By Jon Cogburn
A few years ago NPR interviewed Dalton Conley on the occasion of the publication of his book Honkey, which is about growing up white in a predominantly African American housing project in New York City. Strangely, even though I grew up mostly in the American South, I could resonate with some of Conley's memories, as I think could many Southern white people of my generation whose parents (almost always from lack of resources) kept their kids in public schools when the federal courts ordered schools to achieve a racial balance by busing kids across town to schools that had been previously segregated (to be clear, the courts only ordered this as a last resort after a decade or so of states and localities not following 1954's Brown versus Board of Education ruling).* Since Conley was living in a project, most of the African Americans he dealt with were poor. His parents were poor at the time, but also in a sense just slumming. They were artists who had relocated to New York City. Since the American South was just coming out of ninety years of Apartheid instituted to keep African Americans poor (renumerating labor as closely as possible at starvation level requires disenfranchisement and continual violence), there was a similar dynamic with respect to busing in the American South. Mostly poor and middle class white kids all of the sudden finding themselves surrounded by mostly poor to very poor black kids.**
I think that the busing probably worked much better in elementary school, because we hadn't yet internalized the racism as much as the high school kids who were suddenly forced to spend all day with one another. The elementary school kids at least tended to segregate by class first and foremost, not by race. A middle class black kid was far, far more likely to hang out with middle class white kids and a poor white kid was more likely to hang out with poor (but not very poor***) black kids. I think that the fact that (at least in my schools) the black kids were in aggregate poorer accounted for much of the racial sorting. I suspect in institutions with less class diversity, the racial sorting is less of an epiphenomena and more of a thing in its own right. This is in part from observing the kids at my children's public magnet school and my students at LSU. It's depressing, but less than what was going on in the 1970s.
As Conley noted in the interview however, one song haunted our childhood, Wild Cherry's 1976 "Play that Funky Music" (video embedded above). For Conley, and myself, this was our first experience of extreme ambivalence with respect to a work of art. Black kids actually loved the song. And it was kind of great, because it was a recognition by the kids who were now the arbiters of taste (at least in elementary school in the 1970s) that white people could also be cool and contribute meaningfully to culture. I'm not being facetious. That's how we experienced it and part of what made it great. But, on the other hand, the song's narrator saying "play that funky music, white boy" now made it permissible for black kids to call you "white boy," which many of them did. I don't know the extent to which that fact accounted for the song's popularity. I also realize that there's some justice here, since dehumanization works in part by treating adults like children (in German there's probably a verb for this). Grown black men were routinely called "boy" under Jim Crow (and the number of rock songs that refer to grown women as girls or children is legion). "Play that Funky Music" is a pretty clever way of turning the tables. If Wild Cherry's singer wasn't white and if the song weren't praising white people playing funky music the casual reference to "white boy" would have never made it on FM radio in 1976. But it did, and it engendered a really strange, proud but horrified, aesthetic response at least in many of the white kids in desegregated public schools.
I've only seen a couple of other very clear cases of this, and they all involve ethnic identity. I remember a few years ago asking a bluegrass band from the West Virginia mountains what they thought of Oh Brother Where Art Thou, and they evinced the exact same kind of ambivalence I had about "Play that Funky Music." On the one hand, they were proud of the recognition that the film and soundtrack gave to their musical forms. And the mini-renaissance in American roots music that the movie brought about was very good for business. But they were deeply humiliated by the scene at the end where the Soggy Bottom Boys play "In the Jailhouse Now" (I've inserted it at right). They took the beards and dancing as a kind of mocking minstrelsy which served to stereotype mountain people as unserious objects of ridicule. What's interesting is that it's not nearly as egregious as is most portrayals of Appalachian rednecks in popular culture (consider Deliverance) but somehow it was that much more stinging to the musicians since it was situated in a movie that portended to take people like them and their art seriously.
Another clear example is the Adam Sandler movie Waterboy, possibly his second greatest comedy. Many of my students have a similar kind of love/hate relationship with it. On the one hand Louisiana people of Acadian descent (Cajuns) are presented as protagonists we are supposed to root for. That's a big deal, given what the Cajuns have gone through in this state (a state traditionally ruled by mandarins alternatively from Catholic New Orleans and the Protestant north of the state, who as in the vast majority of places in the world with such natural resources take turns selling our collective birthright to out of state companies). On the other hand, some of the things Cajuns take most pride in were set up as figures of fun in the movie. Cajuns are typically very, very proud of their cuisine, which traditionally involved making something beautiful out of what very poor people can get from the swamp. In the movie, this was mocked with Sandler's character's mother plunking down on the table a variety of undressed dead animals. So, once again, the very thing that is finally achieving your recognition at the same time has to put you in your place.
I would be interested in the black reception of minstrelsy prior to World War II. I wonder if a similar kind of ambivalence existed? Your contributions are being recognized, but only at the price of mocking you at the same time.
It's weird that the aesthetic examples I could think of all involve identity and recognition (a Hegelian could explain all of this much better than me). Outside of art I think that nostalgia is the most systematically ambivalent of our emotions. Quite often we are missing something that is ultimately tragic, something we would never really want to repeat. But we still mourn the loss that time imposes on us. But artworks that trade in nostalgia (music at least) only typically get this latter bit, the sadness of the past being past, with none of the ambivalence. Maybe identity and recognition are subtly involved in nostalgia too. I'm don't know. I suspect that a lot of people who grew up in generally racist milieus are at the far end of ambivalence with respect to many of their own memories as well. You are talking about your own people and you love them, but you all participated in various ways in a great collective evil (Indian removal, an economy based on slaves growing cotton on those lands, civil war, Jim Crow, whatever historians will call what we have today). Ambivalence is better than Trumpian defensiveness, it's better than amnesia. It's better than dehumanizing emotions either with respect either your own people or those systemically oppressed by your own people. Ambivalence might be the best one can do.
*For the most part, it didn't work, because of immoral obstreperousness of whites combined with all of the other social factors underlying de facto segregation. Forced busing in the late 1960s (in response to school districts violating Brown) led wealthy and upper middle class white people to open up an armada of private schools to keep their kids in de facto segregated institutions. This predictably led to a lack of support for public education by the economic elite. Then there was a great sort as people who couldn't afford private schools but could afford to move tried to move to communities that had safe public schools. This is somewhat misleadingly called "white flight" since there were also waves of middle and upper class African American migration towards safer school zones. The end result of of all of this (as well as other cultural changes during this period such as the war on drugs) was to maintain de facto racial segregation while dramatically increasing economic segregation. If Brown versus Board had, instead of busing, ensured that traditionally black public schools were adequately funded and removed all of the de jure facets of apartheid that led to segregation (especially with respect to housing and bank loans), I think we'd have a less segregated much more healthy public school system in this country. If, in addition, private schools were illegal, we'd have the best education system in the world. But we all know what the bullfrog would do if he had wings. White elites were never going to let it happen. Individual middle class people who fled public education were often making rational choices with respect to the well-being of their kids. The elites took advantage of this and here we are today.
**I don't have statistics here, so I realize that my experience might not be representative. There were middle class black kids in the early 70s that went to public schools in Montgomery Alabama, but not so many at the ones to which I was bused in elementary school. There was a greater percentage in the schools I went to in the late 80s, but I don't know if this is particular to those schools I went to or because the lack of formal segregation had helped build a larger black middle class in Montgomery. I suspect both.
***The overwhelming majority of at least white people in this country have no idea what it meant to be a very poor non-urban black person in the 1970s and 1980s. In Alabama these kids had no indoor plumbing nor electricity and the dialect of English their parents spoke was such that someone who has grown up speaking standard Midwestern newscaster English was not able to understand them. Getting clothing, school supplies, and enough food was always dicey for these kids.
Two things: One- The very poor black kids in Alabama of my youth lived about the way rural whites did during the Great Depression. The New Deal and the post World War II social consensus in this country directly lifted nearly all rural whites out of this subsistence living by the 1970s and indirectly lifted a non-trivial percentage of black people along with them (the benefits and policies were all implemented in systematically racist ways so as to exclude most jobs held by black people and to both increase housing segregation and deny home ownership to black people) . But, if the schools of my childhood were at all representative, there were lots of poor white kids in Alabama in the 1970s, but as far as I could tell no Great Depression level poor white kids. Two - I don't mean to minimize the number of hungry kids in the United States today. All of these statistics of well-being have slowly crept down since the unraveling of the the post-World War II social contract beginning in 1980. We are nostalgic for the 1970s because it was the last definable era before that unraveling.]