Ry Cooder made an album called Jazz in the late 70s. It includes the song Shine, it caused a kerfuffle at the time and Cooder has put some water between himself and that album since, but I actually like that album and have a certain fondness for that tune. It’s a bouncy piece that includes terms that would make a corporate HR person go into a tail spin because it is a coon song that was written by a black musician called Cecil Mack (November 6, 1873 – August 1, 1944 ) who did not die in poverty because he was a tin pan alley king not least because he wrote a whole boat load of coon songs. This is called historical context.
On Monday, I was listening to Start the Week and Lenny Henry was on talking about his autobiography and his experiences growing up in Dudley in the 70s and ending up on the Black and White Minstrel Show. He has to account for this a lot to journalists and interviewers. I found myself getting really irritated because, brace yourself, I used to love the black and white minstrel show. I thought it was great that Lenny Henry was on the show because I loved him too. To add to my ‘shame’ I used to pester my parents to take us to see them when they were doing the summer season in Torquay. I know it seems appalling now but it is really starting to grate with me when Sir Lenny has to explain why he worked with (from his own account) what appeared to be quite a nice group of people who were doing what we now think of as a grim thing. But mainly it pisses me off because that experience is always channeled through the prism of some white skinned shock. Yes it was an entertainment predicated on the slave trade and its aftermath, but if you permit me some whataboutary: Wagner was an active and vicious anti semite but his work has hardly been erased from the opera canon. When it comes to home grown nastiness, let’s have a prod at Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the villain Shylock is redeemed only through the renunciation of his creed, a play written by a man who might credibly have never met a Jew, hummmmmmm. And as for the amoral pack of current global leaders and the despicable dogwhistle vote corralling they engage in, where do I begin?
The thing that really annoyed me about the programme was some of the other people in the room were white and about the same age as Henry. I did not hear any of those people say anything about their own responses to racism at the time Henry was working on the B&WMS, perhaps they didn’t catch the show. Maybe the audience made up entirely of non white people like me, though it seems a little unlikely as at its peak 21 million people tuned in and in the 2011 census of the UK there were 1.85 million black people in the uk. Where did the other 19 million go?
It irked me because there is a kind of performative blackness that is taking up residence in the dialogue. A place where people like me or Lenny Henry or whoever, get to describe their experiences to people who are frequently the same age. What happens during this is the black people tick off the iniquities and the white people act shocked. What is missing from this discourse is exactly what the fuck the white people were up to while all this was going on and there is a reason for this; nobody makes them do it, until something happens where they are forced to consider their own responses.
Indulge me further:
In June I was at the baptism of my latest great niece – I have four a the time of writing this – and my eldest brother (who is about the same age as Lenny Henry), sat next to me and said, I owe you and apology. To be honest, he owes me a ton of sorries, but that’s siblings and I owe him a wheelbarrow full back. However, this was actually a good one. He told me about how one of his band mates has a step son who is half chinese and this young man had been told to fuck off back to where he came from in, of all places, Bristol. My brother had been really shocked and angered by this and he’d discussed it with another of my brothers and then then had started to talk about me and all of the racism I had encountered growing up and how nobody had paid it a blind bit of notice, or if they had, they’d played it down with that old chestnut, sicks and stones, some people have glasses, blah blah blah.
I was pleased by the apology, but at the same time I experienced a mounting fury that he had been able, along with everybody else, to tune out the outrageous behaviour of their peers, and there can be no doubt that their peers would have been indulging in light to vicious racism by dint of the fact they used words to communicate. I appreciate the apology, because it means he has reflected on how difficult it was for me growing up as the only girl, the only brown girl in a family of white people, drowning in a sea of whiteness in a vortex of ignorance and stupidity that nestles under the Malvern Hills. It was incredibly difficult and the fact I didn’t actually murder anybody is a testament to my lower middle classed upbringing.
Back to Sir Lenny and this performative blackness for white people to look shocked about. I have no doubt his work with the B&WMS caused him profound pain and I am genuinely sorry that he suffered that in such isolation because I know what that is like. All I can say is he bought me joy at a time when there were precious few black people on the TV for me to look up to. His warmth, his loveability, his relatability with that cuddly Dudley accent, echoes of which I could always hear in the voices of my Brummie parents, completely overrode the things that we are now commanded to find problematic. He helped me see my skin as something really rather fantastic. So out of his adversity I got some relief from the endless stupid.
It really is time that some of those white people who disregarded our pain, our humiliations, put up their hands and gave us a mea culpa, reflected on the times they saw someone like me being battered in the playground or spat at in the street, or refused service in a shop, put up their hands and admitted they’d given preference to a light skinned person, talked over a black woman at a conference, the list is endless. It’s time some of these people admitted it and reflected on the fact that we don’t need Lenny Henry to tell anybody how complicit he was in racism, we need an awful lot of white people to look at themselves and their families and their own actions and maybe admit that they were also part of the problem. A wee dab of historical context.