I was recently asked to review several books on the subject of Jazz. The books shared a common interest, but were varied in approach. One book discussed authenticating Jazz in Japan, another dealt with the Jazz Age in China. There was a book by Nat Hentoff, the Jazz writer, relating some of the events of his life, and there was a book about the history of swing, and yet another about jazz in American culture. Without exception the books all had a sharp focus on racism. African American jazz musicians (wouldn't 'Negro American' be better? Or better still just 'American') have experienced racism to a very visible degree, most likely because, as performing artists, they were, well, visible. Being visible, of course, doesn't excuse racism and, anyway, there are an awful lot of people of color (but isn't "white" also a color?) who are not musicians and who also experience racism to this very day.
The white race doesn't see itself in terms of color. It doesn't see itself as being one of many colors. This is arrogance indeed.
Through worshipping Ben Webster's saxophone playing, the artistry of Art Tatum, the majesty of Duke Ellington and the glorious rush of elation of the Count Basie band in full swing, I have come to realize that the plight of the jazz musician, compared to the majority of Negroes, has only been a small part of the problem of racism. I then come to ask the question "how come racism?" Why can't we get along? What is missing in the so-called human condition that has humans being less than human?
The answer must be what we are pleased to call "material existence." Material existence - our one common, non-cultural, denominator - is the lamentable birthright of every person leaving the womb. And that includes those born into money. Material existence rules.
Our three-score and ten is largely governed by the need to eat, drink and have a roof over out heads. These three factors are unavoidable and thus occupy a majority count of our instinctive bytes. Poverty, or the fear of becoming impoverished, has proved to be the breeding ground of all extremism, and that generally means racism.
As a kid on the hippy trail to India, I showed up full of the philosophy of peace and love and flowers. After just one week in New Delhi, and being followed, pestered and generally bugged, I cracked. I turned on the group of people who wanted baksheesh, my pen, my address, anything I could give them, and yelled at them to leave me alone. Nobody would have understood at Haight-Ashbury, but I simply learned that I had only just so much love to offer, and that "love" could only be translated as tolerance. I learned that my fuse was just so long and after that was used up I would blow.
My niceness philosophy was flawed, and that meant that I was flawed, right along with the rest of the human race. My tolerance to poverty was minimal. The only redeeming factor was that my lack of tolerance had seemingly nothing to do with color, they just happened to be Indian. I was lucky. I had, apparently, enough material safety to not blame my modest means, the need to maintain it and making more, on a race that was not my own.
On the other hand, I have never lived in a ghetto, I have never lived among downright poor people, and most important, I have never lived among people of a different color. Perhaps I am a segregationist. Not as applied to any race or creed, but just as an idea for people in general. Perhaps I feel that everybody should enjoy the freedom of space. If a ghetto existence not only breeds discontent and friction, it must follow that it doesn't make sense socially.
People need space to realize their dreams, to foster their own culture and creativity. To live in a ghetto you would need to be a saint. Nobody is that good. One might even suggest that it is unfair to expect people to be that good. The first thing that people do when they get rich enough is to move out of enclosed areas, or they create a strictly confined oasis within an urban landscape. This insular attitude is itself an instinct.
My wife and I found a small, pretty village in the mountains to live in. Our house is set in woodland, our nearest neighbors are a couple of hundred yards away. Having realized that I could not trust myself in a stressful situation, I avoided any such situations. I didn't drop out of the world-of-making-money (I even work at home, my office being ten paces due east of my bedroom), but I have dropped out of what one may term social intercourse. Of consequence, of course, my fuse blows much less regularly. But the ghettos are still there. The Third World remains a constant reminder that all in the garden is not lovely.
Racism, much of it to do with color, thrives in this climate of poverty. Blame is so often attributed to the peoples of another color for our own inadequacies, even for our own fears. The parallel between South African apartheid and the slave trade that brought Africans to America is so obvious that I am wondering if even eradicating poverty is the answer at all.
When the Voortrekkers opened up the country in southern Africa they saw the need for workers, just as in the same way that the plantation owners in the Southern States required workers to make their own material existence viable. We thus have a situation where a materially stronger (they had guns, right?) race coerced, forced or even offered a chance of making material gain (as in the South African mines) to a people less materially fortunate. Thus, in the name of commerce somebody had to actually do the work.
Considering the history of nations, globally, we see that there has hardly been a nation that has not at one time or another been at the top, materially and culturally. The Chinese, Egyptian, Spanish, Portuguese, the British, the American, and lots between, have all had their turn at being top dogs, top cultures.
Like the classic example of the Roman Empire, empires have prevailed and then fallen into decline. All empires are generally forged with the substantial aid of peoples less fortunate. Nobody said "hey, you guys are having a tough time, here's a little helping hand." The general response was always "bend to the plough buddy, or else." Things may be a little better nowadays. The Third World is given aid. Some efforts have been made to reduce missionary zeal whereby one people sees fit to thrust themselves and their philosophy on another. And yet...we still can't really get along with each other. The top nations have and will, presumably, continue to slide back. Having reached a material high the next step seems to have eluded us. Which means...being rich and nice. Being rich, having material security, as I have mentioned, seems like a good idea and, anyway, is pretty well essential to dignified survival. But here is another solution. Democracy overlooked.
It is time to speak of democracy, which would be easy to achieve were we less volatile. There is an issue within the democratic frame that we have constantly overlooked throughout what we are pleased to call human history. The issue I would ask to be considered is "freedom of choice." Men will fight, they always have. They feel the need to fight or they allow themselves to be coerced into it. They have, in general terms, the choice. None of us can remember when aggression first became a habit among humans. None of us can remember who struck the first blow in the distant reaches of history. It has ceased to be relevant. I would suggest that we have overlooked - have always overlooked - a group among us that has little freedom and absolutely no freedom of choice. I refer, of course, to children. They are too small, and we make them smaller still. They have no knowledge of the reason - can that possibly be the right word? - for sudden death.
Their world is the world of sensation, and they are subject to the sensation we offer them - a sensation of affection or fear. We disregard them when we go to war for we cannot feel their fear. And affection? We may look upon them briefly with love, and perhaps even sigh before turning away to reload our guns. But still we turn away.
Children are obliged to submit to our ways. They are diminutive among adults. Picture them gazing up at us uncomprehendingly as we stride away to fight again. Their perspectives are visually quite wide, but they are mute. It means that they are obliged to receive without discrimination or criticism, without the facility or the means to object. We control their inner worlds, their actions, their very existence - all of that by simply ignoring them. We call them "our children" and nothing could be closer to the truth because they know nothing of the meaning of ownership themselves, and we know everything. This, I would suggest, is undemocratic.
A child's smallness places a responsibility upon us, for with the certainty made evident in our own paths to adulthood they will grow to be like us. Please consider this when the next chance for peace talks arises.
Your correspondent is a private citizen with no affiliation to any political, military, religious or otherwise similarly active organization. Should a reply to this letter be considered pertinent the following address is given, and I remain, sincerely...
P.O. Box 19266
Oakland, CA 94619-0266
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