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Individual Accomplishments, Victories for the Collective Race

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It was time for Lil’ Pookie to hurry home. He’d been in the library for hours, trying to understand all the names he’d encountered while thumbing through these books, trying to wrap his arms around all that massive history.


It wasn’t easy. These were serious books, for starters. He reckoned it would probably take him forever to try to finish reading any of them. Then he tried to figure out, if these guys were so important, how come he’d never heard of them. Maybe they had a presentation during some Black History Month show, but that wasn’t the same as really knowing something about these people.


The fact that there isn’t an obvious connection from these figures to the present day that Lil’ Pookie could easily grasp doesn’t make his work of understanding these big books any easier. Take Ellington, for instance. It’s not unusual for jazz musicians to have long careers. James Moody, who recently passed away at the age of 85, had just received a Grammy nomination for his last CD, recorded in 2008. Sonny Rollins celebrated his 80th birthday in September with a big concert and the publication of a picture book. Dave Brubeck played at a Manhattan jazz club over Thanksgiving weekend and with the Cleveland Orchestra last month – and he just turned 90, and recently had pacemaker surgery. Even Wynton Marsalis, once the poster boy of jazz’s resurgent young mainstream, turns 50 this year.


It’s difficult to imagine contemporary parallels to Willie Mays and Hank Aaron; their achievements remain legendary.

Ellington’s music was also considered pop back in its day, and here the connection to the present gets trickier. His prodigious recording career lasted nearly 50 years, and he was still on the road until just weeks before his death. What black pop musician do we know about that has a ghost of a chance of amassing a similarly imposing body of work?  Prince, perhaps – the man hasn’t much stopped recording over the past 30 years (although his recent releases have garnered attention more for their modes of distribution than for their content), and his live performances are still singular events.


But after him, then whom? Jay-Z, to match Ellington’s longevity, would have to still be releasing music in 2046, and he’s already retired once. Kanye West is hardly short of creative ambition, but who’s to say that he won’t have tweeted himself into irrelevance by the time we see a 40th anniversary retrospective of The College Dropout? Will folks care about Waka Flocka Flame and Nicki Minaj even by the end of, say, 2012? Indeed, it’s hard to fathom which black pop musicians might still be doing new and vital work well down the line from this moment when Mary J. Blige and Snoop Dogg, A-list artists still shy of 20 years in the marketplace, are considered old-school.


cover art

Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend

James S. Hirsch

(Scribner; US: Feb 2010)

It’s equally difficult to imagine contemporary parallels to Mays and Aaron. First, their achievements remain legendary. Bonds may have hit more homers than Aaron and Alex Rodriguez may threaten Bonds’ mark in a few years, but Aaron will still be seen as the true baseball legend of the three. And many other players have combined Mays’ gifts of batting power and base-running speed, but none have done so with the disruptive effect and panache Mays brought to the game.


Besides, with the relative dearth of black talent choosing baseball in recent years, it may be that the next black game-changing athlete emerges in some other game. Right now, one can speculate what kind of career statistics Kobe Bryant and LeBron James will leave behind in basketball, or if Tiger Woods will recover from his 2010 troubles to complete his assault on the golf record book. But although their long-term name recognition prospects are secure, and there are plenty of outstanding black baseball players today, no active black athlete seems destined to have any of the broader historical significance of Mays’ and Aaron’s careers.


There’s another factor that colors the legacy of Ellington, Mays, Aaron and others of their time: their time. They redefined excellence in America in an era in which many Americans did not think blacks were capable of excellence at much of anything. To do what they did would have been spectacular at any moment in time, but to do so amidst decades of racial turmoil is almost impossible to imagine from Lil Pookie’s vantage point. Think of this: Cohen points out that Ellington secured three private railroad cars for his orchestra on its first tour of the South, in 1933, not just because he wanted to pamper them, and not just because he could, but because that was how he could avoid the indignity of contending with segregated hotels. Neither of these three heroes was known much for any political attitude regarding race, but the tenor of those years required that, as some of the nation’s most recognized black figures, they’d be asked about race and their responses would be duly noted by both black and white. 


In our day, there are no accommodations to desegregate, no seething racial tensions to negotiate, no front-burner preoccupation on the issue or expectation that everyone take a stand. We’re so distant from that particular zeitgeist that West’s post-Katrina “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” remark made news not just for its content or timing, but because a black celebrity dared make a public stand on anything controversial.


Ellington’s many musical triumphs, Mays’ charismatic derring-do, and most of all Aaron’s breaking the home run record – these were all seen not just as individual accomplishments, but victories for the collective race. They and the other black stars of the heart of the century, from Joe Louis to James Brown, carried the weight of the race on their shoulders. If it was not a position they necessarily campaigned for, it was a mission they understood and accepted. Some, like Harry Belafonte and Jim Brown, took advantage of the notoriety to make their views known and advance their causes.  Others, like Mays and Aaron, were much more reticent about it. But for the black celebrities of those years there was no escaping the issue, or the responsibility of representing more than just themselves every time they performed.


Our current black artists and athletes need bear no such expectation – thanks in large part to the heroic work of their ancestors in the public eye. Today’s celebrities have inherited all that massive history, and they are free to embrace it or not, extend it or not. That’s what sticks in the craw of the ol’ tsk-tsking, right-thinking blacks most of all. They know and remember all too well where we came from, and how many paid with their lives for us to be where we are. They know that there is so much still to do. So when these stars tweet and cavort their hours upon the stage instead of strutting and fretting on the behalf of social progress, their elders not surprisingly dismiss them as pale imitations of true cultural heroes, barely worthy of their legacy.  They look down their noses at this generation’s seeming lack of engagement with the struggle, apart from voting for Obama.


Then they turn to Lil’ Pookie and ask: What are you going to do about it?  What greatness will you aspire to? What new chapters of massive history do you intend to write?


At this moment in time, he has absolutely no way of answering that question. It’s hardly fair, for crying out loud, that he be held to such exacting standards, and then figured to fall short of them, before he’s even had a chance to pass tomorrow’s math test. He’s got the whole arc of his life in front of him, and even if he’s looking up at the sky from deep inside the much-maligned ‘hood, that sky is still the limit.


It’s not like the relatively recent past will have a monopoly on history-changing epochs.  True, the black heroes of the 20th century shaped and were shaped by massive historical currents, and realized progress that was generations in the making, but there is much progress yet to be realized, many issues we have yet to resolve.  Inequality still exists on numerous levels of American life, our planet’s environmental health remains at risk, and our place as Americans among the nations of the world has never been in greater flux. There is more than enough for tomorrow’s leaders and heroes to do.


We have no idea from where we now sit who those leaders and heroes will be. After all, there was no portent attending their youths that Ellington, Mays or Aaron would go on to change American culture. They might have had big dreams for themselves, just like Lil’ Pookie does for himself.  But no crystal ball existed that forecast their going on to become figures worthy of major books, not at a time when blacks couldn’t sit many places where whites sat, be it a hotel or a baseball dugout. History never announces itself in advance. There only exists the opportunity to move the mountain forward some more, and someone just gifted and wildly optimistic enough to attempt the job.


We can say only that we hope and trust such a figure will emerge at some point down the line. That figure will have a vision of the possible, and overcome some obstacles in bringing that vision to life. Those accomplishments will fundamentally change this nation and how we view it. That figure will be revered for the ages.  Later on in time, a shrewd historian or biographer will set about the task of poring through the archives, conducting interviews, and setting forth some weighty consideration of the massive history this figure helped make and what it meant to the nation. Maybe that book will be titled Lil’ Pookie’s America.

Mark Reynolds has written extensively about African-American culture and celebrity since the late '80s. He began his print journalism career with the weekly Cleveland Edition, and was a longtime contributor to its successor, Cleveland Free Times. He has also written for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and various publications in Cleveland and Philadelphia. His national credits include reviews and features for the college-distributed entertainment magazine Hear/Say, and reporting on the travel industry for the trade magazine Black Meetings & Tourism. His media criticism was honored in 2004 by the Society of Professional Journalists, Ohio chapter.


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