"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Evolution and hope

Marcus' senior vocal jazz recital was on Sunday. I'm just the mom, so I'm not a good judge, but his teacher pronounced it the best recital she has been to this year. Or maybe ever. I don't quite remember, but there were tears in her eyes. There were tears in mine, too.

My tears were for a different reason.

A couple of weeks ago, I watched Casablanca. (This is not unusual, since I like to watch Turner Classic Movies.) One of the songs in the movie got into my head as an earworm. It's called "Shine."

It's an odd little ditty. I didn't know much about the song, except that it's obviously a song for a black man to sing. I mean, I can't imagine Frank Sinatra singing, "Just because my teeth are pearly/ just because my hair is curly."

Imagine my surprise when I heard Marcus singing the song in the recital. But first, he introduced it. Apparently, back at the turn of the 20th century (1880-1920), there was a music genre called "coon songs." They were, as you can imagine, unapologetically racist, and the origins of the derogatory term for black people. A trio of men wrote "That's Why They Call Me Shine" as a commentary on those songs.

I've always figured that my son has been blessed to grow up in an environment where no one seemed to notice or care that he is half black. If he has been called out for his race, I have no idea, although I can't imagine he would have hidden it from me.

All I know is, on Sunday evening, I listened to him sing a song about being christened a normal name, but being called everything from "Sambo" to "Chocolate Drop." According to the song, people call the man Shine because he's fabulous and either they're clueless or jealous.

Let's add this to the mix: he chose to play the guitar for this piece. When my father died, I told my brother he could have everything, but if he or his kids didn't want Dad's guitar, I'd like Marcus to have it. It's a 1932 Gretsch acoustic. Dad obsessed over this guitar, claiming to have stalked the guy until he had enough money and the guy needed cash. As it turns out, a 1932 Gretsch was considered a poor quality guitar at the time and not worth as much as Dad probably paid for it. Oddly, the years have aged the wood and produce a beautiful, mellow sound. So it's not worth as much as a collectible piece as it is for its tone.

When I married Dale, I sent my folks a letter, explaining that I knew how they felt about black people and interracial marriage, and that Dale is a good man whom I love and this was my choice. Their response was disappointing, but what I expected. My father, who was the most vocal racist in our house, told me he never wanted to see me again.

I can't imagine anything my son could ever do to make me not want to see him again. I will always want to see him one more time.

So Sunday night, I watched Marcus play his racist grandfather's guitar and sing a song that pushes back at that racism.

Can you blame me for crying?

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