Thursday, May 03, 2007

How White is Too White?

Recent speculation as to Barak Obama's "blackness" struck me as ludicrous at best - "He's too black"! "No! He's not black enough"! - I mean, c'mon, Mr. Media Man! Give it a freaking rest....Until I got to thinking: is it really possible to be too white or too black or not white or black enough? And just where do I fit in in the scheme of things? Am I too white? Or am I not black enough? Or maybe I should strive to be blacker. Damn good set of questions, Watson!
Recently, I dropped by the Catholic thrift shop here in Goshen (Called "The Red Door" - shameless plug!) to peruse their incomperable collection of used records (I have a weakness for old, weird and wonderful recordings - an incurable vinylphile) when all of the sudden I was almost knocked off my feet by a vision too strange to pass by: an LP (which I am holding in the photo above) circa 1964, of religious music performed by three women, photographed walking hand in hand under a warm southern sky, in identical yellow period outfits, each wearing the coiffed, Jackie Kennedy-style hairdos that were so popular with the women of the time. Appropriately titled, The White Sisters Sing, the album was distributed by an organization called, "Word Records Incorporated" of Waco, Texas (Seriously - you didn't think for a minute that the company operated out of San Fransisco, did you? Get a grip!) I took one look at the record and said to myself, without a moment's hesitation: "No question about about it: these three gals are just too danged white"! I purchased the record without a second thought. How could I resist? It was the best twenty-five cents I ever spent.
This is not meant to be a forum to pour invective on religious music or the White Sisters. They look like (and I'm sure are) three fine and decent ladies - even though they voted for George W. Bush. How do I know they voted for George W. Bush? Just look at that photo - they didn't vote for John Kerry or Al Gore - THEY VOTED FOR GEORGE W. BUSH - ARE YOU KIDDING ME???!!! Even though I have yet to listen to their product (which I'm sure is very nice) I owe the White Sisters a deep debt of gratitude. They have forced me to ask the musical question: How white is too white?
There is a problem being white in the United States, more so than in, say, Europe or the Middle East. The uncomfortable fact of the matter is that so much of our initial wealth was built on the back of the slave labor that was so prevalent for the first two centuries of our existence. Not that we didn't try to put a happy face on the institution - we really did! But while the image of content and smiling darkies singing "All God's Chill'un Got Wings" under a warm Dixie moon might have been fine for Gone With The Wind, it didn't really pass the smell test in the real world.
To be sure, there are varying degrees of whiteness. In fact, some white people, in reality, are very black! Take Bill Clinton, for example. It's not by accident that he has been called by many, "America's First Black President". Skin pigmentation had not a thing to do with it. The truth is, Clinton had a deep and authentic gut-level empathy for African Americans because of the fact that he - more than any president since Harry Truman - knew what it was like to struggle through life. Say what you want about the man, that empathy was real. It's a hell of a lot easier to imagine Bubba, saxophone in tow, kicking out the jams with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Cannonball Adderley then it is to picture him at a recording session with....well....The White Sisters. Again, I'm sure they're very nice gals.
Robert F. Kennedy was probably the only white politician in history who was blacker than Bill Clinton. Although he was born of wealth and privilege, his brother's assassination in the autumn of 1963 changed him radically. He (along with Clinton and Obama) are the only politicians American history who can speak to an audience of any race without appearing inauthentic. What our country might look like today but for Sirhan Sirhan's bullet.
There are a lot of white people who are more black than white and I'm not referring to those white rapper Afro wannabes - I'm talking about the real thing: Lenny Bruce was black; so was Janis Joplin. Elvis Presley was very black until he joined the Army in 1958. When he was discharged two years later, he'd lost much of that blackness (I'm sure it had something to do with being stationed in Germany all that time - the Fatherland having yet to discover rock 'n' roll). Albino guitarist, Edgar Winter, is actually blacker than most black people! The singer Bobby Darin was as white as they come until the spring of 1968 when his friend and political hero, Bobby Kennedy, was murdered in Los Angeles (Damn you, Sirhan!) It was at that moment that his interpretation of music became more soulful and introspective. Like Kennedy before him, it was a shattering, personal trauma that unleashed Darin's previously undetectable blackness. And do you want to hear the biggest irony? Until he was fired last month for his unfortunate comments about the Rutgers University Woman's Basketball Team, Don Imus was the blackest white man in the main stream media!
This particular theory of mine is not something I can adequately define but I think you know what I'm talking about.
It works the other way around as well. There are black people - in particular, black men - who are really, really white! Armstrong Williams, the African American "journalist" who was paid a couple hundred thousand (taxpayer) dollars by the Bush Mob to sell their No Child Left Behind scam is whiter than Lester Maddox; Colin Powell, while not quite as white as George Wallace, deserves an honorable mention. Condoleeza Rice, although not as pure as the driven snow, is about as white as the driven snow - no argument there. And while I may not be as black as Don Imus, I'm a helluva lot blacker than Clarence Thomas! Malcolm X had a term for people like Clarence Thomas: House Nigger - those who not only worked within a racist system but who actually supported it ("Whatever Massa wants, Massa gits") as opposed to the Field Negro - those who hated the system and dedicate their lives to destroying it. Minister Malcolm was, most decidedly, a Field Negro. Come to think of it, I like to think of myself as one also!
No question about it, the White Sisters - as chock full of goodness and unquestioned virtue as I'm sure they are - are just a smidgen too white for my tastes. Are there people out there who could be described as too black? More than likely; but being a white man, I'm not qualified to make that judgement. I'll pick on my own race - it's a whole lot easier and, quite frankly, irresistible. Maybe if we all tried to be a little bit blacker and a little bit whiter - as the case may be - we might find that happy medium. I'm not saying that we should abandon the cultural characteristics that are unique to each of us - we should just try and emphasize our similarities which are far more abundant than our differences. We might very well do away with the polarization that has become the hallmark of modern day America and, truly, become the color blind society envisioned almost half a century ago by Martin Luther King. You see, he had this silly dream that his children would one day live in a land where they would be judged "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character".
Aw, heck! I can dream, too, can't I?
Tom Degan
Goshen, NY
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
by Malcolm X with Alex Haley
Photograph of Tom Degan taken on May 3, 2007


At 4:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, a GREAT post!

At 6:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of Senator Obama, it is sad to read how little things have changed, when he has to ask for protection from the Secret Service.

At 5:48 PM, Blogger Floyd M. Orr said...

This is an excellent article as always, Mr. Degan. I want to add a name that could have been mentioned in the story: Bill Cosby. He has caught holy hell for speaking the truth about many issues. Maybe that's why you don't see him on television much except in old reruns.

At 6:44 PM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

Dear Tabatha,
Thank you for the kind words. Yes, Bill Cosby was the first comedian I ever discovered when I was a child. He is also the only comic I've ever seen in concert (Radio City Music Hall 1983) He is a gem!
All the best,
Tom Degan

At 12:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Tom,

I've always lamented my bad luck not to be born an American Indian. I was very unhappy as a child with my blond curly hair and gray eyes and pale skin. I read books about Indian teachings and history as a teen and cried and cried about the evil that happened to them at the hands of my own race. I wanted to marry an Indian but sadly, the opportunity never presented itself.

I did get the chance to learn how to ride a horse Indian style when my father, a country lawyer, acquired one in lieu of payment from a client. Actually, he stole the animal out of its stable, like any self respecting Indian would have if he was owed a debt.

I still practice things I learned from my studies of the Indians. Do you know they were the original recyclers? They used every part of any living thing they killed and wouldn't waste anything out of respect for all living things. Compare that philosophy with the Christian (ie, white) way of thinking to "have dominion" over the earth and everything in it.

I still believe that my race has made a possibly fatal mistake by rejecting the knowledge of the Indians and instead promoting the demise of their race and culture. The current health care crisis is a direct result of this, of not learning ways of living in balance with nature and using herbs to heal sickness. The coming environmental crisis, likewise, wouldn't be happening if we had learned from the Indians that we are connected to the earth like mother and baby.

The madness of George W. Bush is just an extension of the wrong way of thinking of the dominant race. It will be the races of color that will save the world from this insanity, if they don't end up being assimilated entirely and forget their own history.

You make the point that having to struggle as blacks have in this country deserves our respect. There's a certain dignity that comes from surviving prejudice that is lacking in white culture. I think the time is coming when it will be very uncool to be white. In fact, it may already be here, as I'm hearing from my children at their school. One of the latest underground epithets: "wigger", means a white person who tries and fails to emulate blacks.

I guess you could say I am in favor of some kind of segregation, but not for the same reasons as bigots throughout history have been. I want to see other races preserve their identity because my own race has such a negative one in my view.

At 3:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think your a complete idiot and the rest of your gang too!!!!!! BUSH all the way

At 4:03 PM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

Thank you for your thoughts nonetheless...
Tom Degan

At 1:45 PM, Blogger stoney13 said...

Hey Anonymous 3:48,

Why don't you learn how to spell before you call Tom an idiot!


At 1:57 PM, Blogger stoney13 said...


Great post! Coming from a half-breed Cherokee, I personsally always considered myself to be a member of the Huiman Race!

Whenever there's a line on a form that I'm filling out that calls for race, I always check "other" and write in "Human". Makes for some real jolly mind-fucks amongst the bean-counters!

I actually had one woman (Who looked a great deal like one of the White Sisters!) inform me that I couldn't write in "human" like that! I told her that it was an honest answer to the question, and to get off my ass about it!

She was quite addamant about the damned thing, though, so I crossed out "Human" and wrote "Raccoon"! She took it straight back and never said another word about it!


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