Meet Lil’ Pookie. He’s a quiet young lad, given to following wrestling and the latest hot Internet rappers. His grades are okay, and his jeans don’t sag. He lives in the place known as the ‘hood, surrounded by failing schools, warring gangs, dwindling economic prospects, and any number of ghetto pathologies disparaged by the right-thinking blacks of today. Yet despite these surroundings, Lil’Pookie dares to rise each morning with a gleam in the eye and a glimmer in the mind, and a notion to do big things.
What might those big things be? Well, he really liked the special effects in Transformers 2, so maybe he’ll try to get a job doing computer graphics. Or maybe he can step up his playground game and become the next Kevin Durant. Or maybe he’ll mess around with that old keyboard he found in his uncle’s basement and try to become the next hot Internet rapper himself. Hey, he’s still a kid, so the dream has a right to change from day to day, from fad to fad. What’s important, the old folks like to say, is that he holds on to whatever his dream might be, and always believes in it, and never stops trying to make it come true.
But some of those very same old folks also like to say how this generation will never amount to squat. They didn’t have role models around like we did, those folks bemoan. They don’t read anything, and they listen to all that infernal rap music, those folks tsk-tsk. They spend all the time on that computer, those folks go on, and their minds are filled with gunk.
It’s almost as though Lil’ Pookie and his cohorts are being blamed for being born when they were. Apparently, they should have lived once upon some other time, some previous golden era of blackness in America. They’re marked with the misfortune of not being around when family units were more nuclear, neighborhoods more cohesive, and jobs more plentiful. This moment in history they sadly missed was a time when cultural heroes were bigger, more audacious and outspoken. A time when more was at stake, not just individual accomplishment but the very perception of the entire race. This golden age the old folks look back upon was a time when giants bestrode our cultural landscape, not the imitative mindlessness of those dam-blasted Internet rappers. Nothing they see as they look around the landscape today, none of it, even remotely compares to the artistry and dignity black folk used to take for granted as common as the air, an unspoken credo to live by, the only things short of true freedom worth pursuing.
And who can blame them? History is so damned immense, imposing and, actually, close. There is a significant chunk of the living black American populace that shared the earth, however briefly, with the likes of Dr. King and Malcolm X, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Their legacies are not only profound, but continue to resonate in our world. And there are many, many more cultural icons who have come and gone before us, but whose examples and lessons remain with us still.
They did their work in the tumultuous stretch of time from the ‘40s through the ‘70s, an era of seismic change for black America. Those years took in everything from the first black major league baseball player to the first black major league manager, from the battle to integrate the armed forces to the school busing wars, from the birth of bebop to the birth of hip-hop. Within that span of time, those icons forged a new path for this nation and her people, and their achievements are well documented and readily available.
And although all that massive history might as well be from the Dark Ages as far as Lil’ Pookie and his crew are concerned, many of his elders have vivid memories of their own experiences and interactions with it. Some of those elders took part in sit-ins or civil rights marches, or campaigned for their city’s first black elected officials. Others have early editions of Maya Angelou or Toni Morrison on their bookshelves. They groove to long-forgotten jazz and funk records brought back to life (and into circulation) as fodder for hip-hop sampling.
These folks know of what they speak when they go on and on about those giants of an era gone by, and just don’t see the potential for anything similar coming from a generation which doesn’t have to fight the same battles for basic equality, doesn’t need to make the same points about black being beautiful. No offense to the youth of today, these elders might allow, but nowadays there simply isn’t the same charged urgency driving the issues we face, the art we make, the lives we are called to live. That was, after all, part of the zeitgeist of Barack Obama’s presidential run: black folk hadn’t felt like they were living inside the making of history in almost 40 years.
Given all that, how can Lil’ Pookie ever expect to amount to anything that the elders will embrace? What victory for black humanity can he possibly hope to win? How can he compete with all that massive history staring him in the face?
At this moment he is in his hood’s library, looking at a comics drawing book. But something on the shelf of new books catches his eye, and there they are: three major books from 2010 about three major black – no, American – cultural heroes, each of them an author of some of that massive history. Each of them begin in an America long ago and far away from Lil’ Pookie’s frame of reference, a nation of sanctioned segregation and dreams, not expectations, of equal opportunity. How and where could he see himself within those mighty stories?
A bystander, one of those tsk-tsking black folks, admires Lil’ Pookie’s spirit and drive, and appreciates his thirst for knowledge, but still must wonder: could the stars of these bios be so titanic that there really is no following them, no building upon them? Do they exist beyond measure or engagement by the present? Are they beyond the reach of today’s youths, even those not mired in all those ghetto pathologies? What Great Thing can Lil’ Pookie possibly do that Duke Ellington, Willie Mays and Henry Aaron did not do?
* * *
Harvey G. Cohen presumes his readers have a considerable prior knowledge of Edward Kennedy Ellington. Then he proceeds to illuminate, challenge and expand upon it, bringing us more fully into one of America’s signature artists.
Duke Ellington’s America (University of Chicago) is neither a biography nor a dissection of Ellington’s music. There’s not a burning need for either, as numerous works over the years have established Ellington’s chronology, and musicians and scholars alike continue to plumb his oeuvre for its endless, intricate magic. Instead Cohen, making extensive use of his access to the Smithsonian Institution’s archive of Ellington correspondence and papers, tackles a much more ambitious challenge, by locating Ellington within some of the many racial, cultural and artistic storylines of the 20th Century, and using the resulting discoveries to provide fresh insights about his music and its broader significance.
He starts with Ellington’s upbringing in turn-of-the-century Washington, among the black mannered class of the day. It’s very easy to see how that milieu, with its exacting expectations about black achievement, responsibility and comportment, influenced the music Ellington made and the way he presented it, all the days of his life. The idea among this set was that blacks could best advance, individually and collectively, through education, professional achievement, and personal refinement. Neither strident militancy nor common earthiness was encouraged. The time Cohen takes to establish this background is rewarded throughout the rest of the book, as we see how Ellington’s actions never stray too far from his essential core, even as he and his music travel the globe. He had his political views, but was never labeled as a firebrand. His music could swing with the best of them, and in concert he and his orchestra paid close attention to the dancers on the floor (as all great musicians do), but he consistently aimed higher than rocking the house.
One might label this attitude “old-school”, but closer to the truth is “old money”, because that upper-class, upper-crust element is what the environment which raised Ellington measured itself against, sought to influence, and strove to emulate. Success in the eyes of that era’s black strivers and achievers was not just racial but also cultural. There was indeed fierce racial pride within this community (if not, alas, a lot of actual old money), but the endgame wasn’t just to celebrate blackness, but to elevate black Americans among the citizens and traditions of the world. Ellington’s music remained squarely in the pocket of that mindset, from the glory days of his beloved elegies to Harlem to his late-period Sacred Concerts and suites inspired by his travel abroad.