The international arts festival has come to an end. We've seen a lot. The American premiere of a monkey headed for Broadway and beyond. The most cutting-edge theater about the devil and the sea. And the venerable Charles Wadsworth who will retire after next year's festival.
But more importantly, we've also seen a focus on African American artists at Spoleto Festival USA that was a long time coming. The festival strives to reflect its locale, and it has done so marvelously this year.
In the past, Charleston was a major hub of the slave trade. Today, thanks to Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto, the Holy City is a major hub of black cultural exchange.
My black family and Marc Bamuthi Joseph
I never thought the one-drop rule affected me personally until I read David Matthews' memoir, Ace of Spades.
The one-drop rule is a phenomenon of American slavery. If you have as little as one drop of "black blood" in your ancestry, you were considered black. If you were half black, you were black. If you were half white, you were black.
It damned African Americans if they did and damned them if they didn't.
At its core, Matthews' 2007 memoir is about a youth spent "passing" as white — and the serious and obvious questions the social phenomena raises about the metaphysics of race and the paradox of racial identity — while coming to terms with the price he paid for abandoning his heritage and family.
"I was not a racist; I was a hater," Matthews writes. "I hated the netherworld in which I found myself, the one that tacitly reassured me that it would shun, relegate, fear, and ignore all of me if I acknowledged half of me. Half-black, eighth-black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon — all meant black."
I have many aunts who married black men. Those on my mother's side I never got to know well, nor did I know their children, my cousins. On my father's side was Margie. She married Jerry. They had three boys and girl. I grew up with them. I went to church with them. We ate Sunday dinners and played in our grandfather's apple orchards together. We were blood relatives.
Yet in my childhood, my entire family thought of my cousins as black.
Warren, Douglas, Phillip, and Bathsheba are as white as I am. But such is the perniciousness of American racial pathology — the unconscious yet ubiquitous application of the one-drop rule — that I came to understand my own kin as the Other. Their blood was my blood, yet they were black, not white.
Race in America, as in my family, has always been either/or. With us or with them. One thing or the other. Never both. A throbbing paradox. I hope my white family had no intention to privilege one race. I'm certain my "black" family didn't. Even so, are we, all of us, guilty? Yes, I'm afraid we are.
Matthews spent much of his adult life trying to understand the either/or — not white, not black, somewhere in the middle of a rock and a hard place. Even so, American history is rife with our inability to tolerate racial ambivalence. As Matthews writes:
"I was David Ralph Matthews. That had been as far a depth as I'd ever needed to plumb. Those first few moments in the hallway [of a new elementary school] had alerted me to the importance they (and to a larger extent, America) place on white or black. Pick one."
In 1897, W.E.B. DuBois called this black America's "double consciousness": "The Negro ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings ... two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
I've never seen the paradox of double consciousness expressed in theatrical form the way that Marc Bamuthi Joseph did with the break/s, a hip-hop play. On its surface, it's a reflection on the history, nature, and identity of hip-hop as a musical genre. Beneath that, though, is a monologue that uses hip-hop as a vehicle for understanding the role of race in America and the role of race in Joseph's life.
the break/s addresses the broad strokes of the macrocosm while recounting the vicissitudes of the microcosm. Like Walt Whitman singing the song of himself, Joseph is really singing the song of all Americans. Just as I was unaware of perpetuating racial pathology, all of us have been affected by the metaphysics of race, even if we're not conscious of it.
Joseph's ancestry is mixed. His grandmother was Haitian, his father's family descendants of slaves. His child was born of a Chinese woman. His wife is white. The first African American he even met, he says, was a white woman born in Texas who spent most of her life in Senegal trying to convince tribal leaders to stop butchering their teenaged daughters with female circumcision.
The dominant and recurring theme of the break/s is the aching and universal question — who am I? Joseph recounts his geography of racial experience and the lessons he learns there. In Africa, where he expects to reconnect with his roots, he learns that, compared to the values and customs of real Africans, he's not really African. In Japan, where he expects to be a source of black American authenticity, he learns that, amid race-blind Japanese hip-hop aficionados, he's not really authentic.
So who is he?
the break/s is among the most innovative bits of theater I've ever seen. Accompanied by a DJ and drum kit, Joseph, a nationally recognized poet, spoken-word artist, dancer, and stage actor, recounts his experiences in poetry punctuated by street dancing and three video screens that serve as a Greek chorus of sorts underscoring his narrative points and emotions.
His real achievement, however, is evoking empathy without evoking pity. Joseph is no more a victim than my cousins were victims. Instead, our gifted MC, like writers Matthews and DuBois, gives voice to what it's like to exist in a world that forces individuals to choose a racial identity even when the options — white, black, other — don't wholly express the totality of who they are.
the break/s reveals the limits of our understanding and the damage wrought, however unconsciously, by our misunderstanding. It evokes the pathos felt by a man facing a problem that up to now seems to have no solution. No matter how tragic this double consciousness may be, though, Joseph remains hopeful.
"I am an American on the edge," Joseph says. "Don't push me, because I'm close. I'm trying."
Reclaiming the past, owning the present
A terrible notion struck me during a performance by the Carolina Chocolate Drops — that their efforts to reclaim their American heritage, including the African-American string music of the Piedmont, the various instruments, especially the banjo, and the old-timey ways of dressing up, might backfire.
To these immensely intelligent performers, the musical conventions of the early 20th century are as distant from them personally as ancient Rome. They are in fact not anything like the old-timers they revere. They grew up listening to pop music like everyone else their age. This old-timey music, and the historical knowledge that goes into it, must feel not only exotic but fresh and authentic.
For those who feel no distance from the past, for those who see old-timey music not as a convention but as a reflection of inner reality, the Carolina Chocolate Drops' attempt to reclaim the past might look like a continuation of it.
To the enlightened, there's a difference between acting country (going barefoot to enhance the aesthetic of a performance) and being country (going barefoot because you don't have any shoes). To the unenlightened, it's all the same.
Either way, race and racism still play a role in music.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are conscious of this. During the concert, Dom Flemons explained how the banjo is central to black string music. He said plainly and correctly that the instrument is of African descent. As if realizing that such a statement of fact is, to some ears, a statement of opinion, he backpedaled, generously, for the sake of white folks insecure about being white.
"I mean it's American," he said. "It just comes from Africa."
Later, in the same explanation about the banjo's origins, Flemons was again sensitive to overly sensitive whites. He explained that obviously (my word) the banjo came to America because of the slave trade. But he didn't use the s-word.
"It came here on uneasy terms," he said.
Even so, they didn't shy away from history. Rhiannon Giddens, the lovely singer, fiddler, and dancer, introduced "The Genuine Negro Jig." It was written by Dan Emmett, she said, the man who wrote "Dixie." She didn't say that Emmett, who was white, was a pioneer of blackface minstrelsy. Or that he founded the first major traveling minstrel show, which became a standard for hundreds like it.
Giddens did say that Emmett learned "Dixie," the anthem of the Confederacy, from the Snowdens, a family of black musicians who lived down the street from Emmett's family home in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. Because black songwriters during this time didn't get credit for their work, Giddens said, the Chocolate Drops changed the name of "The Genuine Negro Jig" to "Snowdens' Jig."
Two things here: On the one hand, renaming the song pays respect where respect is due. On the other, renaming it does something else, something brilliant, something of Barack Obama-like transcendence, grace, and poetry.
By renaming a song written by a blackface pioneer who had taken credit for writing a nostalgic ode to plantations and, by extension, to slavery, they have reclaimed the past as well as the present. "Dixie" is not just the preserve of whites. It's the preserve of history, and anyone can stake a claim to that.
The Chocolate Drops are of a new generation trying to understand what's happening now and what happened then. They were born long after the Civil Rights Movement. They have no personal memory of Jim Crow. They won't be contained by their race, but they won't try to escape it either. They won't allow others to define who they are, but they won't alienate others in the bargain.
Maybe their efforts won't backfire after all.
Fresh air of Imani Winds
As far as "new music" goes, the Imani Winds' performance of Valerie Coleman's suite based on the life of Josephine Baker was the most exciting thing I've heard in a long time. Coleman, the group's flutist, drew from various sources but was seamless in construction. It looked back to the rich heritage of Europe, but seemed written for our America. It didn't wear its newness on its sleeve; it wasn't earnest or self-conscious about being new.
But new is indeed what the Imani Winds are about: to increase the repertoire for the woodwind quintet, because so few composers wrote for that instrumentation and to show other talented African Americans what's possible — a mode of thinking in classical music that's as new as it comes.
The performance wasn't all new music. As if to demonstrate their incredible chops and fierce virtuosity, the Winds played a woodwind quintet piece by György Ligeti, a master composer of the 20th century. It was an exciting reading. Again, it sounded fresh. A gust of wind to cleanse the cobwebs of ideology that have long cluttered the recital hall.
As if to counterbalance the sunny and gregarious beginning of the concert, Imani Winds reveled in the part of Ligeti's quintet that featured "ghost tones," or vibrations clashing against vibrations. A glance around the audience found some in the audience plugging their ears and others seeming to turn off hearing aids.
It was punk. Henry Rollins would have approved. So would Bad Brains.