Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Musical memories: A racial journey

My life is normally very focused on family, and in a family with small kids, I guess this drives us to think very much in the here and now, in the near-term.  I pick up Sam at school, we need to make dinner, we bathe the kids, maybe this weekend we’ll go on our bikes to such-and-such a park.  Et cetera.  Well for the past two weeks my wife and children are back in Colombia visiting family, re-acculturating, and waiting on some immigration paperwork.  I am accordingly all alone in our apartment, and despite my trying to work late, despite my late-night Le Carre reading sessions and my generally trying to distract myself from loneliness and melancholy, I do have quite a bit of time for idle thought.  Tonight as I ironed shirts and listened to music, my frame of reference in time passed from days (I got four shirts ironed so I won’t have to iron all next week!) to years and even decades.

When we got our stereo system set up, I was expecting mainly to listen to my father’s classic vinyl records, and even some of my own that I accumulated in the later years of high school.  I do this a fair amount, but in these days without my family I have actually been listening mainly to mp3s from my computer.  When I hook it up to the stereo system I can actually hear bass and subtleties and richness that I haven’t heard for years, limited as I’ve been to the dinky computer speakers.  Anyway, the mp3s I’ve been favoring are the CDs from my first year or two of high school.

There’s “Core” by Stone Temple Pilots, the first contemporary white music I ever really listened to.  For some reason the only pop music I really knew until high school was black music.  It’s not that I grew up in a particularly black neighborhood, though I guess all the kids around my age were indeed black, with a smattering of Latinos.  My grammar school wasn’t very black either.  But somehow I guess the kids that were setting the tastes when we started listening to pop music were listening mainly to black music.  I remember the first time I ever listened to the radio on my own, it was at a friend’s house.  I was ten years old or so.  We went in his bathroom and sat under the sink, and he turned a little handheld radio he had to B96, which was Chicago’s sort of urban dance station.  I assume he picked it up from his big brother, two years our senior.  Anyway, it was like a revelation to me, because now I knew at least one station on the radio where I could hear, indeed actively pursue, many of the popular hip-hop and house songs that I’d heard around me for so long on the streets!

I know everyone thinks that the music they listened to growing up was the best music ever, and it usually has more to do with the associations they have from their own life history than with the inherent quality of the music.  Just look at people who grew up listening to shit-rock like Journey and Foreigner who will pump money into a bar jukebox all night and swoon over their musical platitudes.  I’m sure the nostalgia that my music brings to me has a lot to do with that.  But I also think that I have a pretty discerning musical taste.  I am fully aware that the 80s songs of my childhood are mostly god-awful, and that there was a lot of frivolous tripe in the 90s as well.  Likewise, I really appreciate good music that came well before my time, and some of it, like the Doors or Jimi Hendrix, even form part of the lexicon of music that I was listening to in my formative early teen years.

Anyway, I happen to think that the early 90s were a really prime period for black popular music (dare I say on par with the soul and funk of 25 years prior, or the jazz from 30 years before that?).  Commercial hiphop was just getting big, with diverse strands from Snoop Dogg’s amazing debut album of gangsta rap gone bigtime, to more progressive stuff like A Tribe called Quest and De La Soul, to novelty kid acts like Kriss Kross or Another Bad Creation.  What I have later heard referred to as “New Jack Swing” was also big—Boyz 2 Men, Jodeci, even Michael Jackson got in on the sound with Dangerous.  Cross Colours and Karl Kani created entire self-contained fashion universes.  A Different World, The Cosby Show, In Living Colour, these shows presented relatively complex, nuanced, and certainly fun and attractive pictures of black culture.

So I got to experience some of this, at least from my peripheral perch as a white middle-class kid on the North Side of Chicago whose parents didn’t believe in buying the latest Nike or Karl Kani threads unless they were from TJ Maxx or the bootleg Clark Mall. 

I only gradually became aware of the racial implications of the popular music landscape of this my early adolescence.  Initially, I just figured that this music and this style was what were cool, what kids my age did, regardless of race.  The only white music I was familiar with was from my mom’s era in the 1950s.  I still have a soft spot for that stuff too, but in my preteen conception of the world, “Mr. Sandman” was certainly not in the running for cutting-edge and hip.  So the new music I was getting turned on to wasn’t black music to contrast to white music, but rather new music contrasted to old.  It was what I knew.  Likewise, the baggy pants and outlandish outfits of the hiphop era weren’t “black” clothes to me, but rather the appropriate clothes for a preteen becoming increasingly fashion-conscious as he transitioned from the nondescript sweatpants of his younger self.

The first blows to this “colorblind” perception of the world came from two very different angles.  On the one hand, as I started hanging out by myself at the local playground, the black kids there would constantly point out that I was white, and thus deserving of their derision in various ways.  Around the same time this started happening, I went to an almost all white summer camp, where upon seeing what I thought was one of my more “cool” outfits (one of my only cool ones, actually!), some kid told me they were wigger pants.  This neologism refers to a white person who tries to “act black”.  It was a new word to me, and frankly it was shocking and offensive to hear, but I soon came to see myself that way, because I internalized the narrow categories of other people.

So by the time I was twelve or so, I began to think that the world was rigidly divided into white culture and black culture, and ne’er the twain shall meet.  The problem was that I’d somehow happened to get stranded in-between categories.  In the stupid, ultrasimplified scheme of the world that I was forming (influenced largely by the mass popular culture I was consuming), there were “black things” and “white things”.  My tastes were from the “black world”.  I liked black movies, black TV shows, black music, black clothes, black sports.  Even as I developed a taste in women (or girls, at that age), the physical traits that were most attractive to me in a girl aligned more with what my black friends and acquaintances liked than what the white folks around me valued.  To some extent I even emulated how the black kids around me talked, though I was ambivalent about this.  I mean, it was a conscious choice, or at least I was semi-conscious of it, but I was also sort of embarrassed by it.  I knew it sounded ridiculous.  On the other hand, I didn’t want to or entirely know how to “talk white” either.  Many of my white friends incorporated aspects of black Chicago dialect into their speech.  Frankly, I didn’t know too many kids, white or black, that really “talked white”.  At least none that were close to me and that I respected very much.

I gradually became aware of a whole parallel popular culture world of white people.  In brief encounters at summer camps or with the children of my mom’s white suburban friends (or even urban white kids that went to private schools), I caught glimpses of this other universe.  They were dressing grunge, listening to alternative music.  The disparaging caricature of this world, which I received from the black culture I was more familiar with, had it that the white culture was all miserable spoiled rich kids contemplating suicide, disrespecting their parents, dressing in artificially-tattered clothes, and listening to music that glorified an ungrateful malaise amidst material prosperity.  So I wasn’t too keen on delving into white popular culture.  My friends and neighbors weren’t much a part of it, and I didn’t have any desire or need to expand my horizons beyond them.   Especially in the context of the gentrification my neighborhood was undergoing as I grew up, whereby unpleasant, arrogant, bourgeois white people were pushing out the humbler, more established black and Latino neighbors, I was not too well-disposed towards white folks as a group.

A black friend’s sister was really into this music, but she was much older than us, and seemed to me to be an anomaly (like me) in the rigid white/black dichotomy I thought the world consisted in.  I’d be curious to hear her impressions now on growing up black surrounded by that white culture—I think from grammar school onward (a different and rival school to ours) she just happened to be around more white kids doing “white things”.  At the same time, I imagine that my conceptual division of the world into rigid white and black spheres might never have taken root in the head of a black kid in my same situation; I imagine that it would be impossible for a black kid surrounded by diverse black people to imagine blackness as so monolithic and immutable.  There are black folks, just as there are white folks, who listen to all sorts of music, are into all sorts of activities, eat all sorts of food, play all sorts of sports, etc.  Shit, if the recent World Cup is any indication, there was a whole demographic slice of black kids from my generation who were playing soccer in the US, whereas to me soccer was just for the white bourgeoisie.  At any rate, by not being around a lot of white folks (or at least none that I considered “indicative” or “standard” for whiteness), and by being only on the edge of black society, I guess I was able to form a very misled abstraction of who does what according to the color of their skin.  Or maybe lots of kids, of all colors, were and are prone to develop ideas of blackness and whiteness based largely on broad characterizations on TV and in other mass media, despite how little these portrayals have to do with the real human beings around them.  You never know—TV is a powerful thing!

Where were my parents in all of this?  I mean, they were white, right?  Of course they were, but for some reason I didn’t get a firm fix on whiteness vs. blackness from them.  I know that just about every white person on the planet says they’re not racist, but I honestly think that my folks were special when it came to thinking about race.  They went against type for many cultural traits, rejected outright a lot of things that society tried to assign to them, and when they were aware of some misled racial preconception they themselves held, they consciously called it out and worked against it.  The only thing I’d fault them with is not being more explicit in explaining to me their attitudes.  They were in many ways radicals—sharing a radical solidarity with the poor, a radical rejection of classism and racism, a radical lack of ostentation and self-congratulation.  Frankly, a radical seeking to bring about the Kingdom of God through lives well-led, if you cotton to Gustavo Gutierrez and his framework of Liberation Theology.  In time, after 30 years of living and learning, I feel I’ve adopted many of their values. 

But because my parents never sat down and told me, “We do things in such and such a way because we believe X, Y, and Z,” I think it took me a long time to realize how different their values were from the society I was seeing in Steven Spielberg movies and TV shows like Martin.  So for the most part they appeared to me as eminently practical, humble people, but by not singing out their profound rejection and redefinition of most of our society’s categories, racial and otherwise, they left me to edify a whole ridiculous notion of the world before I eventually tore it down and discarded it.  I try to be more explicit in telling my kids what I believe in and how it informs my decisions.  But maybe in the end my parents’ silence will prove to be more educational.  I always have believed that the best learning comes with a very light touch from the teacher, though I’ve never mastered this technique in my own teaching.  (When I teach it’s all, “Greg knows this, Greg knows that, listen to me pontificate!”).  Self-guided learning sure is a doozy though for the student, in my case an 11-year-old kid trying to figure out race in the US!

But getting back to where I started off, “Core” by Stone Temple Pilots, and in particular the song “Plush”, was the first current white pop music I listened to.  I had now entered a working-class, very racially-segmented high school, and I just didn’t fit in anywhere.  I’ve never been great at making new friends; to this day my friends are almost all people I met in 1st grade or before!  In my new high school I couldn’t go up to the black kids that banded together and said, “Hey, I’m down.  Can I insert myself in your group?”  Actually, I probably could have, because I later found out that a lot of those guys and girls were very open and accepting, and they eventually did become my friends.  But I didn’t know that in September of 1996 as I stood alone and glanced around the halls, looking for a friend.  The white kids were like they were from another planet—wearing funny clothes, dying their hair, listening to who-knows-what kind of music.  I didn’t much want to talk to them.  Actually, I admired how cool and comfortable they seemed in their own skin, not afraid to occupy space and just be, but I didn’t know how to gain entrée to their group, either.  Most of my grammar school friends had gone on to a different high school, but I in my stubbornness had chosen the more blue-collar vocational high school (much to my parents’ initial chagrin, though they’d formed me to value the manual trades and reject pretension!).  One of my best grammar school buddies was on my high school’s football team, so he had a ready-made group to pal around with, and I didn’t make the basketball team that first year.  So I was out of luck.  I continued to hang out with old friends outside of school, but my freshman year in high school was a social zero! 

Part of it was my fault.  What I did know of high school, or thought I knew, came from stupid teen movies and TV shows.  So when I saw that my classmates weren’t congenitally cool Luke Perry or stunningly-beautiful Alicia Silverstone, I thought I had ended up in the wrong place.  There were no John Hughes-esque house parties when rich parents were out of town.  How were there going to be house parties when many of my classmates were the children of work-addicted immigrants living with extended family in cramped apartments?  Everyone was as lame as me, and if you’re operating with that type of “who can I be talking to that’s more important than you?” mindset, you’ve already lost the game.  Especially if you don’t have the guts to go up and talk to the kids you think are cool enough to talk to!

Anyway, much of my freshman year of high school was spent alone.  My memories are of getting to my parents’ house in the early afternoon, and occupying the lonely hours before they got home with a fair amount of TV, and eventually music.   This is where Stone Temple Pilots comes in.

I started getting those CD catalogs in the mail where you could get like 8 slightly outdated CDs for 1 cent apiece, and I began to amass a lot of stuff.  But not too much black music anymore.  By this point Tupac Shakur had died, starting a long downward spiral of popular black music into the likes first of tolerable Puff Daddy, and eventually the downright unlistenable Master P!  I just didn’t like what I was hearing on my old radio stations.  At the same time, my buddies that had gone to another, whiter high school were getting into rock music, influenced by those same white kids from other grammar schools that had been listening to white music before we even knew about it.  They introduced me to the Rock radio station, where I heard good oldies from Hendrix and Queen and Metallica, and newer stuff like Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots.  When I first heard Stone Temple Pilots it reminded me of an ad I’d seen on TV for their first album a few years before.  At the time I’d simply thought that it sounded cool for white music, and hadn’t pursued it further.  I wouldn’t have even known how!  Ditto when I heard an STP song on ads for the movie The Crow.  But once the floodgates of white music had opened, Core by Stone Temple Pilots was the first album I got (at least that’s how I remember it now), and I listened the hell out of it.  (Actually, the Doors had been a white music gateway drug for me a bit before that, since I knew them from my mom’s generation, and thought they were pretty cool for white guys, too).  Likewise, I really came to like Soundgarden, and I remembered a few years before when I’d seen the video for Black Hole Sun while flipping through the cable TV at my aunt’s house one Thanksgiving.  This was quite ironic, because again, just one year prior, someone had halfway invited me to a Soundgarden concert, their last I believe in Chicago, and all I could say was, “Who the hell is that?”

Jumping back to 2014, perhaps this time of being apart from my family reminds me of the existential loneliness I felt during much of my first year of high school.  Maybe that’s why hearing Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, and STP is so soothing to me right now.  And most of the mp3s I’m listening to are imported to my computer from those CDs I got from the buyer club catalog.

These days I’ve also been listening to a band called Kill Hannah.  This is from a slightly sunnier period in my life, once I’d started to find some fellowship both through new high school friends, through becoming closer once again to old grammar school friends, and especially through the sense of community that music can forge.  By late freshman year I would listen to the radio and feel like I wasn’t alone, like I was a part of a group that listened to similar music.  I was becoming a white person!  Again, my racial acculturation remained at a pretty abstract, silly level, since I still didn’t talk to much of anyone, white or black, except for my friends that I’d known since I was 4 or 6.  Kill Hannah was a local Chicago band that played occasionally at the Metro, a concert hall near my house where my friends and I could go (I sometimes even went alone) to under-18 rock concerts.  It was cool to listen to live music and feel like you were in the know.  I think a lot of adolescence is about this—feeling utterly divorced at times from the larger world of coolness, and then sometimes feeling like where you’re at is the coolest place in the world, surrounded by the coolest people.

I used to think that my sophomore year of high school was equally grey as my first year, but amid my musical memories and other reminiscences, I now think it was really the time my world started to open in many ways.  That year I made my school’s basketball team, and though I can’t say I made many lasting friendships there (nor got much playing time!), it brought me back into contact with black culture, since most of my teammates were black.  The coach wanted us to eat lunch together to promote camaraderie, so for most of sophomore year I sat at one of the all-black tables in the cafeteria.  Looking back on it, it was a weird setup, because I didn’t talk that much.  I mainly just listened to my tablemates, who’d been friends since last year or before, as they goofed around and joked.  I must have cut an odd figure to an outside observer, a lone, silent white kid amid a much larger group of black friends, in a school where white and black didn’t mix very much.

But for me, this year helped to demolish many of the silly racial categories I had set up in my mind.  There were both white and black kids on the basketball team, and contrary to stereotypes, some of the better players were white, and many of our black peers hadn’t even made the team.  I was listening mainly to white music by then, but thanks to my black teammates, I stayed aware of what black music was worth listening to, and much that wasn’t.  And listening to white music didn’t preclude me from hanging out with the black kids, just as playing basketball didn’t obligate me to renounce my white friends.  I still wasn’t very socially active that second year, among other things because I was so busy with basketball games and practices, but it opened my mind so I could be more at ease socially in the future.

I think the real turning point came my junior year of high school, both in terms of redefining how I saw race, and also in terms of just enjoying life.  This is when I met the first girl who’d expressed any interest in me since I’d entered high school.  Love and magic and whimsy brought into full Technicolor a high school world that until then had seemed bland and grey.  And most amazingly, she was from what I’d considered the white group at school.  Thanks to her I not only became much more happy and satisfied in my life, but I also realized that those white kids I’d so been building up were not as monolithic nor as closed nor as cool a group as I’d imagined them to be from afar.  They listened to many different types of music, often including some of the “black” hiphop and dance music that by that time had become mainstream across much of the US.  Some of the white kids were interesting and cool, and some didn’t seem too interesting once I got to know them.  Despite their cigarettes and what I had interpreted as their nonchalance, they weren’t all witty Judd Nelsons from the Breakfast Club.  And they weren’t that white.  Many of the kids in the group, my love interest included, were of other racial backgrounds, or a mix of various races.  At the same time, I (and others) noticed little ways in which I had much more in common with our black classmates than with this new group I’d also begun to associate with.  And that was okay.  I didn’t need to define myself or others within the rigid racial framework I’d conceived when I was younger.

Right now as I pass my evenings in melancholic musical reverie, the one thing I can’t listen to, but that really would provide a nice end to this story, is a tape of my own rock band from senior year of high school.  I can’t listen to it because it’s on a cassette tape, and I don’t yet have a cassette player in my stereo setup.  At any rate, this was perhaps a typical white kid garage rock band, except we were Chicago Public School students playing not in a garage but in urban basements and attics.  The experience of playing music for music’s sake, a music that was of course much-influenced by the white alternative and heavy metal rock we were listening to at the time, but also by the black music we’d grown up with, also helped me to get beyond the racial hangup.  I think our collective racial unease in the US often derives from our obsession with seeing things from outside ourselves as opposed to from a fresh, clear view of our own motivations.  That is to say that, when you’re worrying about how you look to others, you’re more likely to think about categories of white and black, of what you should or shouldn’t be doing based on society’s external classification of you.  Once you can play music or play basketball or do anything based on your own true preferences and convictions, you can start to break free of and challenge those societal categories, and also recognize and accept honest differences that aren’t going to change.  In our case we had a standing biweekly gig before a youth poetry slam.  So we played pretty heavy rock music to a regular audience of largely black parents that probably had no use for us and just wanted to hear their kids’ poetry.  Or maybe they dug us.  In any case, we finally knew who we were, at least as much as anyone can know himself at 17 years of age.

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