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Strange Fruit

An improvisation on race, hybrid identities, and the blues

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington

February was Black History Month.

The Republican Party apparently decided to commemorate this by organizing a reception on February 26 to honor Black Republicans. Not invited was Michael Steele, the first African-American to chair the Republican National Committee (from 2009-2011). Apparently he was overlooked.

Days earlier, at the same CPAC conference that featured neo-fascist speeches by the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre and the Trump Corporation’s Donald Trump—who also happens to be the President of the United States—Steele was not overlooked. Ian B. Walters, CPAC’s Communications Director, indeed went out of his way to mention him, with this stunning encomium: “We elected Mike Steele to be the RNC chair because he’s a black guy; that was the wrong thing to do.”

A firestorm of controversy ensued. Walters immediately apologized, expressing regret that he had spoken in this way. Many conservatives rallied to Walters’s defense. Steele was outraged but also unsurprised, for he has been on the outs with the Republican party ever since he was ousted from office in his 2011 re-election bid, and has been critical of the party’s lack of seriousness about race and its flirtations with racists. He has also been a vocal critic of Donald Trump, declaring in 2016 that he could not support Trump’s candidacy and would not vote for him, and that Trump’s Birtherism was “bullshit racism.” And in the past year Steele has been a regular MSNBC commentator who has consistently criticized Trump (for three examples, see herehere, and here).

Steele indeed anticipated the current situation in an August 2016 interview in which he noted that Trump’s victory in the Republican primary was a symptom of the party’s recent trajectory:

[I]n large measure, we laid down the metrics and pathway for Donald Trump to emerge and to arise the way he did. He understood the GOP better than the GOP understood itself … [The Republican Party] … has a problem with how to address race … Case in point, when I got elected chairman. I had a member come up to me almost immediately and say after my election as chairman and say … “This so exciting … Now black folks will join the party.” And my response was, “Really?! You think I’m a Pied Piper? Just because you elected a black man chairman black folks are going to wake up and tomorrow morning and go, ‘Oh my God! They elected a black man!’? Let’s join the GOP.” That sort of thin understanding of what it takes to actually engage the black vote has been probably the Achilles heel of the modern-day Republican Party.

Steele is a conservative. He is also no fool. He was elected RNC Chairman in the wake of Barack Obama’s Presidential victory, not because of the color of his skin but because he was an African-American conservative who had strong credentials and connections as a Republican, and because for a moment some Republicans seemed to believe that it was necessary for their party to reach beyond its white base if it was to move forward successfully in the future. This notion never had much traction. And Steele had many problems as RNC chair. Nonetheless, he was deposed in 2011, and as the party has moved ever further to the right, he has become increasingly critical, as a Black conservative Republican — an identity that has clearly become increasingly awkward for him.

Identity is a complicated thing.

When the controversy about “the black guy” comment broke, and I saw the video of Walters’s remark, I became curious about Walters. For a simple look will indicate that he does not appear to be your garden variety Republican racist:

Indeed, he appears to be a person of color. And indeed, when the ACU’s Matt Schlapp defended him after the fact, he observed: “What was not known at the time is that (CPAC spokesman Ian Walters), who is with me today, is a dark-skinned conservative who has strong opinions about the Republican party’s failure to reach out to diverse populations in an effective way.” Walters, it would appear, is not so different from Steele after all, as a man of color doing his best to fit in within an organization that, quite frankly, is racist, even if some of its leaders are sincere about “reaching out to diverse populations” (though most of its leaders are clearly not sincere about even this).

Anyway, as soon as this story broke, and I saw the short video clip in question (I have been unable to find a longer video, and honestly have no idea what else Walters said), I Googled Walters, and discovered something even more interesting. I posted my discovery immediately on Facebook last Monday:

So, Ian B. Walters, the guy at CPAC who publicly stated that the Republican Party made a “mistake” by making Michael Steele the party chairman “because he is black”–he is apparently THIS guy, a DC-based so-called blues pianist.

This guy–who, it is perhaps worth noting, does not appear to be a paragon of Aryan racial purity–plays the blues and R&B, and also spouts racist bullshit as a top CPAC official.

What? The? FUCK?

This gives new meaning to “intersectionality.”

And it warrants further attention …

And I linked to his official biography, and to this (self)-description of the man who dissed Michael Steele as an incompetent “black guy” and beneficiary of tokenism:

Ian B. Walters plays spirited, updated blues and standards as well as contemporary tunes. Known for his unique piano sound, dripping with soul vocals, and all-around good vibes, Ian’s inventive interpretations of great old songs make them new again. After studying classical piano for 13 years, he found his musical voice in vintage blues, R&B, American Standards, and early Rock-n-roll. One of the most sought after performers in the Washington DC area, he can often be found playing blues festivals and clubs solo or with numerous bands. In 2008, Ian became the newest member of the blues piano faculty at the Augusta Heritage Center’s annual Blues Week in Elkins, WV. He teaches classes and has private students in Blues Piano, combining classical western musical methods with the music of early 20th Century America extending to Rock-n-roll and early R&B. He uses various styles, including Boogie Woogie, Honky Tonk, and New Orleans Stride and Ragtime to demonstrate a historical approach to the development of American Popular Music.

I then went to YouTube to check out the guy’s playing, and discovered this video of him playing (quite well I might add) behind an African-American woman vocalist singing a gospel-blues tune that offers a heartfelt reflection on race, racism, and the plight of African-American young men. Here is the tune, “It’s Alright For a Man To Cry.”

We know that political identities are complicated, and the intersections of politics and culture are complicated too. There are serious debates about whether blues and jazz music, which were once called “race music,” are not simply rooted in the African-American experience, but in a deeper sense expressive of some essential “Blackness.” Leroi Jones’s 1963 Blues People: Negro Music in White America is a classic discussion; Ralph Ellison’s “The Blues,” a New York Review of Books review essay on Jones, is also a classic; in recent years Cornel West has focused on this themedeclaring himself a “bluesman in the life of the mind and a jazzman in the world of ideas” (I confess that this distinction eludes me); and the great trumpeter Nicholas Payton has also offered some serious reflections on the topic that have generated substantial controversy.

I am a strong disbeliever in all forms of essentialism. There can be no doubt that jazz is a music grounded in the distinctive circumstances and cultural productions of the African-American experience. There also can be no doubt that in many ways it is an especially hybrid form, which is signified even by the hyphenated term African-American, but goes to broader issues, like the fact that jazz is inconceivable without Western musical notation and European instrumentation (trumpet, saxophone, and piano were not created in the U.S.) and the fact that many jazz innovators, especially Charlie Parker, were students of European modernist music. At the same time, the discussion is an important one, and it is as much about politics and culture and questions of “strategic essentialism” as it is about musicology or aesthetics. I cannot resolve it here (or anywhere!). Nor, given who I am, would I ever pretend to resolve it.

In the current context it is nonetheless interesting that a Black man (Steele) who has adopted an unconventional political identity (conservative Republican) is being dissed by another conservative Republican (Watkins) who is a multi-racial blues and jazz pianist and not a stereotypical white racist guy like Sean Hannity or Trump himself.

When I thought about this, I found it strange, a uniquely unnerving and unusual combination, producing a sense of estrangement and requiring further thought. And, especially since the topic is race, I immediately flashed to one of the most classic recordings in the history of American jazz music, Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit.”

The tune was first recorded by Holliday in 1939. Itself an interesting example of hybridity, it is a blues-based tune about the history of lynchings of Black people, based on a 1937 poem written by Abel Meerpol, a Jewish Communist from New York who later adopted the two sons of the executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (Robert and Michael Meerpol).

Here are the lyrics:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

One wonders, seriously, how Walters reconciles the history recalled here with his own involvements in playing the blues while also serving as a spokesperson for CPAC.

I thought hard about this as I watched and listened to his piano “comping” (accompaniment) behind the vocalist singing “It’s Alright For a Man To Cry.”

And I also wondered about what it was like for her to be performing with him, what she knew about his politics, whether she cared about the dissonance (jazz is all about dissonance) between his politics and the music itself. This made me curious about her. And so I Googled her name: Gaye Adegbalola. And this is where the story gets even richer, for I learned this (what follows is taken from her website and from Wikipedia):

Gaye Adegbalola was born, in 1944, as Gaye Todd. Raised in Fredericksburg, Virginia, she graduated as valedictorian of the then-segregated Walker-Grant High School. She finished Boston University with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry (in the early 1960s, this was no mean feat for a Black woman). She worked in New York as a biochemical researcher at Rockefeller University and as a bacteriologist at Harlem Hospital. In the late 1960s she was involved in the Black Power Movement and helped to organize the Harlem Committee on Self-Defense. During this time she also took the surname Adegbalola. Given to her by a Yoruba priest she met in 1968, it means “I am reclaiming my royalty.” During this time she also married; in 1969 had a son named Juno Lumumba Kahlil; and then divorced. In the early 1970’s she returned to Fredericksburg and began an 18-year teaching career in the city’s public schools. She was the long-time director of Harambee 360º Experimental Theater, using performance as a tool to assist Black youth in gaining confidence as they struggled with identity issues during the spread of integration. She was honored as Virginia State Teacher of the year in 1982.

This woman was a very accomplished person with an extraordinary background, much more interesting, at least to me, than the men with whom this column began.

But there is more.

For I then learned that she was also the founder of a very well-known, award-winning blues band: Saffire — the Uppity Blues Women. Saffire was a multi-racial band centered on three female vocalists. In the tradition of Ma Rainey, Big Mama Thornton, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holliday, Saffire was what it said it was — three very talented “Uppity Blues Women” who sang the blues in their own way, and whose identity was clearly shaped by the “second wave” feminism that they had lived through.

Indeed, one of their songs, written by Adegbalola, received the 1990 W.C. Handy Award for best blues song of the year.

Here is a more recent live performance of the tune, whose title, “Middle-Aged Blues Boogie,” is self-explanatory:

I had listened to this band, and enjoyed their music, for years, but had never known the names of any of the members. And now my interest in the CPAC debacle had led me back to this woman with an African last name, who was not simply some random Black woman singing with Ian Walters, but was this both anonymous-and-yet-famous woman of substance who was a major, if unsung, blues musician.

But there is more. For this woman, who married and quickly divorced at the high point of the Black Power movement, for whom her maternity of a son named after assassinated African leader Patrice Lumumba, is a central feature of her identity — “It’s Alright For a Man To Cry,” we will recall, was written for her son — was also the 2011 recipient of Equality Virginia’s OUTstanding Virginian Award (see especially 11:20-12:50 here). Gaye Adegbalola, it turns out, is an outstanding out lesbian. And this is now a central part of her personal, political, and musical identity. In 2008, she came out with a terrific CD called Gaye Without Shame, which she powerfully explained in a Blues Review commentary.

Check out, here, her performance of her wonderful “Queer Blues”:

And here she is speaking about the links between civil rights and rights for sexual minorities:

And so that 56-second clip of the multi-racial CPAC leader dissing the Black former-leader of the Republic party led me to a simple 2012 videotaped recording of Ian B. Walters backing a vocal performance of “It’s Alright For a Man To Cry,” which led me to the quite interesting and inspiring story of Gaye Adegbalola, biologist, radical activist, acclaimed public educator, and Black lesbian blueswoman. A woman who literally embodies so many things worth celebrating, and who sings them, loudly and proudly, in the language of the blues.

Apparently this year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was an occasion for the KKK to spread flyers throughout Fredericksburg, Virginia. Especially given the recent violence in nearby Charlottesville, this raised great concern, especially among the African-Americans, Latinos/Latinas, and Jews who felt threatened. In response, the local NAACP chapter organized a standing-room only public meeting to discuss community responses. The event was facilitated by Gaye Adegbalola. “If you have not seen it, the first words [in the flyer] are that Dr. King was a communist pervert,” she said. “We did not like that, but what can we do in a peaceful manner? For him to be called names like that, we will not take it.”

We need more uppity blues women like her.

Postscript: While each of my Blue Monday columns offers what might be called a “riff” on some current event linking politics and music, I have chosen to subtitle this particular piece “An Improvisation” because while the piece has a clear point, it winds up in a place in many ways different from where it started. I think of it as an essay-equivalent of what jazz musicians call “playing out,” which basically means improvising in a way that is harmonically distant from the given chord changes of a tune. While this piece sounds a theme that is common to much of my writing — political reaction and resistance — it ranges far beyond the party-political framework with which it opens, and goes far “out,” ending with a discussion of “Queer Blues.”

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Jeffrey C. Isaac

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