I awoke this morning with an epiphany about racism triggered by two Bill Clinton events that abruptly broke into my transcendental psychological space. The first was hearing him on an NPR piece “improvising” a tenor sax solo to the tune of “Summertime” -- late at night at a beer joint in front of Vacel Havel in Czechoslovakia. The second was seeing the crushed and intensely angered look on his face when asked if he thought Barack Obama was qualified to be President of the U.S.
Here, as we have seen before, we saw two contradictory sides of Bill Clinton: both the best and the worse sides of him at the same time. To me, an ex- “C-rated” Jazz trumpeter myself, I hope the reader can appreciate how being able to improvise a solo on “Summertime” puts you at the top of musical royalty of all “60s styled wannabe hipsters.” Summertime was one of the “coming out” songs for all young musicians, and Clinton’s rendition before the Czech audience sounded just short of professional. Except for the “cracked” reed tone, it would have taken a trained eye to know the difference. I am actually trying to acquire the soundtrack.
It is this side of Bill Clinton that charmed not only Vacel Havel, but the American nation and the ex- little black boy from Pine Bluff, Ark that remains inside me, as well. For how can I fail to remember the dread I felt as solo trumpeter, called upon to play the same solo in our High School spring concert in 1959 at Merrill High School. At the time, I, as was Bill, was the “student Band Director” asked to perform this final honor before graduating and preparing to go out into the world to find my fortune. None of my colleagues in the band knew that before being called upon to play that solo, I had “woodsheded” (practiced) for weeks, just on the outside chance I might be called upon for this special honor. And of course I nailed it and have since been remembered for nothing grander than that single solo performance.
And so it is with Bill, no matter what else he does, being President; even a law degree from Yale; or being a Rhodes scholar cannot compare with being able to improvise “Summertime” before an international audience. So, I could not have been prouder of Bill than hearing him strain to the depths of his soul “making the tricky chord changes” in his solo before a small but intimate international audience: It was a case of Arkansas boy from the same AAA Conference “doing good out in the world.” It warmed my heart in ways that few can appreciate.
In Bill Clinton’s second act, and here is where the epiphany about racism comes into play, I, of course, as apparently did everyone else, studied every nuance of his demeanor (well beyond just the visible pain of his facial expressions) with the same level of scrutiny as I did his Summertime sax solo, I concluded that even though it was as clear as day that he and Hilary had repeatedly “played the race card,” (and dealt it from the bottom of the deck each time, to steal Mc Cain’s misappropriated metaphor about Obama) the man clearly did not believe he had done anything wrong? Bill Clinton was genuinely hurt. It was not feigned hurt, as the Clinton’s are wont to do.
And now here comes my epiphany: Clinton was hurt because the cover that previously had protected him from such “expected political sliminess and racial demagoguery,” had somehow been cancelled and withdrawn. The mores of the South, ever so imperceptively had changed: Had Obama been just another white liberal, “n-word-baiting” before a southern audience would have been as appropriate and as expected as playing the melody to Gerwin’s Summertime before them would have been. But somehow, in the interim, in the time since Bill left the Presidency, he had missed a beat. Somehow he was now caught with his pants down “playing out of tune” before his own home audience: He had not “woodsheded for this particular “solo presentation” on his own home turf. The “key signature” to America’s racial caste system had abruptly changed And while yesterday Bill could play with great feelings and finesse before a Czech crowd; today before his own beloved South, he and Hilary seemed strangely not just out of tune, but also so “out of step” with their own times. They both had lost a step, and had done so with their own southern American audience.
Obama, whether he wins or loses is a sign that “Summertime” and the “St. Louis Blues” are slowly changing to different key signatures. And it is this musical metaphor that allows us to see what is both right and wrong with our country.
For over two hundred years systemic racism has been the norm, the overarching invisible rule of America’s musical harmony, the glue that has kept the polity together, and has meant that we have all been “forced to play” in the same key, the key of “R.” It is the key signature of the racial caste system: Where all of the rules of Jim Crow are enforced as a rigid but silent code always operating in the background of our heads. In order to “stay in tune,” one need only glance back at the number of “sharps” and “flats” to know where “not to go,” in American society. It is still very unsafe to be an “anti-racist,” but as the Clintons discovered, today, “n-word-baiting” is definitely passé.
John McCain, please take heed?