Recently, I was driving in my car and happened to pop into the CD player a disc of the greatest hits of Louis Armstrong.  I don’t listen to music very much, but when I do, it’s usually some old gospel tunes or rhythm and blues and some pop—all, of course, from the second half of the twentieth century.  Usually, I settle for a few recognizable songs, changing the selections like a couch potato with a remote in one’s hand.  In a daze as I manipulated local stop signs, detours, and the scourge of young pedestrian traffic, I caught the lyrics to a song called “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue.”

Cold, empty bed,
Springs hard as lead,
Pains in my head,
Feel like old Ned.
What did I do
To be so black and blue?

No joys for me,
No company,
Even the mouse
Ran from my house,
All my life through
I’ve been so
Black and blue.

I’m so forlorn,
Life’s just a thorn,
My heart is torn,
Why was I born?
What did I do to be so
Black and blue?

I’m white inside,
But that don’t help my case.
‘Cause I can’t hide
What is on my face,
Oh! What did I do to be so

Black and blue?

What stopped me, literally, in the middle of the road was the line: “I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case.”  I was floored, flabbergasted, flummoxed, and flapping my arms all at once in the little cabin of my vehicle, not knowing exactly what to do.  I was aware that many black entertainers had disparaged Satchmo as being an Uncle Tom or too friendly with whites in the heart of Jim Crow America.  Nevertheless, I was very fond of Pops, whose ubiquitous sweaty brow and oft caricatured soppy white handkerchief and unique gravely swoon and strong white teeth and bulging brown eyes were the thrill of audiences across the globe.  How could this man, whom I was told I could perfectly imitate in high school and college after he had passed away, allow his trumpeter’s lips mouth such an ostensibly self-deprecating line?

I found myself becoming quite angry as I listened to the CD over and over again until I finally made it to a parking space at my place of employment and practically ran to my office to surf the Internet all about this gruesome folly.  I had gotten upset because the audience, which I assumed was predominantly white, thunderously applauded the song as if they were impervious to its tragic meaning.  I read and reread the entire lyrics and discovered the wonderful story of another musician I had loved in old movies and had just seen recently in Stormy Weather and a documentary about black bands during the Harlem Renaissance, namely Fats Waller.

Waller had a countenance that could just make you break out in instantaneous laughter and you didn’t know why.  He was a gifted pianist with a knack for one-liners and for songs that could make you laugh uproariously or cry like a newborn baby!  I came to feel that the song must have been partly written in jest, with a tinge of sarcasm or an ironic flair, yet intentionally and glaringly heartrending as a depiction of internalized racism.  It was one of those Ah, ha, moments for me that softened my bitterness as I took some time to watch clips of Satch and Fats and Ella and Mahalia and Lena and the Duke and Count and. . . .

It’s no wonder that, during the 1950s and 1960s, the period of the classic Civil Rights Movement, many black musicians joined together to raise money for the cause.  They had been and were still enduring a vicious system of structural racism that the ordinary citizen had resigned themselves to and called home.  They fought it tooth and nail, and would not let it drag them down into the quagmire of fatalism and self-hatred.  Rather, they repeatedly bucked the system and their music, while shortly winning the hearts of their white audiences, continually threw daggers at the heart of bigotry and ignorance.

As I watched the final clip of the aged Louie singing “Mack the Knife,” tears welled up in my eyes and my posture improved and I was compelled within myself to challenge those artists of yesteryear who belittled him as a buffoon, like the character Steppin Fetchit or Buckwheat of The Little Rascals fame.  I now saw a very generous man who had lived through a lot and who had become a gentle soul in spite of a system that could make anybody embittered or suicidal or diffident.  Mr. Armstrong had straitened my back—disallowing anyone to bring me so low as to feel humiliated, inferior, or broken.  What a wonderful world!

About mdbwell

Pres., Project for the Beloved Community, Inc.; B.A.--Wesleyan University; M.Div.--Yale University; Ph.D.--Boston University; Summer Study--Harvard University; Social ethicist; Ordained minister; Advocate for the poor
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