The Freedom March of 1965, from Selma to Montgomery, marked the turning point for the Civil Rights movement in the South. It became clear to America that the spiritual momentum of the march would carry the day; the South would bend.
Then the Negro Civil Rights movement, the slow sad movement of moral example, veered north, cooled, hardened as it climbed, to a secular anger. The Watts riots in Los Angeles of 1965 were the worst U.S. riots in twenty years. Young Negroes with no time to waste, no patience for eternal justice, renamed themselves “black.” Their proclamation began a project of re-definition, not only of themselves and of their political movement, but of power, of glamour. The Name Game was at once fierce and dazzling. Black America led white America through the changes. The equation of desire was going to be reversed.
Within the new insistence on blackness was a determination on the part of blacks to transform into boast all that whites had, for generations, made jest: curly hair, orange polyester, complexion, dialect, spiritual ecstasy.
When I was in high school, white boys inhaled black voices like helium. The Christian Brothers’ Gaels drove off to a football game in the big yellow bus, windows lowered, the crew-cuts singing a Little Stevie Wonder song in falsetto for the pure pleasure and novelty of squeezing their thighs to the highest pitch.
But the necessity, for a new black generation, of transposing shame into pride led to a dangerous romanticism. Segregation, de facto and legal, was transformed into self-willed exclusion—also a point of pride. Perhaps it was that the Negro Civil Rights movement of the South had been governed by a Protestant faith in conversion, whereas the northern black movement cared nothing for conversion.
Despite laws prohibiting black literacy in the nineteenth century, the African in America took the paper-white English and remade it (as the Irish and the Welsh also took their English), wadded it up, rigmarolled it, rewound it into a llareggub rap, making English theirs, making it idiosyncratically glamorous (
Come on now, you try it
), making it impossible for any American to use English henceforward without remembering them; making English so cool, so jet, so festival, that children want it only that way.
The only voices as blatant as black voices, as contentious, as alive in American air and literature, are those first-generation Jewish voices, skeptical, playful, dicing every assertion. The black-Jewish conversation was inevitable, for reasons of rhetoric, of history, of soul. As the American Indian had also been drawn, the Jew must have felt drawn to the African American from some recognition of exclusion, expectation of exclusion. Unlike the Indian, however, the Jew had been shaped by a theology of the Word—a schooling that became, like the African’s, a strategy for survival. And for a time, theirs was a brilliant alliance, the Black with the Jew. But the genius for verbal survival uniting Black and Jew would undermine their alliance.
“You cannot imagine how many times I need to squirt my eyes with Visine just to get through
. (So rage won’t dry them out.)” An African-American graduate student addressed a roomful of English professors and graduate students at Berkeley. (This was late in the 1970s.) A Jewish professor immediately joined with “You can’t imagine how difficult it is for me to read
The Merchant of Venice
” (assuming the alliance).
“Well, goddamn!” snarled the black woman in a stage whisper, her topknot vibrating, her eyes lashed to the notebook on her desk, “Jews always have to feel exactly what we are feeling, only more so.”
Did you ever cross over to Snedens . . . ?
Snedens Landing is a pre-revolutionary town upriver. I was fifty before I heard a recording of Mabel Mercer singing that brittle song. I don’t care for the song. I like Mabel Mercer. She was a black Englishwoman who grew up in a theatrical family. She went to Paris at nineteen; she sang in bars, mainly for expatriate audiences, James Baldwin and others. From Paris, Mabel Mercer came to New York, became a fixture of the supper clubs there. She sat in a straight-backed chair, in a spotlight, her hands folded in her lap. She leaned slightly forward, as if imparting a confidence to her audience. The confidence she imparted was that hers was the most refined lyric sensibility in Manhattan of the 1950s.
Mabel Mercer performed the songs of Porter and Coward and such with a perfect mid-Atlantic pronunciation, which is to say, without a trace of melanin in her voice. This was not ventriloquism or minstrelsy or parody—I was disappointed to learn it wasn’t—but the voice was authentic to Mercer because she had been educated by British nuns who insisted upon public-school elocution. Another cabaret singer of that time, Anita O’Day, quoted in a book I can’t find, described Mabel Mercer thus: “That chick has the weirdest fucking act in show business.”
I would like my act to be as weird. An old brown man walking the beach, singing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I have, throughout my writing life, pondered what a brown voice should sound like.
I have pondered what a black voice should sound like.
On September 16, 1966—contemporary newspaper accounts reported a cool evening—the new Metropolitan Opera House opened in New York City. President Johnson and Mrs. Johnson were in attendance, as were President and Mrs. Marcos of the Philippines, as was U Thant, Secretary-General of the United Nations. The opera house, designed by Wallace K. Harrison, was a modernist pavilion with an arched façade, retractable chandeliers, murals by Marc Chagall.
The opera commissioned for the opening was
Antony and Cleopatra
by American composer Samuel Barber. Leontyne Price sang the role of Cleopatra. The Franco Zeffirelli production fused disparate motifs of colonial adventure in the manner of a seventeenth-century print. Zeffirelli’s Egyptians were Elizabethan-Floridian. Leontyne Price wore an enormous feathered, beribboned headdress reminiscent of Amazonia, and a gown of Renaissance cut. She was costumed to appear bare-breasted, a caryatid of continental allegory—at once the African and the Indian of Alexis de Tocqueville’s notice. At least that is how I remember the photograph of Leontyne Price in
magazine; that is the image that comes to mind as I reread de Tocqueville.
You are probably too young to remember or perhaps you have forgotten what a pride for America that evening was—the most modern opera house in the world to prolong the heartbeat of the nineteenth century, and with Leontyne Price, the reigning dramatic soprano of her day, enshrined at the center. And yet, the Metropolitan Opera seemed at that moment—eight o’clock, September 16, 1966—to mark the very crossroads of American history, the division of the old era and the new. Leontyne Price seemed the apotheosis of African America, of new America, as if uncountable degradations inflicted upon African Americans might be ransomed by a single, soaring human voice.
That same year, 1966, there were thirty-eight race riots in American cities. And thirty-five years later, Lincoln Center looks irrelevant; there is talk in the papers about pulling it down.
That same year, 1966, I was in college. I typed, on erasable onionskin paper: “White southern writers had earlier preoccupied themselves with the deconstruction of the South along Grecian lines, a lament for pride brought low and a contrition for the sins of the Fathers, all the while insisting upon kinship—the black maid’s sigh, the white child’s ‘Why?’ ”
Black maid’s sigh? White child’s Why?
My forehead began to pain me remarkably, to throb; a sort of mockery seized upon my temples, then billowed from my ears, like black smoke from a stovepipe. A figment stood before me:
Listen, Hiawatha, honey, sittin by yo heatah,
Cradlin’ little ninny books, playin’ Little Eva—
Doodah mantchuns fulla haunted crackahs,
Long-face mens pullin’ sacks a ’baccas,
Clean white aprons wid dese fairytale patchas!
The sky is the skin o’ yo eye, Hiawatha!
Peel that skin off yo eye!
The figment was clothed with a red calico shirt and a voluminous apron with many pockets and colored patches sewn on, like the patches on jerkins and pinafores in a child’s picture book. It wore a sort of turban on its head. The head was a tablespoonful of black wax, the size of a chunk of coal. It had eyes—large, lidless sclera with black balls painted in. But no mouth.
With one hand—a glob of glue stuck to its sleeve—it extended a tambourine which it brandished menacingly (ah, ah, ah).
Ol’ man Faulkner make me sigh,
Meek as Ella Cinder. Sigh?
Black maid’s sigh?
Naw. Black maid’s thighs was blackberry pies,
’Sall it was,
Coolin’ on the winder.
No mouth, and yet it spoke. The voice had lips and tongue and breath and also a kind of history—each utterance was accompanied by a hissing, sparkling, ambient air, like that of an old recording with a gold tooth. The voice was parody, the only voice the figment owned, and as patented as wild rice.
Listen, Little Elbow Grease,
Peckin’ on your pica,
Readin’ Mod’n Library’s
Bad as breathin’ ether.
Ol’ man Faulkner make you nod?
(Drunk in his mimesis.)
But don’t you goddamn dare to try
Reproach. This was Denial of Imagination. Copyright Infringement. Fear of Offending. Appropriation of Voice. Objection Sustained. Willful Misunderstanding. Preclusion. Scandal. Minstrelsy. Ah, I knew exactly what it was. This was a New Orleans doll manufactured in wax, in 1922, by Madame Granger, a Creole; this was Luther’s doll, a figure of speech; my friend Luther’s phrase, the phrase that elicited nervous laughter from me when I heard him use it in public:
You want I should pull nigger out the bag?
(As he addressed a recalcitrant store clerk.)
I bent once more to my typewriter. I wrote: “Faulkner strained to find the cadence of black patience and faith, creating his own forgiveness in the person of Dilsey—Dilsey hovering over her lost white charges.”
Here he come, ol’ skinny whey,
Sobbin’ in his ’kerchief—
Whiney, piney, woe is me—
“The South, the South,” he constant say;
He longin’ for de dear ol’ days.
And you as bad as he is. Why?
White child’s Why?
You confusin’ grief with biscuits.
—Why ain’t there biscuits?—
’Sall it was.
Ain’t enough I’m bought and sold,
Ain’t enough I’m weak and old,
Still you goin’ make me up—
Say I smell like copper-gold;
Pour me in some nigger mold—
Some malaprop, some black tar soap,
Some hangin’ rope, some ’bacca smoke—
You make me up, you make me up,
I don’t exist, goddamn you.
Some ’Mimah flapjack mix,
Some Cream o’ Wheat steam
Risin’ swift to ol’ whey’s
I free the slaves that lick my pots
And bubble the swill that fill you—
Slave as plain as buttercup,
Slave as hot as forget-me-not,
Slave as shrill as daffodil—
Slaves wear them yella jackets.
“Faulkner strained to reproduce the cadence of Negro patience.”
. . . Shoulda noticed the fire. Fiah. FIAH!