Black History Month is when I typically have done posts honoring black performers for whom I don’t know the birthdate, of which there have been a relatively high percentage. Case in point, Priscilla Stewart, who recorded 25 classic blues tracks in Chicago between 1924 and 1928. Virtually zero is known about her life: where and when she was born, where and when she died, or anything in between. Just the records. (Though there is a good critical appreciation of her here).
There is one very important thing that I can be reasonably sure of knowing about Priscilla Stewart, based on her surname, however. And that is that one or more of my ancestors or relatives enslaved one or more of hers. I’m not a historian. Never claimed to be one, and on the contrary frequently insist that I’m emphatically not one. My standard of expression therefore in this case is not documentary. I don’t claim that what I say in this case is true literally, but I do know that it is true enough. Somebody white named Stewart, it could be my fifteenth cousin five times removed, enslaved Priscilla Stewart’s parents or grandparents. And I also know (in this case from documentary research) that some of my ancestors and their relatives did enslave human beings of color. So whenever I encounter a black person named Stewart, such as this singer (or Sly Stone, whose given name was Sylvester Stewart, or NYPD victim Michael Stewart) my initial delight at connection instantly and automatically turns to consternation.
Historians and politicians are generally too timid to say this aloud, or perhaps they themselves are in denial, but if you’re white in America, no matter how distant you think you are from the sins of this nation, its society and its culture — NO. You are up to your neck in this shit. If you’re like me, and your ancestors have lived here for generations, there is the almost certain likelihood of possessing family members who benefitted from the slavery system, even if they lived in the Northern states that just happened to free their slaves a few decades earlier. You may think you haven’t, or tell yourself you haven’t, but you almost certainly have. And if you’re of white immigrant stock, it’s just as likely that your grandparents benefitted from segregationist laws and policies, which existed in the North as well as the South. “My ancestors fought to free the slaves”? So what, if they afterwards kept the grandchildren of the slaves out of jobs, housing, and neighborhoods, and threw them in prison, and beat them to death at traffic stops?
No matter how liberal you think you are, or your ancestors were, or whatever ineffective half-measure you think they took to make things better, it hasn’t been enough. I don’t understand the terror most people seem to feel in articulating this. I guess most people feel that if you own up to it, you OWN it, and they don’t want the responsibility that is, in fact, already their responsibility. Me personally? I ain’t got a pot to piss in. All I can do is whine about injustice. I’ve done an absolutely rotten, inadequate job in making my own theatrical work more inclusive in the past. On the marginally more constructive side, I have devoted a portion of this blog to the celebration to black artists. My experience is that white readers don’t read them, either because they’re not interested, or think it doesn’t concern then, or they think the liberal white guy’s appreciation of black culture will be intrinsically mortifying (a legitimate fear). To take it on, I’ve found, is to get it from both sides. White people write me to complain about my condemnation of blackface and other expressions of racism and bigotry in show business, either to say that isn’t necessary or warranted (really?) or that my doing so is embarrassing and clumsy (granted). On the other hand, when I haven’t done so, black people have complained about that, and their complaints, patently more merited, are the ones I pay attention to. (Less merited was a comment I got recently that I really should consider writing about some black artists other than Bert Williams. Indeed, I have, madam, almost 550 of them).
Is this cringe-inducing? Okay! We watched You People (2023), the other night and I saw myself (as most liberal white people should) in the Julia Louis-Dreyfus character. Even when we think we’re being well-meaning, the all-too-obvious effort we make, the self-consciousness, the stiff tension and flop sweat we bring to our encounters with black people is surely (almost) as unwelcome as flat out, frank racism. I do think our children are better at it. I sometimes think that the answer to the paranoid white person’s rhetorical question (“What am I supposed to do, die?”) is ultimately, yes! Ha, ha! I say this not with malice but a philosophical twinkle. At the interpersonal level we can’t do better than try to talk to people without making the conversation itself so fraught and navel-gazey. But at the collective level, the institutional, and political level we can no longer just “try”, we have to be effective. And I know for a fact that even ostensibly liberal white people regard most of the changes that would be necessary to make lives better for black people as too “radical”. In spite of all. Obviously, Memphis is on everyone’s minds at the moment, and since the police officers in that case are black, this is an obvious case of the racial problem being SYSTEMIC. It’s a situation where tax-payer funded employees wearing the insignia of the government on their uniforms feel empowered and justified in beating a black citizen of the United States to death, and by no stretch of the imagination would this ever have happened to a white motorist. That is the point. And for a great many Americans it continues to seem like it is the objection to murder, and not the murder itself, that’s the real problem in this country. If every mention of this strikes you as Chinese Water Torture, to me that’s only a drag because the situation requires a tsunami.
At any rate, to shift back to our original, but very much related theme: though we don’t know when Priscilla Stewart’s birthday was, we do know that it is the birthday of Sherman Helmsley, Garrett Morris, and Langston Hughes. Read about them at the links, and over 500 other black artists here.
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