Lil’ Pookie’s America: Some Big Shoes to Fill

[13 January 2011]

By Mark Reynolds

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? 

* * *

cover art

Duke Ellington’s America

Harvey G. Cohen

(University of Chicago Press; US: May 2010)

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.

Along Comes Willie Mays and Hank Aaron

Another foundational element that served Ellington well throughout his life, Cohen explains, was his well-founded reputation as a musical genius.  There were many such geniuses in Ellington’s day, of course, but none of them were ever effectively branded as such. Here, the 13-year business relationship with promoter/song publisher Irving Mills, at the beginning of Ellington’s career as a bandleader, is critical. Although that partnership was relatively short-lived, and Mills didn’t act ethically every step of the way,  his acumen at positioning Ellington’s compositional inventiveness as the marketable difference above the other bandleaders of the swing era created the Ellington brand identity.

Mills’ efforts helped give Ellington’s music a cachet of elegance and distinction previously associated only with classical music, never with pop (and certainly not with any black pop). Of course, the music itself had a little bit to do with that, but Mills helped create a framework for audiences to receive Ellington’s music as more than just dance fare, which drove up his radio and concert appearances and favorable media coverage. Like his refined upbringing, the image of Ellington being “beyond category” helped propel his stardom across the globe and across generations (indeed, that phrase became the title of a popular Ellington primer and more than one collection and retrospective on his work).

With Cohen’s valuable contribution to our knowledge of how all that great music happened, Ellington now shares something in common with the likes of John Wayne and Ronald Reagan: a book that sees his life within the arc of American history, and vice versa.

Cohen is surprisingly generous toward Ellington in the ‘60s. It’s not that this period doesn’t deserve deeper attention; indeed, most basic appreciation of his work ends in the ‘40s, neglecting that he alone kept a big band operating more or less continually for another 30 years after swing’s heyday (and Cohen goes into much detail about the financial aspect of that Herculean ordeal). But jazz had long since evolved away from big bands for cultural and economic reasons, and by the ‘60s Ellington was a breed apart from the music’s standard-bearers (a session with John Coltrane and a trio date with Charles Mingus and Max Roach notwithstanding). Nonetheless, Ellington created several major long-form works during the last decade of his life, music that got subsumed amidst the maelstrom of free jazz and electrified fusion but has gained appreciation over time. Cohen overreaches to suggest that Ellington was a ‘60s counterculture hero because he dared to dress and wear his hair as he felt like, but his excavation of these years, the closest the book gets to the straight-ahead momentum of a biography, will send the casual Ellington fan off in search of this “new” music.

With Cohen’s valuable contribution to our knowledge of how all that great music happened, Ellington now shares something in common with the likes of John Wayne and Ronald Reagan: a book that sees his life within the arc of American history, and vice versa. A book titled (Your Name Here)’s America suggests not merely a significant life but a transcendent one. Such a title implies that the reader can learn something about not only you but also the America you lived in and influenced. It says that your life story is a prism for seeing the entire country in a whole new light.

There is, of course, no substituting experiencing Ellington’s music first-hand, and there are plenty of useful guides an Ellington novice should have handy while doing that. And this book, while thorough in its work and accessible in its style, doesn’t quite achieve the loftiness of its title; only the discussion of Ellington as a reluctant, understated player in the civil rights struggle talks about his impact on American life beyond music. Nonetheless, Cohen makes clear how epic his career was, and how that career became a masterly American epic. No wonder millions today still love the Duke madly.

cover art

The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron

Howard Bryant

(Pantheon; US: May 2010)

It’s probably only fitting that major biographies of Willie Mays and Henry “Hank” Aaron hit bookstores around the same time. Throughout their playing days, the two men were joined at the hip, their names routinely mentioned in the same breath, their careers tracing parallel arcs from overcoming history to making history, and then on to rewriting history. 

And it’s probably equally appropriate that the styles of their books are as dissimilar as the styles of their games and the actual paths of their careers.

Both men are sons of Alabama, Aaron from Mobile and Mays from Tuscaloosa, born during the Great Depression. Both passed through the Negro Leagues during the institution’s tailspin after the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson in 1946.  Both men were quickly snatched up by major league clubs, and had brief, electrifying cups of coffee in the minor leagues before being promoted to the big time. And both men became the standard bearers of the wave of black baseball stars, including Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks, who emerged in the post-Robinson ‘50s

From this point, the differences in their careers became greater than the similarities. Mays played for the New York Giants at the height of that city’s baseball prominence. His flashy, infectious abandon for the game, along with a dose of calculated showmanship, made him a fan favorite, and folks made songs about him. Aaron played for the Milwaukee Braves, a smaller-market team far removed from the limelight. He was inordinately gifted as a batter and held his own in the field, but did not enjoy anything close to Mays’ notoriety (or salary and endorsement income).  The media gravitated to Mays’ charm, while regarding Aaron as aloof and simple.

It was not until the late ‘60s, more than a decade into both their careers, before Aaron took on any greater level of celebrity. That’s when the general public realized that both men were on the verge of surpassing baseball’s biggest icon, Babe Ruth, and his most iconic record, 714 career home runs. As the ‘70s dawned, it became evident that Aaron was more likely to do it than Mays, whose production had taken a sharp downward turn while Aaron’s remained consistently stellar. Indeed, Mays retired in 1973 well short of the record, an aged shadow of his former great self, while Aaron held off Father Time (and sacks of racist hate mail) long enough to break the mark in 1974 and play two more seasons.

Then, decades later, both men were linked again, in the controversial figure of Barry Bonds, Mays’ godson and the man who would break Aaron’s home run mark. Bonds, never the most cuddly person to begin with, was widely suspected of having cheated the game by using steroids, prompting people to call for slapping an asterisk next to any record he broke. Mays, bound by familial and professional ties (he worked for the Giants, Bonds played for the Giants), could not say much about the resulting uproar as Bonds neared Aaron’s record in 2006 and 2007. Aaron distanced himself from the issue, making no great effort to wish Bonds well on his quest (and rejecting an opportunity to cash in on it). He recorded a carefully worded congratulatory video to be played when Bonds broke the record, but by that point the mere statistic was almost a footnote. Henry Aaron, not Barry Bonds, is still considered by many baseball purists to be the greatest slugger of them all.

And that is from where Howard Bryant’s treatment of Aaron’s life, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, draws its mojo. Bryant is uniquely positioned to write this story, having previously done books on both race and steroids in baseball. The current book begins with something of the tone of a conventional sports hero biography (albeit one with more talk about black post-Civil War genealogy than most), then morphs into a more exploratory, interior-driven tone. Bryant collapses whole seasons at the peak of Aaron’s career into a few paragraphs, preferring instead to talk about his life as a celebrity black in a town not necessarily friendly to non-celebrity blacks.  Race played a far more central role in framing Aaron’s career than Mays’, which Bryant explores in discussing the Braves’ relocation to Atlanta after the 1965 season, bringing Aaron back to the Deep South. And Bryant goes into great detail about Aaron’s post-baseball life, showing how Aaron finally achieved some measure of respect and acclaim from the game (not to mention financial security) at long last. 

Bryant’s tone, perhaps appropriately, is not unstintingly cheery; if Aaron is indeed baseball’s last great, untarnished figure (in addition to Bonds, the all-time hits leader, Pete Rose, is banned from the game for betting on baseball), there’s hardly a sense of fanfare and victory lap-taking about it. What Bryant does is humanize Aaron, for all his faults and moods, as a person in full, with deep-seeded motivations and complications.  If there is a triumphant sense about the way his life has turned out, Aaron seems to have indulged it quietly, far removed from the limelight – just like the vast majority of his playing days.

Those needing a more straight-ahead sports bio fix are advised to turn to Willie Mays: the Life, the Legend, written by James S. Hirsch with the cooperation and authorization of Mays, which he had not granted to any of his previous biographers. Hirsch rewinds Mays’ playing career down to the at-bat —all 10,881 of them, it seems, going into far more detail about Mays’ on-the-field work than Bryant is interested in doing for Aaron. Hirsch also usefully sheds some secrets about how hard Mays worked at his trade, and how many of those seemingly effortless great plays he made came as the result of hard work and advance study (so much for the lie about blacks being “natural athletes”; even a man of Mays’ prodigious physical gifts worked constantly on refining his game). But Hirsch is less compelled than Bryant to parse the inner motivations of his subject, even though Mays had money issues, marital drama, and had to deal with racism as a famous black person just like Aaron did. Further, Hirsch dispenses with Mays’ life after hanging up the spikes in an epilogue, while Bryant takes three whole chapters – including one on Bonds’ quest – to bring our knowledge of Aaron current.

Thus, it makes sense that it’s Bryant, not Hirsch, who mentions the last time these two giants’ paths have met – the 2008 taping of an HBO special hosted by Bob Costas, in which Mays and Aaron talked about baseball and life before a rapt audience of current players and fans. And it’s in that special where the biggest differences between them are clear. Fans like Aaron, but they cheer for Mays. Fame clung to Mays and still does, whereas Aaron’s entire life has been – and in a way still seems to be – one continuous, under-heralded grind towards respect. Ultimately, both men made history, but Aaron became the one who changed history, and who was changed more by it.

Individual Accomplishments, Victories for the Collective Race

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.

Published at: