Thursday, September 20, 2012

Invisible Men

Ralph Ellison
In 1952, black American author Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man, a novel that addressed many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans in the early part of the twentieth century. The book, which Ellison began in the summer of 1945 in a barn in Waitsfield, Vermont, while on sick leave from the Merchant Marine, became a passionate, angry declaration of independence. (Ellison had already asserted a bold independence when he wouldn't serve in the segregated army, but chose merchant marine service over the draft.) But Ellison's rage wasn't just directed towards the racist society that had rendered him invisible, but also his disillusionment with the Communist Party he had joined and supported in the mid-Thirties.

Ellison felt betrayed by Party leaders who he felt had treated the black civil rights struggle as merely an expedient symbol, a means to an end in the Marxist class struggle against capitalism. Culture critic Robert Warshow would accurately address this phenomenon, the Stalinist corruption of American intellectual life, a couple of years later in The Nation. "[I]n the '30s radicalism entered upon an age of organized disingenuousness, when every act and every idea had behind it some 'larger consideration' which destroyed its honesty and meaning," he wrote. "Everyone became a professional politician, acting within a framework of 'realism' that tended to make political activity an end in itself. The half-truth was elevated to the position of a principle, and in the end the half-truth, in itself, became more desirable than the whole-truth." For Ellison, this couldn't have been true when considering the non-aggression pact that was signed between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

During that time, the Party had urged blacks to oppose the war. But once the Soviets were forced to ally with the United States, the Party demanded that blacks support the war effort. "If they want to play ball with the bourgeoisie they needn't think they can get away with it," Ellison wrote to fellow novelist and friend Richard Wright, who was also a disillusioned Party member. "Maybe we can't smash the atom, but we can, with a few well chosen, well written words, smash all that crummy filth to hell." Invisible Man was filled with many of those well chosen, well written words, all of them designed to smash all that crummy filth to hell.

Clint Eastwood and the chair

I was reminded of Ellison's novel and much of his anger when watching Clint Eastwood's rambling rant to the crowd at the recent Republican convention. This moment, which has correctly been perceived as bizarre, is also characteristic of the whole political event. Eastwood stood on stage with the expressed goal of introducing Mitt Romney, his party's nominee, but he chose instead to address America's first elected black President Barack Obama, who was represented simply by an empty chair. From that chair, the non-visible Obama could speak, but only in words that Clint Eastwood would hear. Eastwood alone would speak for him. In his drawling manner of talking, Eastwood portrayed Obama as merely an emblem of America's love affair with an idea. No longer a man, a political leader with a vision and policies that speak to his country and the citizens who voted for him, the Obama that Eastwood spoke of was nothing more than a symbol of finally putting the whip of slavery, the stain on America's legacy, in its grave. So, while seemingly conjuring up the man, Obama was deliberately made invisible at that moment on that stage, just as Ralph Ellison had been an invisible emblem for the Communist Party back in the Forties.

Reaction to Obama's election in 2008
Of course, Obama's victory in 2008 had symbolic power especially for those who had fought with Martin Luther King in the Sixties to bring justice and equal rights to blacks. Before he was assassinated, in fact, the night before he would be shot down in April 1968, King talked about getting to the mountain top and seeing the Promised Land, a land he knew he wouldn't live to see. None of us who heard that speech in 1968 could truly imagine what that land looked like either, or whether we would also live to see it. It took us forty years. But with that historic night in 2008 came a covenant, a promise that bound America to the ideals held in its founding documents, a vision that Barack Obama saw as his own, as a leader of a long, hard struggle. But Clint Eastwood's piece of absurdist theatre told us something about the way Obama is still perceived in his homeland; it told us of a country that just can't reconcile itself to a black man being in the White House. For not only did Eastwood attempt to reduce Obama to this empty symbol, he also tried to disenfranchise him for both his presidency and for being part of the very history Ralph Ellison eloquently brought to light in his novel.

Randy Newman
Sometimes artists can pick up the tenor of what isn't being expressed better than politicians and editorialists, or those who are looking for an angle, or some means to sum up a person or an event. Singer/songwriter Randy Newman has been on the margins of American life writing about its covenant when he's not doing movie scores or songs for Pixar pictures. Since the Seventies, Newman wrote and performed many political songs that didn't cater to popular opinion. Songs like "Sail Away," "Rednecks" and "It's Money That I Love" had a way of giving no comfort to partisan supporters. His natural audience might always be educated white liberals, but the intricacy of his songs can break out of any ideological straitjacket of political dogma. "His songs are not political screeds, they are observations on life," wrote a fan who just happened to be a Republican from Chicago. "And they're right on target. Whether it's the devastation of 'Louisiana 1927' or using 'Rednecks' to zero in on the hypocrisy of the Northern liberal to whom integration is but a distant rumour, Randy Newman paints a picture of life in America which isn't always pretty."

Before the end of the George W. Bush era, Newman painted another one of those pictures of life in America called "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country," a largely forgotten track on his Harps and Angels (2006) album. (You'll likely never hear it on the radio. No one heard it even then.) In the song, he tries to justify the leaders he'd been just living under in America by comparing them to some of the worst in history (Caligula, Torquemada, King Leopold of Belgium, Hitler and Stalin all make the cut), but the dark horrors of their regimes hardly helps him sleep nights. A few years earlier, Newman had appeared on Bob Edwards' NPR show, Morning Edition, where Edwards questioned him about "Sail Away," his song about the slave trade, a song told from the point of view of the slave trader enticing African blacks to America. How could Newman write such a beautiful, majestic song about such a horrible subject and from the point of view of the perpetrator? "What am I supposed to say," Newman replied. "Slavery is bad? It's like falling out of an airplane and hitting the ground. It's just too easy. And it has no effect." Which may be why, when he decided to address the question of racism lurking beneath Eastwood's barking at an invisible Obama in an empty chair, he turned to the least likely song for inspiration.

Who would have suspected that Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" could inspire acts of subversion? Here was a composition written by a Jewish composer who had (like in "Easter Parade") taken away even the Christian holiday from the number. He made the song instead about snow. Nevertheless, the idea of a white Christmas could be used to suggest something other than what it is in the song. The first act of subversion, for instance, was Clyde McPhatter & The Drifter's sly 1954 interpretation that lent the song a whole other meaning when sung by a popular black R&B group (especially in a year when Brown v. Board of Education made racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional). Following their lead, 58 years later, Randy Newman, in his characteristic untrustworthy narrator voice, re-writes the song ("I'm Dreaming") into a topical examination of the current state of his country in the time of a key election.

“No other Western industrialized nation would've elected a black president. I’m proud of this country for having elected Obama in 2008," he told American Songwriter magazine this week. "But from the beginning of his term, I noticed a particular heat to conversations that wouldn't ordinarily generate that kind of passion: The budget, appointments, health care. I think there are a lot of people who find it jarring to have a black man in the White House and they want him out. They just can’t believe that there’s not a more qualified white man. You won’t get anyone, and I do mean anyone, to admit it." Trust Randy Newman, as he had earlier in "Sail Away" and "Rednecks," to remind us of what people generally don't like to talk about: 
I'm dreaming of a white President
Buh buh buh buh
'Cause things have never been this bad
So he won't run the hundred in ten seconds flat
So he won't have a pretty jump shot
Or be an Olympic acrobat
So he won't know much about global warming
Is that really where you're at?
He won't be the brightest, perhaps
But he'll be the whitest
And I'll vote for that.

Like the America that Ralph Ellison saw before him, Newman's country also encompasses all things we don't find warm and comforting. "The real American day hasn't begun yet," D.H. Lawrence wrote back in 1924. "American consciousness has so far been a false dawn...You have got to pull the democratic and idealistic clothes off American utterance and see what you can of the dusky body of IT underneath." "I'm Dreaming" represents an avid quest to dig deeply into that dusky body of American utterance, making visible what has till now been invisible. To be an American dreamer, the song cleverly reminds us, means learning how to live with the unresolvable truths of what those dreams sometimes mean. This has always been Randy Newman's hardship to endure and our challenge to embrace. 

Randy Newman's "A Few Words In Defense of Our Country":

Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters' "White Christmas":

Randy Newman's "I'm Dreaming":

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John CorcelliCourrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.  

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