Sunday, February 19, 2006

Thelonious Monk Posted by Picasa

"History is not an abstraction. Free Speech Is."

Recently I've been posting on my blog at The nice thing about that is that hardly anyone looks at it. I've been trying this month to do post in honor of Black History Month, rather as an academic exercise. But this post was stimulated by blog posts outside that gated community, so I thought I'd cross post it here.

One of my favorite blogs is Gukira which probably has been around since 2004, but I only discovered recently. (It seems the archives is limited to the latest 10 posts, but maybe I'm missing something.) The author of the blog, Keguro Macharia is a Kenyan living in semi-rural Massachusetts and teaches English at the University level. Keguro also used to frequent, but not anymore. I was really quite excited to discover his blog via comments he left at another blog.

Keguro did a powerful post Cartoons He writes:
"To trace a history of cartoons in Euro-America is to trace a history of race relations."
It's a powerful post, and if you have an inclination click and read it now, because I'm not sure whether his blog simply doesn't provide links to his archives, or his archives are limited to the ten latest posts.

One of the commentators to the post suggested that Keguro must have seen The Jim Crow Museum. He hadn't, but knows his subject matter very well. The reason is not simply because Keguro is very erudite, which he most certainly is, it's also that as a Kenyan and an outsider he can gain perspective on rascism in America, as an outsider. Here's a post I did on my blog linking to the Jim Crow Museum In any case the excellent online presence of the Jim Crow Museum is an important resource for understanding black history in America. As are the history of cartoons as Keguro realtes with great force.

I was mulling Barbara Summer's the editor of Brian Lanker's book "I Dream a World: Portrait of Black Women Who Changed the World (see: this post) observation about the women's stories: "so much love in anger" when I read his piece. I also had in mind the powerful words of black voices I've been reading lately. I left comments:
Indeed cartoons trace a history of race relations. And your post makes the point well.Still for students delving into their history there are words. It's great that you cite Houston Baker because while the literature is surely a part of "black critical memory" literature like blues music transmutes the pain. Baker makes black literature available to students through his many books.

The photographer Brian Lanker did an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery "I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America." He interviewed the women. Barbara Summers edited the material for the companion book. She wrote about editing the material:

"A truly beautifying discovery for me was to find so much love in anger. It was a fist-up, death defying love that challenged the unfair conditions of life and muscled in on injustice as it nursed both sides of a nation."

Memory is critical. The ugly should not be hidden. But to discover "love in anger" and art, music and literature is the most direct ways for students to find it, perhaps helps to bare the burden history weighs upon us.
Keguro responded:
I have no problem with affirmation. But racial history (and no one is talking about the history of the Ottoman empire, surely an even more impressive empire than the British) is not pretty, is not affirmative, demands we feel guilt and shame. As long as we refuse to own up to these pasts, "liberal" democracies will replay racism in the name of free speech. History does not let us off the hook in search of an ideal. History is not an abstraction. Free Speech Is.

Before the journalists attack me. I will write it again. History is not an abstraction. Free Speech Is.
I'm not so sure that history isn't an abstraction nor that Free Speech always is. But that discussion is best left for another place--as if I were really smart enough to--however Keguro's point about affirmation seems quite important. "[Racial history] demands we feel guilt and shame." A hair shirt is always a difficult fashion decision, reserved for pennance. What I understand from Keguro is that unless we are willing to feel the pain and shame which history imposes, we will not be able to firm a purpose for amendment.

I"m not finding now, but I read about Dr. David Pigrim who is the driving force behind the Jim Crow Museum. He'd collected racisist memerobilia and was showing some of it to two guests at his home, a black woman and a white man. After the woman left Pilgrim noticed the man was crying, and the man said, "I'm sorry." So significant was the sincere contrition and the words "I'm sorry" were like a weight lifted from Pilgrim. The experience help solidify his idea that a museum of racisist artifact could enable transformative change.

I'm not sure, except to say that change doesn't happen in a moment. I know from many interactions with black people that I still don't "get it" my heart judged not contrite enough.

Thinking of "love in anger" my thoughts turned to Thelonious Sphere Monk. I'm not sure why really, and lord knows I'm unqualified to write much about such a musical giant. Implicit in Keguro's contention that history is not abstract is a presumption that the study of history be rigorous. The trouble is people make up stories in their heads about history, at least I do. One of the aspects of the stroy in my head about Thelonious Monk is the devotion between mim and his wife Nellie. Another is the considerable speculation about the nature of Monk's mental illness.

In my story of Monk love takes center stage, not only his love for Nellie, but her love for him. Monk's son T. S. Monk, Jr. is such a good talker. When I've heard him speak about life with his father as a child, love come through; how as a child his playing under the piano with his sister, they knew all was right, their dad was cool.

There's an anger part too. I don't know enough, but Bebop had a political element, as T.S, Monk notes somewhere in this interview. When I was young I never had many records. Probably same as today part of getting together with firends was to share music, except it was much harder to do, we had to go listen. "Underground" was a record I remember. And the cover of that record makes me think of anger too, at least the idea of Bebop having a political element. And then of course was Monk's distain for the police; two incidents are well known: sitting in a car with Bud Powell the police searched it and found drugs and Monk wouldn't testify against Powell; and an incident in Delaware with a Rothschilde heiress where he was beaten bloody.

Too many cool pictures of Thelonious Monk, and just an image search is a fun Internet excursion. This photo is a postcard I scanned, but I don't know the credits--so it's a rip off. Two great pictures here.

From the "Drummer World" link:
Shortly after his father passed away leaving a rich and legendary legacy and, tragically, his sister died of cancer. To honor his father's legacy and support the efforts of education, Thelonious turned his attention toward forming the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. As Chairman, Thelonious has been at the forefront of helping to create a number of programs that range supporting after-school athletic programs. The Institute's activities reach from Boston to Los Angeles sponsoring music education for students in the form of full scholarships to funding and supplies and from New York to Orlando.
T. S. Monk, Jr. is an enormously successful promoter of Jazz and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz does great work and is a fun Web site to puruse.

Monk in this 1965 interview said:
"I’ve never wished for anybody else’s job. I enjoy what I do and I’m myself all the time. And I’ll continue to be me."
His life and legacy are and affirmation of composer of of great music and a full life. Keguro suggests that we must come face to face with the tragedy of history, to feel the pain and shame. But surely tragedy doesn't preclude affirmation, rather just that we don't conclude a happy ending. We still have time to compose our lives, surely compassion is essential: "love in anger."

1 comment:

pingting said...


i'm enjoying your BHM special over at Tribe. i wanted to leave a comment there,
but it seems you have to join to do so.
i can't deal with it right now.

fascinating (rhythm) stuff. i'm
enjoying the posts!