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Songs For Lott

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I don’t care what Trent Lott REALLY thinks. As evidence of his racist-pandering segregationist past mounts, he is clearly a statistic as Senate Majority Leader, especially with Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma displaying some balls over the weekend, calling for new leadership elections.

With all of the political maneuvering sure to follow, it will be easy to lose sight of WHY this is such an important issue. Lott’s comments advocate segregation – the codified separation of the races as existed in the Jim Crow south into the ’50s.

Besides the legal ramifications of Jim Crow laws, an even more intimidating method of enforcement – lynching – mandated segregation with an iron fist.
THAT is what Lott’s screaming insensitivity conjures up: the threat of an arbitrary, painful, humiliating death by white mob literally hanging over the head of every black woman, child, and especially man who would dare displease ANY white.

Lott’s patrician, plantation mentality averts its eyes from this stark reality:

    Between 1882 (when reliable statistics were first collected) and 1968 (when the classic forms of lynching had disappeared), 4,743 persons died of lynching, 3,446 of them black men and women. Mississippi (539 black victims, 42 white) led this grim parade of death, followed by Georgia (492, 39), Texas (352, 141), Louisiana (335, 56), and Alabama (299, 48). From 1882 to 1901, the annual number nationally usually exceeded 100; 1892 had a record 230 deaths (161 black, 69 white). Although lynchings declined somewhat in the twentieth century, there were still 97 in 1908 (89 black, 8 white), 83 in the racially troubled postwar year of 1919 (76, 7, plus some 25 race riots), 30 in 1926 (23, 7), and 28 in 1933 (24, 4).

    Statistics do not tell the entire story, however. These were recorded lynchings; others were never reported beyond the community involved. Furthermore, mobs used especially sadistic tactics when blacks were the prime targets. By the 1890s lynchers increasingly employed burning, torture, and dismemberment to prolong suffering and excite a “festive atmosphere” among the killers and onlookers. White families brought small children to watch, newspapers sometimes carried advance notices, railroad agents sold excursion tickets to announced lynching sites, and mobs cut off black victims’ fingers, toes, ears, or genitalia as souvenirs. Nor was it necessarily the handiwork of a local rabble; not infrequently, the mob was encouraged or led by people prominent in the area’s political and business circles. Lynching had become a ritual of interracial social control and recreation rather than simply a punishment for crime.

THIS is what Lott’s advocacy of segregation stirs from the memory of a nation: black body parts as souvenirs of vicious, violent oppression. Imagine the massive blinders and self-absorption required to miss the implications of his jaunty remarks.

Just in time to reinforce the realities of the very recent historical past at the core of this debate is a new 3-CD collection released to coincide with a PBS series coming in January: Freedom: A History of US.

While this amazing set of patriotic, protest, workers, gospel, war and other songs is an incredible resource, it is perhaps TOO eclectic and comprehensive to hang together as a seamless listening experience. Disc 2 focusing on the plight of the black man and uplifting war ditties works best in this regard, several songs of which might act as an education for Senator Lott and his fellow-travelers.

Louis Armstrong, who whites came to regard as a nonconfrontational “good negro,” couldn’t make his frame of reference any clearer than on “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” from 1929:

    Old empty bed…springs hard as lead
    Feel like ol’ Ned…wished I was dead
    What did I do…to be so black and blue

    Even the mouse…ran from my house
    They laugh at you…and scorn you too
    What did I do…to be so black and blue

    I’m white…inside…but, that don’t help my case
    ’cause I…can’t hide…what is in my face
    (jazzman sounds)

    How would it end…ain’t got a friend
    My only sin…is in my skin
    What did I do…to be so black and blue

    (instrumental break)

    How would it end…ain’t got a friend
    My only sin…is in my skin
    What did I do…to be so black and blue

What did he do? Nothing other than being born black – and this from the decidedly unmilitant Armstrong, who was derided for a time in his later years by black militants who only understood their history only a little better than Lott.

But Satchmo’s poignant plea is just a generalized introduction to our segregated past. Billie Holiday’s horrifying, stark “Strange Fruit” from 1939 is another matter entirely:

    Southern trees bear strange fruit.
    There’s blood on the leaves,
    There’s blood at the roots.
    Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze;
    There’s strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree.

    The scenic view of the quiet south;
    Those bulging eyes, the twisted mouth.
    The scent of magnolia comes as sweet and fresh.
    Suddenly: the stench of black burning flesh.
    Now here my friends,
    Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck.
    A tear for the rain to gather;
    The roaring wind to suck.
    For the sun to rise,
    And those trees to drop:
    And I hear there’s a strange and bitter crop.

Spend a little time with that song, that imagery, that mindset, Trent. This is the logical conclusion of segregation, sanctioned by law, enforced by terror.

Josh White’s “Trouble” from 1940 continues the theme:

    Well, I always been in trouble, ’cause I’m a black-skinned man.
    Said I hit a white man, [and they] locked me in the can
    They took me to the stockade, wouldn’t give me no trial
    The judge said, “You black boy, forty years on the hard rock pile.”

    Trouble, trouble, sure won’t make me stay,
    Trouble, trouble, jail break due someday.

    Wearin’ cold iron shackles from my head down to my knee
    And that mean old keeper, he’s all time kickin’ me.
    I went up to the walker and the head boss too
    Said, “You big white folks, please see what you can do.”
    Sheriff winked at the policeman, said, “I won’t forget you nohow,
    You better come back and see me again, boy, about 40 years from now.”
    Went back to the walker, he looked at me and said,
    “Don’t you worry about 40, ’cause in five years you’ll be dead.”

    Trouble, trouble, makes me weep and moan
    Trouble, trouble, every since I was born.
    Trouble, trouble, sure won’t make me stay,
    Trouble, trouble, jail break due someday.

I rail against the culture of victimization as much as anyone: it is time for Americans of all races, creeds and colors to take responsibility for their own lives and avail themselves of the (more or less) level playing field the civil rights movement of the last fifty years has yielded. BUT let us not forget for one moment the fatally real circumstances against which the civil rights movement ultimately successfully fought. Every avenue of redress was against blacks: the law, social structures, the threat of vigilante violence. Imagine living in such a world.

Even the nation’s capital was home to such thinking, as Leadbelly’s “Bourgeois Blues” from 1944 makes clear:

    Me and Martha were standing downstairs
    Bossman said “Don’t want no colored people here”
    Lord it’s a bourgeois town …

    Home of the brave, land of the free
    I don’t want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie
    Lord it’s a bourgeois town …

    White folks in Washington they do know how
    Throw a man a nickel just to see him bow
    Lord it’s a bourgeois town …

Say what you will about Bill Clinton, but he was deeply sensitive to the realities of our segregated, racist past and he demonstrated that sensitivity in thought word and deed. It is no longer acceptable for a political leader to fail to apprehend the ramifications of our “discredited” past, to have at least spent a moment or two in empathy with an entire class of people, Americans, fellow citizens, who were excluded from the full taste of sweet liberty for almost 100 years after they were ostensibly granted freedom and equality.

Maybe music can lead those, who, like Trent Lott, have never grasped a reality so alien from their own.

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About Eric Olsen

  • Stuart Filler

    Possibly:
    Andy Razaf wrote “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue”.

    Re: “Strange Fruit”: “It was written in the mid-1930s by a New York City public school teacher, Abel Meeropol, who was at that time a member of the American Communist Party, and who later became better known as the adoptive father of the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg…”

    Re: “Bourgeois Blues”: I like this song, about the “bourgeois town,” Washington DC but not excluding the one I live in, but I am conflicted about the authorship. I allow that Ledbelly wrote some of it, but confess that I see a buddy like Seeger coming up with the line “Home of the brave, land of the free, don’t want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie”–but what do I know?

    Stuart

  • http://profacero.wordpress.com Professor Zero

    Great article!!!

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