In 1963 my grandmother was sobbing when I got home one cold November day in my first year of high school. President Kennedy had been assassinated a few hours earlier. She had just watched LBJ’s swearing-in on Air Force One. I knew about it – who could speak of anything else, even in Spanish class, and anytime our president gets killed riding in a parade is real bad news. Then Big said “I haven’t felt so bad about this country since our sheriff shot that nigger”. “When?” “Early 1950’s. You were too little to know about it. The man was drunk but unarmed, raising a ruckus in that colored bar just outside of town. He was murdered by The Law. But nothing happened, no trial, not even an arrest. The coloreds don’t have many rights, but NOT getting killed for making a fuss in their bar is one right they deserve.”
In 1970 I was in the Army along with a few black guys. Most were genuine people (Tony Soprano would consider them “stand-up guys”), men with whom I’d gladly share night watch, eyes wide open, listening for the clink of the pebbles we’d put in beer cans tied to the wire when the VC tried to infiltrate it. They were training to kill the Viet Cong in ‘Nam. I was training to protect against hurricanes and race riots here. I shared a classroom in college with a black man from Ethiopia. American black kids went to Grambling or Southern. We went to LSU or La Tech. The U. S. Army was an eye-opener for me.
Since then we’ve had a few black US senators, governors, and a president who did a good job. As Joe Biden put it on Obama-Biden’s re-election campaign trail in 2012 “We should be re-elected because we’ve made real progress in four years. Bin Laden is dead. GM is alive and paying back its Great Recession loan”. But many disagree, insisting both his terms were a disaster. Did they live on this planet? Please.
In 1974 I bought a Randy Newman album called Good Old Boys. Newman is a singer-songwriter who wrote possibly hundreds of songs mostly performed by bigger names. The first track of GOB became a cult classic called “Rednecks”. It is crude satire lamenting the state of race relations way back then. Crude is too mild a word; wildly politically incorrect and hurtful is a better description. (Statistically it is probable that we do have a few black readers. I know of none, but it remains likely. I’m trying to make a point here, not inflict more pain.) To any reader who prefers to never hear the N-word again please just read the lyrics. If you think you can take it, listen to the YouTube performance. For total immersion read it, then listen.
50 years down the road things are slightly better, but it feels much more like change to White folks than to Blacks. It has recently become harder for Blacks to vote, is still difficult to buy a house in a ‘good’ neighborhood, and don’t think for a minute that hiring discrimination isn’t more common than not. The past year has seen three prominent trials leading to convictions of White cops and garden-variety racists for killing unarmed Black men. That sounds like poor, sad progress until you remember that each crime was video-taped and introduced into evidence. That’s glacially slow sociological progress, and perhaps mere technological progress.
What else? There’s more but you get my point.
If not, consider this. Randy Newman still performs live on-stage when he feels up to it. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone he admitted his great disappointment in how too many audiences respond to “Rednecks”. “I wrote it as bitter satire, but in the past few years, more and more audiences holler out ‘Yeah! We’re rednecks! Wooo!’ ” Randy Newman has realized that he can no longer play his own song. His audiences just can’t grasp that it was never intended to become their anthem.
Yes, we have come a million miles. And we still have a light-year to go.