Monday Blues (01.31.11)

Junior Wells, accompanied by Buddy Guy, playing “Hoodoo Man Blues,” written by Wells and Sonny Boy Williamson.

The song is from Well’s debut album of the same name, often listed among the best blues albums of all-time. Certainly it is one of THE “Chicago blues” albums. Here they are performing sometime in the early to mid-70s, at least so it seems from the “look” of things. Wells is at or near his best. It’s easy to tell why he was the legend he was. His harmonica was the most soulful there was, with that Southern drawl picked up just so to give it the feel that became the Chicago sound. Buddy Guy–hands down my favorite blues guitarist–shows us why he is who he is.

This is the Chicago sound played to perfection.


Monday Blues (01.24.11)

The great Muddy Waters, with Sonny Boy Williamson on the harp, singing his signature tune, from the American Folk Blues Festival tour (1963).

Improve the World

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

From The Diary of Anne Frank.

Teaching as an act of love

It’s that time of year! Today, I begin yet another semester as a college professor.

Since my first semester teaching as a graduate assistant at UC Berkeley–way back in the fall of 1995–I have been lucky enough to be in my current state a total of 27 times. This is my 28th beginning to a semester spent working as a teacher.

When I began teaching, I thought of it largely (if not exclusively) in political terms. As a US historian, and as a specialist in the study of race, the political consequences of the topics we discussed in our classes were never difficult to grasp. Teaching, I reasoned, was a form of activism where I could arm people with the critical tools necessary to fashion a more equitable world.

I still see these possibilities in the study of the past, as I do in the study of almost anything that forces us to confront power. But I have to admit, this no longer forms the primary way by which I view my vocation.

Maybe I’m getting old, maybe it’s being a dad, but nowadays I most often see teaching as an act of love.

This is a very human and humane form of love. It relies on a cultivated sense of critical empathy. It nurtures our sense of self by requiring the study of others. It demands that we confront egoist ways of knowing by approaching the past as a “foreign country.”

In a few hours, I get to meet 20 or 30 young people who are at a wonderfully dynamic moment in their lives. They are coming to terms with who they are as adults, often discovering a world beyond that with which they were previously familiar. They are asking bold questions, clinging to as much as they destroy in terms of what is sacred and true.

No matter their politics, they are often living in a moment of radical potential. It is a passage for most, as it should be, but it leaves an impression that shapes the rest of their lives.

I get to witness this moment, watch them navigate through it, and participate in sometimes deeply personal ways.

It’s never the same. It changes for each student and with each term. This isn’t surprising. After all, even with their clear commonalities, each student is their own person. But classes are unique organisms, too. They have their own souls, their own energies. My role shifts with these changes but it also retains a feel of consistency.

My purpose is to nurture in them a sustained condition that lasts as long as they need it.

I challenge their ways of thinking through the voices of the past, with my own analysis and enthusiasm for the topic. I create space, room for creative thought, capacity to handle the unpredictable. I teach them how each of us makes sense of our reality from within a distinct context by showing them how I make sense of mine.

I love being a historian. I love being a teacher. I am honored to be able to provide others small moments that might contribute to their own development.

And I love those radical possibilities. Even at this stage, even at my age, every semester still provides me with my own moments of humility, demanding my empathy while revealing the limits of how much I do know.

That is the excitement of my daily life. And how lucky I am…

Demand your freedom

MLK Day is always a difficult “holiday” for me.  As a historian of the 20th century U.S., and as a person who is deeply committed in both my work and personal life to meaningful progress in eradicating racism, I recognize there is a danger in celebrating King as a “paper tiger,” as Michale Eric Dyson once wrote.  When we remember him as nothing but a bearer of love and integration we negate the sheer radicalism of his life–not only “back then” but now.

I recommend you spend some time today reading “The Last Steep Ascent,” an essay King wrote for The Nation.  Beginning in 1961, King wrote a piece for the magazine every spring, assessing the status of civil rights in the nation.  This one, published on March 14, 1966, was his sixth.

For those who might think the removal of legal protections for segregation was “the end” of the movement, King wrote:

The quality and quantity of discrimination and deprivation in our nation are so pervasive that all the changes of a decade have merely initiated preliminary alterations in an edifice of injustice and misery. But the evils in our society oppressing the Negro are not now so heavy a social and moral burden that white America cannot still live with them. That is the dilemma of 1966, for which the white leadership has no clear and effective policy. The logic of growth means that the civil rights odyssey must move to new levels in which the content of freedom is security, opportunity, culture and equal participation in the political process. Negro goals are clearly defined, their tactics are tested, suitable and viable. The lag is appearing in the white community which now inclines toward a détente, hoping to rest upon past laurels. The changes it must accept in the new circumstances, however logical, have not been faced nor accepted as compelling.

To those who might think that progress for some can be ahcieved without sacrifice, he reminds us:

It is easy to conceive of a plan to raise the minimum wage and thus in a single stroke extract millions of people from poverty. But between the conception and the realization there lies a formidable wall. Someone has been profiting from the low wages of Negroes. Depressed living standards for Negroes are a structural part of the economy. Certain industries are based upon the supply of low-wage, underskilled and immobile nonwhite labor. Hand assembly factories, hospitals, service industries, housework, agriculture operations using itinerant labor, would all suffer shock, if not disaster, if the minimum wage were significantly raised. A hardening of opposition to the satisfaction of Negro needs must be anticipated as the movement presses against financial privilege.

Indeed, his words are as meaningful then as they are now. As an advocate for humane work and living conditions for the 2 million farmworkers in this country, I can find purpose and courage in his concluding remarks:

Negroes expect their freedom, not as subjects of benevolence but as Americans who were at Bunker Hill, who toiled to clear the forests, drain the swamps, build the roads—who fought the wars and dreamed the dreams the founders of the nation considered to be an American birthright.

You can–and should–read the piece in its entirety by visiting the following link.

It’s not political

There’s a lot to “take away” from the past few days of news and politics. The overriding lesson, for me anyways, is this:

The word “terrorist” is journalistic & political shorthand for a “nonwhite” person who perpetrates an act of political violence.

Jared Lee Loughner has been effectively defended left and (largely) right for two days now. Talking heads are chastising anyone who dares use the word “political” when referring to the assassination of a federal judge and attempted assassination of a member of Congress. Others are arguing anyone who does such a heinous thing can’t be of “sound mind,” invoking a level of compassion for him that is shocking considering the sentiment’s absence from most political discourse.

Yes, even the fantastically guilty enjoy the greatest of American privileges: