racial politics

It’s Martin Luther King’s birthday so I’ve been thinking about racial politics.

For the past couple of years I have been exploring public domain music via archives of sheet music online, and this has turned into an extended dumpster dive into American history. I spend a lot of time with primary historical sources, and whenever I find anything to do with the ethnicity we currently call “black” it is almost guaranteed to be nasty. “Whites” were cruel on a staggering scale.

The cruelty was casual and ubiquitous. Comedy and blackface were inseparable. Artwork virtually always shows “blacks” as caricatures of stupidity and laziness. Song lyrics dipped into nigger and coon references and moved on without noticing.

And at the same time, I can’t believe that “whites” were unaware. The only adults who don’t know that people are people are sociopaths. I think that there were hundreds of millions of people — “whites” — who knew of their complicity in evil.

And many “whites” did become aware. The abolitionist movement was a revolt of conscience. Some artwork by “whites” depicting “blacks” is not caricature. Some writing is not racist. The “whites” involved surely did things that would make our jaws drop, but they deserve credit for doing the right thing.

In a way I have stopped feeling like I belong to a distinct ethnicity which is either “white” or “black.” The ethnicities have lived together as neighbors, workmates, friends, enemies, lovers, business partners, customers, and family for hundreds of years. Our current culture has long since become a hybrid. Most of us are in a subculture which clearly identifies with one ethnicity or the other, but this is an illusion. Our music, art, and language are unified.

That’s why I have been putting “black” and “white” in scare quotes. I’m going to stop doing that now, though, because it’s annoying.

However there is also evidence of a big divide — our continuing physical differences. Blacks and whites look different. For that to be true there must be pressures against interbreeding which have remained intact throughout our long history together. These pressures are still there. They mean that we don’t hang out together, so we don’t mate, so we don’t make interracial babies.

I despair. I can’t stand to be part of yet another generation which accomplished nothing, but I can’t imagine anything I could do.

The civil rights movement was recent. It did made a big difference. I just don’t think that there has been progress since then. We have a new plateau that is slightly better. What will happen in the long run? Historical-scale changes are too slow to see.

gigs thursday 4/3 and saturday 4/5

If you’re in LA, c’mon down and see me play at the Hyperion Tavern in Silverlake tomorrow night, Thursday April 3. I’ll sit in with Madame Pamita for her set at 9:30, then will do a set of my own guitar music at about 11:00.

Among other fine songs trashpicked from the dustbin of American history, I’ll be dusting off an 1882 jingle for a brand of rat poison:

The sheet music, “Rough on Rats,” was offered as a premium by Ephraim S. Wells, chemist, Jersey City, N.J., the manufacturer of “Rough on Rats” poison. “Send 35 cents for Song and Chorus of ‘Rough on Rats.’ Just out. Everybody crazy for it.”

The “dwelling house size” of the product sold for 25 cents. Wells’ advertisements claimed “sure death to rats, mice, flies, vermin, ants, insects, roaches, waterbugs, bed bugs” and “one application clears out a building.”

Sheet music for that tune at Library of Congress. I imagine it hasn’t been heard in a public place for at least a hundred years.

Then on Saturday April 5 I’ll play an 8:45 show under the stage name Alvin Pleasant at a little gallery right off the beach in Venice for an event called Foolfest:

Sponto Gallery at 7 Dudley Avenue was the home of the infamous Venice West Cafe from the late 50’s to the early 60’s – an important birthplace for the Beat movement, much like North Beach in San Francisco, the Village in New York and the Left Bank in Paris. Sponto Gallery retrieves the explorations of Alan Kaprow’s Happenings, Jack Smith’s experimental films and the Fluxus art movement with its various film, poetry and comedy events. Visit 81x.com/7dudley/cinema AND myspace.com/sevendudleycinema for more information.

Sponto is a groovy little spot — tiny, good acoustics, comfortable, free.