Thursday, August 22, 2019

The View From Within

Over the summer, I took HIST 441 - History of German, 1871-1945, with Professor Zajicek at Towson University. Our term paper assignment was pretty broad, but I chose to focus on how the average German citizen viewed the ascendancy of the Nazi party. I included my Bibliography at the end, but the footnotes were removed when I copied this over.
I have edited the text to fix some grammatical errors and unclear statements, and I added illustrations and links to Wikipedia articles to make up for referring to material covered in the course that the average reader might not be as familiar with. The original version received an A.  -T

What did the rise of the Nazi state look like to the ordinary German citizen? How did the people at the center of extreme events view themselves, and what did they see in the Nazis that made them accept or ignore the direction the party was taking the country? Average citizens had no privileged insight into what modern historians know now about the weak leadership and chaotic condition of the German government under the Nazi leadership, but there were critics of the regime and an active resistance at work to expose their misdeeds. What factors made it possible for Germans to ignore those warning signs and choose to put the Nazi Party in charge of their government?

Richard Hamilton’s 2003 case study of the electoral results and newspaper content in the Schleswig-Holstein capital of Kiel leading up to Hitler’s electoral victory offers an indirect view of what the German voters saw during the rise in Nazi power. That city’s three newspapers consisted of a Socialist paper with low circulation, and two other papers which were both owned by the same person: one which took generally centrist positions and one which openly supported the Nazis. The trends suggest that weak circulation and a tepid defense of what were seen as establishment liberal policies from the socialist paper could not address the full-throated attacks on socialism from the Nazi paper, or even from the right-leaning centrist paper. The results of the election demonstrate an electorate divided sharply between left and right positions, however, with Protestant farmers showing the strongest support of the Nazis in that area.

Electoral behavior does not suggest active party membership, however. Just as universal suffrage does not equate with universal participation, the reasons people have for voting the way they do are not necessarily harnessed to logic or an informed viewpoint; as Hamilton points out, most people learn their political tendencies from family, and those tendencies “are reinforced by relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and others in the local community.” People not directly associated with the government or the military did not see themselves as “political,” and as studies conducted immediately after World War II demonstrated, average Germans did not feel personally responsible for atrocities which they blamed on the Nazi party or the SS.

While a correlation existed between higher levels of support for the Nazi party in more heavily Protestant areas and lower support in Catholic areas, the Catholics were not necessarily motivated to outright political opposition. Menke explains how the doctrine of “accidentalism” played a part in suppressing a more assertive resistance from Catholic Germans. The pope redefined church doctrine on the rise of secular governments in the 1880s, asserting that secular governments arose to meet the needs of their citizens (in other words, they were “accidents of history”) and that the Catholic church would show no preference for one form of government over another so long as the practice of religion was unaffected. Despite this doctrine, the Center Party had formed in response to what were perceived as anti-Catholic policies during the reign of King Frederick William, and they had acted since their inception to influence government policies in Germany. When the Enabling Act of 1933, which effectively gave Hitler absolute powers, came before the Reichstag, Center Party votes were needed if it was to pass, and even though most German Catholics did not support the Nazi party, accidentalism seemed to inform their decision to allow the secular state to choose this new, dictatorial form of government.

Without the benefit of historical hindsight to balance the general enthusiasm of the crowds, the appeal of “National Community” (Volksgemeinschaft) to the German populace seems clear. The upheaval and revolution of the previous decade and a half created an appetite for unity and a sense of national purpose. For Melita Maschmann, her sense of “National Community” was something that could only be brought about by “declaring war on the class prejudices of the social stratum from which I came and that it must, above all, give protection and justice to the weak.” The official emphasis that Nazis placed on promoting health, good values, and community, with an emphasis on defending against outside influences that sought to weaken all three, made it easy for the average, non-political person to take the Nazi position at face value and to excuse the violence they saw. In those early years, it would have been nearly impossible for that average person to see anything sinister behind those wholesome values, or in the building enthusiasm for the Fuhrer responsible for defending them. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed in 1942, “The fact that evil can take on the appearance of light, benevolence, historical necessity and social justice is simply bewildering.” But nine years earlier, people like Melita Maschmann did not think they were bewildered in any way.

You might recognize the KdF-wagon from this late 1930s
propaganda photo.
An outside observer, American journalist William Shirer, noted the “crazed expressions” of the “hysterical mob” that greeted Hitler at his appearance in Nuremberg in September of 1934. Shirer attributed this over-the-top enthusiasm of the crowds to the perception that Hitler was “restoring pageantry and colour and mysticism to the drab lives of twentieth-century Germans.” Not everyone was swept up in that fanaticism, but it would have been difficult for an average person to resist the tide, even if they didn’t share the same level of enthusiasm. Social Democrats observed how Nazis took credit for early improvements in the economy and introduced distractions like inexpensive popular entertainment and state-subsidized holidays to create the impression that they were leveling social divisions. The Strength through Joy (KdF) program was a tool for maintaining that popular enthusiasm, even as goods became scarcer and the early economic successes evaporated. As Upton Sinclair stated so succinctly, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

Social Democratic Party leaders in exile were also in a position to receive reports on how the infamous Night of Long Knives was viewed by the population. On June 30, 1934, Hitler’s SS troops murdered Sturmabteilung (SA) leader Ernst Rohm and his followers, earning Hitler approval and sympathy from his supporters. To justify the slaughter, Hitler slandered the victims as homosexuals who were living high on their government salaries, and those who supported Hitler saw the event as proof that he wanted order and decency, and was willing to sacrifice his “best friends” for the good of the country. As shocking as the act was, it was easier for the average person to make these kinds of excuses in those early years.

A significant change took place over the decade that followed, as the promise of a party struggling against the establishment gave way to the reality of a party that represented the establishment. Reports on the attitudes of youths joining the party shifted drastically from exuberant enthusiasm in the early years to a cynical sense of necessity. One report quoted an initiate as saying, "I don't care in the least whether I'm admitted to the Party or not; it's all rubbish"'. By 1943, the SS had to recognize that public trust in German leadership had begun to erode, admitting that “The attempt from time to time to disguise the true picture when the situation was serious or to play down ominous military developments…have [sic] largely undermined trust in the press and radio which previously existed.” 

These attitudes reflect a belated realization among average people that they had been misled, but at what point could they have made a different choice? They chose leaders who promised to restore their dignity, to defend their personal economic interests, and to wipe away the depressing events of the previous generation. They saw the alternatives as weak, venal politicians, monarchs, and menacing revolutionaries and they weren’t wrong about that. Perhaps they should have recognized the threat to their power over their government presented by the Enabling Act, or by the trend towards authoritarianism championed by President von Hindenburg in the early 1930s. There is an undeniable appeal in the idea that more informed or more principled people would make better choices in a given situation, or that events drive people towards inevitable conclusions. But the choices made by German citizens during the rise of the Nazi party seemed reasonable to them at the time. The majority did not support the Nazis early on, and behavior that seems drastic and violent to modern people was either rationalized as necessary or was attributed to others.

Bibliography 


  • Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. "“Who Can Resist Temptation?” (December 1942)." In Nazism, 1919-1945, Vol. 4: The German Home Front in World War II. , edited by Jeremy Noakes, 594-96. Exeter: German History in Documents & Images, 1998. 
  • Detlev, J. K. Peukert. "Reports on the Sources of Workin-Class Support for the Nazis and the Limits to Opposition, 1935-1939." In The Nazi State and German Society: A Brief History with Documents, by Robert Moeller, 53-56. Bedford St. Martins, 1987. 
  • Hamilton, Richard F. "The Rise of Nazism: A Case Study and Review of Interpretations: Kiel, 1928-1933." German Studies Review 26, no. 1, 2003: 43-62. Janowitz, Morris. "German Reactions to Nazi Atrocities." American Journal of Sociology 52, no. 2, 1946: 141-46. 
  • Maschmann, Melita. "A German Teenager's Response to the Nazi Takeover in January 1933." In The Nazi State and German Society: A Brief History with Documents, edited by Robert Moeller, translated by Geoffrey Strachan, 47-48. London: Abelard-Schuman, 1963. 
  • Menke, Martin R. "Misunderstood Civic Duty: The Center Party and the Enabling Act." Journal of Church and State 51 (2), 2009: 236-64. 
  • Security Service (SS). "SD Report on the Attitude of Young People towards the Nazi Party (August 12, 1943)." In Nazism, 1919-1945, Vol. 4: The German Home Front in World War II., edited by Jeremy Noakes. Washington, D.C.: German Historical Institute, 1998. 
  • Security Service (SS). "SD Report to the Party Chancellery on “Basic Questions Regarding the Mood and Attitude of the German People” (November 29, 1943)." In Nazism, 1919-1945, Vol. 4: The German Home Front in World War II., edited by Jeremy Noakes. Washington, D.C.: German Historical Institute, 1998. 
  • Shirer, William. "Description of the Nazi Party Rally in Nuremburg, September 4-5, 1934." In The Nazi State and German Society, by Robert Moeller, 59-61. Boston: Little Brown, 1941. 
  • Sinclair, Upton. I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked. University of California Press, 1994. 
  • SOPADE. "Reports on Working-Class Attitudes toward the Murder of SA Leader Ernst Rohm 1934-1935." In The Nazi State: A Brief History with Documents, by Robert Moeller, 78-79. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Tragedy of Bill Cosby

By the time The Cosby Show premiered in 1984, I was already a huge fan of Bill Cosby from his comedy albums. I don't remember when I was introduced to those records, but I remember that I had a cassette with some of his most famous bits so I might have been ten or eleven. The timing of my fandom doesn't matter; what matters is the fact that my parents saw Cosby as being "safe" for their young son.

There is a conversation (still ongoing) in our culture about what can and what can't be said, and it's an important conversation. What makes it important is that it revolves around a Great Truth. Neils Bohr is credited with saying, "The opposite of a truth is a lie; the opposite of a Great Truth is also true." Bill Cosby's side of that Great Truth - articulated by Eddie Murphy years later in this clip which is full of "filth, flarn, filth" - was informed by the point of view of a man who was deeply invested in educating and lifting up children.



It was Cosby's pedigree as an educator, and his attitude as a parent, and his aversion to "blue" language in his comedy that made my parents determine that it was safe for me, as their pre-teen son, to listen to his records and watch his TV show.

Of course, there were a lot of other things about Cosby and his show that made my parents feel safe. There was a minimum of what they might think of as activism in Cosby's world. There were plenty of those moments where Cosby's TV wife, Claire Huxtable, would give The Look to someone - but the targets were easy TV-villains. (And woe to the TV-villain who drew the Claire Huxtable side-eye!)



On the positive side of Cosby's ledger, his work and his "safeness" gave me an entry point to a lot of things I still love and appreciate; jazz, smart black women, and "safe" comedy about families. (I have to admit that I see a lot of Cosby's approach in the way I told the stories in my own book.)

Tragically, though, his conviction on sexual assualt charges last year throws a lot of cold water over the positive side of his legacy. While it would be a lie to say his crimes undo the good work he did over the years, it would be a Great Truth to point out that his story illustrates the flaw in the way we all approach the cultural conversation about what is and isn't "safe."

For me, the realization that Cosby wasn't perfect came years ago; and along with it came the realization that my family (myself included) treating him as "one of the good ones" was born out of the racism we did not want to admit to. In fact, the incident that precipitated that realization was the so-called "pound cake speech" he gave in 2004; the same year that the sexual assault Cosby was convicted of took place.

I'm not going to re-litigate the fallout from that speech here, but I came away from it with an understanding that the values that made this man seem "safe" to my white, middle-class family in the 1980s did not translate to the kind of respect and compassion that actually makes someone respectable. Finding out fifteen years later that the man giving that speech was drugging and raping women at the same time just drives home the point: we weren't judging him on the content of his character; we were judging him on his ability to perform his role as one of the good ones.

And of course, one of the good ones means one of us.
Just dwell for a minute on who "us" includes and why.
Which brings us back around to the conversation about what can and what can't be said.

Bill Cosby's old comedy routines still feel important and relevant to me, because, as a kid, I felt like they conveyed my father's humanity to me in a way that I might have otherwise missed. By the time I became a truly rebellious teenager, Cosby's caricatures of himself and of his own father had permeated my psyche, allowing me to realize that my father felt just as lost and clueless in the world as I did. We weren't adversaries when he was trying to steer me into adulthood - we were traveling companions, lost on the same road.

Cosby's "safeness," though, created a gateway from which I could understand the edgier, dirtier comedians, like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. If you didn't watch the Eddie Murphy clip above, he does a pretty decent impersonation of both Cosby and Pryor, rather brilliantly highlighting (and mocking) his own style along the way. My parents would probably disapprove of my taking advantage of that gateway, but I learned some important things from comparing these three comedians.

Listening to Richard Pryor made me extremely uncomfortable--it still does. That didn't come from his frequent cursing or his absurd and psychedelic storytelling as much as it came from his approach to describing his own dark view of the world. The sublime discomfort I experienced hearing Richard Pryor forced me to use critical thinking to sort out why the things he was saying were the opposite of Great Truths. That habit of critical thinking made me more selective about Cosby's work than I had been, so by the time his tragic flaws came to light, I had already stopped viewing him as a heroic figure.

And I have to say that while listening to Eddie Murphy made me giggle...his work ultimately didn't hold any long term value for me. If anything demonstrates the emptiness of deriving cheap laughs from curse words, gross jokes, and debasing those around you (thinking of his "bush bitch" routine for one example), it's the career of Eddie Murphy.

So where does that put me in this great national conversation? I don't think it makes sense to tell anyone to simply stop talking. I look at the things that they say, and how the superficially "dirty" things are rarely as damaging or long-lasting as the underlying bad ideas. I look at how events have panned out (how heroes are built up and fall) and I also don't think it makes sense to keep repeating the bad ideas.

I guess the answer is to be open to listening, seek out a diversity of voices, be critical in how you deal with what you hear, and be flexible enough to allow that you will probably have to change your mind and admit you were wrong somewhere along the line.

Of course, after reading this, if you feel like you need a few minutes with a good comedian, I can recommend W. Kamau Bell - I can't guarantee he's "safe" for you, but he'll challenge you.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Now I Know Her Name

Her name was Ruby Bridges.

I didn't know her name when I was a kid, but I can't count how many times I saw the stock footage of her walking down the steps of that New Orleans schoolhouse when I was growing up.

found on the
Forum of the American Journal of Education
Being a white kid growing up in an almost all-white school in suburban Phoenix, I had no idea how to process what I saw in that clip. I really couldn't grasp the anger that would drive outwardly normal people to scream and threaten a school girl. Of course, I also struggled to understand why a kid would fight so hard to be allowed to go to school.

But as crass and as dumb as I was, the lesson still sank in: you, Tad, don't have to fight and struggle for what other people have to fight and struggle for. Years later, when the viral image illustrating the difference between "equality" and "equity" was circulating, I already understood that there was a third, unpictured frame in which the biggest kid is attacking the littlest kid and knocking him off his boxes.

I had seen that happening to Ruby Bridges.

Listening to Malcolm Gladwell tell the Revisionist History version of the story behind Brown vs. Board of Education, I realized for the first time that not only did the little girl in that footage take on a burden that I had never been asked to carry, but if we were wise, she wouldn't have had to carry it, either. When it came time to desegregate our schools, the teachers should have been first - not the students. Putting them through that ordeal would have still been awful, and it would have still been a powerful image to see public servants being attacked by that same crowd, but history demanded that a child suffer through the experience instead.

But now I know her name.

Ruby is featured on Card #45 of Vol. 2: Women, from Urban Intellectuals. awesome sets of educational Black History Flashcards.

Follow that link, and you can help arm educators with these tools, and support my writing on this blog.




Friday, February 8, 2019

Me and Levar Burton

When Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, I was a happy boy.

My first contact with Trek had come when my parents took me to see the third movie, Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. That was an odd choice for an entry point, in retrospect, but they knew I was a Star Wars fanatic, and they figured (correctly) that I might enjoy the other significant science fiction franchise while waiting for the next Star Wars movie to come out. And since our local TV station played Star Trek and Twilight Zone reruns in syndication all the time, I was able to quickly catch up on the original series... sorry, The Original Series... stories I had been missing.

By the time the Enterprise 1701-D finished its first dance across my TV screen, I was pretty firmly hooked on the new show. Of course, I didn't quite know what to make of some of those characters. The bald French guy as captain was nothing like James T. Kirk, and I didn't know quite how I felt about that android. For some reason, among all of these new characters (the fish-out-of-water Klingon; the cold-fish security officer; the geeky kid from Stand By Me), the one that seemed hardest to accept was the guy from Reading Rainbow.

Considering the fact that I was a 15-year-old band geek/sci-fi misfit myself, it's hard to explain how I could scorn Levar Burton for coming across as a nerd, but there you go. To my teen-aged way of judging things, he was someone from a "baby show" on PBS that I only watched when I was sick. He read his lines with the same intensity he brought to reading Shel Silverstein, and because his costume design hid his eyes, it felt like he had to overact to make any impression on the audience.

It seems counter-intuitive now that I would have disliked him then, but I think that 15-year-old me was responding to seeing someone on the screen who reminded me of myself: someone earnest, and awkward, and deeply, deeply excited by the idea of taking a starship to another part of the galaxy. He made me uncomfortable, in part because I had been taught not to expect those things for myself, and I blamed him for that discomfort.

Life happened, though, and Star Trek and I went through a lot of changes over the years. The show got better and my tastes matured. By the time the finale aired in 1994, Geordi La Forge had become an essential part of what Star Trek was to me. In the years since, along with the TNG movies, I came to appreciate all of the other work Levar Burton had done.

The 15-year-old me who dismissed Reading Rainbow as a "baby show" couldn't have foreseen how profoundly grateful I would be to have Levar Burton read to my own babies. Back then, I was about ten years away from caring about genealogy and family history, and from being so profoundly moved by reading Alex Haley's Roots (the mini-series version of which starred one Levar Burton). And the miracle of podcasts had yet to deliver him reading grown-up stories to me in the car on my commute.

Looking back at ST:TNG from the context of our modern times, there are a lot of things that I know now that I didn't know then. I didn't know about the backlash against "political correctness" that would come; I didn't know that the show was criticized for its "forced diversity" back then. The few whispers of that kind of talk that I did hear seemed silly, and I took for granted that a flagship TV show on a start-up network would have two black actors in lead roles. I took for granted that seeing him listed as director on subsequent series was normal.

These days, I often hear people argue about representation - on TV, in fiction, in the STEM fields - and this is frequently framed as something that is only for people who belong to marginalized groups. As if the only people who benefit from seeing black people on TV are other black people. But I find that my own experience of seeing Levar Burton in Star Trek benefited me. Without him, I don't know that I would have had a role model as passionate about the things I love and as open about his passion for those things.

When my own kids grew old enough to be interested in watching Next Generation, I discovered something else that I hadn't recognized back in the early 1990s: Geordi La Forge was kind of a badass! And that Reading Rainbow nerd is planted firmly in my podcatcher, and I can't wait for the next season of Levar Burton Reads.

Who knew?

Monday, February 4, 2019

Badass Abolitionists

When I was a kid, I had the whole set of ValueTales books - a series that paired up historical figures with a cartoon sidekick and told their life story in a way that emphasized values, like "Determination" or "Respect."

The figure they chose to highlight the value of "Helping" was Harriet Tubman. If you don't already know her story, she was an escaped slave who became a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad. After serving as a soldier, spy, cook, and nurse in the Union Army during the Civil War, she continued to fight for equal rights and for women's suffrage until her death in 1913.

Tubman, c. 1855
(Wikipedia)
Because I knew Harriet's story at an early age, I was proud and excited to learn about my own family's connection to the Underground Railroad - even though Great-Uncle George's farm was nowhere near where the famous "Moses" led her people out of the South.

Of course, I also noticed from an early age how wrong it sounded whenever someone would talk about Abraham Lincoln "giving the slaves their freedom." Nobody gave freedom to Harriet Tubman - she fought for it. As did thousands of others. Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas - enough amazing people to keep a blog like this going for centuries, if we wanted to tell every individual story.

The truth was that Lincoln himself was a reluctant late-comer when it came to the ending of slavery. And without the decades of hard work and resistance of people like Harriet Tubman, before and after his famous proclamation, who knows how long it would have been perpetuated?


Harriet Tubman is featured on Black History Flashcard #22, from Vol. 2: Women of Urban Intellectuals' series of educational flashcards. You can help support my writing AND the mission to give educators better tools for teaching kids about these important people from our history if you visit Urban Intellectuals and get a set (or four) of flashcards for yourself!

Vol. 2: Women also features Sojourner Truth (Flashcard #47) and 50 other amazing women of color. I'll be featuring more of my personal favorites during the month of February.


Friday, February 1, 2019

Me and Black History


In 1974, when I was barely two years old, my mother bought a record: the soundtrack to the motion picture The Sting. I grew up hearing that music, particularly the movie's theme song, The Entertainer, by Scott Joplin. I would argue that with the possible exception of B.J. Thomas's Oscar-winning recording of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head* (from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), The Entertainer was my "first song."

When you're a kid, you don't know how significant the things in your life really are, because to a kid, every new thing is significant. I didn't know that my foundational musical experiences were being shaped by Paul Newman/Robert Redford buddy-movie soundtracks. I just knew I liked these songs, and it made my mom happy when I sang them and tried to play them on a plastic toy guitar.

As I grew up, of course, I learned what "ragtime" was. I began to study music and the history of music, and of course, I picked up on the ways the music I loved most was based on traditions and ideas that came from black people. I remember learning about the ways that black musicians - particularly blues musicians - found their music being borrowed, "sanitized," and turned into the multi-billion-dollar juggernaut that is Rock-n-Roll without getting anywhere near the recognition or financial reward that their white imitators got. I suppose that pattern came up often enough that when people talked about ragtime and the music of Scott Joplin, I just assumed that his was that same kind of story.

Since his music was associated in my mind with Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and B.J. Thomas, it was easy for me to assume that Scott Joplin had taken black music and popularized it, as others have done time and again. It just never occurred to be to be curious about who Scott Joplin was or what his story was, because his name and his music had been in my head for as long as language and memory could take root.

So last year, when the subject of Ragtime came up in my History of Music in the U.S. class, it was an odd sort of shock to see a picture of Scott Joplin for the first time:



Until I was in my forties, I did not know that Scott Joplin was black.

Knowing this changes nothing about how I feel about the music. In a world that was as egalitarian and democratic as ours claims to be, this demographic note would probably not register as an important detail. But for me, the fact that I made it through more than forty-five years without knowing this plain fact about one of the first composers I was exposed to was a revelation about representation and visibility.

The concept of erasure - or, as the New York Times Magazine defines it, "the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible" - is something I've always been half-aware of. It's that indifference that keeps people from speaking up when some guy at a party claims that the reason there aren't more female comedians is because women aren't funny. It's that indifference that allows an elected official who thinks that only white people should be credited with the success of Western civilization to be re-elected.

Countering that kind of claim is not hard to do, assuming you have the least amount of curiosity in the subject being spouted off about. If someone tried to claim that black people have made no contribution to Western Culture it wouldn't be hard for me to poke huge holes in that claim even without citing Scott Joplin, but it says something about the larger trend of our cultural experience that even someone like me - a very curious person with a history of scholarly inquiry into these matters - can fall victim to that collective indifference.

The shock I felt upon learning Joplin's ethnicity came from realizing that I had been so incurious about Scott Joplin, I effectively rendered one of my earliest cultural influences invisible. I want to reverse that trend.

To that end, I've planned out a small series of posts like this one that will talk about specific people from marginalized groups who have been important to me, personally. I'm launching this during Black History Month because this past holiday break was the first time I had a chance to work on this, and this seemed like the kind of thing that Black History Month was created for! (I'm sure it's just a coincidence that the tradition is about the same age as me.)

Some of these stories will be about people who, like Scott Joplin, affected me in my childhood; some will be about people I've only discovered because I'm actively seeking them out now. Some will be heroes, some will be villains, and some will be people I don't like. (The Venn diagram of those three groups may be different for you than they are for me.)

My agenda here is not to call anyone out or make anyone feel bad about not knowing these things. Quite the opposite: it's to show how flawed I am, and to make a public attempt to address the flaws.

More than anything else, my hope is to introduce you to something that gives me joy - the joy of being curious.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

On A Mission From God

This past semester, I took History of Music in the U.S. with Dr. David Cosper at Towson University. For your enjoyment, here is my final argument essay from that course. 


The setting is Maxwell Street, on the near West Side of Chicago, a street long known for its open-air markets and for being the birthplace of Chicago Blues. During the 1930s and 1940s, many black musicians arrived in Chicago from the segregated South and found that their traditional instruments were not loud enough to be heard over the crowd and the street noise. They began to adopt electrically amplified instruments, powered by extension cords provided by local business owners keen on attracting the business of people coming to hear the blues music being played on their street (Smith).

The scene shows an older black man with an electric guitar and a deep, powerful voice, performing with his band for an admiring crowd. Two white men, one tall and one stout, both wearing black suits, black hats, and dark sunglasses, stop and watch for a moment. The tall one says simply, “Yep,” before exchanging a nod with the singer and moving on with his brother into the restaurant behind them.

The white men were Jake and Elwood Blues, the Blues Brothers, played by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in the 1980 film of that name. The guitar player leading the street band (billed as the “Maxwell Street Musicians”) was John Lee Hooker, who made his name in the 1950s and 1960s by developing his own style of boogie-woogie rhythm based on the country Delta Blues he grew up with.

The scene consists almost entirely of Hooker’s performance and runs less than 3 minutes within a two and a quarter hour long movie. The dialogue is both minimal and completely unnecessary to the plot of the film, but that moment encapsulates the intended spirit of The Blues Brothers. Aykroyd, whose love of blues music was described as “somewhere between encyclopedic and monomaniacal,” wrote the movie, and introduced the music to Belushi, with whom he created the act (Vanity Fair). It was Aykroyd who said of the blues musicians who inspired him and the clubs that featured them, "I want people to fill their showrooms and bars and buy their records. That's my mission" (Newbart).

Upon its release in 1980, the film met with a now-familiar mix of criticism and enthusiasm. Critics panned some of the excessive and disorganized elements of the plot while praising some of the individual performances. Pauline Kael criticized the casting of Cab Calloway as a janitor, Aretha Franklin as a waitress in a soul food restaurant, and James Brown as a preacher who tears the church apart with his sermonizing and dancing as “some-what patronizing.” And Jim O'Neal, who founded Living Blues magazine in Chicago in 1966, said that while the movie "was one of the factors that contributed to a blues boom" in the 1980s, it also contributed to the “image of blues bands to many people [as] two white guys in hats” (Newbart).

The harshest criticism suggests that the Blues Brothers act is a form of blackface minstrelsy, in which white performers make money by mimicking black people. Adam Gussow, an English graduate student at Princeton University studying post-Civil War American culture contends that the Blues Brothers’ act played up the idea that “blues is good-time party music." Gussow says, "They were responsible for re-creating blues as that. Blues has always been partly good-time party music for the black community -- but that was for the weekend, after a week of working hard under extreme duress” (Knopper).

Defenders of the Blues Brothers tend to argue that Aykroyd’s intentions were to revive the careers of his idols, and they point to the success of the film and albums as evidence that he did so. This defense is difficult to support objectively, at best. Subjectively, Sam Moore, of Sam and Dave, said that the Blues Brothers' chart hit cover version of "Soul Man" did "not a thing" for the original performers. "If anything, believe it or not, it buried us," he said, arguing that people remember the newer version, not the 1967 original (Knopper). And while the film gave John Lee Hooker and Aretha Franklin their first appearances on the big screen, Mike Kappus, Hooker's agent at the time, said Hooker greatly appreciated the high-profile appearance, but "the impact of the movie on his career was almost nonexistent” (Newbart).

Perhaps a better way to frame a defense of the Blues Brothers would be to acknowledge the problematic history of minstrelsy, and to consider the way the individual artists and band members involved in the project were treated, how they felt about their roles, and how their characters were represented in the context of the film. It is also worth considering responses to other projects where prominent white artists hire or feature black artists.

Later in the decade, similar criticism was leveled at Sting when he hired several renowned jazz musicians to play on his first solo album: saxophonist Branford Marsalis, drummer Omar Hakim, bassist Darryl Jones and keyboardist Kenny Kirkland. Marsalis’s brother, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, accused Branford of selling out and called Sting’s project a stain on jazz; and The Village Voice went so far as to dismiss the album as “Sting Sings With Negroes” in its review (Brogan). According to Sting, “The band made a decision to play with me, and it wasn't just because I was paying well. I think these guys are of such personal and musical stature, they wouldn't want to play with me if they didn't think it was worth doing. I don't see them as my back-up band. ...I felt it was a band.” It would seem that despite the criticism, the musicians agreed on that point. In particular, Kenny Kirkland continued to play on Sting albums until his death in 1996, indicating that he appreciated the collaborative spirit of the work.

In that light, The Blues Brothers could probably be viewed as another form of collaboration, and judged according to how the artists involved felt about it. Since the plot of the movie revolves around “getting the band back together,” it is worth noting the pedigree of the musicians in the band. The core of the rhythm section included Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn, both alumni of the Stax record company, which was notable for being an integrated company in Memphis during the 1960s, and for producing and promoting black artists. Cropper and Dunn were members of Booker T and the MGs, as well as regular session players during the first half of Stax’s heyday (Maultsby & Burnim, 136). With Matt Murphy on guitar and Willie Hall on drums, the band was racially integrated, and firmly rooted in a Memphis sound, though with the addition of a New York horn section, and arrangements done by Paul Shaffer, the band had a distinctly upbeat, pop sensibility to it. Aykroyd described them as “a Chicago, electrified, urban blues band, fused with the Memphis Stax/Volt movement” (Kenney, 13:06).

With the band in place behind two white frontmen, the project still had plenty of room for more black performers. The four big stars featured with both speaking cameos and musical numbers backed by the Blues Brothers Band were Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin. All four have published autobiographies, as well as having official biographies; it is worth comparing their own thoughts with those of their biographers.

Ray Charles had already published his autobiography the year before the Blues Brothers began filming. His legacy was well-established, and he only briefly referenced the film in the 1992 re-issue of the autobiography. However, his biographer, Michael Lydon, described the 1980s as a low point in which “his invisibility as complete as it would get” (341). The film shoot was an “enjoyable few days” on the South Side of Chicago, in which Aykroyd and Belushi put Charles at ease and romped through his musical number. As the blind proprietor of a music shop who stops a shoplifter with a well-placed pistol round, Ray is portrayed as savvy and in control of his establishment, but generous enough to extend credit to the band so they can pay for their instruments. A fair assessment of the experience might be to say that Charles enjoyed this appearance as important, but considered it a small part of the resurgence of his career that he would stage over the following decade.

James Brown and his biographer agree that his career was also at a low point in 1979 when Brown decided to sue his record company and stage a comeback. Brown concisely stated his opinion about the film and the filmmakers: “People who criticized John and Danny were confused. They didn’t understand that the Blue Brothers were actors pretending to be R&B performers. I know Danny and John themselves weren’t confused about it, and you could tell from the respect they gave the real R&B performers on the movie that they knew what they were doing. They were there for every take I did, and they treated me fantastic” (256).

Brown’s biographer, R.J. Smith, was less generous, quoting Pauline Kael’s line about the casting being “some-what patronizing,” and elaborating that “The script left you wondering if they understood the culture they professed to admire” (328). He also quoted Brown’s bandmates regarding their impressions of the change in their audience that came with the boost from appearing in The Blues Brothers. Trumpet player Hollie Farris noted that “Whites knew who he was, but then they saw him in that movie and decided they wanted to see more of him.” He further commented that “in 1975, it was ninety-nine percent black audiences. And then it started to change, and before you knew it, it was mostly white.” Guitarist Ron Laster joined Brown’s band in 1979, and after playing for a crowd of 54 at New York’s Beacon Theater before the film’s release, he noted that after the film came out, “We would destroy these places because they were so packed, and the girls so close to you. We used to love it, I said love it” (330).

Aretha Franklin was pleased with her role, as were the critics. According to Franklin’s autobiography, she “was relaxed and ready to go. [She] played the part of a loving but agitated wife whose husband is about to abandon her for the Blues Brothers band” (182). Pauline Kael said of Franklin’s performance that “she’s so completely there and so funny as she sings ‘Think’ that she transcends the film’s incompetence.” There was even talk of her being considered for a “Best Supporting Actress” Academy Award nomination (Berg 184).

This talk of an Academy Award may seem far-fetched in the context of a project that is essentially a two-hour Saturday Night Live sketch, but it is worth noting that Franklin’s role seems to call back to one of the original themes of blues music: the woman who is abandoned by her man to fend for herself. Rather than wilting or breaking down, Franklin is shown as strong and able to fend for herself. It is also significant that she is the owner of the restaurant that Matt works in, even if the film’s critics tend to reduce her role there to that of “a waitress” and describe the place as “a greasy coffee shop” or a “hash house.” While it would be wrong to claim that her character breaks with any common stereotypes, the subtexts in the script and her performance combine to present her as a real black woman in a position of relative power and respect in her community. And despite making a firm plea to keep Matt at home with her, she demonstrates both independence and tolerance after he leaves. Later in the film, when the children of the orphanage are deployed by Curtis to hand out signs advertising the show, she rolls her eyes but takes the poster.

Curtis, played by Cab Calloway, is the most interesting character of the four to examine when considering The Blues Brothers as a modern example of “blackface minstrelsy.” From Calloway’s first appearance onscreen, it is clear that Aykroyd is trying to establish some legitimacy for his character by showing Curtis in the same black suit and hat that Jake and Elwood wear. Elwood explicitly says to Curtis that “you and the penguin [the nun who runs the orphanage] are the only family we got, and you’re the only one who was ever good to us” and reminisces about hearing Elmore James records as a kid growing up in the orphanage. It is clear both that Elwood truly reveres his elder influences and that Aykroyd reveres his, and wants to claim their mantle of authenticity.

Calloway, even more so than Ray Charles, had already had a long and storied career. His autobiography was published in 1976, and he described himself as being in “semi-retirement,” stating, “I’m still an active entertainer, but I pick my spots” (244). Calloway had a closer relationship than anyone involved in the Blues Brothers to actual minstrelsy, having originally become a star during the Cotton Club era of the 1920s and 1930s. By 1979, his career had followed the trends to the point that he was performing a disco version of his classic “Minnie the Moocher.” The astounding reception of his classic performance of that song in The Blues Brothers convinced him to abandon the disco version. That success may have had something to do with Calloway’s statement that “The Blues Brothers is the best role I’ve ever had” (Shypton 174).

Yet, as a professional black performer for more than five decades, it is impossible to suggest that Calloway did not recognize the built-in insult of his role in the film. Quoting David Denby in New York Magazine, Calloway’s biography says, “These vaudeville musicals...often featured jazz musicians or black singers and dancers who would never get to star in a movie of their own. ...things haven’t changed that much in 45 years... The great old Cab Calloway...sings “Minnie The Moocher” in white tie and tails, in front of a huge audience, killing time for an impatient crowd while the boys are being chased by the police. Calloway’s smile— the seal of a great entertainer’s joy in giving pleasure— shows up Aykroyd and Belushi’s sullen “cool” for the sophomoric thing it is. Yet what an insulting context for Calloway’s triumph— as a fill-in!” (Shypton 176).

The question this raises is whether Calloway considered what Aykroyd was doing to be respectful or not. Does the fact that he went along with it somehow signify that Calloway considered the project to be one that promoted black artists instead of exploiting them? It may be impossible to say that in an absolute way, but it is certain that Calloway was a pragmatist when it came to race and his career. “I’ve always accepted the fact that I’m Negro. I don’t know anything else. I’ve been kicked in my ass all my life because of it, and, hell, I’ve come through it and become a star. Everybody has got to endure a certain amount of ass kicking to make it. People will step on you as you move along and there’s no way to avoid it. The only difference between a black and a white entertainer is that my ass has been kicked a little more and a lot harder because it’s black.” In the end, whether he was too classy, too kind, or too grateful, Calloway would probably never openly criticize the project--and that says a lot about the perceived power differential between even a beloved black entertainer and the white, mainstream of Hollywood.

Perhaps the best defense of the movie is to compare the black and white characters overall. In general, black people who appear in the movie, whether as characters or extras, are “normal.” They have jobs, they are part of their community, and even when they get pulled into a dance number, they are part of an average, every day, integrated Chicago. Representation of minor characters can be seen in the recurring Chicago police officers with speaking roles who are played by both black and white actors. And as mentioned before, Franklin, Charles, and Calloway are all normal people with real jobs, just trying to get by.

By contrast, it is the white characters who are played for laughs, as silly villains or faceless and violent rubes. The country band that Jake and Elwood hoodwink (The Good Ole Boys) and the Illinois Nazis are played for foils, often coming to violently over-the-top ends. The Blues Brothers themselves are not exactly held up as role models, despite the supposed nobility of their mission. Their interactions with the wealthy (white) patrons of the fancy restaurant are played as a low rent class rebellion against the snooty well-to-do.

It seems clear that Aykroyd and Belushi had the best of intentions, and that they succeeded in creating a platform through which a few of the black artists they admired could--and did--reach a broader audience. None of the criticism leveled at them seems to offer a better way to attempt a project like this that would avoid the problematic history of minstrelsy. But perhaps the best we can hope for is that individuals like Aykroyd will continue to pay the most honest homage possible to their roots and that whether those roots are a black or white cultural treasure, we will recognize them as human treasures.

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