Monday, June 15, 2015

Black like she: Rachel Dolezal
and what all this says about us

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
                — Joan Didion, The White Album

RACIAL MATHEMATICS according to America has never been a matter of 2+2. The highly tangled nature of our politics, our history and our personal experiences makes navigating race a constant challenge. Just when you think you know what’s what ... you find out you don’t.

Witness the matter of Rachel Dolezal, recently outed as a white woman passing for African American. In our heads-is-tails world, her case has called into question some of the old pieties we’ve grown comfortable with vis-à-vis race. In a perversely inspired series of events, we’re back at another crossroads of our national identity powered in part by our old racial stereotypes, and our expectations that what we see dovetails with reality. It ain’t necessarily so, and when it’s not, when the facts run counter to our assumptions ... things get interesting.

Dolezal, a 37-year-old professor of Africana studies at the Africana Education Department at Eastern Washington University in Washington state, has been the focus of attention on mainstream and social media for claiming to be a black woman, when in reality she’s not one. In the past ten years or so, Dolezal has orchestrated a masquerade of outsize proportions, perming and curling her born-blond hair and marrying a black man, then allegedly asserting that one of her adopted black brothers is really her son, and going so far as to attain the role of the president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Wash.

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Her white biological parents, Ruthanne and Lawrence, had enough of this and outed her recently; their disclosure led to the furor over Dolezal’s deception, and played a hand in her resignation from the NAACP post earlier today.

Dolezal, who has been chairwoman of Spokane's Office of Police Ombudsman Commission, covered all the ethnic bases when she apparently identified herself as white, black and American Indian on an application for the volunteer position. In a statement Thursday, Spokane Mayor David Condon and city council president Ben Stuckart said the city is investigating whether she violated city policies by not being truthful about her ethnicity on that application.

We shouldn’t be surprised how this can happen in Washington, a state with about 240,000 black residents – 3.74 percent of the state’s total population, according to 2010 Census figures. It may have been harder to pull off this charade in a state with a bigger African American population.

As it is, what makes the Dolezal case so unsettling, for African Americans and for American society alike, is what it says about how the palettes of our various cultures are more interchangeable than we thought, and maybe more than we’re comfortable with.

For black Americans, could their existence, the cherished particulars of their culture, be taken any more for granted? For white Americans, can there be any greater sign of seismic social change than what happens when one in the majority tries to (literally) assume the face of the minority?

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FOR GENERATIONS, aspects of black identity in music, fashion and the common vernacular have been borrowed, tweaked and homogenized for use by a wider, more dilutive mass popular culture. That’s been happening for as long as you’ve been around.

But this latest fetishization of black identity forces us to ask some tough questions about what race is in the first place. We’ve been told for years that race, per se, is an artificial social construct, more a matter of attitude than of anthropology.

So if that’s true, if race as we think we know it doesn’t even exist, how tough can we be on Dolezal for appropriating the tropes and referentials of African Americans?

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Race, of course, does exist, as a practical and working everyday truth, if not one that conforms with science. For Dolezal, though, this is more than lifelong cosplay. To her, this has been existential, with her absorbing the nuances and subtleties of a culture and a people she says she respects.

Yeah, she got a job at the NAACP, probably taking the position away from a real black person who needed it just as bad, or worse. But however superficial you think Dolezal’s vision quest might be, you can’t get away from the core fact in the matter: In her pursuit of a better life with more opportunities, a white woman in 21st-century America took on the identity of a black woman.

This was no Halloween prank, no silly Julianne Hough one-off. For a decade, Rachel Dolezal tried to assume the culture and essence of an African American woman, and did so with at least an outward commitment that suggested it was not a holiday lark but a change at the core of who she is — a change announcing that, for her at least, white womanhood ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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ANGELA SCHWENDIMAN, an Africana studies professor and a colleague of Dolezal at Eastern Washington, told NBC News that Dolezal has “embraced the philosophy, the ideology, the culture. She knows it better than a lot of black people, believe me. And that is her. I think she was only trying to match how she felt on the inside with her outside.”

This example of someone passing for black has meaningful and maybe even profound implications for our racially-torn society. In no small part because of social media’s reaction to the Dolezal disclosures, this will resonate in the culture of the workplace, in the halls of Congress, and anywhere else identities cross paths in modern America.

It’s already got journalists examining similar cases. In a Saturday piece in The Daily Beast, reporter Pat Blanchfield writes on a similar situation:

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“Exactly twenty years ago, readers across Europe were absorbed by a remarkable, increasingly rare literary event: the revelation of a previously unknown Holocaust memoir. Published in German in 1995 as Bruchstücke: Aus einer Kindheit 1939—1948, a slim, hard-hitting first-person account offered a new, horrifying perspective on the Holocaust — that of an extremely young child, a Latvian named Binjamin Wilkomirski. Wilkomirski’s story, told in surreal, dreamlike patches punctuated by moments of stupefying violence, was riveting. Wilkomirski’s first memory, he claimed, was of witnessing his father being beaten to death.

“Traveling between the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek, he claimed to have seen babies gnawing off their own frozen fingers, SS guards mutilating the penises of young boys, and more.

“The account was met with considerable acclaim. ... The only problem with Wilkomirski’s testimony is that it was full of lies. ...”

After an investigation, Blanchfield reports, it was found that “Wilkomirski was not Latvian, nor was he Jewish, nor had he ever been interned in a concentration camp. His name wasn’t even Binjamin Wilkomirski, it was Bruno Grosjeans. He had been born illegitimately to a Swiss Protestant woman in 1941, lived for years in a Swiss orphanage, and was adopted by a wealthy family in Zurich ... ‘Binjamin Wilkomirski’ was an entirely fabricated identity, his story, pure fiction …”

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SO HOW far as a modern society are we prepared to go to reputationally eviscerate someone who, for whatever personal, emotional, social or clinical reasons, decides to adopt the identity of someone completely different?

Because for all the thunderclap impact the Dolezal matter is having now, and as the Wilkomirski matter indicates, this is nothing new. Back in the 1940’s, Mezz Mezzrow, a white jazz clarinetist who played with such early titans of jazz as Benny Carter and Sidney Bechet, married a black woman and declared himself to be a “voluntary Negro.”

The songwriter and bandleader praised by many as the father of modern R&B was a Greek American born John Alexander Veliotes. In time, Veliotes would absorb the particularities of black life and culture; he’d start his own band reflecting his passion for African American music. He’d discover such greats as Etta James and Jackie Wilson, and he would declare himself “black by persuasion.”

Monday, June 8, 2015

'Satisfaction': 3 minutes, 43 seconds, 50 years

IT BLASTED out of radios in the United States 21 years after D-Day, June 6, 1944, the high point of World War II. By design or by accident, it was a pop-cultural pushback, an audible resistance to the still-rising militarist mindset of the era of the Vietnam War.

It’s three minutes and 43 seconds long. It seems to emerge from some basement of our subconscious, lean and sinewy, a vaguely metallic template of thematic economy, an angular expression of everyday unease.

Its everyman protagonist is a victim of “useless information,” somebody trying against all odds for comfort, for peace of mind; resisting the brutal obligations of everyday life; pushing back against television and radio, the media, the great dissemblers and the masters of war; lamenting a failure to connect with the opposite sex.

The song was a righteous nose-thumbing to the two-minutes-and-change diktat of song duration in the AM-radio-driven era of the early and mid 60’s it was born into.

And the full title of the song — “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” — is itself a contradiction, what etymologists call a negative concord ... or, put more colloquially, a double negative. This titular no-but-yes embodies, probably by accident, the contradictions inherent in our own lives, the tension between what we want and what we say we can’t get, between what we get and what we say we don’t want.

The song ushered in the era of rock music as the truly democratic experience it was always purported to be. Anybody can play The Posterity Riff in nothing flat. No capos are necessary, no exotic fingering’s needed, no translation by a guitar teacher is required. Tablature doesn’t really even do it justice.

The Riff’s basic structure is something you don’t even have to learn to play; what drives it couldn’t be any simpler. A three-note ostinato. Standard guitar tuning. Second fret, fifth string. Fourth fret, fifth string. Open fourth string.

Then it’s back to fourth fret, fifth string, and then back to second fret, fifth string. Rinse. Repeat. That’s it. Three notes on two strings, in three positions on the fretboard. That’s the basis for the guitar riff of our time, the heart of what Rolling Stone judged the second-greatest rock song of all time, the foundation for what the BMI music licensing organization called the 91st-most performed song of the 20th century.

In three minutes and 43 seconds long, it embodies the disquiet and unease of modern life, an unease that persists to this day. Acid, muscular, pugnacious, it’s a clarion expression of the collective unconscious, the drift of life in the nuclear age, that sense that everything could come crashing down at any given moment, that feeling at the heart of the frowns we wear, the scowls we can’t seem to shake.

But the song’s no funeral dirge, no mopey, woe-is-me, minor-chord lamentation. Its rhythm, its dogged persistence, its relentless beat is at the heart of the uplift in the human experience, Dylan Thomas’ force driving the green fuse through that flower, the human drive perfectly described by Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

It’s all there: the tension, the warring impulses of surrender and determination, capitulation and resolve, despair and hope — the same polar forces that power our lives today.

“Satisfaction” changed everything because it revealed everything we couldn't quite reveal to ourselves. And it’s no less pertinent today than it was on June 6, 1965 — 50 years ago Saturday.

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The Year That Exploded

IF “SATISFACTION” had never been written, the year 1965 was already destined to become a memorable one for music, culture and society. Bob Dylan, an early philosophical soulmate of the Stones, had already tapped into the collective unconscious with “The Times They Are a-Changin,’” a few years before. He’d release the similarly prescient “Like a Rolling Stone” in July, about six weeks after “Satisfaction” took the world by storm. And of course, that same month, folk-music purists lost their frickin minds when Dylan went electric at Newport. Nothing was the way it was.

Almost by design, 1965 as a year of general upheaval became so right outta the gate, from almost the exact start of the year. On Jan. 4, President Lyndon Johnson made his second State of the Union address, and announced the initiatives creating a “Great Society.” But war was destined to be the order of the year. In April, the first march sponsored by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) took place in Washington, and attracted between 20,000 and 25,000 protesters against the Vietnam War.

Protesters returned to Washington in June for an anti-war “teach-in,” a five-hour event in which thousands of leaflets were distributed in and around the Pentagon. The battle between anti-war activists and the U.S. government was joined in July, when President Johnson ordered an increase in the number of U.S. forces in Vietnam, from 75,000 men to 125,000. Making matters worse, he ordered the number of American men drafted every month to be doubled, to more than 35,000. That set the stage for a massive increase in U.S. troops, which Johnson ordered in November. The number of Americans in Vietnam climbed to about 400,000.

The Book of a Genesis:
The Origin Story

SHORT OF a gathering convened specifically for the purpose of writing a song, it’s a fool’s errand trying to pinpoint the precise moment of inspiration, synaptic firing and availability of an instrument that leads to a song entering this world. A song is realization of a process as much as an event, its birth subject to a number of midwives.

“Satisfaction” has its legitimate genesis in more than one place. At least two locations are or may be central to the song’s birth:

There’s Richards’ flat on Carlton Hill, in the St. John’s Wood section of London. That’s where Richards lived for a time, at least briefly without being in a relationship (he’d been living there with Linda Keith). Numerous reports (including Richards’ own account) have it that Richards woke up in that London flat early one morning, hounded into consciousness by the riff that would come to move the world.

Bloomberg News reported in October 2010: “The Rolling Stones guitarist was temporarily without a girlfriend and home alone in St. John’s Wood, London, in 1965. Moaning about his lack of a companion, he picked out the riff on an acoustic guitar and dozed off, leaving his cassette recorder running.”

That distillation’s consistent with the verbatim of Richards’ own writing. From Richards’ 2010 autobiography, “Life”: “I wrote ‘Satisfaction’ in my sleep. I had no idea I’d written it, it’s only thank God for the little Philips cassette player. The miracle being that I looked at the cassette player that morning and I knew I’d put a brand-new tape in the previous night, and I saw it was at the end. Then I pushed rewind and there was ‘Satisfaction.’”

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But in the book “Keith Richards: Satisfaction” by Christopher Sandford, it all began in the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, Florida: “Keith went up alone to room 3 (there were only seventeen in the place), watched The Tonight Show and nodded off. Towards dawn he woke up with a riff ... ringing in his head. Keith, who was in the habit of keeping a tape recorder by his bed to capture such moments, grabbed his new Gibson Firebird, taped the lick, then fell asleep again.”

You’d think the specifics of Sandford’s reporting — the number of the hotel room, what Keith was watching on TV, the particular guitar he used — would give him the edge, but with a contrary assessment straight from the horse’s mouth, you’ve gotta go with Keith's recollection of events. Unless Keith was misremembering things, of course.

Other dates and facts related to the song’s creation are just as tantalizingly imprecise. Some reports have Stones frontman Mick Jagger writing most of the lyrics in his Clearwater hotel room. Others say he was poolside at the hotel. Some reports say that happened on May 6, 1965, others claim it was May 7.

Richards has been thought to have come up with the title. “That was just a working title,” he said in an oft-quoted passage. “It could just as well have been ‘Auntie Millie’s Caught Her Left Tit in the Mangle.’”

Well, maybe. The title has a legitimate provenance with Chuck Berry, whose song “30 Days,” recorded in 1955, contains this lyric:

“If I don't get no satisfaction from the judge
I'm gonna take it to the FBI and voice my grudge ...”

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But the second and third points of genesis for this song were two recording studios 2,000 miles apart. “Satisfaction” was first recorded in an acoustic version on May 10, at the legendary Chess Studios, after a Stones concert the day before. Bill Wyman, the former Stones bass player and informal band historian, has said the iconic version was recorded two days after the Chess session, on May 12, at RCA Studios in Hollywood. That was when Richards connected his guitar to a Vox AC30 amplifier and a Gibson Maestro fuzz-tone effects box and recorded ... The Posterity Riff.

He didn’t think the song was ready for prime-time. “I thought of it as an album filler,” Richards said, as quoted in the book “Mick: The Wild Life and Mad Genius of Jagger” by Christopher Andersen. “I never thought it was anything like commercial enough to be a single.”

The rest of the song – the lyrics that have endured as long as the music — were perhaps largely Jagger’s ironically world-weary invention, and it’s here that “Satisfaction” succeeds beyond the purely visceral music.

From the viewpoint of the song’s unnamed protagonist, we’re witness to the pressures and challenges of modern life. Doin’ this and signin’ that ... at the same time hoping for connection with women, a connection thwarted by the same biological imperative — that monthly “losing streak” of the object of his affection — as the one that got him interested in her in the first place. “Satisfaction” was born as a song you could dance to; the lyrics made it a smart song you could dance to. Twenty-five days after “Satisfaction” was recorded, the world did just that.

But He Can’t Understand
Cause He Doesn’t Wear
The Same Color Skin As Me:
‘Satisfaction’ in the Civil Rights Era

WHETHER AFRICAN Americans listened to it or not, “Satisfaction” spoke to their experience in the era of the civil rights movement, if only in general terms. It wasn’t adopted by black America. James Brown would speak to black people on a more positive tip in the turbulent years to come, most notably on songs like “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968).

But however unwittingly, “Satisfaction” got to the psychic core of the dissatisfaction of black Americans pushing back against the punishments of the Jim Crow era like nothing else on the radio in the years before Brown and other African American artists took point on the defining social issue of the American 20th century.

Nineteen sixty-five was a bitter crucible year for African Americans; it was as if the corrosive qualities of the Jim Crow South and those of a more generally segregated, race-fearful America had finally, tragically dovetailed. If anyone could relate to feeling that they “can’t get no satisfaction,” it was the 20 million black Americans enduring life in a country that didn’t seem to want them around.

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The year of “Satisfaction” started badly for black Americans. Malcolm X, the charismatic human rights activist and intellectual firebrand, was assassinated on Feb. 21 in New York City, during a speech before supporters at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.

Barely two weeks later, on March 7, about 530 civil rights demonstrators intending to march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., were trampled and beaten by 200 Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma. It was the first such confrontation at the site; two days later, on March 9, demonstrators returned to the bridge for a prayer service before returning to Selma, after troopers offered to let them pass. A third march, on March 21, went off without incident (and with federal protection). The civil rights activists reached Montgomery, Ala., on March 25, not long after President Johnson’s moving “We Shall Overcome” speech.
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