When my sister was eight years old, she ran into the house to tell my father that someone had just called her a nigger.
My father, who was always tinkering on some machine that needed fixing, put down his wrench and turned to her.
“Well, are you?” he said.
“No, I am not,” my sister said without hesitation.
“Then forget about it.”
He picked up the wrench again and got back to work. That was the end of the discussion.
Years later, my sister who is now a successful educator and therapist, still tells that story. My Dad did not have an easy life. He worked as a shoe-shine boy before landing a job as a waiter with the Southern Railroad, which he held onto for the rest of his life. For nearly thirty years, he was routinely called “boy," “George,” or "nigger," and I used to wonder how he accepted that without fighting back. Without allowing it to touch him—at least on the outside.
The first time I heard my sister tell her called-me-a-nigger-story, I began to understand. My father had learned the essential truth behind: “Sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will never hurt me.” He knew what a nigger was and understood that he was not that negative thing, regardless of what anyone else said. In this, he had the support of other black railroad men who created among themselves a cadre based on personal pride and respect. They dressed well, bought homes in white-flight neighborhoods, and raised their children to become participants in the world that was just beginning to open up for them.
I’m thinking of this now because the latest version of he called me a nigger has now gotten as far as the BBC. If you don’t know about the storm over this year's poster for the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival, here’s a link.
Am I saying that the solution to controversies like this is to stop thinking about it? Not exactly. If I were a middle class Caucasian, and someone called me white trash, it would not faze me in the least because it would not touch my sense of identity. But if I were Irish-American, Chinese-American, or Puerto Rican, and someone called a Mick, Chink, or Spic, it might. That’s because these terms are attempts to put you in a historically based category in which your people were looked down upon and considered less than worthy. You can’t grow up in scenarios like this without it impacting your sense of self. It took an entire generation and a set of favorable life experiences for my father’s wisdom to make it into the lives of his children and grandchildren.
And yet, we must be concerned about any proliferation of negative stereotypes—whether they are promulgated consciously or not—because there are people among us who are ignorant of history. The immunity I enjoyed as a television news anchor in San Francisco disappeared whenever I traveled beyond the limits of the Bay Area broadcast signal. Fame shielded me from insults and other degrading experiences. I would not care much if anyone called me a nigger today. But it would it bother me a great deal if someone shot me because they noticed my black skin and decided that I looked “suspicious.”
It is interesting that the much-talked about controversy regarding the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival poster comes to us during the 50-year anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March. In a Charlie Rose video clip posted on previous blog here, Vernon Jordan warns that the bad-old days appear to be coming back to us. He is speaking primarily about efforts to weaken the Voting Rights Act. But his words remind us to remain vigilant where human rights are concerned—and to go on remembering who we really are.
Why Your Idea of What Happened In Selma 50 Years Ago May Not Be As Reliable As You Think: Vernon Jordan, Ava Duvernay & the Photographs
Here is audio and text ofKing's speech on March 25
(Spoiler Alert. If you haven't seen the movie, stop reading now.)
Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back again. It’s the formula for a happy ending. Even Romeo and Juliet are united again in death. It’s what audiences look for, one of the time-worn traditions of classic storytelling - something we find ourselves hoping for even when we know better. There’s something in us that believes in love. That love will find a way. That somehow or another, things will work out. Never mind that Thomas Moore called romantic love an illusion. Or that Nietzsche considered it an unsatisfactory basis for lasting relationship. We know better. Take away love—and life sucks.
Which is why Whiplash—wonderful as it is—winds up being a bit of a downer. The abusive character played by Oscar-winning J. K. Simmons calls to mind a similarly abusive figure played by Lou Gossett, Jr., in An Officer and a Gentleman years earlier. The young drummer of Whiplash reminds us of the young Richard Gere trying to make something of himself, to move past the father’s failures and to become if not his own father (in the words of Ralph Ellison) at least his own best self. But first the metaphorical apprentice knight of these twin stories must deal with two obstacles—the abusive mentor and a girl from the lower stratum. In the military film, Debra Winger is one of the local townsfolk. In the jazz movie, Melissa Benoist attends “lowly” Fordham University instead of the most prestigious musical conservatory in the country and has no idea what she wants to major in.
It is one thing to find an abusive drill sergeant in a military film, and quite another to see such an unlovable character in a film about art. Except the brief appearance of an African-American female attorney and two non-speaking female characters in Whiplash, Melissa Benoist must carry the feminine for that film. And even she is banished as the main character decides to go it alone against the so-called mentor whose abuse may have contributed to the eventual suicide of a former student.
The triumphant ending of Whiplash leaves one feeling a bit odd, however. The final wordless exchange between teacher and student is unsettling. Even though he has proved himself beyond "measure" in that final solo, his eyes say all. Despite the teachers’ harrowing cruelty, those eyes still seek his approval. Succor of any kind—be it from loving father or willing girlfriend—is denied in favor of this ugly man’s affirmation.
In An Officer and a Gentleman, the hero manages to make the grade and get the girl. By the end of Whiplash, Melissa Benoist is gone. Art is lonely. But it must not be loveless. There is, arguably, a moment of transcendence at the end of Whiplash. It seems fleeting, though, and devoid of the self-assurance that ought to come from such an episode. Also, the film’s ending seems to justify the relentless abuse—and the teacher’s argument that he did it to push his students toward the greatness that came out of “Bird” after Jo Jones once threw a cymbal at the teenaged Charlie Parker.
The film tells us that there is no room for the girl when a man seeks to find his way to greatness. And that message is malarkey. This film knows nothing of Ariadne’s thread and has never heard the testimony of Portia in The Merchant of Venice. It tells us that some men can do without the feminine on the road to greatness. And it leaves us with a boy who does some really great drumming. But looking at that last wordless exchange at the end of the film, we see that he is a long, long way from becoming a great artist.
Here are three clips worth noting. Let's begin with break-up scene from Whiplash, followed by two versions of Duke Ellington's "Caravan," which figures prominently in the film. The first is the final solo from the movie. The second is the classic solo from the cymbal-throwing Jo Jones. If you were a drum, which drummer would you prefer?
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