Nat King Cole was famous for singing a song called “Unforgettable” and he was. His silky voice soothed the listener’s ear and smoothed out the rough edges of their day. He sang for black audiences and white and you would think the latter would have Charlie Black epiphanies and change their feelings about race in the presence of his gifted genius.
You would be wrong. The story of the imagined “proper places” for white folks and blacks was so deeply imbedded in people brainwashed to believe what their parents, preachers, teachers and newspapers taught them that they saw no contradiction between enjoying his music and refusing him entrance to the restaurant.
And even worse. The man who entered our homes and hearts each Christmas evoking chestnuts on an open fire once bought a home for his family in Los Angeles, only to wake up one morning to a burning cross on his lawn. (Yes, the KKK was not only in the Deep South, but in Los Angeles!) When a neighbor told him, “We don’t want any undesirables here!” Nat gently replied, “Neither do I. If I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”
But his hopes of smoothing over vicious racism the same way his songs soothed our savage beasts could only go so far. In 1956, when performing in Birmingham, three men rushed the stage and tried to pull him off and kidnap him. It was part of a larger plot involving over a 100 people whipped up to a frenzy when told that this black man was after their white women. (A common lie white supremacists used to create fear and hatred). Nat was stunned, remarking "I can't understand it. I have not taken part in any protests. Nor have I joined an organization fighting segregation. Why should they attack me?"
He chose to continue to perform for segregated audiences in the South and just tried to forgot the incident. But forgetting racism is one of the privileges black folks in this country never have had. Black leaders criticized Cole for his passivity and shaken by the violence he experienced in Birmingham and upset by the criticism, he changed his tune, joined the NAACP and even helped plan the march on Washington in 1963.
“Unforgettable” now had a double meaning, at once a lovely love song and the word that well describes the ongoing presence of white supremacy in our country, especially for the people of color who are hurt by it. Next time you hear those sweet dulcet tones of “Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” remember the man who sang it and promise him you’ll keep speaking out on his behalf.
PS Nat King Cole actually began his career as an excellent jazz pianist. When a drunk patron at a jazz club shouted at him to sing a song, Nat gave it a go with the song Sweet Lorraine. The audience loved it and he launched a singing career that reached many more people than his Jazz Trio could. Nat was a heavy smoker and died from lung cancer at the tragically young age of 45.
LISTENING SUGGESTION: Thanks to modern technologies, Nat’s daughter, singer Natalie Cole, was able to sing an imagined duet with her Dad some 25 years after he died. The song? Unforgettable. Take a listen.