Are You A Racist?
Well, I’m back. It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog. In the past, my blogs have mostly had to do with music, entertainment, and Marion’s and my travel adventures, with a bit of social commentary thrown in, just to keep things real. A friend recently told me she had enjoyed reading my blogs, and asked me why I had taken such a long break from writing them. I told her that while I am personally very content living with my wife in our cozy little corner of Cornwall, I tend to worry a great deal about others, about events in the U.S., here in the U.K. and around the world. These thoughts can be consuming, almost paralysing at times. Whilst experiencing this inner turmoil, the idea of writing another blog about living the simple life here in the Cornish countryside seemed somehow trivial, insignificant. I felt it might do me a lot of good to share my thoughts here, but would anyone care to read them? My friend assured me they would. We’ll see.
I am not a racist. I’m reasonably sure of this. I’ve spent my whole life believing in equality - equal rights, equal pay, equal opportunity. I’m an old, white, liberal, middle-class guy, whose sensibilities were formed in the 1960’s. As a child, I felt empathy for the civil-rights protests I watched on television. I was optimistic that the marches were going to lead to positive changes. Over the years, I’ve shed tears of sadness - when Martin Luther King was assassinated, because it felt like a huge step backward, and tears of joy - when Barack Obama was elected, because it felt like a huge step forward. I’ve worked all my life in the entertainment field, proud to be part of an industry that espouses free speech, liberty, diversity and equality, though to be honest it doesn’t always manage to achieve these goals. Through the years, I’ve felt fortunate to have worked with many African-American colleagues in the television and music industry - people I admire, respect, idolise. I love my black friends, dearly. For me, the question of race has never been an issue. Can you say the same?
A few years ago, when I first heard the term “Black Lives Matter,” I thought, yeah, of course, all lives matter. I’m not alone here. Millions of other well-intentioned people had the same initial reaction. But here’s the thing: If our world were how it ought to be, there would be no need for Black Lives Matter. All lives would matter, and it would go without saying. In our current world, black lives matter too little to too many. That’s why “Black Lives Matter” needs to be said.
A few years ago, Marion and I had just moved from a very diverse neighbourhood in Southern California to Northern New England, and I had begun to notice a definite lack of minorities in our area. One day, on a summer RV trip, we stopped at a fast food restaurant. A black kid, probably in his late teens, came in to get a burger. I casually glanced at him, and the look he gave me was one I’d never seen before or since. It was fear. I was taken aback. I don’t think of myself as being particularly menacing, but there was no mistaking it. I was tempted to go over and speak to him, but I resisted. I wondered what was going through his mind, what experiences he’d endured that caused such an obvious, immediate sense of distrust. I’ll never know, but I’ll never forget it.
There are all kinds of racism. It’s not just about white supremacists, the KKK, or Neo-Nazis. There are more subtle forms of racism lurking in the shadows - of education, employment, housing, finance, medicine, politics, the legal system and at the highest levels of government. A white guy may tell an “innocent” joke at a party and get a big laugh, adding, “Ah, it’s just a joke. I wouldn’t tell it in front of any of my black friends…” It may not seem like it to him, but the truth is, he’s being racist. It’s not enough for us to be “politically correct.” (I personally hate that term because it implies that a person is altering their behaviour for the sake of appearances, rather than being authentic). Instead, we should all just be correct. We often hear the statement, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” This has never been more true.
Kids don’t see colour. In 1963, in the third grade, I had a friend, Arthur. A lot of the kids called him Ortho. I have no idea why. There was a lawn fertiliser called Ortho. Or, maybe it was short for “Orthopaedic,” I have no idea. I only remember that Arthur had the most pronounced set of buck teeth I’d ever seen. One day our teacher Miss Halliday asked the class to think of as many makes of cars as they could.
“Chevrolet,” said one.
“Mustang, said another.
“Cadillac” said a third.
We managed to come up with a pretty good list. Arthur raised his hand.
“Pho-pho,” he said, sounding like he had a mouth full of soda crackers.
“What?” asked Miss Halliday.
“Pho-pho,” repeated Arthur.
“What’s that?” Miss Halliday asked, sounding a bit uncertain.
“I… I don’t know what that is.”
I couldn’t take it. I raised my hand.
“Volvo,” I said. “There’s one parked in front of the school every day.”
“Oh,” she said. “I’ve never heard of that car.”
It never occurred to me that Arthur was black. He was just my friend. He’d waited until the end of the game to come up with a car no one else had thought of and our teacher was too dumb too figure out what he was talking about. Arthur and I never discussed the car game, but we became even better friends. One day soon after that, Miss Halliday instructed Arthur, myself, and the rest of our class to line up outside, and we were marched into the school auditorium. Once inside, I saw that other classes were arriving too, and the teachers looked upset. President John F. Kennedy, we were told, had just been shot in Dallas.
“How do you feel about black people?” my dad asked. I was nine.
“I love black people, dad!”
The overwhelming enthusiasm of my response surprised him a little.
“Mose from work has invited us to a party at his family’s house, and, well, I just thought I’d ask. Some people… you know.”
Dad was a wonderful guy. He had a great sense of humour, was well-liked, and always treated everyone well. But, his views on things like race, religion, and sexuality were informed by the influence of his parents and grandparents - people who had been born and lived in Victorian England. By my mid-teens, I became aware of the inappropriate comments that sometimes filtered through him, and we would butt heads over it.
Other than my friend Arthur, my exposure to black people had been limited mostly to television. This was 1965. The Beatles dominated the U.S. charts, and there were loads of music shows on television; “Hullabaloo,” “Shindig,” “American Bandstand,” “Where The Action Is,” and local L.A. programs like “The Lloyd Thaxton Show” and “9th Street West.” On any given day, you’d see not only a “British Invasion” band - The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, but American pop groups like The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Mamas And The Papas - and also an array of outstanding R&B acts - the Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, James Brown. This was musical heaven for me, a nine-year-old budding guitarist. Our local AM radio stations - KHJ, KRLA and KFWB were all playing a mix of this great music too. I loved it. To me, it was never a case of white music or black music, just music, and I loved it all.
Around this time I had fallen in love with the writing of Mark Twain, and my favourite book was (and is) The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s masterpiece on racism and slavery. One of Twain’s greatest gifts as a writer was his mastery of dialogue and dialects. If you’re curious how people spoke in the mid 19th-century rural South, read Huckleberry Finn. Of course, Twain’s character’s frequent use of the “N” word has often caused Huck to be banned from libraries as “racist” by well-meaning, if misguided censors. I’m no fan of the “N” word, but the overriding value of this book - the central character’s struggle with the issue of slavery, and his ultimate decision to go against the tide to help his friend Jim, a runaway slave, escape to freedom - qualifies this book as anything but racist.
At 13, I fell in love with the blues, and I still am today. In a music store, I had picked up a book and read a line which began, “The best lead guitarists, B.B. King and Eric Clapton…” That was all I needed. A “lead” guitarist was what I aspired to be, and I had to find this music. I was not disappointed. It was the key to a musical journey which continues to this day. The blues formed the basis of my own playing style and over the years has served me well in just about every musical setting. All American popular music has its roots in Africa, and I am personally very grateful to have experienced this gift. That said, it’s not enough to merely appreciate black culture without also having appreciation and respect for black people.
2019 was a challenging year. Just when we thought things had to get better, in roared 2020, with a pandemic, worldwide economic collapse, and a massive response to racial injustice in the United States that is echoing around the world. People are again finding their voice, and I for one am glad to see it. I hope to see great things come from new awareness, transparency and peaceful solidarity. It’s time to change the system, to move on, together; to transcend a dark past, but never forget it.
Until next time, my best to you all. Stay safe, and be well.
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