Teaching Migration, In Song

October 17, 2014

Stevie Wonder and Wonderlove, live performance of "Living For The City," circa 1974.  (http://youtube.com).

Stevie Wonder and Wonderlove, live performance of “Living For The City,” circa 1974. (http://youtube.com).

If I ever had the chance to teach a course specifically on the history of Black migration in America, I already know what books I’d use. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (2010); Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land (1991); James Grossman’s Land of Hope (1989); Mary Patillo’s Black Picket Fences (1999); even Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). All have moved beyond the statistics of some seven or eight million Blacks moving from the rural Jim Crow South to America’s cities, North, Midwest, West and South for the first three-quarters of the twentieth century.

Falsas Promesas Broken Promises, taken by John Fekner, Charlotte Street Stencils, South Bronx, New York. 1980. (Liftarn via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Falsas Promesas Broken Promises, taken by John Fekner, Charlotte Street Stencils, South Bronx, New York. 1980. (Liftarn via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

But that wouldn’t be near enough to communicate the range of emotions, the psychological states and the pressures that these people faced in leaving their homes for the not-so-bright lights of America’s big cities, not to mention what they faced in the days and years after they arrived. I should know. I’m the nearly forty-five year-old son of a mother originally from Bradley, Arkansas (population 500) and a father from Harrison, Georgia. They moved to New York City in the ’60s (specifically, the Tremont section of the Bronx), then to the South Side of Mount Vernon, New York (just outside the Bronx), hooked up, and sired me and my older brother Darren between December 1967 and January 1970.

That short summary is hardly the story, though. For me — like with so many other things in my life — music tells the story, emotions and psychology beyond what words on a page alone can approximate, but not fully duplicate. Music communicates the stories, emotions and psychology of those who migrated and stayed (or didn’t) in cities across the US better than Census data or a hypothesis on proletarianization. I wanted music from my own lifetime (or at least, within a few years of it) — not just folk songs or Blind Willie Johnson or Duke Ellington — music that fit my family’s transition from migration to our current times of racism and urban poverty.

Easily the top two songs on my list to play in class would be:

Trade ad for Otis Redding's single "Try a Little Tenderness," January 7, 1967. (Viniciusmc via Wikipedia/Billboard Magazine, page 7). In public domain).

Trade ad for Otis Redding’s single “Try a Little Tenderness,” January 7, 1967. (Viniciusmc via Wikipedia/Billboard Magazine, page 7). In public domain).

1. Otis Redding, “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” (1968), released after Redding’s death in a plane crash in Madison, Wisconsin; and

2. Stevie Wonder, “Living For The City,” (1973).

Both songs run the full emotional and psychological gamut. From hopefulness to oblivion, from delusion to despair, from rage and anger to resignation. The melancholy of Redding’s “It’s two thousand miles I roamed/Just to make this dock my home” (in reference to the distance from Georgia to San Francisco Bay) juxtaposed with Wonder’s bitterness and anger:

“His hair is long, his feet are hard and gritty
He spends his life walkin’ the streets of New York City
He’s almost dead from breathin’ in air pollution
He tried to vote but to him there’s no solution…”

It communicates so much beyond the lyrics and liner notes, a reminder for those of us who find America and its cities unforgiving today just how relentless it must’ve been for our parents and uncles and aunts and grandparents forty or more years ago.

There are other songs that I’d put on this playlist. Some are directly related to Black migration, some try to bridge the gap between the abundance of music on “the ghetto” and urban poverty and chaos and the lack of music from my own lifetime on migration.

3. Gladys Knight and the Pips, “Midnight Train to Georgia” (1973).
4. Marvin Gaye, “Inner City Blues” (1971).
5. Gil Scott-Heron, “95 South (All of The Places We’ve Been)” (1977).
6. Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car” (1987).
7. Nas (featuring Olu Dara, his father), “Bridging the Gap” (2004).

Pruitt–Igoe public housing projects, St. Louis, Missouri, circa 1967. This late-1950s "urban renewal" project was built, but  failed and was razed in the 1970s. (Cadastral via Wikipedia/US Geological Survey). In public domain.

Pruitt–Igoe public housing projects, St. Louis, Missouri, circa 1967. This late-1950s “urban renewal” project was built, but failed and was razed in the 1970s. (Cadastral via Wikipedia/US Geological Survey). In public domain.

That most of these songs come from the period between 1967 and 1974 isn’t an accident. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, combined with the Black Power Movement and the “Black is Beautiful” campaign, the beginning of the White backlash against civil rights — including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination — and the Anti-War Movement was in full swing. It was a good time to take a look at the present and recent past to reconnect with hopes and dreams in the midst of the nightmare of urban poverty.

After ’73 was the beginning of the dance and disco era, as well as a focus on the urban, on crime, on drugs, on poverty  — but not in a “let’s try to solve it” kind of way. This was where rap, hip-hop, some R&B and early forms of what we now call neo-soul picked up, with little reflection on this once prominent past.

Still, there would be some honorable mentions for this migration course, music that could evoke some aspect of the Black migration, of the hope that took a downward turn, of the poverty and joblessness that have permeated America, Black and White and Brown, since the ’70s.

8.  Arrested Development, “Tennessee” (1992).
9. Tina and Ike Turner (and Credence Clearwater Revival), “Proud Mary” (1970).
10. Nina Simone, “The Backlash Blues” (1967).
11. NWA, “Straight Outta Compton” (1989).
12. Tupac, “Cradle 2 the Grave” (1994).
13. John Mellencamp, “Pink Houses” (1983).
14. Bruce Springsteen, “Born In The U.S.A..” (1984). [the song's release was thirty years ago this month, by the way]
15. Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, “Don’t Give Up” (1986)

Nina Simone performs at a concert in 1964. (http://npr.org, via Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images).

Nina Simone performs at a concert in 1964. (http://npr.org, via Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images).

Through music, I’d hope to have a course and discussion about Black migration that reaches beyond the words origin and destination, that migration has merely been a physical manifestation of a difficult and seemingly unending cultural and spiritual journey in the US. That Black migration can also easily include the parallel journeys of those of the African or Afro-Caribbean diaspora, not to mention those from Latin America.

For me, though, a course like this would be a personal foray into all the things that have made me who I’ve been for nearly four and a half decades — a person better than the sum of America’s parts and racist, sexist, homophobic and evangelical assumptions.


On the Insignificance of Saggy Pants & Respectability

September 20, 2013

"When They Took Us Seriously/Why They Don't Now" poster, September 20, 2013. (Tim Brinkley/Google +).

“When They Took Us Seriously/Why They Don’t Now” poster, September 20, 2013. (Tim Brinkley/Google +).

In the past month of March on Washington and “I Have A Dream” speech commemorations and Birmingham church bombing dedications, a series of images lamenting rap culture and “thug life” have made their way around the Internet. The one that has stuck with me the most has been the image of the Selma March in 1965 juxtaposed with seemingly random photos of young Black males with saggy pants. The caption reads, “When they took us seriously/Why they don’t now.” Really? White supremacists took respectable Negroes seriously in the ’60s because they marched and wore suits, but don’t take Black males seriously now because of the saggy pants phenomenon? The truth is, they did and didn’t take us seriously then and now, and it has almost nothing to do with pulling our pants up above our boxers.

I have to say, though, that I hate saggy pants. It makes the people wearing them look somewhere between goofballs and idiots. It’s never mattered to me whether White guys or Black guys or college guys or hip-hop divas have worn saggy pants. I didn’t like it when it became a style in the early ’90s, thanks in large measure to NWA and Tupac, TLC and Snoop Dog and a host of other hip-hop/rap artists. I certainly don’t like it now, and would never buy a pair for my ten-year-old son to wear that way. The saggy pants style has been a sad twist on hand-me-downs and poverty as marketable clothes for the hip-hop cool.

But the saggy pants style has never translated for me as embracing a  “thug life” or some devolution of Black culture or American society. It wasn’t life imitating art, ala Boyz n the Hood (1991), Menace II Society (1993) or Clockers (1997). Nor have I ever seen it as something that meant that Whites or the new Black elite could say, “See. These Black folk don’t deserve respect, or health care, or a quality education, or good-paying jobs.” Over the past two decades, I’ve seen it as a style — a bad style, to be sure — but a style that some Blacks (and Whites, Latinos and Asians) have embraced.

Any young Black person who’s striving for higher education, or careers, or their own stereotypical success story in life, will tell you that they don’t wear saggy pants for every time or season. Even those who don’t know learn very quickly that saggy pants aren’t welcome in allegedly more respectable settings. If anything, the prevalence of saggy pants in 2013 has as much to do with the reality that opportunities for education, employment and prosperity remain so out of reach that it really doesn’t matter to many what they wear and where they wear it. There’s no need to code switch if everyone in your world knows the same exact code of cool.

Jonathan Ferrell, Florida A&M football picture, September 20, 2013. (AP/Florida A&M University).

Jonathan Ferrell, Florida A&M football picture, September 20, 2013. (AP/Florida A&M University).

Recent events have made it pretty obvious that it really doesn’t matter what Black males wear. We remain targets for deeply ingrained stereotypes, institutional racism, and pre-emptive White violence. Whether it was Trayvon Martin wearing a hoodie in the rain, or John Lewis wearing a suit in Selma forty-eight years ago, it hasn’t mattered to Whites in fear of the Black boogie man. Florida A&M University graduate and former football player Jonathan Ferrell learned this deadly lesson in North Carolina just a week ago. It doesn’t matter what we wear, at least as far as many Whites and some Black elites are concerned.

Blacks all look the same to them, and looked the same to them in the ’60s. Suits, hoodies or baggy pants, we’re criminals and imbeciles from birth, thugs for life, and a drain on families and American society. This doesn’t mean that any one of us shouldn’t take responsibility for how we act, speak and look in public. I dare say, though, that structural economic issues like unemployment in deeply impoverished Black communities (or crank-infested White ones) won’t be solved with young folk pulling their pants up. We need to stop focusing on the insignificant, because saggy pants and respectability are the trees in this morphing forest of racism and economic inequality.


An Alternate Universe Donald

November 23, 2010

Muppet as Michael Steele on The Daily Show Screen Shot, November 23, 2010. Source: http://tellingthetruthiness.blogspot.com

In light of revelations — skin-deep, that is — from FOX News’ not-so-dumb-butt Megyn Kelly in an upcoming GQ article titled “She Reports, We Decided She’s Hot,” it seems to me that I missed out. Not in taking photos that reveal arms, chest, butt, abs or flanks. But in the massive gold rush that anyone with brains and without a conscience could have been a part of over the last thirty years. That gold rush? The “I’m a conservative and will saying anything, true or not” gold rush.

If I had turned conservative while at Pitt or Carnegie Mellon, it would’ve opened up doors. More doors than have been opened to or for me over the past twenty years. Imagine, a tall Black guy with a doctorate and still in his twenties and willing to serve as a mouthpiece for low taxes on the rich, a minimal social welfare safety net, and corporatization of public schools and Capitol Hill? I’d be a senior staff person of the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation by now, with a 3-handicap on the golf course to boot!

But back in the days when I attended Pitt, conservatives were not nearly that organized. There were plenty of them, but not working to identify future leaders the way conservatives have at places like Dartmouth or Stanford or even Carnegie Mellon, my second grad school. No, at Pitt, most conservatives hunkered down in bathroom stalls calling people like me the N-word or offered me bananas through their scrawlings on the metal partitions and doors.

College Republicans and other conservatives were much more organized on Carnegie Mellon’s campus, and with nearly four years there, I could’ve joined at any time. I’d probably adapted my music list. I’m not sure Mariah Carey or Jon Secada would’ve gone over well with this group, much less Tupac or Wu-Tang. I definitely would’ve needed to shave the goat-tee, my signature look for most of the past seventeen years. And I would’ve started using a knife and fork to eat fried chicken for sure.

Still, these would’ve been small prices to pay for steady and well-paying employment. I would’ve hit a six-figure income before I turned thirty. And I would’ve easily been able to turn my history of multicultural thoughts and actions of African Americans in the twentieth century — Fear of a “Black”

John McWhorter at the ISMIL conference in Leiden, June 2008, downloaded November 23, 2010. Jasy jatere (in public domain)

America — into a book about the fears of Blacks and Whites of a new and dangerous multicultural world. I might’ve even been able to keep my title, without the word Black in quotes, though. It would’ve been a bestseller, and I would’ve offed Dinesh D’Souza and John McWhorter as the intellectual giants of conservative thought on race. Yay, alternative me!

I’m not sure if me and my wife of more than ten years would’ve made it past the boyfriend-girlfriend stage. Her views are less leftist and more amoral in some areas than mine. But I couldn’t see her supporting me being a mouthpiece against gay rights and marriage, abortion, education reform without community engagement and austerity cuts in public services. It probably wouldn’t have mattered how much money I made. All of my memories of marriage, of good times and bad, of arguments and making up, of Noah from pregnancy to seven — all gone. Only a person equally conservative and amoral — more than likely White, although Tara Wall or Amy Holmes are among notable exceptions. — would’ve likely married me or would’ve wanted to have a kid with me.

For some folks, this is a pointless exercise. I’m a liberal, a social-Christian, democratic-leftist, one with a handful of cultural conservative views around etiquette and public conduct that I wouldn’t impose on anyone except myself, a progressive, in a word. I didn’t have tons of opportunities to become a lucrative mouthpiece and writer for the Right. And I wouldn’t have taken them if I’d been taken to a strip club and given a suitcase full of $100-bills to be turned. Still, it’s good to dream. To realize that my life, such as it has been, has had so much more color and flavor to it than it would’ve in this Faust-Kafka vision of one of my alternate universes.


This Thing Called Rap

October 30, 2010

Snap - I've Got The Power Screenshot, October 30, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

At nearly forty-one, I ultimately don’t care what anyone thinks about my musical tastes. I haven’t cared for years. Heck, I make fun of some of the stuff I still listen to. Some of it’s deserved, but much of it’s a function of the music segregation that’s part of the cultural segregation that still exists in this country we call America.

Like most growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I was introduced to rap in late-’79 by the Sugar Hill Gang “Rapper’s Delight,” rap lyrics with Chic’s “Good Times” — a disco hit the year before — as the background music. I got to see a rap venue once growing up, the following summer at Van Courtland Park in the Bronx. Back then, me and my Holmes Elementary School friends weren’t sure if rap was much more than a curiosity or fad, or would be here to last.

Who knows if the Hebrew-Israelite years or Humanities or just having parents who’d barely made it out of the ’60s music-wise had anything to do with it, but the years between ’81 and ’84 were lost ones as far as rap was concerned. I heard more classical than probably any other genre in middle school, thanks mostly to our wacko music teacher Mrs. Mallory. We didn’t have cable, and me listening to the radio at 616 wasn’t permitted unless it was religious programming. I caught pieces of music from videos on ABC on Saturdays sometimes, from my nearly daily runs to C-Town, and from my classmates and their conversations.

That was until I rebelled in the summer of ’84.  Grandmaster Flash. Kurtis Blow. The whole Roxanne thing. That’s what I got to hear when I began to turn the radio dial to WBLS-FM and a couple of other stations in ’84 and ’85. Of course, Run-D.M.C. Doug E. Fresh, Kool Moe Dee, and early LL Cool J would all hit the scene in the two years that followed.

But unlike my other Black male classmates, I didn’t take a liking to most rap. And that made me wack. I was preoccupied with escaping 616, trying to find my true self, with succeeding and surviving Humanities and high school. Chasing skirts, trying to one-up and put down those around me, going to Mount Vernon Knight basketball games and hanging out on weekends? That wasn’t me, and the rap of those times didn’t have much of me in them. To think that a quarter-century ago, rap lyrics that referred to neighborhoods in the Bronx, Harlem or Brooklyn hardly ever commented on bling or blight — especially the blight — shows how far the genre had to grow in ’85.

PE, October 30, 2010. Source: http://www.melophobe.com

It took college and Public Enemy for me to fully appreciate rap and its power and popularity. It took PE and KRS-One and Arrested Development for rap to do something that all of the other music I listened to had done. They made me think. They touched my mind and my heart. The anger and rage of their rap other ’90s rap finally matched the early music of U2 and the romance of love balled R&B. I finally felt like the game had gotten serious, enough for me to pay attention.

Then the whole fake East Coast-West Coast crap of Tupac and B.I.G. came along to ruin rap for me again. What were they doing and thinking? Really, would Pearl Jam and Creed threaten to kill each other in order to promote their music? It was “a shame and a pitiful,” as my father would say. It took me a few years after Tupac’s death to come back to him, his contradictions and his poetry as rap.

Hate to say it, but only Eminem has picked up where Tupac left off since ’97 — and he’s just as contradictory. I’ve never really liked Jay-Z. Not because I don’t see the talent or can’t bump to the music.

Kanye West Album Art, October 30, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

But because until recently, his words never made me think, never gave me anything to feel at all. His music reminded me of why I didn’t like rap in the mid-’80s. It was cotton candy rap, the kind my superficially cool Black male classmates liked. Nas may be the most talented one of them all, but seems almost tormented between being a slut (this is a gender-neutral term for me) and being a soothsayer.

I find the music that is hip-hop and rap today wanting, with the same tired themes, with about as much originality as a ’60s radical patting themselves on their backs for striking a blow against “the man.” After three decades, the genre’s come full circle. I want to listen and learn. But I don’t think that the folks who step to the mike now are worth listening to or learning from.


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