This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

February 9, 2010

Hi-Tech Fruit and Strange Lynchings

This is another post from my old blog. I was reminded of it recently when I read this excellent post at Sociological Images. Lately my mind has been on all things NOLA. (Our Colts’ loss to the wonderful and well-deserving Saints is only part of the reason.) So this post caught my eye. In particular, this slant makes me ponder my old post in a new way:

For someone who was harmed by a hurricane, using the imagery is a way of reclaiming the hurt they suffered, even appropriating the strength of the force that hurt them.  But, for others to use it, it is trivializing that same hurt, re-imagining the destruction they suffered.  It is not funny, from this perspective, to imagine that New Orleans could be hit again.

I was reminded while reading that of some of my (Black) family and friends using “slave” in an in-group, joking kind of way. I’m OK with that, but bristle when I hear others use it. For example, at a recent swim meet, one of the other parents (a White woman) said something about not doing “X” because we would get yelled at by the person in charge of the meet. She said, “We’re liable to get lynched behind that.” All of my crew sitting there—me, my husband, and my father—were taken aback. My father said, “Oh, you probably don’t want to say that.” The woman totally didn’t get it: She thought he was talking about not saying that the person would be angry with us. He kept at it: “No. I mean, you shouldn’t be saying that—to us [motioning to him, my husband, and me].” The woman, light dawning, turned all shades of red.

The in-group/out-group dimension was not something I considered when I first wrote this piece years ago. But I’m thinking of it today. And today I am (still) wondering: What’s in a song? What’s in a phrase?

"Broken Branch" PPR_Scribe

I. Some Background

The summer before I left home for college I raided my parents’ music collection, choosing dozens of albums (yes, albums: black vinyl, 12 inches, 33-and-a-third rotations per minute: LPs) that I wanted to “borrow” and take to Boston with me on my great adventure in adulthood.

One of those albums I chose from that raided collection was by Billie Holiday. One of the songs on that album from that raided collection was “Strange Fruit.”

That song is something I could not ignore. At the time, I was not too enamored of Lady Day’s voice: It seemed a little scratchy to me, and wispy…without the force, range and rhythm of female jazz vocalists like Ella and Sarah and Dinah and others who I was getting into at the time. (It didn’t help, I guess, that my image of Billie Holliday and what her voice must have sounded like was colored by my having first seen and heard her in the guise of Diana Ross in “Lady Sings the Blues.”)

But that song, “Strange Fruit,” I had to listen to.

Since that time I have come to appreciate Billie Holiday. And I have continued to be fascinated by that song. I have recordings of it by at least three different artists. And a recent search of the song on iTunes revealed more than a dozen different versions, by a very strange and eclectic mix of artists. There is even a group, The Strange Fruit Project, hailing from Waco, Texas.

In addition, I am glad to see that there is a scholarly interest in the song as well as the phenomenon “Strange Fruit” so eerily bore witness to: the widespread lynching campaigns of African American men, women, and children in this country. (See resources below.)

II. But, What Does (Can) It Mean?

I have to admit, I am not sure what all these artists intend when they invoke these images:

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

What is it about these words that makes the song relevant for an artist—of any background—living today? What does the history of the lynching of Black Americans mean to a 50-something White European rocker, or a 20-something Black American rapper?

Is it even about “lynching” at all?

III. Lynching as Metaphor

Whatever you think of Clarence Thomas, his was–hands-down–the most brilliant use of lynching as a metaphor ever. In one swoop he galvanized a deep memory in African Americans and scared off White Americans who saw themselves as exactly opposite of those Whites of days gone by who were the perpetrators of lynchings with ropes, guns, fire, and tree branches.

Hard to believe that almost 15 years have passed since Thomas’s confirmation hearings. A little memory-refresher from the 10/11/91 hearing session (Note the words I emphasize in bold):

Mr. Chairman, I am a victim of this process and my name has been harmed, my integrity has been harmed, my character has been harmed, my family has been harmed, my friends have been harmed. There is nothing this committee, this body or this country can do to give me my good name back, nothing.

I will not provide the rope for my own lynching or for further humiliation. I am not going to engage in discussions, nor will I submit to roving questions of what goes on in the most intimate parts of my private live or the sanctity of my bedroom. These are the most intimate parts of my privacy, and they will remain just that, private.

In that evening’s hearing session he evoked this metaphor again in his now (in)famous and classic “high-tech lynching” statement:

There was an FBI investigation. This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It is a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kow-tow to an old order, this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.

One book specifically takes on the idea of the use of “lynching” in metaphorical contexts, “Legacies of Lynching: Racial Violence and Memory” by Jonathan Markovitz

...Examines the evolution of lynching as a symbol of racial hatred and a metaphor for race relations in popular culture, art, literature, and political speech. Markovitz credits the efforts of the antilynching movement with helping to ensure that lynching would be understood not as a method of punishment for black rapists but as a terrorist practice that provided stark evidence of the brutality of Southern racism and as America’s most vivid symbol of racial oppression. Cinematic representations of lynching, from “Birth of a Nation” to “Do the Right Thing,” he contends, further transform the ways that American audiences remember and understand lynching, as have disturbing recent cases in which alleged or actual acts of racial violence reconfigured stereotypes of black criminality. Markovitz’s original and brilliant reinterpretations of the media spectacles surrounding Bernhard Goetz, Susan Smith, and Tawana Brawley provide subtle and compelling examples of the continuing stakes of political battles waged over imagery of race and gender nearly a century ago. Markovitz further reveals how lynching imagery has been politicized in contemporary society with the example of Clarence Thomas, who condemned the Senate’s investigation into allegations of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings as a “high-tech lynching.” (Source)

If you do a little window shopping in the blogosphere and other media you’ll find Thomas’s “high tech lynching” metaphor/accusation invoked all over in all sorts of situations, by both those on the political left and those on the political right. In no case are any of these uses about actual people being burned, their genitals cut from their bodies, their necks broken from being snapped by a rope looped over a tree branch. In these cases, like that of Justice Thomas, the appeal is to the perception that “mobs” of media folks or government officials or university professors or other elite others in positions of power are using sophisticated tools and tactics to unfairly attack the ideas and integrity of some “victim.”

Whatever you may think of the individual cases, is this deployment of “lynching” as a means of description an appropriate use of history? Not: “effective” use–appropriate

I am all for the use of metaphor in rhetoric. But in most of these cases this particular use of lynching as metaphor sickens me. Comparing a “good name” or a well-paying job to skin, genitals and a beating heart is definitely a case of evaluating apples in terms of oranges.

Very strange fruit, indeed.

*******************************

Other Resources:

November 27, 2009

And so it begins: OSF Holiday Preview

I am not a shop til you drop kinda gal. Instead of hitting the stores today, I—along with Mr. Scribe and the two Scribe daughters—did yard work. My back is aching, my allergies are kicking and six yard bags are filled with leaves, twigs, and various other organic matter. I am envious of my next door neighbor who has hired a professional lighting company to deck her house in the most spectacular yet tasteful holiday display. Maybe tomorrow I will dig out our measly three boxes of decorations out of storage and begin our own decorating. I am especially excited to look at all of my thank you letters given to me by the third graders last year following my Kwanzaa presentations at school.

Whatever the case, I guess The Holiday Season has begun. As a preview, I’d like to offer the following Old School holiday songs. Enjoy!


“What Christmas Means to Me” by Stevie Wonder


“Baby It’s Cold Outside” by Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery


“Christmas Time is Here” (from Charlie Brown Christmas) by the Vince Guaraldi Trio


“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” by Ella Fitzgerald


“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” by Johnny Mathis


“Ave Maria” by Marian Anderson

***

As always, a big thank you to OSF hostesses, Marvalus at Conversations with Marva and MrsGrapevine. Please check out the rules for joining and list of other OSF participants here.

November 21, 2009

Streets of San Francisco: Jazz Writing on the Wall

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — pprscribe @ 12:44 pm

"Jazz Graffiti." PPR_Scribe

The streets of San Francisco are no joke. If I had a few more days of walking while at my recent conference I would erase several years of being out of shape. At least I was rewarded on my walks with surprising wonderful sights, like this wall of graffiti.

"Lady Day Sings Forever on the Wall." PPR_Scribe

Closer shot: Billie Holiday sings urban art.

"And on keyboards, Thelonious Monk." PPR_Scribe

And a closer shot of Thelonious Monk.

"1300." PPR_Scribe

More jazz at the 1300 Restaurant: extremely upscale soul food and two rounds of Bourbon Street Sunrise.

"Fillmore Street, Jazz." PPR_Scribe

I will have to think of way to get back to San Francisco soon—perhaps for the Fillmore Jazz Festival next July 4th holiday.

November 6, 2009

Inspirational Old School Friday: All Blues

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 11:17 pm

The theme for this week’s Old School Friday is Songs That Inspire. I have many songs that inspire me in one area or another. But the song that inspires my creativity and writing output is definitely “All Blues” by Miles Davis. At one point while writing my dissertation I had this whole album on repeat, listening it to it again and again and again. I would feel a special surge of inspiration whenever Track #4 would open with that amazing piano and high hat.

Instead of providing a clip to just that song, I am re-posting a previous OSF post where I featured the entire album. Enjoy!

___________

The theme for today’s Old School Friday is “the Greatest of All Time.” As usual, the creators of this meme have purposefully left open interpretation of the theme—and a look around the OSF participants reveals the usual high degree of creativity folks came up with in applying their own lenses.

I think I will do something a little different. I will focus on the greatest art form ever created by the young country we call the United States of America. That art form is jazz music. I know this heres a fightin’ words kind of topic among jazz fans, but I think that—hands down—the greatest jazz album of all time is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

Listen to the whole album here on Last.fm.

I’d really, however, like to dedicate this OSF to all those jazz musicians who are not well known. All those people who play on street corners or in subway stations…who gig in small neighborhood clubs and at the zoo’s “jamming with the animals” programs…who learn brass and percussion and improvisation in high school jazz band.

When I was growing up, everything “extra” I ever got was because of my mother’s jazz gigs that she got in addition to her full time teaching or other jobs. My private telephone, my prom dress, my summer leadership camp—my own saxophone for jazz band. All thanks to the tips she got in her “kitty jar”—an extra large brandy snifter that sat atop her piano and that she primed with a couple of bucks of her own to cue folks in to what they were supposed to do. She was only continuing the tradition of her own mother, who had a regular full time gig for much of her adult life.

Some of my favorite memories of my mother, and the true mark that I had reached adulthood, was when I would come home from college and go out to jazz clubs with her. There is a tradition in the community of jazz musicians that when you have a gig, you invite fellow jazz musicians who are in your audience to sit in with you for a tune or two. To snub a colleague was to risk not getting a recommendation from them in the future, or an opportunity to sub for them, or certainly the chance to be asked to sit in with them in return. It was always quite incredible to listen to her perform with these musicians. She became someone else on stage, and for a time, took me with her.

My mother’s name would not be known to you. Unless you happen to be one of her thousands of former students or unless you happen to be familiar with the Indianapolis community jazz scene of the 70s and 80s. But the next time you are having drinks in a bar and you see the vocalist or trio performing on the small stage up front, or are waiting on the 5:12 to take you home and you see the brother blowing “Satin Doll” on his horn, please drop a five or ten into the kitty jar or open saxophone case for my Moms. And know that you are helping to continue the greatest music of our, and possibly all, time.

Happy Old School Friday!

***

As always, a big thank you to OSF hostesses, Marvalus at (her new place) Conversations with Marva and MrsGrapevine. Please check out the rules for joining and list of other OSF participants here.

September 25, 2009

OSF Tribute to a True Musical Maverick: Meshell Ndegeocello

Filed under: Old School Friday — Tags: , , , , , , — pprscribe @ 9:13 am

It’s Tribute Week here at Old School Friday! And here is mine:

It was a hot summer day, Washington D.C., at some outdoor urban fair celebrating some thing or another and featuring overpriced bottled water and free concerts. It was a homecoming of sorts for Meshelle Ndegeocello, a relatively new artist on the scene. Though she was an Army brat born in Germany—she had spent some childhood and college years not far from where she was now jamming on stage. I was impressed with how tight her band was, how they changed chords at her merest nod of instruction and took it to the bridge one more time with the merest thump-signal of her bass. Somewhere in this enjoyment of the concert, the woman standing next to me said “Sweet Jesus, it’s like I wandered into a meeting of the dyke mafia.”

I experienced a moment of confusion. Perhaps she had assumed I was Family and was sharing a wry in-joke observation with me. In which case I would be flattered. But perhaps she had assumed I was a fellow homophobe and was sharing a hateful condemnation with me. In which case I would be outraged.

Probably for the sake of this blog post all these years later I should make up a story of a witty response on my part and a funny resolution. But as happens in most such ambiguous encounters, I said nothing. The moment hung there and then dissipated, leaving the sounds of Meshell and her kick-ass band going through another number for the crowd.

But I do recall then noticing for the first time that the audience was filled with almost all women. Some seamed just to be jamming and enjoying the music. Many, though, seemed to be silently dissecting Meshell and her lyrics: Here she is talking about “if that’s your boyfriend he wasn’t last night…wassup with that? Is that Black woman up front her partner? How well does she know Madonna? I thought her stuff would sound more like John Mellencamp. How the hell do you pronounce her name, anyway? So, is she a rapper or what?

OK. So I know I was probably imagining what these women were thinking. And I understand that most people—regardless of mafia membership—probably had to work a little at fitting Meshell into a neat box. She was funk and hip hop and spoken word and R&B and jazz and rock. She was an openly bisexual woman singing songs about loving men and loving women. She played an instrument that was a tall as she was. What the hell was she?

A maverick, that’s what.

How fitting, then, that she was recording on Madonna’s then-new label, Maverick Records.

Since that first album, she has continued to evolve. Themes of the the often-time painful exploration of spirituality and sexual and racial  identity have taken more space on her albums. Themes of sexual and romantic longing infuse her lyrics in ways that are honest and blunt and familiar to anyone who has ever loved and not-gotten or loved and lost. She has explored jazz instrumentals that—in an ideal world—would have critics talking of her ushering in a “neo-fusion” movement as they have talked of her jump starting “neo-soul.” She has collaborated with some of the most talented artists in the music world.

She is a staple on tribute albums and movie soundtracks, with her ability to so expertly study and reinterpret the music of her predecessors and to so beautifully  paint music-mood pictures.

Despite being—still—highly unpackageable in a heavily packaged musical world, she has managed to produce a steady output of music that is greedily gobbled up by a strong, if somewhat small, fan base.

And I hear that she will be releasing a new album!

I hope that this means she will also be embarking on a tour—a major one that will pass through my small corner of the universe. The Meshell Ndegeocello experience is not complete without seeing her in concert. I saw her one more time after the free D.C. concert—this time indoors, in Montreux, Switzerland at the famous jazz festival. Again, she was absolutely amazing. Again, her band was tight. Again, she took us through all sorts of genres and moods and grooves. She, obviously, takes performing seriously, as she had been no less professional and serious about her performance at her early free D.C. concert than on this international stage.

I can only hope—and wait. And in the meantime offer up this Old School Friday Tribute to a True Musical Maverick, Meshell Ndegeocello. As always, have a great OSF and a wonderful weekend. Enjoy!


Dred Loc (Sly and Robbie Edit)


Who is He (And What is He to You)?


Leviticus: Faggot


Fool of Me


Picture Show

*******************

As always, a big thank you to OSF hostesses, Marvalus at Conversations with Marva and MrsGrapevine.

Please check out the rules for joining and list of other OSF participants here.

June 12, 2009

OSF: Keep It Coltrane

Filed under: Old School Friday, Uncategorized — Tags: , , — pprscribe @ 1:18 pm

This week’s Old School Friday theme is Keep It in the Family. I’m going to focus on one extremely talented family, The Coltranes. No, this is not a musical group, but different songs by three different Coltranes.

play-ville-de-lumiere-by-gold Of course legendary John Coltrane anchors this playlist. In here is his version of “My Favorite Things” and him playing with Miles Davis on “Round Midnight” (probably one of my top 10 all-time favorite songs of any musical genre). Then there is wife Alice Coltrane and her version of “My Favorite Things,” and son Ravi Coltrane and his versions of “Round Midnight” and “Epistrophy.”

I have mentioned here before how I am fascinated by different versions of the same song. Well, different versions of the same song by family members is an even more interesting twist. And all this in the context of jazz—an art form already with improvisation and putting a new spin on things—ups the interest ante even more.

With John’s version of “My Favorite Things,” note his use of the soprano saxophone instead of his signature tenor. Alice Coltrane’s spin on this tune reflects her religious expression within her music—as did most of her more well-known songs including other of her versions of her husband’s songs. The original version of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” is another one of my all-time favorite jazz songs. On this one listen to John’s sax solo and contrast it with Ravi’s more hyper, fast paced sax.

There were so many other songs I could have chosen comparing and contrasting the versions of these three. I’m telling you, I could do this all day! And maybe I will—it is, after all, Old School Friday! Hope you have a good one and a great weekend.

**********

As always, a big thank you to OSF hostesses, Marvalus at Conversations with Marva

and MrsGrapevine.

Please check out the rules for joining and list of other OSF participants here.

May 15, 2009

Something Borrowed, Something Blue: Old School Friday

Filed under: Old School Friday, Uncategorized — Tags: , , — pprscribe @ 11:06 am

The theme for today’s Old School Friday is “the Greatest of All Time.” As usual, the creators of this meme have purposefully left open interpretation of the theme—and a look around the OSF participants reveals the usual high degree of creativity folks came up with in applying their own lenses.

I think I will do something a little different. I will focus on the greatest art form ever created by the young country we call the United States of America. That art form is jazz music. I know this heres a fightin’ words kind of topic among jazz fans, but I think that—hands down—the greatest jazz album of all time is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

Listen to the whole album here on Last.fm.

I’d really, however, like to dedicate this OSF to all those jazz musicians who are not well known. All those people who play on street corners or in subway stations…who gig in small neighborhood clubs and at the zoo’s “jamming with the animals” programs…who learn brass and percussion and improvisation in high school jazz band.

When I was growing up, everything “extra” I ever got was because of my mother’s jazz gigs that she got in addition to her full time teaching or other jobs. My private telephone, my prom dress, my summer leadership camp—my own saxophone for jazz band. All thanks to the tips she got in her “kitty jar”—an extra large brandy snifter that sat atop her piano and that she primed with a couple of bucks of her own to cue folks in to what they were supposed to do. She was only continuing the tradition of her own mother, who had a regular full time gig for much of her adult life.

Some of my favorite memories of my mother, and the true mark that I had reached adulthood, was when I would come home from college and go out to jazz clubs with her. There is a tradition in the community of jazz musicians that when you have a gig, you invite fellow jazz musicians who are in your audience to sit in with you for a tune or two. To snub a colleague was to risk not getting a recommendation from them in the future, or an opportunity to sub for them, or certainly the chance to be asked to sit in with them in return. It was always quite incredible to listen to her perform with these musicians. She became someone else on stage, and for a time, took me with her.

My mother’s name would not be known to you. Unless you happen to be one of her thousands of former students or unless you happen to be familiar with the Indianapolis community jazz scene of the 70s and 80s. But the next time you are having drinks in a bar and you see the vocalist or trio performing on the small stage up front, or are waiting on the 5:12 to take you home and you see the brother blowing “Satin Doll” on his horn, please drop a five or ten into the kitty jar or open saxophone case for my Moms. And know that you are helping to continue the greatest music of our, and possibly all, time.

Happy Old School Friday!

***

As always, a big thank you to OSF hostesses, Marvalus at (her new place) Conversations with Marva and MrsGrapevine. Please check out the rules for joining and list of other OSF participants here.

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