Morgan Freeman once stated his reasoning for opposing Black History Month was because, “black history is American history.”
Every year, the same four people are celebrated during February. If you spend enough time rooted in traditional Italian-Irish neighborhoods, you learn quickly that the state mandated lesson plans are woefully inept. In my experience, our instructors were hapless; secluded adults with an Associates Degree in education from The College of Staten Island, and an African-American knowledge base built sturdily from Fat Albert cartoons, Kids Say the Darndest Things and seeing Spike Lee scream at Knicks games.
Our teachings were boiled down to the following stereotypes:
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Invented civil rights. Malcolm X: The first angry black man, sort of like Dr. MLK, but more irate because he may or may not have been a Muslim. Rosa Parks: Always been 83 years old, kept it real (emphasis added) on a bus. Huey P. Newton: Not related to Huey Lewis or The News. Frederick Douglas: George Washington of black folks with better facial hair. Harriet Tubman: Railroad tycoon, not married to Frederick Douglas. Bill Cosby: Finally, a black man that doesn’t intimidate the shit out of white people, solving race inequality through universal adoration of pudding and colorful sweaters. George Washington Carver: Peanut Butter.
The impression that is given during Black History Month, coincides with Morgan Freeman’s objection.
We celebrate these particular individuals because they made a noticeable and lasting impact on white American culture. They forced white Congressman to pass equality bills, they forced white schools to accept black students, they were the first black man to play a white man’s sport. They visibly clashed with the status quo. They were intruders into lilly-white America, and they managed to change the system already established — a novel idea to digest when considering that most of the American economy for generations hinged on the existence African slave labor.
We never talk about how African-Americans helped form our collective national identity.
We don’t discuss how black history is inexorably intertwined with the birth of our nation. Much like America wouldn’t exist without European influence, the same is true about African influence. It isn’t a matter of assimilation, it is an acknowledgment of creation.
“Black history is American history.” There is no greater example of this notion than understanding the history of American music. Music serves as one beautiful human creation that indiscriminately binds us, and one aspect of Black History Month that is never talked about.
Let’s play a game in alternate history! You wake up tomorrow, flip on your radio and spin that dial past all the cracks and fuzz until reception is crystal clear. This is Top 40 radio. For the eleventh straight week, Hans Muhlenheimer and the Hofbrau Half Dozen hold onto the top spot. The song is irrelevant – it’s just another familiar accordian-heavy ditty. Top five spots? All polkas or waltzes. Guess who just got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Weird Al Yankovich, America’s most visionary musician, a career built entirely on solo material.
You are frantic, you spin the dial on your comically antiquated radio and find nothing. No classic rock. No soft-rock. No jazz. No metal. No folk. No indie. No blues. No R&B. No easy listening. No fucking Kenny G.
Just “Weird” Al Yankovich, German polka and a few shrill salsa stations. No one is happy except unlicensed Jersey City jitney drivers and 1992 Antonio Bandares.
The point should be clear. Without African-Americans, we’d be without one of the few things in this nation that tethers us together.
Pick any popular musician in the past 80 years. Work your way back in a “6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon” manner. It all leads to the same fertile beginnings.
A fun example: You like The Beatles? Well, The Beatles were only formed because John Lennon was enamored with three musicians: Buddy Holly, Elvis, Chuck Berry. All three were influenced by blues musicians coming out of the Delta in MIssissippi and later, Chicago. Those blues musicians were influenced by predominantly African-American ragtime and early blues musicians like Lead Belly and Robert Johnson, a man so profoundly good at guitar that ignorant white folks honestly reasoned that he must have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical talent. That generation was influenced by mostly Southern church hymns, evolved “work songs” which were passed down from cotton fields.
Bob Dylan? He wanted to be Woody Guthrie. Woody Guthrie wanted to utilize folk music for Oklahoma Dustbowl sufferers the same way Delta musicians used the blues to cope with life in the South.
Nirvana, Radiohead, Weezer? All heavily influenced by the Pixies (Kurt Cobain actually lifted the baseline from a Pixies song to create Smells like Teen Spirit). Pixies, in turn were influenced by The Minutemen, who were influenced by Gang of Four, who were influenced by The Sex Pistols and Ramones, who were influenced by later British invasion and Fuzz/Garagerock Rock bands like The Kinks, who were influenced by American blues musicians, and so forth and so forth.
One caveat. Rap seems like the most linear progression of African-American influence on our cultural musical evolution. But there is a little twist in the middle. The first rap song is widely held to be “Rappers Delight”, which was performed by the old lady in that Adam Sandler movie/Sugarhill Gang. However, that style of spoken verbal delivery, “the talking blues” was created by Bob Dylan, who in 1965 released Subterranean Homesick Blues (and Talking World War III Blues on Freewheelin‘). Rolling Stone even released an article wondering if Bob Dylan is Hip Hop’s Grandfather.
There is nothing more beautiful than being able to trace back something to the source and run your fingers over the many branches that have grown divergent over time, all nourished by the same roots. America’s musical identity erupted from the shameful barbarism and harshness of African-American existence in the dawning of our nation. It was birthed there, but it is not solely defined by those inglorious circumstances.
It is only a microcosm of African-American culture, but as an uncoordinated, nerdy white boy who still remembers the tingling sensation, that moment of frisson, the first time his father played him a live B.B. King record, it’s one aspect I try to celebrate.
“Black history is American history.” God-dammit, Morgan Freeman, you are awesome.
Here is some blues that you should be listening to: