”I’d been prepped for understanding by my parents and grandparents, who constantly spoke of the regressive, racially pathological south. They took me to South Carolina almost every summer throughout my youth. I had seen and experienced the ugliness and petty terror of segregated trains. One time, the white conductor would not let Black people close the windows in the segregated coach where we sat. I was half-amazed at the dumb unnecessisariness of it all. The why of it. Cinders and soot poured in on all our clothes, and we brushed with a stiff resentment at each stroke.” ( Amiri Baraka )
…Race was the central domestic issue of his lifetime, and on race, Robert Carlyle Byrd never did seem to get it. Although he was an old senator, at 92, what made him interesting was his egomania and his racism. That he rose from poverty and loved the constitution was commendable, but to be characterized as the ”soul” of the senate and the conscience of that legislative body is the hypocrisy of white liberalism, an absurdist comedy, and anything but a heroic saga.
”Robert C. Byrd will be remembered as one of the true giants of history. While he was the longest serving member of the U.S. Senate, Byrd also was a humble Mountaineer. He was one of us. He was a man who rose from the chains of Appalachian poverty deep in West Virginia coal country to become a power broker in Washington, and a shining star in the Democratic party. West Virginia’s senior senator remained true to his state, and to his character, throughout his long and storied career of service. For those who knew Byrd, there was never evidence of personal glory — just a trademark and genuine smile.” ( Bluefield Daily Telegraph )
Its a sign of the times; that anyone of the slightest consequence goes to the grave they are an unsung something or other that vulnerable writers will manufacture. Death was a great career move for Byrd, since it granted him a sadly lacking moral and professional upgrade; an example of upon expiring, a cheap white politician turns into statesman and humanist; hardly a farewell to a great man.
Byrd’s egomania, borders on megalomanic status, befitting that of a Roman emperor; a legacy of a truly astonishing list of expensive government structures bearing his name. He leaves some 100 Robert C. Byrd office buildings, bridges, roads, dams, courthouses and highways, but no slums, ghettoes and shoddy public housing. As chairman of the Appropriations Committee, a little skimming here and there to keep the turnstiles rolling … the only name he should have earned was ”jail byrd”. Inert structures weren’t enough for the senator. He got the U.S. dept. of agriculture to name a special plum the Bluebyrd, and his wife Erma got a plum, the Orablue. While this could be overlooked, if balanced by some extenuating circumstances, his racism was less amusing.
The legacy of Byrd does tend to hover around the evils of racism.However, with Byrd, its important to bypass him as an easy target and look at the broader issue ,for more complex truths about the construction of nation, race, selfhood and ethnic identity. There is a need to get away from the view that establishes either racist depictions or triumphalist counter-narratives about anti-racist heroes. Nobody who is sensitive to subtleties is interested in such a simplistic breakdown of racial images that Byrd represents. But, the collective power of the assembled images of Byrd, his time, and his context, forms a pastiche of impressions that speaks to us as a society, raising questions about why we cling to the concept of “race” and pointing out that bigotry still lives and breathes in our midst, fueled in no small part by the media images that saturate Americans’ day-to-day experiences.
In 1942, when he was 25, Byrd became an ”exalted cyclops” of the Klu Klux Klan and persuaded 150 neighbors to take out $3 buck memberships, including robe and hood. Ten years later, when the Klan was less ”de rigeur” and Byrd was running for Congress, an opponent in the Democratic primary revealed his membership.
”I’d seen the segregated movies and bathrooms and restaurants. In Alabama, where my mother’s family came from, we visited the very site of my grandfather’s two grocery stores and funeral parlor, which all burned to the ground, Klan style, and my grandfather and family threatened with terror and murder.”We would not turn any other cheek. White people could get their whatname beat. I knew that. Their cruelty was nearly always a constant. Their re
eaning was as Bosses, Owners, Storekeepers, Police, Pain-in-the-behind little racist dudes we’d clashed with, particularly in the north, at school or in the streets, or had to talk tough to. “What? I’ll whip yo’ mammyjammin white—” That had already come out of many of our generation’s mouth, absolutely sincerely, hope to die.” ( Baraka )
”It was classical Afro-American mythology, such as Du Bois characterized the slaves’ ontology connecting Africa with American chattel slavery and the slaves to an ancient yet syncretized philosophy. We “were to suffer and be degraded, and then afterwards, by Divine edict, raised to manhood and power” (Du Bois: Black Reconstruction). For the masses of slaves, slavery ended because of “the Coming of the Lord.”
…Byrd, in campaign advertising, apologized and claimed this was a “mistake of youth.” Next, his Republican opponent in the general election produced a letter Byrd had written to the imperial wizard in 1946, three years after he claimed to have left the Klan: “The Klan is needed today as never before,” he wrote. In another letter, from 1945 (it surfaced in 2005) Byrd wrote that he refused to serve in the armed forces “with a Negro by my side”; he didn’t want to see “this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels.”
In 1964, aged 47, he tried his best to defeat the Civil Rights Act by filibuster, speaking continuously for fourteen hours. He opposed the 1965 Voting Rights Act and its renewal in 1970, arguing, of course, on purely constitutional grounds. He further distinguished himself as the only senator who voted against the confirmation of both Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas. One was a highly experienced liberal, the other an inexperienced conservative. All they had in commonwas skin colour.
”Such a cultural form was tradition and the emotion of our lives and memory, but we younger Blacks, out of school or the service or in the factories and warehouses docks, knew being “righteous” or “good” had never worked, except if you could fight.”So Rosa Parks was a recruiter for the people, an example, a breath of humanity drawn into us by our lives and mind. Dr. King’s appearance, the SCLC, the boycott’s example of Black self-determination, political and economic strength as well, was an instruction in a new era’s expression. Rosa Parks’ act, the organization and leadership, campaign development, success and impact, were the opening of the activist phase as the phoenix-like explosive re-emergence of “the movement.” ( Baraka )
There was now—along with our historic despising of and resistance to what we had been taught since babes—an open, organized attack on Evil. On this real devil, in his Heaven-Hell. There was now organized “Self Assertion,” as Du Bois said, as well as Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and Gandhi’s “Non-Violent Resistance.”
In November, 1990,Andres Serrano, of ”Piss Christ”, National Endowment for the Arts notoriety, opened a new chapter of his career with another controversial exhibition of twenty cibachrome portraits,; thirteen of homeless people in New York entitled Nomads, most of whom are African-American, and seven members of the Atlanta, Georgia, chapter of the Ku Klux Klan entitled Klansman. Presenting us with an encounter of extremes, Serrano uncovers disturbing, yet obvious paradoxes. The homeless become the symbols of the outcome of life for people of color in a racist society, while the Klansmen stand as the symbols of racial hatred; but they are both outcasts, both marginal in relation to the presumed audience. Even the most liberal “other-loving” spectator or collector would have to contend with the impossibility of assuming a racially or socially neutral position in relation to these subjects.
These images confront us with the moral and political dilemmas stemming from racial tensions in this country. Yet Serrano’s style, though frontal, is far from declaratory. His pictures are emotive and elliptical, puzzling, frightening and beautiful at the same time.
”When Dr. King’s house was bombed in Montgomery in 1957, crowds of Black people rallied spontaneously in front of the house, many with rifles and shotguns. The question of Self Defense was raised as an exact response to its obvious need in real life! National leadership was thrust by the media upon Dr. King when he commanded the crowd’s deepest and most immediate emotions into a Black Christian alternative, “If any blood be shed … let it be ours!”
We always knew the crazy tales our people told about the vicious madness of White Supremacy, enforced by Uncle Sam Gestapo Good Old Boy Cracker Nazis, Spawn of the “Soul Thieves” (Fred said) who bought our bodies to work for them free, forever, so they could be rich and rule the world. Sunday School and one people and friends and brains had told us clearly to recognize: Heathens, jealous Crackers the old folks called them. Racists. Lynchers. The spiritual KKK in America’s soul.” ( Baraka )
We are its Blood, ourselves. Sucked out of our homes by our African selves as captors, then sold to vampire-like European and American slaves traders. They are the meaning of Halloween. The Skull and Crossbones is their only flag. ( Baraka )
There has been a resurgent trend in blues music this past year which is useful in showing the concept of aesthetic identity to interrogate and navigate the relationship among musical genres, social movements and racial identity. American folk music, whether blues or country has at some times subverted and other times reinforced the categorical boundaries between blacks and whites in twentieth-century United States. Aesthetic identity is the cultural alignment of artistic genres to social groups by which groups come to feel that genres represent our, or their art, music, and literature.
Genre boundaries then become social boundaries. Folk music inverts the usual relationship of genre and social boundaries. Folk music is always the culture of some other, either racial, regional, class, or national. Before it was called folk music, American vernacular music was much more racially integrated than the society around it, creolized across a spectrum from predominantly European to predominantly African- influenced, but with most exhibiting both. Before the era of commercial recording, black and white musicians sang the same music, learned techniques and songs from each other, and shared a social world of performance.
The concept of folk music was created by academic elites,as part of the emerging cultural industries which required market segmentation, differentiation; anything but integration which would limit the market offerings. However, this remained unfamiliar to most people until the organized left took it on as a cultural project in the late 1930s and 1940s. Both academic elites and political activists constructed the genre as an alternative to the racialized genres that the commercial recording industry had dubbed race records and hillbilly music.
American communists and their allies were especially self-conscious about using folk music as an instrument of racial solidarity in a particularly racially polarized era, through Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. It was Submerged by McCarthyism until the 1960s,then resuscitated; folk music was revived as a racially unified genre, but quickly became whitened to an almost exclusively middle class audience .The explanation for why the folk revival was so white revolved around three factors; the continuing legacy of commercial racial categories; the failure of the New Left to control music through a cultural infrastructure as effectively as had the old left, and the cultural momentum of an understanding of folk music as the music of the other at a time when blacks were trying to enter a system that white middle-class youth were rejecting. The prototypical Byrd voter sitting in an Appalachian shanty, shacked up with his cousin and young’uns may be an artificial creation, in the same sense music stereotyped role and race, through the process of commodification of culture into marketable entities.
”And then the next wave, spearheaded by Malcolm X and his fiery accusation of a “white America” that we recognized and were having a bloody public refresher course on. Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, SELF DEFENSE! BLACK POWER! We were inside the newsreel in a breathless sweep of struggle and education and commitment. Every day we inhaled Hoover, The Panthers, The beatings. We beheld a Nazi America! Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner murdered like escapees from Auschwitz, Water hoses, Dogs. Violent maniac racists with the green light to do anything to us and get away with it. Despicable ignorant! Heathens. Murderers. Powerful! Frauds who make a living lying. Average ignorant white people. Liberals. ( Baraka )
Obviously, its absurd for a Cyndi Lauper or Tom Jones to be screaming the blues in anything but the most generic and mannered fashion, but on the other hand there are no more long lost blues players living on a swamp and untouched by modern musical convention. The white man is said to be back at the door, but many were there long ago, before processes were established that further stratified the genres. Senator Byrd was just a product of stratification and he represented a form of synthetic, generic racism that is dangerous because it is so unconscious and authentically inauthentic.
”These were not just events, but teachings, forum, battles, inductions into the deep heartlessness of this land and the empty doggishness of too many of those who claimed prominence and power. We shuddered in outrage at the murders now of students as the student movement expanded across the country, the murders of Black students at Jackson State, Orangeburg, Texas Southern, and of white students at Kent State! The 1960 Greensboro Black student sit-in had set it all off, and we grew even more aggressive in our will to resist this historic domestic oppression.” ( Baraka )