Racial injustice and the need for the blues

Needing the blues. Last weekend, trying to avoid thinking about how demoralizing the not-guilty verdict in Trayvon Martin's death must be for black people in the U.S., I turned to the unique, vast anthology edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America. I seem to open it every summer. It's 1,050 pages of brief essays starting with The Name America Appears on a Map in 1507 and ending with Barack Obama in 2008. I happened to have reached 1938, on jazz immortal Billie Holiday. Essayist Robert O'Meally quotes James Baldwin on the "uses" of the blues: ". . . what happens to you if, having barely escaped suicide, or death, or madness or yourself, you watch your children growing up and no matter what you do, you are powerless, you are really powerless against the forces of the world that are out to tell your child that he has no right to be alive." So much for escaping into art or another era.

The essay says the blues' job is to tell truthfully how horrible reality often is -- black American reality of course, but many lives are bad in many ways and there's no harm in "using" the blues even if you're not directly implicated. Since the blues offers no way out, it effectively demands a response in other terms, another genre as it were: politics. But even when actions are successful -- the civil rights movement or Obama's election -- that doesn't obliterate ongoing injustices like Martin's death (not to mention the unalterable past) so the blues remains required. All it does is state the situation "lyrically" -- as Ralph Ellison said. What use is that? Hard to say. But at least it establishes the possibility of not being utterly warped or destroyed inside those hideous realities.

The same almost painfully compacted essay (or maybe it was the moment I read it), describes a scene near the end of Holiday's short life when she stayed with poet Maya Angelou. Angelou's 12-year-old son asks Holiday to explain the phrase, "pastoral scene" in the song, Strange Fruit, which she sang him as a lullaby. It's a truly lyrical ballad about a lynching, written by a Jewish-American leftist. Holiday had made it her own. Angelou then recounts how, in scarring language including the so-called N-word and brutal imagery, Holiday etched for the boy the fairly common reality of a Southern lynching and concluded, "That's a goddamn pastoral scene." Months later she died of alcohol and despair.

There's no question the situation re. "race" in the U.S. is better than 150 or 50 years ago. It's also ridiculous how race-ridden it remains. No accurate observations about progress can justify that. I think Martin Luther King was right when he said the arc of history is long but bends toward freedom. But it will keep bending without getting there, at least not for a long time. Politics won't, in any foreseeable future, outlive the need for the blues.

Good luck, Kovalchuk. In a cheerier vein, I'd like to wish the best to Ilya Kovalchuk, the brilliant forward, who ended 11 NHL years, leaving $77 million still on his contract. He went home to play for St. Petersburg, perhaps not at a huge monetary loss. I'm hoping it's the start of a reverse trend.

I know there's lots to be said for the "internationalization" of hockey, meaning the NHL, which, along with communism's collapse, probably saved the league, at least from deterioration and embarrassment. But think who Rocket Richard -- the "idol of his people" -- would have been, had he not spent his career in Montreal. He'd have been Marcel Dionne or Denis Savard, great talents but who left little legacy in L.A. and Chicago, and minimal impact on the larger contours of their time. Why couldn't Mats Sundin have displayed his joie de vivre et de combat before his compatriots? They deserved it, he'd have thrived on it. Hockey is a business, as the players often say (or parrot), but unless it's more -- or less in the sense of what it was when you were a kid -- your play can easily diminish. Maybe that drew Kovalchuk back, along with the big rubles.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Washthebowl/flickr

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