Randy Weston celebrates his roots, the Post and Courier ignores theirs

Healing Music, Wounding Words

by

JULIA LYNN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Julia Lynn Photography
Snoop Dogg is one of those rare artists who is no longer beholden to the rules that govern other artists, whether they're actors, singers, or writers. He no longer has to release a new album to stay in the public consciousness. He doesn't have to star in another movie or a reality show to remind us who the D-O-Double G is. Snoop Dogg is Snoop Dogg even when he proclaimed that he was the reincarnation of Bob Marely and renamed himself Snoop Lion. He is just as iconic of a character in American culture as Charlie Brown or, well, Snoopy.

But unlike that dynamic duo, Snoop isn't bound by the printed page. He's a living, breathing cartoon character who has a stable of catchphrases benefiting a proper denizen of the funny pages. Good grief, my nizzle. 

But like Cathy or Garfield or Hagar the Horrible, we don't seek out the guidance of comic creations when it comes to the issues of the day. We seek them out for laughs.

And so, when I first began seeing reports that Snoop Dogg was calling for a boycott of the new Roots mini-series, I figured this was little more than the latest Funny or Die video. Sadly, this wasn't the case. The one-time gang member and murder suspect was upset because the story of the courageous Kunta Kinte propagated negative stereotypes about African Americans. The irony was surely lost on Snoop, but then again, he was likely stoned when he took to the interwebs to condemn the critically acclaimed History Channel production. 

That said, Snoop's reticence to watch Roots is certainly understandable. It's certainly not light-hearted fare like the rapper-singer's Soul Plane, that wretched Starsky and Hutch remake, or the 2012 straight-to-video stoner comedy Mac and Devin Go to High School. However, the tale of Kunta Kinte, or at least his real-life counterparts, is a vitally important one that must be told. Like stories about the Holocaust, these stories must be told time and time again because there are forces among us who wish to erase those moments from our shared, sometimes shameful, but always hopeful, history.

But even worse than the deniers and the whitewashers, of which there are many, there are the hordes of the indifferent, those wretched milquetoasts of cowardly, non-confrontational dispositions who would gladly ignore the parts of history that remind them of all the ways in which their nations and their religions have been responsible for the most unimaginable atrocities. If we don't confront these things, then we fail to appreciate the victories that we have achieved and the debts that we owe to our righteous and courageous forebears. 

Randy Weston understands this. In fact, the jazz great, and black nationalist, has such a great appreciation for his heritage that he has built a career exploring the roots of American music in Africa, a fact that anyone familiar with our nation's contributions to the world of music — jazz, blues, rock 'n' roll, soul, hip-hop — knows all quite well.

Weston celebrates the fact that Africa's contributions to music go much further than simply inspiring American musical forms. All music began in Africa. As the jazz man told us in his thrilling performance Thursday night at the Gaillard Center, the continent is our collective ancestral home, and it is there that our kin first took up percussion instruments and began to sing in order to mimic the symphony that Mother Nature had surrounded them with. This music also provided mankind with one of its most basic forms of communications. Today, it's clear that there's something about music, in particular the sounds of Africa, that triggers a hard-wired part of our being. We feel it in a physical way that we don't other forms of art. Our bodies instinctively respond to it. Surely, this has something to do with, as Weston says, the rhythm of our hearts. The beat just isn't in our blood, it powers it.

Throughout the evening, Weston and his five compadres wowed the Gaillard audience with trance-like passages that were overtaken by passionate bursts in which the individual players celebrated their instruments with an unbridled joy. T.K. Blue (alto saxophone and flute) and Billy Harper (tenor saxophone) crafted intricate melodies that were one-part tongue twister and two-parts acid trip, while percussionist Neil Clarke and stand-up bassist Alex Blake surely pushed their chosen instruments to what one imagines is one beating shy of their breaking points. For the record, I would gladly follow Blake into battle, against either Donald Trumps' stormtroopers or the White Walkers — and I would do it with a smile on my face. I have honestly never seen a happier collection of musicians. 

And it makes sense. Weston believes that all music is magic and all musicians are healers who lift us up when we are feeling down. I would imagine this even applies to mournful or angry works as well, since there is a cathartic release that comes when a sad song plays or a particularly punishing round of heavy riffing comes to a close.

But what happens when you deny your roots — regardless of whether those roots are good or ill? What happens when you deny yourself that catharsis that can only come when you face your fears, your demons, your sins? Where there is this denial, there can never be healing. 

Which brings us to one of the more disconcerting parts of the current Spoleto season. Mind you this has nothing to do with Spoleto Festival USA. Nothing. It's all about our local daily newspaper, The Post and Courier, and their inability to honestly look at their history regarding not just racial matters, but Porgy and Bess

In the months leading up to Spoleto, I wondered just how the P&C would treat Porgy and Bess. Would they acknowledge the various criticisms that have been leveled at the opera? Would they discuss the work's controversial history? Would they discuss the role that their parent paper the News and Courier played in Porgy's history? Needless to say, I didn't expect them to delve into any of this in great detail. Instead, I reasoned their coverage would amount to little more than a celebration of the opera and its ties to Charleston. 

So consider me surprised when the Post and Courier actually mentioned that an attempt to stage Porgy and Bess in the 1950s fell through because of a fight over desegregated theaters. While that was true, the P&C couldn't help but try to cover up the sins of the past, either so as not to offend the bigots in our midst or to protect the paper itself. Perhaps both. No, surely both.

According to the daily, the Gershwin estate nixed the production, which, incidentally had already been hosting rehearsals. While the estate may have objected to segregated theaters elsewhere or at some later point, that's not what stopped the 1954 Charleston production. What prevented Porgy and Bess from being performed for the first time in the Holy City was the bigotry of the then-leaders of the Dock Street Theatre, who refused to allow blacks and whites to sit side-by-side in the audience, intermingling and mixing. It's a troubling omission, but one that becomes all the more glaring when you consider the role the News and Courier, in particular its long-time editor Thomas Waring, played in all of this.

In the years after DuBose Heyward published his novel Porgy, the work from which the celebrated opera was adapted, Waring became something of the book's chief promoter, according to the stellar 2012 book by Ellen Noonan, The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess. Following Heyward's death, Waring transformed into the chief propagandists of all things Porgy and Bess, mythologizing the work, its Charleston creator, and its connection to our town. That his good friend Dorothy Heyward, the wife of the Porgy author, had something to financially gain from all of must have surely played a role in this coverage, despite the ethically questionable nature of it. 

Waring was also a loathsome bigot, who, among other things, believed that desegregation would lead to the extermination of the white race. To make matters worse, Waring was still a proud supporter of segregation and Jim Crow in 1985.

With all of that mind, it should come as no shock that Waring was miffed that the black community in Charleston objected to a segregated theater for the show. He even had the gall to assign blame to outside agitators. Like many paternalistic bigots, Waring viewed blacks as a largely compliant race who willingly and happily accepted the tenants of Jim Crow. (As a side note, despite hosting the production, the Dock Street Theatre refused to allow the show to take place in its historic theater. Make of that what you will.)

In regards to the canceled show, Waring wrote, "In demanding that the audience be racially mingled, in disregard of South Carolina laws and customs, these Negroes in our opinion have not helped to promote good race relations. If upsetting these customs is the only terms on which they will participate, it is better that the project be abandoned."

He even went as far as say the white community would likely refuse "to make other attempts at public cooperation" because of this outcry and that the protest was another "wedge driven between the races." And it was. Make no mistake about it. But not in the way that Waring imagined in his bigoted little mind. The wedge hadn't been driven by the black community, but by Charleston's white community which insisted that African-Americans remain second-class citizens.

What makes all of this — the omissions, the deception — even more troubling is the fact that to the best of my knowledge the Post and Courier has never acknowledged the role that this family-owned company played in fostering racial animosity, if not hate, in the Holy City. Today, the daily is more than happy to write about the shameful past of the white terrorist and former South Carolina governor "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, but it's not so willing to look at the bigotry in their own house. Hell, it didn't take a stand against the Confederate flag until after the Mother Emanuel shooting and it continues to ignore the fact that current College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell defended the racist barbecue baron Maurice Bessinger in the early 2000s. 

If the Post and Courier is unwilling to face their shameful past and to admit to the pain they have cause the black community in Charleston, the harm they encouraged, they can never heal — this town can never heal. Yes, the P&C can talk about post-Emanuel unity all they want, but as it stands today, we cannot expect the paper to honestly cover racial issues if it can't honestly address their own bigotry, by omission or otherwise.