Danger – I’m talking about race (but also art)

26 Mar

cab calloway-2

I sat down to write about creativity but will begin with race. I’ll get to creativity later.

Normally, race is a subject best avoided. Even good-intentioned statements can offend. I don’t mind offending, as long as I offend everyone. When I discuss race, I generally keep these three precepts in mind:

  • All people are basically the same.
  • Even so, likes prefer likes.
  • Whether acknowledged or not, every group thinks it is better than the other.

I’m told that, historically, each tribe of Native Americans referred to themselves as “the human beings” or “the people,” while the names they gave other tribes were epithets describing creatures who were less than human.

That’s us! Is it not?

Dividing us by race and setting us against each other seems like a cruel thing for the Creator to do, but I guess there was a reason for it. Giving us the capacity to enslave others, however, is too harsh to even remotely understand. That capacity is what rightfully gives racial issues their hypersensitivity.

I can wish everyone wasn’t so sensitive, but there is too much working against it.

While smart people don’t discuss race, I have to admire those who do. One is Bob Huber, a writer for Philadelphia Magazine. In the March edition of the magazine, he wrote a piece called, “Being White in Philly.”  In it he tells stories of race from a white perspective.

“Everyone might have a race story, but few whites risk the third-rail danger of speaking publicly about race, given the long, troubled history of race relations in this country and even more so in this city,” he wrote. “Race is only talked about in a sanitized form, when it’s talked about at all, with actual thoughts and feelings buried, which only ups the ante.”

So let’s talk!Philly Mag

After Huber’s article, many did. This was his intention. There were a number of public forums around town and the online version of the article – as of March 25 – had 6,292 comments.

The article, among other things, mentions how whites, upon entering a local convenience store, hold open the door longer for blacks than for whites in order not to offend them. Later, Huber quotes a Russian woman who thinks blacks do nothing but sit on their front porches smoking marijuana. It’s that kind of material.

In response, the only full-time African-American employee at Philadelphia Magazine wrote a counter piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She described her coworker’s message as: “black people are essentially what’s wrong with the city and that white people who live here are afraid of them.”

My test of the article’s validity is not its truthfulness but its honesty. Fair or unfair, right or wrong, the piece accurately describes how some white people feel. It would be dishonest to argue they don’t feel that way. Whether or not they accurately portray blacks is a totally different issue

I think it is good to know how people feel. I want to know how people feel about me, even when they don’t like me. My natural assumption is many will not like me, or at least think I am less that I am, certainly less than they are.

In the extreme, this may anger me, but I can live with it.

I understand that others may not, cannot and will not.

But that’s not why I’m writing. I’m writing about creativity. Mainly, I want to know if one race is more apt to be creative than another – specifically whether minorities are more willing and more capable than the majority in advancing art.

In the past I’ve had thoughts on this. They resurfaced recently when I heard a radio interview with a black record producer. By his own admission, this producer is not your normal black record producer. In order to set up a story about his style of producing, he told the show’s host that black artists create something then quickly leave it behind to create the next thing. White people, he said, go back and revisit what already has been created.

Then, in a twist, he said, “I’m that white guy.”

Twist aside, I saw truth in his stereotype, especially in the progress of music. By the time white bands, for example, took up the blues, black artists had left it way behind.

Shortly after this interview, PBS aired an American Masters episode called, “The Blues Brothers Band Remembers Cab Calloway.” The Blues Brothers movie, of course, clearly depicts the tendency for whites to revisit the old. More interesting was a specific story in the documentary about the legendary Cab Calloway.

John Landis, the movie’s director (white), told how he wanted Calloway (black) to sing his 1931 classic  “Minnie the Moocher” in the movie and to do it in the original style. When Calloway saw the music charts, he expressed disgust and said something like, “What the hell is this?”

He could not comprehend why anyone would want to put a near ancient rendition into a contemporary movie. Landis eventually talked him into it, but it was completely foreign to Calloway.

I was amazed at how closely this little story paralleled what the black record producer had said. The record producer might not fit the stereotype, but Cab sure did. I wondered just how deep this pattern went, or even if it were true (Little Anthony and the Imperials, after all, still perform their hits.)

One of the shockingly bad things about art in any form is that it so often is a copy of something done by an innovator. I believe it was Paul Gauguin (not a minority but definitely off the path) who suggested that there are only two kinds of artists: plagiarists and revolutionaries. It could be said that the plagiarists have a stake in the status quo while the revolutionaries want to destroy it.

Could this be the case with the white-black creative dichotomy described by the record producer and illustrated by Cab Calloway?

While few want to discuss race, I’d like to hear from people on this. Let’s forget about Philly Mag and the suppressed hostilities of whites for a while and talk about whether muses favor those who have been pushed outside the mainstream. What drives a person to originality and risk when so many others are content to stay stuck on what’s popular?

Is white innovation a rarity? Surely there are white revolutionaries. In a pinch I could name 10. (Pollock yes; Presley no.) Do white innovators have to try harder, or must they – unlike blacks – possess a genetic mutation or be social misfits?

I can’t speak first hand to this. I’m hoping others can. Please write.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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2 Responses to “Danger – I’m talking about race (but also art)”

  1. Naila Francis (@Naila_Francis) April 5, 2013 at 3:11 pm #

    Hey, Lanny – Somehow I stumbled upon this blog item. Thought you might be interested in the play “Permanent Collection” opening at InterAct in Philly next week. You might have seen its world premiere 10 years ago but if not, it’s all about art, cultural ownership and race — and inspired by the controversies surrounding the Barnes before its move to the Parkway.

    Like

    • NotebookM by Lanny Morgnanesi April 5, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

      Naila, Thanks very much for reading my blog. It’s always good to hear from a former colleague. Hope all is well. Appreciate the tip on “Permanent Collection.” I’ll look for it, and also check out your work. Take care. I hope your didn’t find this posting offensive.

      Like

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