Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Life in Black and White

I was listening to Nina Simone a few days ago, including some songs which were recorded in concert shortly after Martin Luther King was killed: Sunday in Savannah, Why (The King of Love is Dead), and Mississippi Goddamn. Her comments ran from a gentle introduction about how she’d like to change Savannah to Atlanta but didn’t think he’d mind, to listing those who’d died recently, to “I ain’t about to be nonviolent, honey.”

Tears came to my eyes as she brought back that time. I can’t honestly say exactly what I remember and what I’ve filled in over the years, but I know I was a precocious and passionate kid. Later in that horrible year of Kennedy (again) and My Lai and Nixon and Wallace and Chicago, I had a letter published in Newsweek supporting the two athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their fists in a Black Power salute at the Olympics during the playing of the U.S. national anthem. As Nina sang, we were close to the brink, and whatever childhood I had ended long before I became a teenager along with any illusions about the future of the human race. Had I been older, I would have told you which way the wind blew whether you needed me or not.

During my freshman year at college, I attended a play with a black woman. It wasn’t actually a date; she was just a last minute replacement for my girlfriend who was too wasted to go with me. Onstage, in colorblind roles, a black female student was about to kiss a white male student when from a black female student in the audience came the cry, “Don’t do it, Joni, don’t kiss him!” I wished I really was on a date because I wanted to stand up and kiss the woman I was with just then.

A year or two later, the college’s Black Student Union held some cultural/historical event which had low attendance, and a letter to the college paper accused people of being racists for not showing up. I replied that most cultural events on campus had low attendance which had nothing to do with racism. Whites thanked me for writing it, and blacks called me, yes, you guessed it, a racist.

Now a silly professor, who looks a bit like a too neat Mark Twain, wants to turn Nigger Jim into Slave Jim—I think a writer’s words should never be changed, whether from a great American novel or a trivial blog. But if we’re going to change the meaning of the book, let’s not just whitewash it, let’s at least make it lively. Slave Jim! How dull! I say we make him Black Panther Jim with a cache of weapons in the tent, or Rastafari Jim smoking ganja, slowly floating away from Babylon.

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