As I slowly detox from the noxious racial environment cultured in academia, I find my thoughts about the now-quaint notion of “race relations” clearing. The mental fog that rises from incessant accusations of “white privilege” and tiresome dogma from privileged whites (faculty, in the main) that insists all African Americans remain shackled by the bonds of prejudice if not slavery is slowly dissipating, and I occasionally surprise myself by notions about equality, self-determination and brotherhood that the stultifying atmosphere in which I once lived and breathed would have suffocated aborning.
But it is not the challenges of attempting to have a rational discussion about race on a college campus that moves me to write; rather, it is an interview with singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, conducted by Neal Conan on Talk of the Nation, that took place last week. I cannot get Ms. Bridgewater’s comments out of my mind, nor can I rid myself of the sadness and, yes, quiet desperation, with which they fill me.
Bridgewater, who herself has an NPR gig, and Conan were ostensibly discussing her latest CD, a tribute to Billie Holiday in which Bridgewater covers a number of Miss Holiday’s famous numbers, including the eerie and troubling “Strange Fruit.” For the record, Ms. Holiday’s wonderful and eternally moving original of “Strange Fruit” needs no improvement.
As the discussion ensued, the interview took a sharp turn into contemporary politics when Bridgewater riffed on “Strange Fruit”’s subject matter, the lynching of blacks for purely racist reasons in the US South, comparing those murders with “the subtle lynching” of President Obama “that is going on today.” Bridgewater is fearless in pointing the finger of blame: “the first African American president, his lovely wife the wonderful Michelle Obama and his lovely daughters are being persecuted…suffering from racist thoughts and actions on the part of the Republican Party, just because. Just because.” Bridgewater goes on to observe that the President “can’t get anything done,” and explains it away by virtue of the GOP’s vicious thought crimes and (I guess) marauding gangs of violent, out-of-control representatives and senators. She finishes her soliloquy, and it truly was a monologue, for normally chatty host Conan uttered no more than a strangled “oh” during the entire peroration, by sharing the news that she calls her country the “Un-United States,” its society “pathetic,” and the warning that unless and until African Americans receive an apology for their suffering, they won’t be able to “move forward.”
A few days after the TOTN interview, Bridgewater talked more political theory with All About Jazz:
I have worked with Amnesty International, with Unesco for a long time, Unicef, I am a UN Goodwill Ambassador now. I speak my mind [laughs]. And the record companies ask me to shut up, to not be so political. And I was warned by my record company during the Bush administration that I needed to calm down my criticism of this government because I risked being blacklisted. And I was, like, “He doesn’t even know what jazz is!” What about freedom of speech? I call it a dictatorship, the whole patriot act. You can’t criticize the government? Our capitalism is out of control. Look at the economic situation today. Everybody was living beyond their means, everybody was living on credit, everybody! It’s out of control. Something had to bring it to its knees. The greed, the corporate greed. What a shame that the most powerful country in the world has the worst health system in the world. And on education, our children don’t even know how to spell, let alone interact in a social situation. Because of all of this new technology, nobody talks anymore! Oh, don’t get me started! Gather ’round! [laughs].
Well, I would laugh if such chaotic vitriol weren’t so destructive of our “pathetic” society. It accomplishes nothing positive, and either shuts down conversation between races entirely, or antagonizes the similarly hot-headed to reply with corresponding hyperbole of their own. Coward that I am, I spent my academic career adopting the former strategy when confronted with variations on Bridgewater’s all-too-familiar demonized characterizations of Republicans, and I resolved that when I left higher education I would no longer let such unexamined perversions of reality pass unchallenged.
But it’s hard, you know, to reverse a lifetime’s worth of assenting through silence. And that silence I think, in the minefield of race relations, is every bit as wrong-headed as the poorly reasoned, self-inflating truth-to-power kind of bombast Bridgewater’s using to peddle her CD. So I was heartened to read the comments that followed the singer’s NPR interview. While many of them egged Bridgewater on, a number of them reflected reactions similar to my own.
I hope that many more of the formerly silent, white and black, begin to speak up. Having an African American president should be the catalyst for two-way conversations about race, and Candidate Obama issued the invitation in his March, 2008 speech. It’s time Bridgewater, Conan…all of us…accepted.