Music, Racism, and Me
Growing up, race wasn't a big issue. Though we lived in Michigan when I was really young, most of my youth was spent in Utah and Idaho. The number of non-white students at any school I attended was capable of being counted on one hand. I didn't really confront the issue until I served a religious mission for the Mormons. In Orange County, the conservative whites living amidst the various "ghettos" of immigrant communities were extremely racist towards those communities. It was the first time that I really saw racism in action and it wasn't pretty. As my purpose on this mission was to teach Vietnamese, I tended to side with the Viets against the white racists and thus felt alienated from my own culture. It was the first time this happened and it wouldn't be the last.
When I came back to school I began life as a resident assistant, supervising half a floor of freshmen students and dealing with anyone else breaking the rules in dorms. There was a big emphasis on diversity, lots of meetings to talk about it, and lots of slogans to celebrate it. But by and large, the people spouting diversity were white, and by and large the black football students who lived in the dorms were viewed as a problem and the foreign students as unclean or strange or different. The insulated life of a northern Utah campus said all the right things, but when it came down to it, racism remained. I was mostly crazy by that time and, though I struggled to come to terms with the concept of diversity, still saw the idea as something that meant I accepted non-Mormons, not necessarily people of color.
But then I had my first psychotic break, that event which split my life and led to my coming out, my going to law school, my struggling for a decade to learn how to control my addictions, in other words, my failure to launch. It took a year to recover from the trauma of dealing with the Mormons (see Why I Can't Forgive the Mormons) before I allowed myself to accept that even though I may still be white, I was different from the Mormon majority in which I'd grown up. I was gay, and no matter how I parsed it, the choices in the church were not the kind of choices I wanted to make. So, coupled with a capstone project involving Sonia Johnson and the Equal Rights Amendment, a new understanding of how the Old Testament was compiled gleaned from Western Civilization, and growing discontent with the Mormon's attitude towards race I moved to California and stopped going to church.
There I attended the second most diverse law school in the nation--made so largely by its Asian population--where I interacted with a few black classmates for the first time in my life. It was a brief -lived reality of diversity that was fortunate to experience. Drinking and working out and studying with students from Atlanta, from the Middle East, from Asia, from Oakland. Smart, funny, people who were passionate about the law and had ideas about what they wanted to do in life. More than I can say for myself at the time--given as I was hallucinating, delusional, and attending law school for all the wrong reasons.
At the same time, I began work on a historical fiction novel that would take years to research and write, lead me into a new world of music and history, and develop my affinity for African Americans despite the fact that I live in Asia and don't associate with any person of color.
James Reese Europe.
It was James Reese Europe that started it. I had thought to write an epic adventure about a pair of boys who grew up in New York in time to serve in World War I and continue through World War II. One of the boys was white, the other black, and their experiences would be so drastically different that it would point up the injustice of historical racism, Jim Crow, and the evils of white supremacy predominant in America. Lucky for me, the first book of research I bought was one of the first histories of the 369th N.Y. National Guard Infantry Regiment. The black regiment out of Harlem during WWI. In reading that book I learned concrete facts, names, and even faces of individuals who lived and fought a hundred years before. And chief among them was Jim Europe.
James Europe was a black bandleader in Manhattan during the transition from ragtime to jazz. He was there before the migration from San Juan Hill to Harlem and worked to develop a professional attitude among black performers of the time. Before Europe, the musicians would gather in the Marshall Hotel and drink until someone called for some performers. They would show up to gigs drunk, ill-dressed, and mar their reputation by their appearance and manner. But Europe rented a clubhouse, installed a phone, and put out the word. He worked with the Wanamakers and others of Society's 400 elite. He insisted that anyone who played an instrument for his club, the Clef Club, wear a shirt and tie, go to gigs sober, and put on a professional front at all times. He organized the musicians of Manhattan and even crossed the color line in joining the musicians union local. In countless other ways Europe fought for black equality and black recognition. Reading that history I was enamored of the man and his legacy and the fact that, for someone who was so pivotal in the early years of black music, I had never heard of him.
My epic novel of black and white comparison quickly changed and became a novel about Jim Europe, the black regiment, and World War I. Living on student loans at the time, I began a project of investing in research, bought a couple of hundred books, CDs of music from the time. Some argue that Europe's 369th Regimental Band recordings were really the first jazz recordings, not the Original Dixie Land Jass Band. I remember listening to an album of songs by black composers recorded in the 1920s--I lost it when I lost all my music in Cambodia and haven't been able to identify the album again--but I either heard "Swing Along" by Will Marion Cook or "Castle Walk" by James Reese Europe at the time. I was sitting at a picnic bench along the side of a street and the music came on over my headphones. It was amazing. I couldn't stop my legs from bouncing if I tried. It was so powerful that you had to move to it. You couldn't escape it. The power of his music--for whichever song it was I heard the performance was by the Clef Club Orchestra and thus James Reese Europe. It was music that had the power to move me, and it wasn't the classical or carefully prescribed white man's music of my youth. It was black man's music. And I loved it.
I proceeded to read everything I could get my hands on about Jim Europe, black music in the 1910s, blacks in World War I, New York. I became an expert on the period and wrote the first draft of a novel that exceeded 1,000 pages. Thankfully I had emailed it to myself before I had my second major psychotic break because my hard drive backup was stolen, I gave my laptop to the maid, and I lost the SD card backup of the draft on the plane back to the States. It wasn't until after I spent a month and a half in the hospital, however, and had the chance to interact with black men and women for the first time in years, that I rediscovered that email and continued work on the novel.
In Laos, next, I had a job that paid me enough I could afford to buy and ship books across the Pacific, which I did and in large numbers. I amassed a small library of books about blues music and other early black music. I wrote another novel, the first in a series, about a bluesman wandering Mississippi in the late 1920s. I would come home from work, eat, and then proceed to sit down and read until it got late. Hours every day were filled with the study of African American history and culture. As much as possible I was immersing myself in their past. I had so many books that when my boss came to my apartment one time he saw my library and asked how long I'd wanted to be black.
I began collecting blues music, still am, and building my music library again. But then I had hard times and the focus wasn't on learning so much as it was on booze and drugs which resulted in lost jobs and minor psychotic breaks--well, big enough to travel halfway around the world to flee the big bad bogeyman who was trying to get me in Vietnam--and a couple more suicide attempts as well. Not a good time. But at last, I landed in North Carolina and my mother's house about the time Trump won the election. A serious blow to my understanding of what the United States stood for. And then I made the mistake of deciding to write a novel about Native American history.
Another race of men destroyed by my white ancestors and still trodden upon today by my white relatives in power. Four years of a professional white man in the White House. A divisive and bigoted individual who saw his best strategy for maintaining power to attack the Other. And despite my skin color, my neurodiversity and my homosexuality marked me as the Other in Trump's America. My desire to associate myself with the white race--weak since my first run-ins with racism--shrank. I was studying the genocide of the Indians, I had already studied the tragedy of slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. I came to the conclusion that the United States was founded on twin crimes, its wealth and status in the world the result of terrible misdeeds. I wanted nothing to do with a country that couldn't admit such heinous wrongs in its own past.
I fled back to Vietnam, actually choosing to go this time--not feeling coerced as I had on previous occasions--and escaped the overt racism and prejudice of Donald Trump. But I fled into a cocoon, isolated from the realities of the present in America. I retreated further into the past, focusing on the things that white America had done to both blacks and Indians. I didn't know anything about the current state of affairs beyond how I felt when Trump attacked anyone who wasn't a white man. The only black person I knew in North Carolina was my barber and the men who gathered at the shop where I went to get a shave and haircut once a month. They didn't talk about oppression or Trump, they talked about making money, girlfriends, movies--the same sort of things that white men talk about. But I didn't make friends, there--a failing influenced, in part, by my mental health issues. Self-isolation a trend for depression and schizophrenia. But even failing that, I didn't really care about black men in the present. I had a degree in history, not anthropology or sociology. I cared about the historical plight of the black man, the Indian, and all of my understandings of current events were shaded by that attitude.
And I didn't face a challenge on this front until recently. At an event here in Ho Chi Minh City, I met a Dane who was very much conversant in current events and in international affairs. We spoke at length and I related my feelings about the historical crimes of the United States and the idea I had of forsaking my citizenship once the opportunity presented itself. He made a point, something I hadn't thought of, two actually. First, those crimes were largely in the past. Racism may still be present and hinders the development of minorities, but the crimes of native genocide and slavery were committed centuries ago. The present was a very different place. Second, every nation that has developed into present government has its own atrocities. The United States isn't unique when it comes to destroying indigenous peoples, or enslaving Others to work its fields. I just happen to be more aware of it as I'm American, and its the history I've studied. Take Vietnam, for instance, a place where foreigners--especially of Chinese descent--were terribly mistreated when the North won the war. Supporters of the United States were reeducated. People were killed during early land reallocation campaigns. And even earlier, the Dai Viet empire destroyed the Chams, attacked the Khmers and Laos on numerous occasions, marched to the South to conquer new lands and expand its tax base. No matter where I might go, there will be atrocities in the past. The United States does not have a monopoly on xenophobia and racism, on genocide and ignorance.
Caught in the past as I was, these thoughts had not occurred to me. And then, just this last week, I received a box of books I've been waiting on for months. In that box was a reader filled with essays and interviews from the history of punk music, and with an emphasis on the culture's relation to race. I liked punk music before I liked blues, and I still like it. It troubles me because I had associated it with skinheads and racism. There was some basis for that given early associations with swastikas and Nazi imagery, the origins of skinheads before the National Front in England, and the fact that the music and culture were all about rebellion. But aside from the fact that despite the accoutrements adopted by the likes of Sid Vicious and Souixsie Souix, and a few Oi! bands, punk is a very liberal white male culture. White and male, for sure, but also accepting of the black man and his attitudes of rebellion against oppression. From Rock Against Racism at the turn from the 1970s to the 1980s, to the repeated comments in zines and forums about the need for expanding punk's influence in the community, the culture has made an effort to at least acknowledge the contribution of black folk in its source material. But what concerned me in this reader, and what prompted this essay, was the concept of the White Negro as propounded by Norman Mailer.
More specifically, the criticisms of the White Negro. Mailer suggested that certain white men had adopted Negro attitudes and ideas, longed to be Negro despite the color of their skin, and did so in light of the Negro's stereotypical libidiny and barbarism. That the white man's longing for affinity with the Negro came about because he saw the black man as a return to the native, the exotic past of mankind that could free the white man from the strictures of civilization. It was an insult to the black man and, from James Baldwin's response, a idolizationaccouterments of the white man's stereotypes about the black man, not the actual black man.
This piqued my concern and made me ask myself why I was attracted to black culture. In both of the novels I'd written with black characters, sex and alcohol figured as dominant characteristics. There were counterbalances, talent and skill, and education, but still, the characters were uncouth in certain ways. Was this an instance of me longing to be a White Negro? Was I simply idolizing the stereotype of the oversexed black man and the primitive within him? Had I accidentally committed a racial crime in my approach to black culture?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this wasn't the case. I was drawn to the black man as an underdog. Long the theme in popular entertainment, we have been taught to root for the weaker protagonist, the lone figure in the night going up against unbeatable odds. In many ways, that is the black man of US history, and even today. They have been enslaved and beaten, Jim Crowed, lynched and spat upon, screamed at and chased down dark alleys. Yet they remain and they continue to struggle to beat back the prejudice of the white man--the powerful white man who controls all avenues of power--in their fight for justice. The black man, and all minorities, are the underdog in the racial fight and, as a storyteller, I can only cheer the underdog on, to defend him as best I'm able in my attitudes and join with him in hoping he defeats the evil archnemesis white devil.
And more, I am in awe of the black man's creativity. It was music that first drew me to black history, to the culture and lives of black men. Jim Europe, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake. Will Marion Cook, Harry Burleigh, Scott Joplin. And then Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey. Without the black man, there would be no blues, no jazz, no rock n' roll, no soul, no funk, no hip hop, no r&b, no musicals. Without the black man, there would only be saccharine white pop, boring, staid, and vanilla. The kind of music that is depressing as featureless, uninteresting, and mundane. And not just in music has the black man excelled, but in literature as well. The Harlem Renaissance brought us Langston Hughes, Nora Zeale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and more. Art, too, saw a flourishing of talent. And today some of the best actors on screen are African American. I cannot say creative ability is inherent in the race, for that would be racist, but in the circumstances of oppression which the black man has suffered has come a need to create in order to survive. It has led to some of the greatest art of the last two hundred years and, as a writer, regularly stuns me into awe.
And there is the innocence of the culture as well. While I now understand that the current generation of whites cannot be blamed for the slavery and genocides of the past, the history of my people is laced with blood. The African American is not so stained. The Indian is innocent. Minorities have, by and large, been the victim of my forebears, not the perpetrator. I see them as a more pure species in that their crimes are smaller, less catastrophic. Deep inside me, I yearn for a past that is not filled with atrocities. That, more than anything perhaps, is why I am drawn to peoples other than my own. The white man's imperialism destroyed millions of people, enslaved millions more, and imposed the backward and violent ideas of Christianity across the globe. I am drawn to black, and Indian, and Asian cultures for the very reason that they were not global colonizers. They may have conducted their own expansionary policies in smaller locales, and if given the chance would have done the same as Europe, but they didn't have that chance. They didn't actually do what England and Spain and France did. Perhaps simply for lack of opportunity, they are not guilty of the crimes of global colonialism. And so, I look to these Others, non-white, as more pure because they were not given the chance to impose their wills on other races.
Three reasons, three possibilities for my affinity with the black man, with the Indian, with other minorities beyond the appeal of the primitive. Are these reasons sufficient? Are they convincing? I don't know. I have had only limited opportunities to put my ideas into action. I don't know if a black man would consider my interest in his culture acceptable or whether it smacks of its own racism and imperialism; a new colonialism of the spirit. I like to think not, that I come to the issue with righteous motivations, but I don't know. I am a white man in a white man's world. I do not bear the same marks on my skin that prevent me from rising to success. My race does not condemn me the way my sexuality or my mental health do--neither of which is visible to look at me. Am I a better man for having these desires and thoughts, these longings to be part of something to which I was not born? I don't know. I live in Asia, I am not exposed to the need to test my ideas on a regular basis by coming into contact with the peoples who I adore. But at least I ask the question. And in doing that, I just might be more useful than many of my white brethren.