Category: race

Ears Embiggened: Rhiannon Giddens – Great Black Music, Redux

(The third in a series of preview posts as we count down to the
2019 Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN. Part 1 here on the 50 year legacy of ECM Records. Part 2 here on 50 years of the Art Ensemble of Chicago,

Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future.)

The eruption of way too many old photos of white politicians in blackface was a real chef’s kiss for Black History Month. There quickly followed predictable hand wringing, assertions of surprise that such a thing was actually still a thing, and heartfelt intonations that such evidence “does not reflect who I am within my heart,” a heart that surely resides in a body that contains not a single “racial bone.” read more

America’s Virgil

At this point, just about everyone has at least heard of Ta-Nehisi Coates. His second book, Between the World and Me, won the 2015 National Book Award. Written as a letter to his teen-aged son, BTWAM has sold 1.5 million copies in 19 languages. He won a MacArthur “genius” award. His writing drew comparison to James Baldwin from no less a voice on high than Toni Morrison. He was anointed with dreadful millstone descriptions like “voice of a generation” or, even worse, “the conscience of his race”.

Now comes the follow-up, and it’s shaping up to be quite the media event. The reviews have been almost embrassingly laudatory and hagiographic profiles of Coates are popping up everywhere. The man himself has been making the rounds of all the high-profile venues. Just last night he sat down with Colbert.

So the burning question. Is We Were Eight Years in Power worthy of the fuss?

Yeah, you better believe it is.

It would have been easy to just package a bunch of his Atlantic essays, slap an introduction up front, and call it a day. It likely would have been every bit as commercially successful as the more considered volume that hits the store shelves today will be. We Were Eight Years in Power collects those essays – one from each of the past 8 years – but instead of one big retrospective introduction, Coates has written an introduction to each essay, a sort of mini-essay on where he stood professionally and philosophically at the time. Running in parallel to the uber-phenomenon of the first black presidency is the micro-story of a college dropout from Baltimore coming to grips with his voice, his thinking, his place in the world, and eventually, his blazing rocket ascension into his role “as one of the most influential black intellectuals of his generation”, as the NY Times recently put it. And then, to cap it all off, Coates offers a new meditation on the rise of the inexcusable Trump, “The First White President”, that kicks the hornet’s nest anew.

Here’s how I’d put it: Coates is shaping up to be America’s Virgil, the man of letters who will serve as our guide through the circles of hell built on the foundation of white supremacy, theft, murder, rape, and lying.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate. So let’s take a walk, shall we?

The essays alone, arranged chronologically and ranging from his look at the stern moralizing of a pre-disgrace Bill Cosby to the nightmare rise of a dim-witted game show host to the Oval Office, give the reader a tour through a young man’s mind as he comes to better know himself, his craft, and the world around. But even better: the new essays give us a matured writer in conversation with his younger self, chastising the flaws and failures and giving us a glimpse of struggles that should resonate with any writer.

One of the great pleasures in this volume lies in witnessing Coates’ gradual, and then sudden, development.12015 alone saw the publication of BTWAM and his Polk award winning essay “The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration”, included here. Talk about mic-dropping. It’s as though he gains confidence both in his voice and his thinking in tandem. I wish he had included some examples of his early-years blogging at The Atlantic to paint an even fuller picture of how far he traveled in a ten year span. The blog is where I first stumbled to Coates, and I followed him regularly. He writes about that period, describing it as something of a finishing school, a place where he was able to try out ideas and voices, a place where the give and take of argumentation and citations of previously-unknown writers led him into modes of thought and investigation that were fresh and generative. It was clear that this was a guy with chops, and I remember wondering why he didn’t have a two-a-week gig on the NYT op-ed. Even raw, he was that good.

Coates backs up his provocative positions with solid evidence, but nobody turns to Coates for a recitation of statistics. He is one of the finest prose stylists alive. Every page brings at least one passage – a phrase, a sentence, an entire paragraph – that demands multiple re-readings.

At one point early in his ascent, he describes attending a dinner party where someone mentioned the Continental Divide, something he had never heard of at the time.

I did not know what the Continental Divide was, and I did not ask. Later I felt bad about this. I knew, even then, that whenever I nodded along in ignorance, I lost an opportunity, betrayed the wonder in me by privileging the appearance of knowing over the work of finding out. read more


Days of Miracle and Wonder

One of the activities that keeps me off the street and out of trouble is serving as a mentor to up and coming entrepreneurs at the Domi Station incubator in Tallahassee. This is purely volunteer work where I listen to people pitch their ideas and then tell them a million ways they could do it better. Most people appreciate it; some, not so much. Either way, this was their chance to throw rocks my way.


1 Million Cups read more

The Greatest Thing That Ever Lived

Tommie Smith and John Carlos -- American Patriots
Tommie Smith and John Carlos — American Patriots

By the time I could pay attention, The Greatest had already rejected his slave name, embraced the Nation of Islam, and refused to serve the armed forces of the United States.1He was not a draft dodger. He just said fuck no, put me in prison if you have to, but fuck. No. That ain’t no dodge.

By the time I could pay attention, I remember adults in my orbit still calling him Cassius Clay, declaring they would never call him by that n****r name, that he had gotten way above his station, that he was a traitor, that he refused to appreciate everything “his” country had done for him, just another shiftless ingrate who didn’t know his place.

I can’t say I was carefully taught. But I was taught. I was taught that James Brown was barely more evolved than an ape or a gorilla, that MLK was one “one of the good ones, mostly” and that those animals were burning down “their own” neighborhoods.

But by the time I could pay attention, none of this stuff squared with what I was seeing with my own lying eyes.

By the time I could pay attention, MLK went from alive to dead, a victim of the racism that my people all wanted to believe was not as bad as “the bad ones” would suggest. You know, the bad ones. Like these guys.

By the time I could pay attention, James Brown was the guy who made some of my favorite music, a thrilling force of nature.

By the time I could pay attention, the futility and inherently racist cruelty of the Vietnam War was all too clear, even to this ten-year old. A 4th grade friend and I got in big trouble for refusing to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, reasoning that there was no way in hell that we would ever fight in Vietnam, so pledging allegiance would be nothing but a lie.

We stood with Muhammad Ali. Even if we didn’t know it.

(That week, in an odd turn, Jose Feliciano performed the National Anthem at the World Series. His performance was an outrage, a provocation, yet another example of one of Those PeopleTM showing ingratitude at how much “their” country had done for them. His crime? Singing a British drinking song with a Latin feel. So the next day, the entire 4th grade was summoned to the classroom of one Miss Loretta Karp, a stooped skeleton from hell in high heels, with impossibly bright red hair, a woman who would have been six foot three if she was not in a constant hunch. She was mean as a wet cat whose bright red lipsticked smile existed only to signal impending cruelty. She began by noting that there had been some “unpleasantness” in school lately with “certain people” showing “poor patriotism by refusing to honor Our Flag”. She then went on to note that the World Series had been forever blemished by the desecration of the national anthem by a “foreigner. But by God,” we were going to fix that by having the entire 4th grade “stand together and sing the Star Spangled Banner as God meant it to be sung”. My pal and I got the giggles and could not stop. We got in trouble again. Such wabble wousers!)

Sure, we were risking nothing more than a stern talking to from our parents and disapproving looks from teachers and staff. Our courage was nothing, a flea fart in a hurricane. But still. We stood with Ali, two dopy white boys in the Connecticut suburbs who basically knew shit from shinola. But we knew that everything we were being taught about the war, about the way our nation was structured, did not square with things we saw on the electric radio picture box every night at dinner, pass the biscuits please. By the way, why are they burning down that village?

Too many things we were taught were just transparently wrong. This is not to cast full blame on our parents and teachers. They were themselves taught untruth, a set of lies that became matters of gospel faith. This was “their” country, and everyone else who was here needed to know their place.

So it’s easy to understand how my people, taught from birth that this was “their” country, would look at Cassius Clay’s declaration of “I’m the greatest thing that ever lived!” as not just braggadocio, but as a direct threat to their security and world view. For a colored man, such a thing was just not done.

And for him to embrace Black Nationalism the very next day, to clearly state uncomfortable truths about “their” nation, could only mean one of two things: one of them was lying. And it had to be, just had to be, that loud-mouthed boy.

And then, he rejected “their” war, “their” draft, “their” nation in terms that offered no comfort, no conciliation:

“I got nothing against no Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger. They never lynched me or raped my grandmother. Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.… If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.” read more


Theme: Overlay by Kaira Extra Text
Cape Town, South Africa