Saturday, March 15, 2008

Play that Funky Music

It was a hot Louisiana September in 1976 and I was in the fourth or fifth grade. I can remember riding in the backseat with my friend in his mom's station wagon. Wild Cherry's Play that Funky Music (White Boy) came on the car radio and she turned up the volume. We sang along as we rode around with the windows rolled down. It was a lot more fun that the country music that our parents usually inflicted on us.

We pulled into the driveway as the song was ending. My friend's father, enjoying a cigarette and a beer in the shade at the end of the driveway commented in disgust, "Goddamn n----- music," and I realized for the first time that music had color.

White kids like me growing up in the South, in all-white neighborhoods and attending unrepentantly unintegrated schools, get one of their first tastes of the complexities of race relations when they learn that music has color and how much of American music is black. It gets even more complex when they learn just how much of that music was imitated, borrowed, or stolen by white musicians.

In The Buddy Holly Story, his parents were upset that the music their son wrote and played was "too black." Elvis borrowed plenty of songs and lots of his style from black musicians. White parents across America were concerned when their children enjoyed Jerry Lee Lewis' "jungle rhythms."

The lines began to blur. White mothers humming Motown songs warned their kids to beware of black people. Klansmen cursed the "uppity nigras" of the Civil Rights Movement while their kids danced the Watusi. It might seem odd to some to mention someone like Little Richard in the same breath as Martin Luther King, Jr., but each brought the races together in his own way.

Little Richard? Yes, Little Richard. "Tutti Frutti" might not have packed the moral and emotional punch of "I have a dream," but white kids dancing to a black man's music were probably better prepared to have a black student in the desk next to them at school.

Growing up in those "unrepentantly unintegrated" schools I mentioned earlier meant that a lot of kids I knew didn't actually have a black kid in the desk next to theirs until they were half-way through high school, but the Commodores, "Good Times," and Dr. J let them know that it would be okay when they finally did.

Make no mistake: the examples set by black icons and entertainers popular in mainstream white culture had more work than they could handle. Bias, bigotry, and hatred have never gone away, have never been silenced. For every bunch of white kids who enjoyed that funky music, there were others complaining about that "goddamn n----- music."

The more I ruminate on the subject, the more I come to believe that the most overwhelming emotion I feel for unrepentant racists of any generation isn't anger, outrage, or frustration. It's pity.

How can I not pity the bigot who won't let his feet start moving when he hears Aretha Franklin wail? How is pity not an option when you think about someone who can watch Gregory Hines dance and not want to possess some of that skill and grace for himself? Don't you pity the bigot who never let Richard Pryor make him laugh so hard his sides hurt? How can I not pity someone who is missing out on so many of the fantastic, beautiful, and amazing things this world has to offer, just because they are offered by someone who looks different than they do?*

The kicker to this whole story, the moral that makes me smile and shake my head when I think about that hot summer day in 1976, is that every single member of the band Wild Cherry was white. My friend's dad couldn't enjoy music performed by guys as white as he was, because to him they sounded black!

It shouldn't take much more than this to confirm the niggling suspicions in the back of your mind that tell you exactly where the slippery slope of racism leads.

* I have to believe that, if I were black, I would be a lot more in touch with the anger, outrage, and frustration and less aware of the pity that this kind of racism engenders in me. As a pasty white guy, however, I have noticed that my past angry/outraged confrontations with this kind of racism have had absolutely zero positive effect. Besides, openly pitying racists really annoys them. It's fun. Try it.