Posts Tagged ‘Jazz’

Comparto este intetesante artículo sobre la criminalización de la música y los músicos afroamericanos. Su autora es la escritora Harmony Holiday, quien nos muestra como el racismo institucional de la sociedad estadounidense abarca básicamente todas las esferas, incluyendo la cultura popular. Holiday analiza como grandes estrellas de la música afroamericana como Billie Holiday, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus,  y Miles Davis sufrieron persecucióny violencia policiaca por ser negros. La imagen de Billie Holliday muriendo esposada a su cama de hospital resulta demoledora.  A otros como Abbey Licoln  se les cerraron las puertas a clubs y casas disqueras.

A Brief History of the Policing
of Black Music

Harmony Holiday Dreams of a Black Sound Unfettered
by White Desire

Harmony Holiday

Literary Hub     June 19, 2020

Billie Holiday died handcuffed to her hospital bed because her drug addiction had been criminalized. A Black FBI informant posed as a suitor, hunted her, fell in love with her even, and turned her in for heroin possession, not for hurting anyone, or violence, or for singing too beautiful and true a song but because she was self-medicating against the siege of being a famous Black woman in America, a woman who carried the weight of the nation’s entire soul in her music.

For as long as Black music has been popular, crossover, coveted by white listeners and dissected by white critics, it has also been criminalized by white police at all levels of law enforcement. A micro-archive of the criminalization of Black music and police presence within the music, focused on jazz music and improvised forms, shows why we now cry and chant unapologetically for abolition. Even when our life’s work is to bring more beauty into the world, to create new forms, we are brutalized, policed, jailed, and die in contractual or physical bondage. Or both.

Thelonius Monk’s composition In Walked Bud is dedicated to his friend, fellow pianist Bud Powell, a memento to the night when Bud protected Monk from police during a raid of the Savoy Ballroom in 1945. The Savoy was targeted as one of Black music’s epicenters in Harlem. Bud stepped between an officer and Monk and was struck in the head, incurring injuries that damaged his cognition, causing him to be institutionalized on and off for the rest of his life.

In 1951, Monk and Bud were sitting in a parked car when the NYPD narcotics division approached. Unbeknownst to Monk, Bud had a small stash of heroin and attempted to toss it out the window. It landed on Monk’s shoe instead—Monk was blamed, did not snitch on his friend, and was sent to Rikers Island for 60 days, held on $1,500 dollars bail. When released, Monk’s Cabaret Card, which granted him legal license to play in New York clubs, had been revoked. It would take years for the charges to be dropped and the license reinstated, years the Monk family and innovation in Black music suffered at the whims of the police. And the policing of Monk didn’t stop there.

In 1957, on a drive with Charlie Rouse and Nica, his rich white baroness friend, in Nica’s Bently, Monk asked to stop for a glass of water. Denied this simple request by the white waitress at the cafe they found, Monk just stood and stared at her, agape with disgust. The waitress called the police; when they arrived Monk walked right past them back into the car with Nica and Charlie. He would not get out when the police approached. Get out of the car you fucking nigger. Monk’s window was down and the officer started smashing his hands with a night stick: our genius Black pianist who gave us the break the space between Black thoughts and Black notes, getting his hands bashed and broken by police because he wanted a glass of water. Monk was cuffed, humming, his bloodied hands behind his back in chains.

Monk’s window was down and the officer started smashing his hands with a night stick: our genius Black pianist who gave us the break the space between Black thoughts and Black notes, getting his hands bashed and broken by police.

In 1959 Miles Davis was standing on the sidewalk outside of his own gig at Manhattan’s Birdland. He was with a white woman, smoking a cigarette between sets. A police officer pulled up and asked him what he was doing loitering—at that time a Black man just standing was criminalized, but especially one standing with a white woman. Miles pointed out his name on the marquee, explaining that he was between performances. This cavalier deference to the matter-of-fact seems to trigger the racism always-already seething in some cops.

Miles was beaten over the head with a nightstick, bloodied, cuffed, taken to jail. The incident was a legal nuisance and also altered his disposition, made him both more brooding and more volatile. In Miles’s case being policed in public life led to a rage he would only display in private, that he took out on his wives. His intimate relationships with Black women were overwhelmed by violence, he victimized them and beat into them deflected confessions of his feelings of powerlessness in the face of state violence. He could not be the father of “Cool” and a blatantly dejected Black man, so Black women became the symbols of a trouble he didn’t want to admit stemmed from white men, their policing, their scrutiny, and their over-familiar criticism.

Miles Davis in a New York courtroom, 1959.


Later in his life, when he lived in Malibu and drove expensive sports cars on its canyon roads, police would stop Miles routinely when he was on his way home, to interrogate him on the true owner of his car, had he stolen it, was he some white man’s driver, what was he doing in this white neighborhood with this expensive machine. Money, fame, all levels of success, were no exemption. Miles’s presence as a Black man was as policed by the state as his changing sound was by white music critics. Everyone wanted him as they saw him, in return he became so original that he could take his tone into almost any form, from painting to boxing, to screaming back at their prejudice on his horn, hexing detractors back into their formless obsessions with his immaculate Blackness.


Abbey Lincoln - It's Magic (1958, Vinyl) | Discogs


In 1961, when the “Freedom Now!” Suite debuted, written by Max Roach and Oscar Brown, Jr., performed most visibly by Abbey Lincoln as she moaned and screamed its depiction of the path Black Americans took from slavery to citizenship, the result was the blacklisting of Max, Abbey, and Oscar from many performance venues in the US. The hushed accusations that they were controversial for making true music policed their ability to share that music with American audiences. Abbey screaming on stage like a fugitive slave found and being branded and beaten was a vision the country was not ready to allow without backlash.

Club owners and record companies helped marginalize their music, interrupted the course of star-making, and tamed some of the candid militancy in all of their spirits. The state can police Black music directly, but it can also deploy its tacit muzzle, which is almost worse for the anxiety and psychic distress it invites. These artists knew they were being surveilled and penalized for their expression but had no single name or entity to hold accountable, ensuring that some part of them blamed themselves and one another. Oscar Brown, Jr. even expressed resentment toward Max Roach for performing and releasing the suite at all, turning his reputation from benign griot to troublemaker in the eyes of the overseer owners of venues.

The fact that record companies and clubs and recording studios are owned primarily by white men adds another trapdoor to the labyrinth that polices Black music at every level. The boundaries between rehearsal and performance are skewed—with white men always watching and keeping time and signing the paychecks, the code switch isn’t flipped as often as it otherwise would be. There is always a stilted professionalism constraining the freest Black music when it’s recorded in white-owned studios or clubs—the music is not completely ours in those spaces. No matter how good we get at tuning out the white gaze its pressure is always immanent.

Hip hop’s most famous liberation chant is fuck the police. It’s been repeated so often it means almost nothing, it’s almost a call of endearment…

We feel this today in the music that jazz helped make way for. Hip hop, which began in Black neighborhoods as entirely ours, was colonized and coopted and policed into a popular form whose translation to white venues often reduces the music to sound and fury. What is the point of yelling about Black liberation to a bunch of white middle class college students, or at festivals where Black people aren’t even really comfortable or in attendance? What is the point of producing all this music to make white record executives richer and give them what they believe is a hood pass to obsess over and imitate Black forms.

Jazz begat hip hop, and we learned that our most militant sound was also our most commodifiable. The militancy was quickly overshadowed by criminalization, open-secret wars between Black rappers, public awareness of their rap sheets, of the personal business, all of that given to listeners who felt entitled, still do. Criminality became the vogue and Black criminality a fetish within hip hop, the parading of the rap sheet increasing desirability among white audiences who conflated crime with authenticity and realness, trouble glamorized and traded for clout. (When jazz musicians were criminalized it was more devastating, costing them their right to play.)

Prison and bondage have been effectively woven into Black acoustic consciousness. Policing and the police have become the most familiar chorus. Hip hop’s most famous liberation chant is fuck the police. It’s been repeated so often it means almost nothing, it’s almost a call of endearment, a calling forth of the police, a fuck you to them that implies they are omnipresent and within earshot all the time, ready to strike out against any Black song or singer who threatens their lurking fixation on Black life and Black sound.

As the musicians are policed and incriminated so too are their forms, so too is that thought that leads to new Black musical temperaments. Musicians who seek to remain true to themselves often self-marginalize, police their own public presence, reject fame and affiliation in order to keep from being ruined by it or policed into oblivion from the outside—and so fewer Black people hear them. Even still, the police ambush these private sects, asking why they’re at their gig or in response to a noise complaint, escalating to yet another incident, always haunting their music with some threat of captivity.

Presents Charles Mingus - Jazz Messengers

In the late 1960s jazz bassist Charles Mingus tried to open a jazz school in Harlem. He wanted a Black-owned and Black-run place, outside of the university, the studios, and clubs all owned by whites, to teach and develop the music. The city of New York kicked him out of the space, not for any real legal issues but because his wish was a threat to their embedded policing. They removed all of his belongings and arrested him, he cried in the back of the cop car as sheets of his music were left on the street to be swept away by the wind. No such school has been attempted since and Black music is developed and studied in heavily policed white westernized institutions or not at all.

My own father, a Black musician, was getting arrested the last time I saw him. He went to jail, he died. He had spent his life as a kind of warrior: he carried guns, he was the quickest draw anywhere, he mangled studio engineers or lawyers he felt were trying to rip him off, he could not read, had never been taught that skill, but he could kill if he had to. He was avenging something all the time, his vengeance was finally policed and criminalized, never rehabilitated in any more tender way, just returned as bondage. He sang songs in jail, entertained his jailers with stories and songs. I’m still avenging him. I’m still imagining his alter-destiny in a world where his very existence had not been criminalized.

In his story, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” Henry Dumas, who himself was killed by police, invents a Blacks-only jazz club set in Harlem and an “afro-horn” that if heard by white people kills them. A group of white hipsters comes to the club one night, name drops, begs for entrance, and when they are denied repeatedly, they call on a police officer who forces the bouncer to let them in. They enter and start to absorb the music and before the first song is over they are dead, the frequency kills them. They were warned.

I dream of a Black music, a Black sound, free of the shackles of the white gaze, impossible for police to attack or scrutinize, ineffable to those forces, free even of white desire. Unbroken, lethal to detractors, wherein we can hear our unobstructed selves and get closer to them in other spheres of life, where the pleasure we derive from our music isn’t always fugitive, in escape from those forces that police it, and escaping us to reach or appease white audiences and white modes of consumption. I dream of the notes that only we can hear recovered, the ones multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk called the missing Black notes that have been stolen and captured for years and years and years.

Harmony Holiday is a poet, dancer, archivist, mythscientist and the author of Negro League Baseball (Fence, 2011), Go Find Your Father/ A Famous Blues (Ricochet 2014) and Hollywood Forever (Fence, 2015). She was the winner of the 2013 Ruth Lily Fellowship and she curates the Afrosonics archive, a collection of rare and out-of print-lps highlighting work that joins jazz and literature through collective improvisation.

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Hello Louie: Satchmo and His Horn Ride High Again 

Bruce Chawick

HNN  April 9, 2014

Close to the end of his life, Louis Armstrong, the jazz legend, played the swanky Waldorf Astra Hotel, in New York. His appearance there was the culmination of an unbelievable career that took him from a shack in New Orleans, Louisiana, to dizzying heights of fame and fortune. He and his horn, and his always present handkerchief, were his signatures and the thundering applause was his trademark

In this scintillating new one man show, Armstrong, in his dressing room between Waldorf concerts, reminisces about his life and career over the tumult of racial history, rekindling sometimes bitter and sometimes sweet memories. It is an often tender, often biting and always fascinating and provocative show. It stars John Douglas Thompson in a memorable performance as the jazz great.

Satchmo is a play about show business history, but it is a play about American racial history, too, from colored water fountains in Alabama to white only crowds in the North’s ritziest night clubs. It is the always absorbing story of a man and his music, and the ever changing landscape of America that he traveled over in his 70 years.

In the early 1920s, he left the South and went to Chicago to make a name for himself. He hooked up with white manager Joe Glaser, signed contracts with white clubs and even worked in clubs run by gangsters, such as New York’s Dutch Schulz and Chicago’s Al Capone. With his trombone and cornet, he became one of the most famous musicians in the world.

There is a twist to the show. Armstrong often expresses rage that he did not find the love of black audiences and that black performers often called him an “Uncle Tom.” He was a traitor to music, black critics said, because he left the smoke filled barrooms of Louisiana behind in a career that often found him entertaining white audiences. Other black critics said he was wrong to cut number one mainstream hits such as Hello Dolly! and What a Wonderful World. Still others said he never did enough to protest racism.

In Terry Teachout’s remarkable play (Teachout also wrote a biography of Armstrong), Satchmo complained bitterly about this hatred of him by black musicians such as Miles Davis. In the middle of the play, expressing his racial rage, he even said that if he had one hour left in his life, he would like to spend in «choking a white man.”

Armstrong grew up in the World War I era in a neighborhood so tough that it was named the Battlefield. In the early 1920s, he went to Chicago, America’s jazz capital, to join Joe ‘King’ Oliver’s band, one of the best in the nation. The jazz superstar rode a thousand buses and trains, alone and with his band, that crisscrossed the country, to stardom.

He was a superb musician and extraordinary entertainer from the first nights of his long career. He had new arrangements of famous songs and was an innovative performer. He was well known for ‘scat’ singing and playing until the wee hours of the morning. He had a tremendous stage presence with his hoarse voice, wide smile and oversized personality.

The play is long on entertainment history and offers a juicy look at the differences between black and white clubs in the 1930s and the influence of the mob on entertainment.

The strength of the play is its racial history. Armstrong, and all black entertainers, constantly battled it as they drove through the South, playing black and white clubs and using black and white restrooms and separate water fountains. There is a wonderful story about how, after he was famous, he and the musicians he worked with had to go to the back of a white restaurant on the road to get something to eat from the all black wait staff. That night, they might have performed for the people that owned the restaurant.

There is another story, a sad one, about the encounter between Armstrong and his musicians with an aging King Oliver in a southern city. Oliver had become famous and yet lost all of his money. He was destitute when the band met him and they emptied their pockets to help him out.

There is much humor in the play, such as the story about how Satchmo recorded the theme song to Hello Dolly! and then, a few months later, forgot the lyrics and had to have his manager mail them to him on the road.

There is not much on his personal life, a weakness. He was married four times and yet he does not discuss his wives very much.

Despite that, Satchmo at the Waldorf is a titanic look at a towering giant of American entertainment and his times, at our times, and how, over the years, they changed.

The play succeeds because of the masterful performance by John Douglas Thompson. He enters the stage at 70 years of age, barely able to walk, sits down and starts to breathe on an oxygen machine. Thompson has Satchmo’s unique gravelly voice and smile down pat and makes ample use of Armstrong’s famed white handkerchief. I have never seen a one man play in which the performer reminded you so much of the character.

Note: one the way home from the theater, one of the New York radio stations played Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World. I had to smile, even though I was in the middle of a fierce rainstorm.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Long Wharf Theater, the Shakespeare Company, others. Sets: Lee Savage, Costumes: Ilona Somogyi, Lighting: Kevin Adams, Sound: John Gromada. Directed by Gordon Edelstein. Runs through August 3.

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

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Score for “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Score for “Rhapsody in Blue.”

The Birth of «Rapsody in Blue’

By Jeff Nilsson

The Saturday Evening Post

George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue turns 90 years old this week, and is barely showing its age. It remains as appealing and as fresh as it did at its 1924 premier, when it helped earn jazz a new degree of respect from America’s music critics.

Jazz was still quite young that year. It had only just emerged in the previous decade as African American composers began blending blues, folk music, popular ballads, and ragtime into a new musical form. For several years, jazz incubated in the juke joints, saloons, and nightclubs of New Orleans, building a following among the working classes and black community. Finally, in 1917, the Victor Talking Machine Company issued a recording of “Livery Stable Blues.” It was, many will argue, the first recording of jazz. It was also one of the first records to sell one million copies.

Despite the popularity of this, and the hundreds of jazz records that followed, jazz drew nothing but scorn from the voices of America’s cultural establishment: music critics, composers, conductors, and self-appointed moral guardians. But jazz became increasingly hard to ignore as young Americans were captivated by its bright, energetic sound. An entire generation, it seemed, was learning to play the saxophone, and the omniscient strains of the “Charleston” and “Black Bottom” were heard from urban night clubs to college campuses as the country entered its “Jazz Age.”

When the critics finally deigned to review jazz, they tended to favor adjectives like “barbaric” and “degenerate.” Jazz was, they said, “the product of incompetents,” and “a species of music invented by demons for the torture of imbeciles.” And some critics reminded readers that jazz was the creation of black musicians, which—for them—implied all manner of vices.

Yet jazz continued growing in popularity and sophistication. Musicians were taking the form into new areas, developing unique sounds and experimenting with new styles and instrumentation.

“Some of the musicians I most admired, who had until then regarded me with a slightly amused but tolerant air, now talked themselves red in the face about the insolence of “jazz boys” who wanted to force their ridiculous efforts upon the world.” Paul Whiteman, 1921. Source: Library of Congress.

One of the people helping to develop jazz was Paul Whiteman. In 1922, this popular bandleader was earning over $1 million a year conducting several jazz bands on the East Coast. He became so closely associated with the new musical form that he was called “The King of Jazz” (a term, by the way, he knew he didn’t deserve.)

And he became the target of criticism from the reviewers and music ‘experts’ who despised jazz.

Hoping to appease his critics, Whiteman proposed an all-jazz concert to be held at a classical-music venue, New York’s Aeolian Hall. The idea was not greeted with general enthusiasm. Whiteman later told the Post, “Some of the musicians I most admired, who had until then regarded me with a slightly amused but tolerant air, now talked themselves red in the face about the insolence of “jazz boys” who wanted to force their ridiculous efforts upon the world.”

Whiteman thought these critics might drop their objections to jazz if they heard how much it had evolved in recent years. “I believed that most of them had grown so accustomed to condemning the ‘Livery Stable Blues’ type of thing that they went on flaying modern jazz without realizing that it was different from the crude early attempts.”

Yet he couldn’t shake the fear that his concert would antagonize the critics even further. The musical establishment was slow to change. After all, he told the Post, “We were trying to get a favorable hearing from the most hidebound creatures in the world–educated musicians. It was educated musicians who scorned Wagner, resisted Debussy, and roasted Chopin.”

So when the afternoon of the concert arrived, Whiteman was pacing nervously backstage. He already knew he would lose almost half the money he had sunk into the concert, and there was no telling how his reputation would suffer if the critics panned the performance.

“Fifteen minutes before the concert was to begin I yielded to a nervous longing to see for myself what was happening out front…I slipped round to the entrance of Aeolian Hall. There I gazed upon a picture that should have imparted new vigor to my wilting confidence. It was snowing, but men and women were fighting to get into the door, pulling and mauling each other as they do sometimes at a baseball game, or a prizefight, or in the subway. Such was my humility by this time that I wondered if I had come to the right entrance.”

George Gershwin as photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1937. Source: Library of Congress.

By 5:30p.m., he knew he had been in the right place with the right idea. Several critics came up to him when the concert was over to congratulate him. Some critics still remained unmoved, but others praised the entire performance, particularly its “first rhapsody written for a solo instrument and a jazz orchestra”—”The Rhapsody In Blue.”

It’s hard to believe that this masterpiece was created so haphazardly. Gershwin composed it in one month in-between writing music for Broadway musicals. He handed it to Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofe, on February 4, which left only one week for the parts to be orchestrated and rehearsed. Moreover, the score Gershwin handed over wasn’t even complete.

The Rhapsody included several virtuoso passages for the piano that, at the time of performance, only existed in Gershwin’s head. At one point, when he played solo, he simply left a blank space in the score, indicating the orchestra was to remain silent. The only cue Whiteman had to prompt the orchestra to start playing again was a note in the score telling him to wait until he saw Gershwin nod his head.

Grofe thought the Rhapsody’s middle passage was weak, and told Gershwin it needed some additional music as a bridge between themes. Gershwin hunted around, and then found the score for a song he had been saving for a musical and hurriedly worked it in.

The opening measures for “Rhapsody in Blue,” featuring the famous clarinet glissando.

Even during rehearsal, Gershwin was still adding touches that contributed to the Rhapsody’s success. One of its most memorable passages is a long sliding rise of the clarinet in the opening measures.

During rehearsal, when the clarinettist in Whiteman’s band practiced this passage, he jokingly gave it a slurred, bluesy glide, making the clarinet rise into a wail. He had intended it as a joke, but Gershwin latched onto the sound and asked the clarinet player to repeat, and even exaggerate, that wail at the performance.

Whiteman had wanted his concert to prove that jazz no longer relied on improvisation. But Gershwin’s successful creation of the Rhapsody showed that a successful jazz artist must always be ready to respond instantly to new ideas, to discard the work of months to capture the genius of a moment.

Click here to listen to an audio recording of “Rhapsody in Blue” provided by the Library of Congress.

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Acabo de leer uno de libros más fascinantes de historia de los Estados Unidos publicados recientemente. Su título,  A Renegade History of the United States (New York: Free Press, 2010, ISBN: 9781416571063), anuncia el carácter revisionista de esta obra. Escrito por el Dr. Thaddeus RussellA Renegade History enfoca la lucha entre quienes han querido mantener el orden social en los Estados Unidos y aquellos renegados que decidieron seguir sus impulsos y deseos. En otras palabras, Russell supera los enfoques tradicionales de la historia estadounidense (abolicionistas vs.  esclavistas, liberales vs. conservadores, capitalistas vs. trabajadores, hombres vs. mujeres, etc.) para presentarnos la historia de los Estados Unidos como un conflicto de más de doscientos entre los ciudadanos “decentes y respetables” en contra de la indecencia y la degeneración de quienes no renunciaron a su libertad individual ni se disciplinaron.  Russell examina a aquellos  que se mantuvieron fuera o se enfrentaron al orden moral y económico establecido en defensa  de los “illicit pleasures”, considerados por los norteamericanos “decentes” amenazas al sistema republicano y capitalista de los Estados Unidos.

Lo verdaderamente interesante y controversial de este libro es que  su autor alega que esos “malos ciudadanos” (esclavos, libertos, mafiosos, borrachos, prostitutas, piratas, hippies, vagos, delincuentes juveniles, homosexuales, etc.) jugaron un papel decisivo en la promoción y defensa de las libertades en los Estados Unidos. Además, desempeñaron un rol crucial en el desarrollo cultural y social de la nación norteamericano, ya que según Russell, es gracias a los renegados que existe el jazz, Hollywood y Las Vegas, que los homosexuales y afro-americanos disfrutan de derechos civiles y que el control de la natalidad sobrevivió las campañas y leyes creadas en su contra.

Dr. Thaddeus Russell

Antes de examinar con más detalle el contenido de esta extraordinaria obra, es necesario hacer algunos comentarios sobre su autor y la controversia que ha generado su trabajo académico. En la actualidad el Dr. Russell es profesor en el Occidental College  (California) donde enseña historia de los Estados Unidos en el siglo XX, con énfasis en temas laborales (su primer libro analiza el papel que jugó Jimmy Hoffa en el desarrollo de la clase obrera estadounidense), raciales y de ciudadanía.  En el año 2005 Russell fue despedido del Barnard College de la Universidad de Columbia, donde se desempañaba como profesor. La razón de su salida de la prestigiosa universidad neoyorquina fue su controversial enfoque de la historia estadounidense, considerado por algunos de sus críticos como poco académico, prejuiciado y políticamente orientado. Aquellos interesados en la versión de Russell sobre los eventos que llevaron a su salida de Columbia  pueden leer un artículo publicado por el autor en The Huffington Post en el año 2010, titulado Why I Got Fired From Teaching American History.”

La salida de Russell de la Universidad de Columbia formó parte de la campaña de represión académica llevada a cabo en los Estados Unidos en la primera década del siglo XXI contra intelectuales que asumieron posiciones políticas, cuestionaron la política exterior del gobierno de George W. Bush hijo y/o plantearon acercamientos novedosos y críticos en la enseñanza de la historia estadounidense. La víctima más reciente de esta campaña lo ha sido el gran historiador norteamericano William Cronon de la Universidad de Wisconsin-Madison, atacado por el Partido Republicano. El crimen cometido por el Dr. Cronon fue comenzar a escribir una bitácora  Scholar as Citizen analizando críticamente la política de Wisconsin. Quienes estén interesados en este caso pueden leer la excelente columna del economista Paul Krugman “American Thought Police” publicada en el New York Times el 27 de marzo de este año.

Volviendo al libro que comentamos, veamos algunos de los renegados que analiza  Russell y su aportación a la historia norteamericana.

Uno de los elementos más interesantes de esta obra es cómo su autor enfoca el tema de la esclavitud. Debo reconocer que Russell hizo que me replanteara algunas de mis ideas a cerca de la esclavitud como institución en la historia de los Estados Unidos. Según el autor, los esclavos disfrutaban de mayor libertad que los blancos libres porque no estaban sujetos a las mismas leyes y limitaciones morales. Los negros esclavos no eran ciudadanos y, por ende, estaban libres de las obligaciones y limitaciones asociadas a la ciudadanía. Los esclavos no tenían obligaciones militares ni estaban sujetos a la ética laboral de los blancos y, por ende, no tenían vergüenza de no trabajar o de trabajar menos o con menor intensidad. Tampoco tenían que pagar por su comida, vivienda, cuidado médico, etc. Además disfrutaban de una mayor libertad sexual  que los blancos, quienes “during the late eighteen and nineteen century were waging a war against their bodily desires” (64). Los esclavos estaban  sujetos a castigos corporales, pero según el autor ésta era una práctica común y frecuente en los hogares y las escuelas de los norteamericanos libres. Los libres estaban, además, sujetos a la violencia del Estado que les juzgaba por la violación de leyes que no aplicaban a los esclavos, encarcelaba y hasta ejecutaba. Según Russell, los esclavitas se vieron limitados a reducir el castigo físico  porque su abuso “worked against the master because it pushed the slave away from obligation to work  and toward rebellion”. (61) Es necesario subrayar que Russell no idealiza la esclavitud, pero  si rompe con la imagen tradicional de los esclavos como entes totalmente dependientes y sometidos brutalmente por sus amos. Para ello se sustenta en el trabajo de investigadores como Sharon Block, Stephanie M. H. Camp, Elizabeth H. Pleck y Catherine Clinton.

Esclavos tocando música y bailando, década de 1780.

Russell le dedica un capítulo al periodo posterior a la guerra civil norteamericana –la llamada Reconstrucción– y su objetivo es demostrar que la abolición de la esclavitud y la concesión de la ciudadanía norteamericana a los libertos conllevó la perdida de la libertad que éstos habían disfrutado bajo la esclavitud. La abolición llevó a que los negros estuvieran sujetos de la ética ciudadana estadounidense basada en el trabajo y el autocontrol. El autor nos brinda una imagen del Freedman Bureau –una agencia del gobierno federal creada tras la guerra civil para atender el tema de los libertos– como una institución creada para entrenar a los libertos y ayudarles a convertirse en ciudadanos con derechos, pero también con responsabilidades. La base de ese entrenamiento era la idea del trabajo como una virtud, inculcando la culpa como sustituto del látigo. El mensaje era claro: ahora  que eran libres los afroamericanos debían comportarse como ciudadanos decentes y trabajar.
La libertad sexual de los libertos fue blanco de ataques por parte de los oficiales del Freedmen Bureau, quienes impusieron el matrimonio como requisito para la convivencia de una pareja. También fueron aprobadas leyes castigando a quienes reñían hijos fuera del matrimonio. Las víctimas de estas leyes fueron las mujeres negras, solteras y con hijos, ya que se les podía arrestar, enjuiciar y condenar por ello. En el proceso perdían a sus hijos, pues eran enviados a orfelinatos.

Certificado de matrimonio emitido por el Freddmen Bureau, 1866.

No todos los libertos aceptaron ser convertidos en buenos ciudadanos. Algunos de ellos rechazaron  las responsabilidades y limitaciones personales que esto conllevaba y prefirieron seguir la senda del renegado. Éstos rechazaron el trabajo, el matrimonio, la frugalidad y la disciplina que sus libertadores blancos trataron de imponerles. En otras palabras, no renunciaron a sus libertades individuales. Su resistencia mantuvo viva la cultura que la libertad de la esclavitud les permitió desarrollar a los afroamericanos. Esa cultura es una de sus grandes aportaciones –el autor le llama regalo–  a la cultura norteamericana.   En palabras del autor,

“… slavery kept African Americans out of the culture repression that whites created,     and because of this, slaves created a uniquely liberated culture  that valued pleasure     over work and freedom over conformity.” (99)

El autor concluye, que gracias a que no todos libertos no fueron transformado en ciudadanos, hoy disfrutamos del jazz.

Banda de jazz, 1921.

El autor le dedica varios capítulos a explorar el papel jugado por otros renegados. En Capítulo 4, Russell examina las libertades y placeres que disfrutaban las prostitutas en la segunda mitad del siglo XIX (sexo interracial, sexo oral, uso de contraceptivos, independencia económica, uso de maquillaje, fumar, etc.) que luego se hicieron elementos  legítimos en la cultura estadounidense. En el Capítulo 5 hace un interesantísimo análisis de la demonización del baile. En el Capítulo 7 presenta la labor renegada de los judíos como suplidores de alcohol durante la Prohibición, como distribuidores de pornografía, como pioneros en la producción clandestina de anticonceptivos y como dueños de burdeles y “jazz-factories”.  En el Capítulo 9, plantea que para que los Estados Unidos  se convirtiera en una sociedad consumista fue necesario un cambio radical en cómo los estadounidenses   pensaban cerca sobre el deseo, el placer, la diversión y el gasto. Tal cambio no habría sido posible sin los renegados.

Motines en el Stonewall Inn, 1969.

Russell también examina el aporte del crimen organizado, alegando que sin la labor renegada de los mafiosos no habría jazz, el alcohol sería ilegal, no habría Broadway, Las Vegas ni Hollywood y los homosexuales estarían todavía en el closet.  No pretendo reseñar este punto en detalle, pero no puedo dejar de mencionar que según el autor, por razones económicas (ganancias) y personales (preferencia sexual), algunos mafiosos poseyeron y administraron bares gays en la ciudad de Nueva York. Éstos pagaban protección a la policía, proveyendo así de espacios seguros para la comunidad homosexual neoyorquina.  Curiosamente, uno de esos bares propiedad de la mafia es el famoso Stonewall Inn donde en setiembre de 1969 se desarrollaron una serie de motines importantísimos en el desarrollo del movimiento gay en los Estados Unidos.

Otro elemento interesante de este libro es cómo Russell enfoca el movimiento de  los derechos  civiles de la década de 1960.  Lo primero que llamó mi atención es que según el autor, los estudiosos de Martin Luther King no dan importancia a su faceta como moralizador. Russell señala que Luther King desarrolló tres proyectos entrelazados: la creación de la Southern Christian Leadership Conference para organizar la lucha por los derechos civiles, “the launching of a voting rights effort called Campaign for Citizenship” y una cruzada evangélica y moralizante entre los afroamericanos para librarles de sus hábitos anticristianos y antiamericanos. King quería integrar a los afroamericanos convirtiéndoles en ciudadanos y para ello era necesario que éstos dejaran de beber y apostar, y controlaran sus deseos materiales y sexuales. King creía que los afroamericanos debían disciplinarse y trabajar si querían acabar con el crimen y  la pobreza  que les azotaba. En conclusión, King se integró a la lucha por la histórica lucha por la decencia buscando transformar a los afroamericanos en ciudadanos decentes.

El autor hace un trabajo muy interesante mostrando el lado no pacifista de la lucha de los afroamericanos en los años 1960. Russell usó como ejemplo la ciudad de Birmingham (Alabama) donde en 1963 se desarrollaron famosos actos de violencia policiaca, muy importantes el desarrollo del movimiento de derechos civiles.  De acuerdo con el autor, los afroamericanos residentes de la ciudad no eran, como alegaba King,  víctimas pasivas del racismo y la violencia del Estado. Por el contrario, éstos resistieron la segregación con violencia y prueba de ellos es el número de incidentes violentos registrados por la policía en que estuvieron involucrados los afroamericanos. En los años previos a los terribles eventos de mayo de 1968, los negros residentes de Birmingham atacaron  a la policía, dieron palizas a ciudadanos blancos, etc. Para Russell, esa violencia fue crucial en la lucha por los derechos civiles. Las imágenes de la policía de la ciudad atacando con perros y chorros de agua registran un momento importante en la historia norteamericana. Sin embargo, dan una versión incompleta de los eventos de ese día.  Russell alega que las acciones policiacas no fueron gratuitas, sino una reacción a las agresiones y provocaciones que fueron objeto los policías por parte de la población afro-americana.  El autor concluye que la violencia de los afroamericanos dio a King la posibilidad de vender la integración racial y el fin de la segregación a los blancos de  Birmingham como el medio para acabar con la violencia y frenar su efecto económico.

Birmingham, mayo 1963.

Este es un libro extraordinario por varias razones. Primero, porque el autor enfatiza la existencia de muchas culturas norteamericanas enfrentadas, mostrando así la complejidad de la historia de los Estados Unidos. Segundo, porque es una interpretación novedosa y, sobre todo valiente, de la historia de los Estados Unidos. Tercero, porque está escrito de forma amena e interesante. Esta es una obra académica que no arrastra con los problemas tradicionales de las obras académicas. Russell quiere ser entendido, no lucirse con teorías complicadas y estilos rebuscados. Pero eso no quiere decir que no sea un libro serio y profundo. Además de estar muy bien escrito, este libro no nos agobia con cientos de notas al calce ya que se autor recogió sus fuentes en  una interesante bibliografía dividida por capítulos localizada al final de su obra.

Quienes busquen una interpretación novedosa de la historia de los Estados Unidos que rescate y enfatice la importancia histórica de  sus  ciudadanos renegados encontrarán en este libro una obra de gran valor.

Norberto Barreto Velázquez, PhD
Lima, Perú,  6 de junio de 2011

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