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Race, Culture and a White Boy from Texas

Race, Culture and a White Boy from Texas
Greg Thomas By

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The date: October 12, 1931. A sixteen year-old white male from Austin High School in Texas, who in later years would help shape the future of the United States, bought a ticket to see "Louis Armstrong, King of the Trumpet, and His Orchestra" at the old Driskill Hotel. He knew nothing about jazz or this "King," he recalled many years later, but did predict that a lot of girls would be at the dance. So, of course, he figured he should attend. What he heard and saw astounded him.


"Steamwhistle power, lyric grace, alternated at will, even blended," he recalled. "Louis played mostly with his eyes closed; just before he closed them they seemed to have ceased to look outward, to have turned inward, to the world out of which the music was to flow."

Armstrong was 31 years old at the time. He had already changed the world of American music with his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens records and was spreading the gospel of jazz with a big band. A few weeks after this concert, Armstrong would record versions of "Stardust" so instrumentally stunning and vocally different from the original as to be placed in the category of the avant-garde. "Pops" was at a peak of creative power.

The young man, named Charles, was a freshman at Austin High studying Greek classics. Charles had cordial relations with black folks, and liked most he knew, especially an elder named Buck Green. Green was born and raised enslaved. When Charles was 10 years old, Green, then 75, taught him how to play harmonica. Yet, overall, whites in Austin, Texas mainly saw American Negroes in a servant's capacity. Charles later realized that black professionals and intellectuals were there too, but those sorts of "colored" folk were invisible, simply because people refused to see them.

So nothing prepared Charles for what Louis Armstrong represented: "He was the first genius I had ever seen...The moment of first being, and knowing oneself to be, in the presence of genius, is a solemn moment; it is perhaps the moment of final and indelible perception of man's utter transcendence of all else created. It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen-year-old Southern boy's seeing genius, for the first time, in a black."

Charles, by the time of these reflections in 1979, had already made his mark on history, and was an old lion reflecting on his life. He recalled that back in those Depression-era days some black folk "were honored and venerated, in that paradoxical white-Southern way" but as for genius—"fine control over total power, all height and depth, forever and ever? It had simply never entered my mind, for confirming or denying in conjecture, that I would see this for the first time in a black man. You don't get over that."

That night, Charles was standing in the crowd with "a 'good old boy' from Austin High. We listened together for a long time. Then he turned to me, shook his head as if clearing it—as I'm sure he was—of an unacceptable though vague thought, and pronounced the judgment of the time and place: 'After all, he's nothing but a God damn nigger!'

"The good old boy did not await, perhaps fearing [a] reply. He walked one way and I the other. Through many years now, I have felt that it was just then that I started walking toward the Brown case, where I belonged. I realized what it was that was being denied and rejected in the utterance I have quoted, and I realized, repeatedly and with growingly solid conviction through the next few years, that the rejection was inevitable, if the premises of my childhood world were to be seen as right, and that, for me, this must mean that those premises were wrong, because I could not and would not make the rejection. Every person of decency in the South of those days must have had some doubts about racism, and I had mine even then—perhaps more that most others. But Louis opened my eyes wide, and put to me a choice. Blacks, the saying went, were 'all right in their place.' What was the 'place' of such a man, and of the people from which he sprang?"

Charles didn't deny the blinding, Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus-become-Paul experience that transformed him that night. He accepted what he heard and felt and what he knew he saw. When brought face-to-face with an "other" who, in society, represents all equated with "inferior," yet that other is the total opposite of society's judgment—is not only "superior" but genius—you have a choice to make. Charles had to make a moral choice whether to go against the social norms about "race" in his Southern white upbringing. He eventually became, according to that upbringing, a traitor to his race and his class, what the redneck "good old boys" would later call an unrepentant "nigger-lover."

Charles L. Black, Jr. became a constitutional law professor who, for a half century, helped shape the legal minds of students at Columbia and Yale law schools (current U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton studied with Black, and consulted him when she was working on the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 on the Nixon impeachment inquiry). Charles L. Black, Jr., as remembered in his New York Times obituary on May 8, 2001, helped "Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., and others, to write the legal brief for Linda Brown, a 10-year-old student in Topeka, Kan., whose historic case, Brown v. Board of Education, became the Supreme Court's definitive judgment on segregation in American education." Charles L. Black, Jr. is a sterling example of moral courage, and his story above, which comes from an essay in the Yale Review titled "My World with Louis Armstrong," demonstrates, too, the power of culture over race.

I assert that one of the ways we can begin move beyond the scourge of race and racism is to view human dynamics and interaction (including, of course, jazz) in terms of culture rather than race, as a start. Let's briefly look at the two ideas aside from jazz, and then bring back in the music.

Race is a slippery, shape-shifting idea that in its modern guise has only been around for a few hundred years. Before modernity, race was used to classify groups of people, but it wasn't as tied to physical and phenotypic characteristics as it has become in more recent times. Before the modern period—in the West, approximately the time from the European Enlightenment to the late-1950s—language, custom, religion, status and class were more important than physical appearance in determining categorization of groups based on difference.

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