The ink is black, the page is white
Together we learn to read and write
A child is black, a child is white
The whole world looks upon the sight
A beautiful sightThree Dog Night
I grew up conscious of both class and race. I didn’t exactly understand it at the time, I have always noticed differences. Malcolm Gladwell, remember “Outliers?”Chapter 6? He also wrote a book called “Blink.” In it he talks about “thin slicing,” how humans don’t take in all available information at once. We scan, grab bits and pieces, and evaluate. Sometimes we judge, or condemn.
I used to describe myself as a scanner. If I am attuned, and I usually am, I pick up the vibe as I step into the room. Some would say it’s from growing up in a chaotic household, a symptom of PTSD. It’s a hypervigilence that still has me sitting with my back to the wall.
I’m not always talking, but I’m always watching and listening. Sometimes I’m a wallflower. When I was going through my Kerouac phase, reading everything he had written and everything written about him, he was described as the quiet one in the corner, watching everything and remembering it all. I’m no Kerouac, but stream of consciousness writing is my favorite way to write.
Growing up in Romney from 1970-1974, our local news was from Washington, DC, about 90 minutes to 2 hours away by car. On top of the mountain, we’d receive those TV stations clearly. I’d watch the CBS Nightly News with “Walter Concrete.” I’d see the draft numbers scroll by, see what was happening with Vietnam and at Kent State. There was mention of Patty Hearst, the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Black Panthers.
Of course, Watergate dominated the news. When we took our first real family vacation, other than going back to Kentucky for holidays, we went to the nation’s capital to see all the sights. The Watergate Hotel was one of them. Mom bought a book of matches with a plastic bug glued onto it.
On the local news it was all politics, in the same way local news in Los Angeles is all entertainment, but there was constant coverage of inner-city DC, race relations and talk of racial equality, of how the races should have “rap sessions,” to come together and understand one another. How the word “colored” was no longer cool, but “black” was. (Funny how the NAACP never changed its name.)
I would watch Soul Train before bed on Saturday night. Speaking into a hairbrush, pretending to be Don Cornelius, I’d record my own Afro Sheen commercials on the Webcor cassette player we got from the Fingerhut catalog. Why I did this I really can’t say. I was too young to be out dancing as if my limbs had joints other than hinges. I was too young for colorful clothing and bell-bottom britches, I was too pale to ever be included in such fun, but I knew old Don was one cool cat and his people knew how to boogie.
Our little town was all white, God how I hate using that word that way, but there was one black family in town and Patty, skin blacker than brown, her hair looking nothing like ours, was our classmate. One day, the teacher asked Patty to deliver a note to the principal’s office for her. When Patty left the room, the teacher told us all that the night before on the Johnny Carson show Muhammed Ali and George Foreman were his guests.
She proceeded to tell of how at one point they picked Johnny up, one on each side of him, and Mr. Carson remarked that he felt like the filling of an Oreo cookie. She, predictably, told us not to tell Patty. The class was a mixture of stunned, bewildered and amused. I went home and told my mother, who thought it was highly inappropriate.
I didn’t know too much about black folks. Back in Hazard there had been a few. I remember a man who seemed old to me named Alvin. Alvin, like one of the chipmunks, could peel an apple with a pocket know so that it was one long interrupted peel. There were also the black ladies up the street at the little market. At the age of 4 or so, I was trusted to walk up the block with a little change for a Blue Bunny strawberry ice cream sandwich.
Those rotund black women were barefoot, or maybe wearing sandals. I remember asking why the top of their skin was dark and the palms of their hands and soles of their feet were like mine. All I remember was them falling out laughing at the little white boy.
In Romney, I remember my father learning that Mr. Brooks, our minister at the local United Methodist Church, also was pastor to a small black congregation that I never knew the location of. When my father found out, he demanded that Mom, brother and I stop going to the Methodist church. Dad wasn’t the church type. He alleged that money going to the Methodists would makes its way to the black church which would make it’s way to the Black Panthers and would be used by them to buy bullets to kill cops.
Dad later made up for his prejudices. I’ll get to that someday.
You may be wondering how any of this has anything to do with the music business and my career. Believe me, it does. Stay with me, enjoy the ride, because if you take that bus, you’ll get there.
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