Door always open.
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2010-06-22 7:14 PM
One day when I was little, I ran into the house calling Mommy, Mommy, there's a black man outside! This was in North Hollywood in the early '70s.
Since my mother was a forward-looking liberal-type person who had chosen the "color-blind" approach with her children, this was cause for concern. I led her out over the porch to the sidewalk, and there he was. The black man.
Black shirt, black pants, black hat, black shoes.
My mom loves this story.
I've always assumed I'd follow suit with my kids, because doesn't who someone is matter, and doesn't what color they are not? But now I'm not sure. My oldest friend is black (well, sort of a medium-mocha), and he's told me my not caring about his color, just about who he is, was a big reason we bonded.
But we bonded in Los Angeles.
New York is different, and my friend feels it too. (He moved here a few years ago.) Here, you're part of a race whether you like it or not. He's not black enough for the black guys at work, and I'm uncomfortable in any non-mixed group of any color. And there are lots of non-mixed groups here. New York is voluntarily segregated in a way Los Angeles isn't—or at least wasn't where I lived, when I lived there. I grew up in a mix. This place isn't like that.
I got into Jimi Hazel's music a few years ago when I was poking around cdbaby and came across his new disc, 21stCenturySouthBronxRockStar. I don't have a history with rock. Mostly I can't listen because the arrangements aren't interesting. Chord, chord, chord, chord. Bass on the tonic on the ones. Blocks of chords, just foundation for the melody. Nothing there for me—I need interplay and interlock; it's what I love about Zulu guitar or Stevie Wonder playing clavinet. The instruments play off each other, they don't just dogpile on the barlines. They call and respond, question and answer, have little agreements and arguments.
I also like when it sounds like an artist means it, not just like they're doing something by rote. And I like little turns of melody. And I like guitar crunch; it's just that usually, what the crunchy guitar is doing puts my brain to sleep. The sample MP3s at cdbaby made my ears perk, so I bought it. Face the Day and Waiting for the Sun are still on heavy rotation here, and Running, though currently out of favor, is one of the songs my kids want when we dance in the living room.
Jimi's new band project, which includes members of 24-7 Spyz, Fishbone, and Kings X, is called ANTI NIGGER MACHINE.
I sent my old friend a link to that video, which I shot in December, and didn't give him any background because I was in a hurry. At the time, the poster frame (the picture that shows before you hit PLAY) was just the band logo:
I wish I still had the text message I got in response, which was along the lines of "WTF is that, 'cause I'm about to get really pissed!!!"
Do you mind the name? I'm split on it. I figure a black rock musician with the accolades and track record Jimi has can call his band whatever he wants, and if he wants to get people stirred up, more power to him. We're all too complacent, even us forward-looking types. We can forget to reconsider things as time passes. So shake us up. That's one of the best things art can do.
But I also think I can't exactly walk into a room full of white people (or black people) and say, "Hey, you know who I like? Anti Nigger Machine!" Especially if they don't know me, the background of the band, or the etymology of the name.
It's a head-on attack on complacence, and that's always good—and here's the twist:
You can't attack racism head-on from the color-blind perspective.
Color-blind lets you promote individual equality, but it doesn't let you engage with systemic inequalities. It's one eye open, one eye blind.
So how do I raise my kids?
Here's the tie-breaker for me: Only connect.
For E.M. Forster, who wrote those two words in the first place, they meant a whole variety of things. For me, it means engage instead of standing back. Get dirty. Break stuff sometimes. Be a fool and suffer for your foolishness. Leave, as I was exhorted some time ago by somebody I finally have narrative justification to link back to, a Keith-shaped hole. But bring life to you, don't just wait for it to show up. Engage. Only connect.
So to the best of my ability, I'm going to teach them not only that color doesn't matter, but that it does. You be the guy it doesn't matter to—but you also be the guy who knows what he's looking at when the rules just coincidentally put the majority in the better socio-economic position. And be the guy who sees it no matter which race we're talking about, because racism in a small group is just as much racism as in a large one—and in small groups, the power relationships can flipflop. Racism among six people doesn't have the same impact as racism among six million, but it's a similar set of forces at play. They're just in a smaller box and don't hurt so many people.
And be the guy who knows that as the group gets bigger, so does the power its majority wields, and that's why the impact of a rich white male power structure in a government is a worse thing than anything you're likely to deal with in your lives from racists darker than you, my little blond boys, even though it's structured exactly the same as the unfairnesses you'll suffer here and there when you are in the minority.
And when you get a little older, you're learn not just about the swastikas painted on your father's house in that same North Hollywood neighborhood in the '80s, but also what your blonde mother had to deal with growing up haole in Hawaii.
And we're going to keep having little conversations where I see if you think lighter or darker skin color means anything, because right now, it shouldn't. You need to know that kids are kids. As usual, it's the grownups who are the problem.
And I guess there's my answer: The closer you get to being grownups, the more I'll let you in on the nature of hatred and injustice. But first let's give you a nice base of everybody's-the-same so your righteous indignation will be good and stoked in a few years when you find out just how wrong a lot of people are, and then let's make sure it's well-aimed and properly wielded. Part of the phrase a force for good is the word force. Good alone doesn't seem enough now.
Mom's approach was the right one in that time and place. I'll be building on it in this time and place.
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