In the summer of 2012 a solo road trip led me south and included a couple of nights in Tulsa, OK. There was much to learn about Tulsa from its musical traditions to its oil-rich, Art Deco architectural history. What stuck with me was an informal, private, nighttime walking tour led by the writer and editor, Michael Mason.
Tulsa is to Mason what Dublin was to Leopold Bloom. He is a remarkable observer, an enthusiastic gatherer of stories, and is the author of Head Cases (2008 Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a book about brain injury and its aftermath. He is also the editor and founder of This Land Press, an impressive new media company that promotes independent journalism. http://thislandpress.com
We visited several sites that were a part of the city’s complicated racial history, and walked through the Greenwood District, a fairly sprawling area of several dozens of blocks. I learned that in 1921, the Greenwood District was the most prosperous black community in the United States and was home to over 10,000 of Tulsa’s 100,000 residents.
The time and place were coiled with complex, pervasive political and racial tension. In late-May 1921, a downtown encounter between Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old black male shoe shiner, and Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white female elevator operator precipitated a monstrous eruption of violence and destruction.
By some accounts, Rowland stumbled as he entered the elevator and instinctively but innocently clutched at the young woman’s arm for balance. By other accounts, he touched Sarah Page without having stumbled. Other accounts have Dick Rowland accidentally stepping on Page’s foot. By all accounts, there was contact, and Sarah Page cried out. There is further speculation that the teenagers not only knew one another, but that they may have been romantically involved. An investigation was mounted. It is generally accepted that whatever happened when Sarah and Dick were alone together in the elevator, it was not assault. No charges were pressed.
Already buzzing, racial tensions escalated. The incident was immediately sensationalized and a combination of skewed newspaper articles and public conjecture led to a chain of intensifying ‘retaliatory’ actions. Dick Rowland was detained by white authorities, and was held at a courthouse rather than a jail. Menace brewed. There was talk of lynching. Rumors and presumptions spread rapidly. Whites began mobilizing against black citizens who became protective. There was a standoff at the courthouse and the taking up of arms fanned the sparks of anxiety and anger into fire.
Within hours, the entire Greenwood neighborhood came under assault by a white group. Over the course of several hours there were open gunfights, machine gun and sniper fire, mass looting, and even aerial firebombing from a biplane. The fires and the riots that were a part of the assault resulted in at least 39 official deaths, (other death total estimates reach up to 300). There were hundreds severely injured, and ultimately there was the displacement of thousands of black families, (notably displaced were a number of families of distinguished black veterans of the First World War.)
By the time the Tulsa Race Riots ended, 35 city blocks were destroyed, burned to the ground. The reasons for the explosions of racial animosity obviously are extremely complicated – but the impetus for the episode is simple to track down – it all started with contact between two kids. It started with a touch.
A quick Google search will reveal to anyone interested that this type of racially motivated attack has scores of examples around the US in the early twentieth century. Florida, Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas – on and on. The scales are different, but the vile hearts of these matters are similar.
For me, stories like the Tulsa Race Riots lend perspective and context to a number of contemporary issues and events. That walking tour with Mike Mason taught me much more than just about an isolated, two-day incident in his beloved city’s history, and I have often called back upon its memory. This has been especially true as I have reflected on two very different concerts that I attended in the past year, between December 2013 and October 2014. I have thought of the group of white Tulsans who attacked a thriving neighborhood of thousands of black citizens because of a touch, and I have asked myself, “What would those people have made of the men on stage at the two recent concerts I attended?”
For reasons I cannot grasp, I continue processing the experience of seeing Jay-Z and Timbaland perform an arena show in Lincoln, NE, in December 2013. For weeks after the concert, and to some degree still, it has been a baffling study of the power that artistic experiences can have on individuals.
I like his music well enough and I think he is a gigantic talent, but I would not be considered a big fan of Jay-Z’s. I certainly don’t “follow” him or his career. I am aware of some of the unavoidable biographical and gossipy headline aspects of his life, but only very peripherally. (I am even aware of a sensationalized incident that occurred last spring in an elevator between Jay-Z and his sister-in-law, the singer and model Solange Knowles. That is a different deal.)
I was shaken by his concert last December, and especially by the riotous actions of the crowd. I have seen some anarchic audiences. As one comparison: I saw the Dead Kennedys in 1985 and Jello Biafra, their singer, had unleashed his special, infectious brand of punk savagery – he had the thrashing crowd going bonkers. The anarchic spirit of the concert-goers seeing Jay-Z some thirty years later made the DK crowd look like denim- and leather-clad mouseketeers.
Two main things: First, Jay-Z is riveting. His generosity and authority as a performer are almost unbelievable. The other thing, though, was the crazily hedonistic free-for-all dancing in the audience. Sure, there were lots of people sparking weed, and I saw a lot of beer and Hennessy poured at the arena’s many bars, in fact, I had a couple cognacs and Buds, (but no bud.) This was not impulse fueled by drugs or alcohol. The abandon was fueled by the music and the beats and the attitude of the performer. The party was on.
There was no support act in the traditional sense; instead a DJ spun a mix of classic and contemporary hip-hop for about an hour, gently increasing volumes and bumping up the low end. I was a guest at the concert of my friend Eric and his sons, Davis (12) and Jack (14). We were able to talk to and hear one another easily through the DJ’s first forty-five minutes as the audience was getting loose. The DJ’s effect was perfect, organically whipping up the feeling of anticipation and excitement. Everyone was smiling.
Then it got loud. Jay-Z took the stage, the lights in the arena went dark, and the air filled from all directions with smoke from expensive dope. The stage show was clean, angular, and bright – lots of white with black accents, lots of high wattage, and hundreds of shiny metal cubes, stacked and connected, rising high above the stage. There was fast-paced video projected on huge screens behind the stage and the DJs. People started dancing, dancing like I had ever seen.
It was not a concert to sit through. We were close to the stage and two rows behind the first balcony rail. Eric’s boys knew almost every lyric and they danced unselfconsciously, rapping along with Jay-Z, bopping their heads and throwing their hands in the air. Directly in front of us on the railing were young (twenty-something) women who appeared to have just met at the concert. They were wild, wild, wild.
What were the boys making of the girls dancing in front of them? It was bacchanalian. The moves unapologetically and undeniably simulated sex. For me, it was refreshing and a bit disorienting to see people just getting nuts – having their own brand of fun and not giving over any energy to judgments. And it was not just the girls in front of us; they were exemplary, but it was the whole place. As Timbaland himself noted on the microphone, “Y’all’re live as shit!”
When one looks at film of Sinatra or Presley or The Beatles sending audiences into frenzy, the frenzy was projected back to the performers. Likewise, when metal fans go fist-pumping, hair-whipping cuckoo, as they did, for instance, when I saw Metallica in 1989, the projection of most of the energy is directed back to the stage and the performers. Not so with masses of the Jay-Z crowd. Some of that raw energy surely made its way back to the stage, but in a way that I never had experienced, the energy created by the performance was mainlined by young members of the audience who were dancing and then projected to other audience members more than it was back to Jay-Z.
And as I have gone over that evening in my mind, in addition to wondering what Jack and Davis were thinking of the whole experience, I have thought again of the group of white Tulsans who attacked a thriving neighborhood of thousands of black citizens because of a touch. What would they have made of the man on stage? What would they have done when they saw the super fit black girl and the curvaceous blonde girl grinding and pouring beer into one another’s mouths?
The other bookend: A few weeks ago, Dave Chappelle took the stage at the Rococo Theatre in Lincoln with a lit cigarillo between his teeth. How raw and pointed his performance was. How smoky. How far we have come.
Chappelle deserves credit for undertaking the presentation of the complexities of race and the differences between people with more intelligence, daring, and hurtling humor than anyone alive. He is a riot. I think there is confusion about how funny he really is. Are his intentions political? Are they meant to provoke thought? Or are they meant to give people a license to laugh at ideas that they could never fundamentally advocate? For instance, when he tells a story about a confrontation he had with a lesbian couple whose child goes to school with his child, is he making fun of lesbians because they are different from him? Or is he actually making fun of people who think it is okay to make fun of people who are different?
His set on a recent Sunday in October, one of eight sets he performed over four nights in Lincoln, was a master class in contemporary stand-up comedy. Chappelle is in his early-40s, like Jay Z, and is likewise at the pinnacle of his super-compelling powers. (Unfortunately, Chappelle’s DJ, unlike Jay Z’s, was a soggy dud. SO contrived, SO forced, the DJ’s efforts to pump the crowd up had the opposite effect of boredom.)
Some things he is not. He is not overtly instructive in the way that George Carlin was. He is not ferocious like Richard Pryor or Chris Rock. He is not a stage-stalker. He paces, occasionally bending over, laughing at his jokes, doing his own thing at his own pace. Cool. He is more a detached and high-personality housecat than a panther. Chappelle quickly overcame that weird and uncomfortable DJ intro, and his story-driven observational bits had everyone smiling ear to ear when they weren’t washed over with laughter.
Reflecting on his show, I thought again of the misguided past represented by scores of despicable actions visited upon minorities, not just the Tulsa Race Riots. What would the twisted lynch mobs and white-hooded ghouls have made of the man on the stage? How far we have come.
How far have we come?
This Could Be Anywhere by The Dead Kennedys from Frankenchrist (1985 Alternative Tentacles).
Kill the Poor by The Dead Kennedys from Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980 Cherry Red).
99 Problems by Jay-Z from The Black Album (2004 Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam).
Hello Brooklyn 2.0 by Jay-Z from American Gangster (2007 Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam).
Close to the Edge by Mos Def from Chappelle’s Show (2003 Comedy Central).
20 nov 2014