Wednesday, 9 October 2013

(Temporarily) Invisible Humanity

If you asked me what was the greatest thrill of getting my Ph.D. in 1957, it was not the two year Carnegie Postdoctoral Grant and it wasn’t becoming an assistant professor instantly at Penn, an Ivy League university. It was having the great jazz critic/Hunter College English professor Marshall Stearns’ inviting me and Nat Hentoff to his Greenwich Village apartment to plan the first Jazz Critics Symposium at George Wein’s innovative Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. 

I drove from Philly to Rhode Island, arriving around supper time at the Viking HQ Hotel. I was hungry as can be after a long summer drive—so I ordered a chicken dinner and scanned the program while I waited to eat. Who should appear almost immediately? The great jazz singer Mahalia Jackson! One look at my served chicken and she asked the waiter for “the same”! Alas, I had the last chicken! A Boy Scout with a merit badge in friendliness, I passed it over to Mahalia, who found it good to the last feather. I settled for a steak.
The next morning I took a hike around the fancy summer villas around the Bay,ending up in the press room to find who at the typewriter. None other than Ralph Ellison, whose prizewinning novel, “, a book that Invisible Man” ( 1952) had knocked me out in my American Lit course at the University of Detroit (1949). We gabbled friendly until he had to give a talk. I was in Seventh Heaven because I had decided if Marshall could be a Jazz critic and English professor simultaneously, so could I! These happy recollections brought me to a high psychic pitch. I was off to the races.

I was reminded of this joy as I read last week about the school board decision in Randolph, North Carolina to ban high school seniors from reading Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”! The book was banned in all the county’s libraries. North Carolina used to be the most racially civilized sector of the Old South. Tea Party tactics? As one critic speculated, “There’s something sad and unsurprising about a Southern city, one where 90% of the residents identify as whites, banning “Invisible Man”, a book that actively explores the alienation of African Americans in white society. ‘I’m invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.’” And even though the novel won the National Book Award in 1953, and the Library of Congress has praised it as one of the books that shaped America, a brilliant “critic” on the banning committee declared, "I can’t find any literary value.”

This whole scandal infuriated a N.C. migrant to New York City, one Evan Smith Rakoff, “Poets and Writers” magazine editor. Said he was a “deeply ashamed” to hear about the ban. "I follow news really closely and I often encounter these kinds of stories.” He told the Atlantic. But he found this story on the Facebook of a classmate who reported the news from the local "Courier-Tribune." Rakoff tweeted: “This saddens beyond measure. All should be ashamed.” The next day Salon critic Laura Miller suggested organizing a giveaway at an indie bookstore. Miller said Vintage Books was eager to help. High school students can pick it up free, and are!

It reminded me of an episode in my first year as a tenth grade teacher in E.Lansing High. I played for them Stan Kenton’s tribute to Jazz as an American art form. Parents of twins in my class grumbled to the principal! Whydya let my twins waste time with jazz when they could be reading. The students knew better. They understood that the concert was a metaphor for a democracy in which the performers agree on a key and tempo and then create together. They were preparing themselves for their weekly MSU TV program, "Everyman is a Critic”, where they dealt with one teenage leisure a week. I’m sad to say the father was a MSU professor. Specialty? An agricultural dictionary!

By the way, the Festival was great that year. At the last critic’s palaver, the semanticist running the show insisted that every person should comment. He saw Mahalia Jackson at the rear of the Aud, and shouted: “What do you make of our conference, Mahalia?” Silent pause. “I don’t knows what youse been talkin’ about.” Another pause. “But I sure do love jazz.” And so it goes.

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