every field of endeavor, all the way to Tiger Woods, the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, President Barack Obama. How could anyone with half a brain cell see Southern gentility in fire hoses and attack dogs turned on children in Birmingham, Ku Klux Klan rallies and lynchings, a church bombed that killed four children, hate-filled faces screaming at a dignified teenager walking to Central High School in Little Rock to continue her education? The contradictions between the prevailing narrative so carefully crafted and zealous defended for the entire history of our country started to crack and bend and fray and in the case of Charlie Black, topple to the ground. He wrote in 1957:
“A Southern white by birth and training, I have pondered my relations with the many Negroes of Southern origin that I have known. I have noted again and again how often we laugh at the same things, how often we pronounce the same words the same way to the amusement of our hearers, judge character in the same frame of reference, mist up at the same kinds of music.…This has brought me to see the whole caste system of the South, the whole complex net of its senseless cruelties and cripplings, as no mere accidental grotesquerie of history, but rather as that most hideous of errors–the failure to recognize kinship. My dream is simply that sight will one day clear and that each of the participants will recognize each other.”
But for that to happen, we American need to remove the blinders of unearned privilege. The 60% of Republicans who eight years later still think that Barack Obama is Muslim, the extraordinary rise of a Donald Trump feeding the fantasies of millions that their white skin is an emblem of superiority, their longing to “make America great again” by walling out, deporting and continue to have the police murder people whose very existence challenges that old tired story, shows how in the face of so much progress in social justice, there is still so much work to do. Work that needs the courage to change this hurtful narrative and the courage to speak out.
And so that brings us back to Louis Amstrong and 1957, the year Charlie Black wrote his hope above and 9 teenagers in Little Rock set out to change history. Read on.
(PS Part III on its way. Go back to Part I if you missed it!)