Lovely workshop yesterday with a jazz and justice theme and finally ready to tie it all together to Bryan Stevenson’s recent talk. I’ve been doing this Jazz History class with 8th grade for some 20 years and feeling ready to take it more public— maybe a book or five-day course just on this theme? I like the framework Mr. Stevenson provided, four things that can actually move the needed change along. Both because of the jazz theme and because it’s such a huge presence in American culture, I’ll confine myself to the black-white dynamic. But this applies to all distinctions of “other”— class, gender, sexual orientation, Native Americans/Asians/ Latinos/ etc. etc and again etc. Here we go:
Proximity: People get weird ideas about each other when they don’t hang out together.
Things are invariably healthier when black and white folks work together, play basketball together, make music together, socialize together. How often do you hear people say of a black friend, “Well, he’s not black, he’s John.”? Because while no one is color-blind, once you break through to the human person-to-person connection, race drops way to the back.
Though alone not enough, one path to proximity is to hang-out with black folks in the imaginative world—in this case, listen to their music and get to know them through the beauty they’ve created. When I had the amazing fortune to stand in Art Tatum’s house in Toledo, invited in by his 85-year old sister, another man came in a bit later and she introduced me saying, “This is Doug. He’s a friend of Art’s.” And because I admired and loved and listened to his music, I think she got that right.
Narrative: The fact that slave-owners were in daily close proximity with black people is proof that proximity is not enough. Likewise, schools where black and white kids are in the same class can be places where both groups sit separately—by choice— in the cafeteria and proximity can breed more division, distrust and hatred. The narrative that needs to change is the one that the slave-owners concocted so they could sleep at night— Africans stolen for work are less than fully human and we are doing them a favor by giving them food, shelter, work to do and a proper God to worship. They got priests and ministers to support the story with far-fetched interpretations from the Bible, got the scientists to concoct the theory of racial inferiority, got the teachers to teach children how to hate and supported it all with propaganda about the “happy darky” portrayed in minstrel shows, in songs, in books.
The history of jazz parallels the mainstream culture’s privilege of defining the other, now perpetuated in movies and later television—blackface acceptable up through the 30’s, the servant and porter portrayal of the 40’s and 50’s, the angry blacks and gangsters of the 60’s and 70’s and so on and so on. The story that white people fed—and feed—white people about who they think black people are is still breeding ignorance, distrust, fear and hatred in the minds of innocent children and ignorant adults eager to have someone to look down on to boost their own sense of identity.
By introducing children to the extraordinary accomplishments of jazz musicians, telling their stories, soaking them in the music that they (the children) play so joyfully and grow to love so deeply, I’m hoping to do my part in helping to change that narrative. So we start with Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum and get as far as we can in a mere one class per week over 6 months. And in other parts of the school, the narrative-changing study goes on. How could anyone with half a brain cell accept the purposeful distortion of racial inferiority in the face of Martin Luther King, Steph Curry, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Will Smith, Stevie Wonder, the Nicholas Brothers and thousands of other extraordinary people whose skin happens to be darker than others?
Discomfort: This Herculean effort to turn around the narrative that still shapes race relations to this day is not comfortable. How easy it would be for me to just make children happy dancing to Count Basie’s joyful music, wrapping them in the loving arms of Sarah Vaughan, gifting them with the artful combination of notes from Thelonious Monk. It’s not comfortable showing them the video clip of Al Jolson in blackface singing “Mammy” and see their faces so confused and disturbed. It’s wearisome to keep asking “Why was Elvis on Ed Sullivan and not Big Mamma Thornton? Why was Benny Goodman called 'the King of Swing'” Why did Dave Brubeck get on Time magazine’s cover before Duke Ellington?“ and always the same tired answer: “White privilege. White privilege. White privilege.” I worry that I’m inducing too much shame and guilt for the white kids or too much embarrassment for the black kids. And who am I as a white teacher talking on behalf of black culture? It’s not comfortable. But I forge ahead thinking that it’s a necessary part of narrative-changing and hope that the whole effort is redeemed by Mr. Stevenson’s fourth pre-requisite for change.
Hope: None of this will work if not fueled by a boundless faith in the ultimate goodness of human beings. Altruism and compassion is our default system, gone haywire by too much interference from self-serving systems and institutions interested only in their own profits and privilege and dragging everyone else down in the muck of our lower natures. In the jazz study, that hope is trumpeted out in two ways: First, the extraordinary resilience and perseverance of artists struggling to express the depth of their feelings through music in spire of all the obstacles in their way. Sleeping in fields or trains when the hotels refused them admission, dealing with white managers making money off of them, seeing white folks copying their music and getting more fame and fortune. And yet in spite of it all, people around the world know about Louis, Billie, Bird, Miles, Monk. From physical rags to spiritual riches is the version of the American dream their story tells.
And finally, the music itself. We can’t step around discomfort, shame, guilt, pity, sorrow, grief, sadness, but neither should we end the story there. Like little Sally Walker in the children’s game who sits down in her saucer of grief “cryin’ and a’weepin’ for all she has done,” we need to “rise, Sally, rise, wipe your cryin’ eyes, turn to the East, turn to the West, turn to the very one that you like best.” And whether it’s Esperanza Spalding or Wynton Marsalis or Ornette Coleman or Fats Waller, the one you like best is waiting for you with such joyful, powerful, tender and exuberant music. It will lift you up and fortify and give you the strength and courage to keep on, not only with your own personal struggles, trials and tribulations, but with our shared collective mandate to create a culture worthy of our humanity. Do I hear an Amen?!