(As your read the following, play the video of Louis Armstrong playing West End Blues.)
I grew up in the South, in Winston-Salem, N.C. It was a banking and tobacco town. It was a place where race was always front and center. White families lived on one side of town, and black families on the other. There was very little mixing on an equal level. I went to segregated schools until I went to UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall of 1971. That semester, I looked out of the second floor window of Peabody Hall where my freshman English class was held and watched for the first time a Civil Rights demonstration. It struck me as curious. Something totally outside of my previous experience. As important as that demonstration was to my awareness of the world beyond my experience, it was rather four people who touched my life in various ways that gave me the perspective that racism as typically practiced in our country was not for me. Let me briefly tell you their stories.
Sally Mitchell was a domestic servant who came to my house two or three times a week while I was child. We weren't a wealthy family, just middle class, and in those days families hired African-American men and women to work in their homes. Sally, as I remember, a women in middle age, who was a kind and gentle person. When my parents would travel for business or go out in the evening, Sally was the person who took care of us. i can remember riding with my dad to take her home in East Winston. I knew it was a place where I didn't belong, but I knew that Sally was a part of our family, so I felt an attachment to this side of town.
When I was five or six my uncle gave me a transistor radio. All I could get were AM stations. I listened to two stations - WTOB and WAAA. WAAA, owned by a African American family, played only soul and r&b music. It was my first exposure to black music. it's impact was such that when The Beatles showed up in the US four years later, I didn't think it meant much. They could not hold a candle to James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke, and the Four Tops. This was my music. It was alive.
When I was in high school, I went to see James Brown at the Memorial Coliseum. As I remember, I may have been one of a dozen white kids in the audience. The experience secured in my mind that music coming out of the African-American community was of the highest one could find. This conviction continued as I went off to Chapel Hill and heard jazz for the first time. In one of their last concerts as a group, I heard the Modern Jazz Quartet. Such musicianship I had never seen. From then on, jazz was my music, with Thelonious Monk as my favorite. Today, I feel the same way about the music and the leadership of Wynton Marsalis.
As important as the influence of Sally Mitchell and the music of James Brown and Thelonius Monk were to me as a young man, it was two other men, a coach and a teacher, who changed my life.
In high school, I played football. Our school only a few years old had found early success. After my junior our coach since the founding of the school left for a new job. Our new coach Baxter Holman arrived as a black man who had played professional football in Canada. He was a good 300 pounds, needing no paddling to put our scrawny butts on the ground. He was a great coach, and even greater man. As a black man coaching an all white football team in the South was no easy task. He commanded, did not demand, our respect. For us seniors on the team, he was our coach, because the school system had announced its desegregation plan which meant our high school would become a 9th/10th grade school the following year. Baxter would only be there one year, and would go on to coach at Livingstone College the following year. We seniors would go over to Baxter's house in East Winston. Memories of Sally Mitchell always stayed with me as we went into the place far from our world. We sit on his porch and talk about all kinds of things.
The greatness of this man we saw in an incident that happened at the end of the season. We had one more game. A home game with a dance to follow. A rain storm the day of the game eventually meant that our game was postponed to the following night. However, the dance would go on. The team met after school and decided that we would not attend the dance. I remember it clearly receiving a phone call around 6pm telling me that one of the assistant coaches, who had been in line for the head coaching job, had told a group of players that they could attend the dance. As seniors, we understood that this was an attempt to exert control over the team. So, we called Coach Holman up, and told him the story, and that we were on our way to pick him up. We did, and we gathered at one of our houses, and played pool, music and had Cokes and popcorn. We did it as a statement to the rest of our team that he was our coach. He was a good man who knew how to lead young men to be the best that they could be. About eight years later, I sat with Baxter Holman in his hospital room as he was dying of kidney disease and thanked him for the year he gave us. I miss him to this day.
It wasn't until my junior year at Chapel Hill that I took my studies seriously. The civil rights demonstration experience during my freshman English class had stuck with me. Angry black men and women were only people I had seen on television. Now they were right there in front of me. I became an American Studies major primarily because I could not decide what to focus on. It turned out to be a very good decision. As a result, I was able to read more Southern literature than I would have otherwise. A course on William Faulkner indelibly imprinted on my brain his perspective of the old South. But it was two courses in African-American literature with Professor Blyden Jackson that helped me better understand what race had meant in our society. By far, reading Richard Wright's Black Boy and Native Son and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, helped me to understand how the slavery experience had influenced how white's and black's viewed each other. Dr. Jackson was a fourth generation African-American college professor who told us that he had never seen a ghetto until working for the WPA during the Depression. He broaden our perceptions of race without hatred or condescension. And it was through his eyes that I watched for the first time Gone With The Wind. He happened to sit in front of me at the theater in Chapel Hill. To this day, I cannot watch that film without thinking of him.
These four people, Sally Mitchell, James Brown, Baxter Holman and Blyden Jackson, touched my life. I am a much more open, accepting person because of them. And I thank them for their influence upon my life.
(This post written while listening to Louis Armstrong and Ear "Fatha" Hines play West End Blues, Basin Street Blues and St. James Infirmary. Thank you Louis.)