While in college, my favorite person to play music with was Allen Andrews, a young virtuoso on the drums and accomplished on almost every other instrument. We could always communicate smoothly on any topic of conversation, but having a conversation through music was even easier. Allen could anticipate every rest in the bass line before I had even thought of it. It was no surprise when Allen approached me one day with an album he knew I would love.
The album was “Evolution,” a compilation of Gil Scott-Heron’s music and poetry. Allen insisted that I listen to it, and assured me I would not be the same afterwards. He was right. I listened to the album non-stop for two weeks. Every day, when I finished my shift serving tables, I went straight home and pressed play. For the next hour I would sit in silent consideration of what was being said.
My roommate was offended by tracks like, “Whitey on the Moon,” and “Enough.” Both tracks exposed a virulent hatred for the sins of white America. This unfettered candor about race relations is exactly what I found so intriguing.
In public school, my attention was directed towards one civil rights movement: the Dr. King crusade. Leaving behind hundreds of years of torture and wicked oppression, African Americans calmly and peacefully entered martyrdom. Any other version of African American discontent was treated as illegitimate. Movements like the Black Panthers, or the Nation of Islam, were always addressed in a side note or not at all.
I was left with the impression that what those groups had to say about racism was too radical to be validated. However, the issues at hand – deprivation of human dignity and civil rights – were obviously of paramount importance.
Much of the movement spurning changes in the 60’s and 70’s involved vehement expressions of sincere outrage and despair. Yet my generation is often left with the impression that such responses hold the least intellectual merit. Given history’s cruelty, however, outrage and despair seemed to me like the most intellectually honest responses.
While listening to Gil Scott-Heron’s lyrics, I was taken aback by the hatred he had for people who looked like me. Yet his anger was so well interwoven with historical and political accuracy; I was hard-pressed to refute his angry conclusions.
It occurred to me that I was not far removed from the era when Scott-Heron did most of his writing. When my mother was a child, living in Summerton, SC, African Americans were not allowed the “privilege” of defecating in the same bathroom as whites. Now my generation is expected to forget the impact such denigrations might continue to have on those who are trying to make their way in America – especially South Carolina.
After all, if the cardinal movement of the civil rights movement involved only tranquil and peaceful protesters, how harsh could the oppression have been to begin with?
The reality is that American racism pervasively poisoned the well of social and economic opportunities for hundreds of years. It was not until very recently that we impeded some sources of the poison. Since then, pollution cleanup in some parts of the country has moved at a deliberately sluggish pace.
The problem in places like the South is that racism can be just as pervasive, but more cleverly concealed than ever. Heightened suspicions and lowered expectations appear as subtle distinctions in the otherwise innocuous behavior of the racist. But if you’re pale enough for the country club, you usually know the truth.
And quite honestly, it is enough to justify the same kind of anger expressed by Scott-Heron decades ago.