These are the liner notes for avant garde pianist Cooper-Moore’s solo piano CD of a live performance recorded in Canada in the fall of 1999 and to be issued on Hopscotch Records, in March of 2000

The great Japanese wood-block artist Shiko Munakata tells a story about his first one-man show back in 1930 when he was still painting with oils on canvas, “I had a few older pieces I wanted to exhibit. For the rest, I took bare canvases and frames to the gallery the evening before the opening, and there, that night, I painted most of my show.”

As Oliver Statler says in an essay about Munakata, “Speed has always been a goal of the oriental painter. He distrusts self-conscious rational thought. He strives for the swiftest possible realization of conception, for almost automatic transmission of idea through arm and brush.” And so too with this music called African-American Improvised Music, which ought to be called American Classical Music.

In the film about a photograph of jazz musicians called A GREAT DAY IN HARLEM, Nat Hentoff says, “Spontaneity is what makes this music so continually fresh. . . . You don’t think of the passage of time. It is the immediacy of what that person was thinking and feeling at the time.”

Think of Thelonious Monk’s tune titled “That’s the Way I Feel Now.” No revisions. No time to go back and redo anything. This is the suddenness of a Zen ink painting.

Yet it would be a serious misunderstanding to think that Munakata’s methods or the methods of improvising musicians are in any way akin to the ego-maniacal, self-aggrandizing and self-indulgent obsessions of The Me-Me-Me Generation. Munakata is hooked deeply into the traditions of both Chinese and Japanese painting and he and his whole family before him were followers of Shinto ritual and practitioners of the Zen sect of Buddhism. And so it is with this tradition-rich music called improvised music.

Clearly the focus in a method like Munakata’s tradition and also the focus in improvised music is, or should be, on the preparation of the person who will make the product, and how that person grows up and out of the tradition. All of us have a history. We all come from somewhere, and for improvising artists be they Japanese wood cut artists or African American jazz musicians, the neighborhood of history and influence in which they grow up is of paramount importance.

At the end of A GREAT DAY IN HARLEM Art Farmer, his lower lip and chin quivering with the intensity of his emotion, says, “When I start counting heads and I think about how many people are no longer there anymore, it still comes as a shock to me, because we don’t think about people not being here. If we think about Lester Young, we don’t think, yeah, Lester Young was here, but he’s not here anymore. Lester Young is here! Coleman Hawkins is here. Roy Eldridge is here. They are in us and they will always be alive.”

There is no better illustration of what Art Farmer has to say about how “they are in us,” no better way to talk about the neighborhood of history and influence, than to listen to this piano solo by Cooper-Moore.

Here are ?? minutes of spontaneity, in-the-moment freshness, impromptu, improvised, on-the-spot music, and yet this brand-new, never-before-and-never-again piece of immediate art is so deeply rooted in the past, so much a part of the neighborhood of history and influence, that it is all new and all old all at once, which is what Art Farmer is saying, and what Cooper-Moore says too.

For the sake of writing about this piece of music I’ve divided it up into a Prelude and Nine Parts.

As Prelude to his solo, Cooper-Moore speaks openly about the process and meaning of history and influence in his litany of the people he wants to give thanks to, his list of people to whom he is indebted, all those without whom Cooper-Moore could not play the way he does. Cooper-Moore walks us through, both verbally and musically, the ways in which he is beholden to and inspired by his ancestors. You will find here in this solo a deep sense of history and an even deeper sense of gratitude.

The music begins on an abstract, angular and modern note, as if to make an announcement about what is to come. What follows however is an amazing variety and blend of styles and understandings; this is, in fact, one man’s history of the 20th century African-American, improvised piano.

Part One, abstract, restless and angular, may make some people think of Cecil Taylor, yet it is also filled with silence and emptiness and small sounds, delicate touches to the keyboard, and then, without warning, it stops. A pause.

Then quietly, lyrically, melodically–I thought I saw the ghost of some late 19th century Russian composer, maybe Shostakovich, float by–a dirge-like, meditative beginning in the left hand announces Part Two which slowly moves and modulates to more angular and abstract sounds in the right hand as the style of Part One incorporates itself into and blends with the meditative melody of Part Two and begins to establish a new motif in the right hand while way down on the keyboard the left hand clusters chords for a strong foundation on which to build this new, insistent, frenetic and tremulous motif developing up in the right hand. Then suddenly: another stop.

It’s as if Cooper-Moore’s two hands, in constant dialogue with each other, show us how all these great musics from the past meet and influence each other, blend together to make a new sound and then push off into the future.

Witney Balliet has a book of essays about jazz called THE SOUND OF SURPRISE, and true to that sound, Part Three begins unexpectedly with a joyful and delightful Erroll Garner-like descending figure in the right hand–the ghost of Thelonious Monk is in here too–supported and good humoredly heckled by the chords clomping around down there on the left. It’s as if some kind of comic tug-of-war is going on between the two hands. And no matter what those heavy-handed left-hand chords do, the comic descending theme in the right rises out of the thickness of the left hand chords and with its defiant and wacky humor it prevails. Part Three makes me think of Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Part Three also ends abruptly, and we hear Cooper-Moore say, “That’s three!”

Cooper-Moore not only likes to play; he also likes to talk, and here follows a brief commentary on his influences including the powerful influence of Jaki Byard and also how as a child at his grandmother’s piano he learned, as everyone did, to play Boogie Woogie. This brief verbal interlude ends with Cooper-Moore saying, “I’m gonna play a little bit of Jaki and a little bit of blues.”

Once again, here in Part Four of this history lesson–what a way to learn history!–two periods of the music sit at a picnic table in the backyard, eat fried chicken and collard greens and visit. Part Four begins as the left hand walks through the Boogie-Woogie while the right hand works out on some blues changes. Then slowly and easily, while the left hand continues walking through the blues bass line, Jaki Byard slips into Cooper-Moore’s right hand, and so subtly and easily, as a matter of fact, that you can actually hear how the modern sound grows out of, springs up from, the blues.

As with Monk and Mingus, Bartok and Kodaly, the greatest musics never stray too far from The Folk out of which they all emerge and to which they all owe their deepest and most lasting debt. As Paul Robeson said, “We who labor in the arts, we who are singers, we who are actors, we who are artists, we must remember that we come from The People, our strength comes from The People, and we must serve The People.”

No abrupt stops now, rather a segue out of “Byard and The Blues” right into Part Five, into a return to something like Part One only more hyper, frenetic, what Cooper-Moore and his cronies once referred to as “tremble time” music. Rapid tempos full of tone clusters and repeated figures, Coltrane-esque “sheets of sound,” pushing, driving intensely onward, then a slight retard, then back to the hyper central figure, then onward again, always driving relentlessly forward, then a retard again and this time the sound emptying out, slowing down, coming to an almost stop. But before a full stop, Part Six begins with one of the most lyrical, sweet and painfully beautiful melodies I have ever heard.

Cooper-Moore announces, “This is a song by Susie Ibarra called, ‘Radiance.'” And, as always, Cooper-Moore takes this new hymn-like and luscious melody and begins to fold it into the angular, atonal pieces that have come before.

Here, as throughout all of this piece of American Classical Music, Cooper-Moore’s motifs evolve and devolve into one another, which is, of course, exactly what this music and the history of this music has always done. One figure or motif leads to another and that leads to something new and so on and on and on forever.

Within this particular piece of improvised music not only are various aspects and periods of American Classical Music illustrated, but the very structure and evolution of this piece, this solo, this performance, is itself a demonstration in miniature of the history of improvised music.

Another segue and the music evolves, devolves into Part Seven, an insistent knocking-like chord in the left hand, the hyperactive dashing of the right hand over the keys in the upper registers, more “tremble time” music, more sheets of sound and that knocking chord.

Then segue again into Part Eight, and here comes Jaki Byard again around the corner, with his pal Walking Bass. The two of them stop to visit on the street with that fellow from Part Seven, the one who is always knocking. They talk quietly together for awhile.

Then suddenly Cooper-Moore stops in the middle of a line–another verbal interlude–and says, “Some people might think he’s abusing the piano.” He launches into a lecture-demonstration on how a piano player either does or does not abuse a piano, and out of this commentary and musical illustration appears The Knocking Man from Part Seven who yields to another melody briefly stated, a melody which makes me think of something Abdullah Ibrahim might write.

Again, Cooper-Moore breaks off in the middle of the line and begins Part Nine, begins talking, singing, a poem that might be called “The Agony of These Feelings Felt,” this brief history of the African in America, this tribute to a thousand black poets, and tribute also to the frustrations of being an improvising musician in America, and all this yet another part of the history of this music.

Finally out of a welter of cries and screams Cooper-Moore’s voice comes slowly down to pianissimo and then in the silence we can hear him quietly say, “Thank You.”

© 1998, 1999, 2000, by David Budbill, all rights reserved,
permission to reprint must be gotten in writing from
David Budbill: david@davidbudbill.com
or from the publication in which the essay first appeared.

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An essay about race relations in Vermont.
This essay first appeared in Seven Days on 15 December 1999

I came to Vermont in 1969 for a lot of reasons. I’d saved some money and I wanted to take a year off to write. As a city boy, I had that eternal dream of going to the country, to the wilderness. I came here also because I believed in Black Power.

During the school years 1967 through 1969 I taught at an all Black college in Pennsylvania. It was the late 1960s: assassinations, revolutions in Africa, riots in the streets of America, ghettos on fire. One Christmas vacation, one of our students was shot to death by the police in Trenton, New Jersey, for nothing more than standing on the street. Another student, an African, spent that same Christmas vacation in Sweden buying ambulances and sub-machine guns for the revolution back home in what was then called Southwest Africa.

Here in America, Black Power was at its peak. As the Self-Appointed Chairman, at the college, of the White Folks Auxiliary of the Black Power Movement, I sincerely believed that the time of “Black and White Together” was over; each race had to go take care of its own. My job was to deal with my own racism and the racism of my people.

I also felt it was my duty to get my white face out of that Black school. I believed that sincerely, but my exit from that world was not, rest assured, pure altruism. I took seriously–I approved of!–the militants who shouted, “Move on over, Mutha’, or we gonna move on over you!” Such slogans seemed to me to be the only appropriate response to ubiquitous white power and calcified white privilege. Thus my move to Vermont occurred in a public as well as a personal context.

But how, I ask myself now with hindsight, could moving to the whitest state in America be a way to deal with racism?

When I first came here a T-shirt popular at that time said: VERMONT: THE WAY AMERICA USED TO BE. In other words: clean, wholesome, community oriented, small, rural and . . . white.

I also ask myself, again with hindsight, how many of us white people, people like me–recently or not so recently immigrated–came here because it was easier NOT to confront the racial conflicts inherent in American life? Here in this land of whiteness we could relax, live with less stress, not have to confront daily the tensions inherent in a more ethnically and racially diverse place. How many of us escaped here to live simpler, cleaner, whiter lives?

By running to this bastion of whiteness 30 years ago, I had become, willy-nilly and only half-consciously, a part of the opening salvo in what became known as White Flight.

All these years later, I am still asking myself how we can, here in Vermont, deal with the issues of race and ethnicity when we live in what, compared to the rest of America, is essentially a segregated society.

The answer is coming to live with us.

In less than 20 years the majority of United States citizens will be non-white. Already more than half the population of California is non-white. Yet we white Americans still go about our business acting as if we don’t know these simple and inevitable demographic facts. We white people have always been a tiny minority of the world’s population, but our imperialism and ethnocentricity let us forget that.

Now however America increasingly looks the way the world really looks. White America knows this, if only half-consciously, and that knowledge propels rampant fear, more and more white flight from our cities and many other forms of ethnic and racial tension and reaction all across the country. We all know our white world is changing color.

Vermont is changing too. Between 1980 and 1990 the absurdly small non-white population of Vermont doubled; it went from .5% to 1%. My guess is, between 1990 and 2000 the non-white population here will have at least doubled again.

At the same time that non-whites arrive here in increasing numbers, Vermont also becomes more and more a place for rich white people, and with that increase comes a gentrified and self-satisfied smugness that settles down over this place, a smugness that can come only from gobs of white privilege, the Hidin’ Out In Honky Heaven mentality, so to speak.

It is easy to be white, liberal-minded and politically correct, in this bucolic and essentially segregated place. However, as Vermont begins to REALLY look like the rest of America and the rest of the world, how will Vermonters react?

I fear there may be serious trouble ahead when white privilege collides with a growing non-white population. The liberality of Vermonters is yet to be tested, but that test, it seems to me, is just around the corner.

Crisis, however, is also opportunity. As Vermont becomes more and more non-white we will have the chance to admit that the way we have lived here in the past is not only odd, but seriously at odds with the rest of the world.

The new millennium will offer us the chance to open ourselves to a bigger, more diverse and colorful life.

We will have the chance to admit that the segregated life we have lived here in the past has limited us severely. It has hurt us and made us small.

© 1998, 1999, 2000, by David Budbill, all rights reserved,
permission to reprint must be gotten in writing from
David Budbill: david@davidbudbill.com
or from the publication in which the essay first appeared.

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VERMONT OPERA THEATER

presents

A FLEETING ANIMAL

 

An Opera from Judevine

 

 

music by Erik Nielsen

libretto by David Budbill

Anne Decker, Music Director/Conductor

Tim Tavcar, Stage Director

with

The Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble

 

The Cast:
Joseph DiSalle, Lisa Jablow, Simon Chausse, William O. Beeman, Ann E. Fitch, Eric K. Brooks, Micheal Henderson, Elizabeth Page, Nora Zablow, Pamela Hurst, Celina Moore, William Pelton, Rob Rohr, Rebecca Smith, John Tisbert
 

* * *

WORLD PREMIERE PERFORMANCES
 

Friday, October 20, 2000. 8 pm. Montpelier City Hall Arts Center

Saturday, October 21, 2000. 8 pm. Montpelier City Hall Arts Center

Sunday, October 22, 2000. 3 pm. Montpelier City Hall Arts Center

Friday, October 27, 2000. 8 pm. Vergennes Opera House

Saturday, October 28, 2000. 8 pm. Vergennes Opera House

Sunday, October 29, 2000. 3 pm. Randolph. Chandler Music Hall

 

 

* * *

TWO REHEARSAL PHOTOGRAPHS AND SOUND SAMPLES

The Angel of Depression (Elizabeth Page) brings Tommy (Joseph DiSalle) and Grace (Lisa Jablow) together.

 

tomgrace

 

Grace comforts Tommy. (photo credits: Stephan Hard)

 

* * *

SOUND SAMPLES

“Don’t Talk To Me”
(1.1MB)“And Then The Night Birds Sing”
(1.2MB)
 

* * *

A FLEETING ANIMAL: AN OPERA FROM JUDEVINE tells the tragic story of the lives of Tommy Stames, a Vietnam Vet returned to Judevine, and Grace, the angry and put-upon welfare mother accused of abusing her children, and how their ill-fated union leads to suicide and madness. As someone said, “Ah, just the run-of -the-mill opera.”

Both Tommy and Grace are well know characters from David Budbill’s widely produced and acclaimed play JUDEVINE.

A FLEETING ANIMAL, however, expands and deepens Tommy and Grace’s story and includes major roles for new characters such as William and James, two friends of Tommy’s from Vietnam, and The Angel of Depression.

Other characters, well known to fans of JUDEVINE, such as the irrepressible and indomitable, Antoine–the town wag, Edith–logger and racist, Doug and Doug’s wife, Bobbie also take on major singing roles.

With eight principal singers and a chorus of twelve–representing the townspeople of Judevine–plus The Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble’s chamber ensemble [more on second page]–consisting of two violins, viola, cello, clarinet/bass clarinet, piano and percussion–this new opera takes opera goers into new and as yet uncharted operatic territory.

Erik Nielsen’s score [more on second page] has, as all his work does, the marks of the contemporary composer whose eclectic interests take him virtually everywhere for inspiration.

A FLEETING ANIMAL has music inspired by French Canadian fiddle tunes, the blues, jazz plus more traditional and contemporary forms of operatic musical expression.

* * *

SHORTER QUOTES FROM REVIEWS

There is a tremendously heroic quality to David Budbill and Erik Nielsen’s new operatic adventure, A Fleeting Animal . . . . The production was a revelation to me . . . and a wonder. . . . A Fleeting Animal is a great testament to the process of collaboration between two artists of power.

 

Jerome Lipani
WILD MATTERS
January 2001

 

 

A Fleeting Animal, . . . celebrates the stark beauty of Vermont’s “Northeast Kingdom” and the harsh lives of its people . . . . The music, wedded to powerful theatre, transports the listener.

 

Zeke Hecker
OPERA NEWS ON-LINE
February 2001

 

A Fleeting Animal creates a portrait of rural Vermont that not only rings true but tears at the heartstrings . . . . with a powerful score that combines spicy modern styles and real operatic emotion, . . . A Fleeting Animal [is] a powerful and often beautiful experience. . . . [It’s] the real thing.

 

Jim Lowe
RUTLAND DAILY HERALD
October 27, 2000

 

. . . two hours of evocative and often very beautiful music. . . . . . . a serious and dramatic script . . . Nielsen’s score was thoroughly modern but eclectic at the same time, not afraid of tonality and not averse to atonality either; so that the whole question of tonality-the great bugaboo of “modern” music-became nearly irrelevant.

 

M. Dickey Drysdale
THE HERALD OF RANDOLPH
November 2, 2000

 

[Erik Nielsen’s] vocal writing, for soloists and chorus alike, is filled with Nielsen’s . . . love of the human voice and of words. It has the certitude that guided Benjamin Britten in his vocal writing. . . .[and the] exemplary libretto–simple, tightly constructed . . . finds David Budbill at his best crafting of words. This is a keeper.

 

Dan Wolfe
SHELBURNE NEWS
November 2, 2000

 


 

A LETTER TO ERIK NIELSEN
Dear Erik,

Do you remember our conversation about “high art”? Well, I think you and David Budbill have achieved it. In truth, I am certainly no art critic–I simply judge with my heart–but the other night, Erik, my heart was very moved by your opera in a way that does not often happen. It was more than just a sentimental reaction. Through the truth portrayed in the characters and brought out in the power of your music, I was touched on a profound level. It cut deeply with both the tragedy and the beauty of the human soul. The whole thing was truly remarkable. I’m sorry I did not tell you in person the other night how highly I thought of it, but I was really so affected that I just wanted to leave without having to talk to anyone. It seemed any words I could have said would have been trite compared to what I had just experienced.

Ann Regan

 

 

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This essay was delivered as the Cum Laude Address at The Chestnut Hill School in Philadelphia on April 8, 1999. It includes two short essays, “Sticking up for Larry Doby” and “Incident in Boston” which originally aired on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

When Robert Fles wrote to me about the Cum Laude talk he said, “if we were to suggest a topic, it would most likely be along the lines of the role of art and writing in society, but we’re most interested in what you’re interested in.

” I want to do both. I want to demonstrate the role of art and writing in society by talking about one of the things that interests me, consumes me, the most. I want to talk about race.

This talk is called SYMPATHY because I try to write out of a basic sympathy for the human condition. I want to write passionately and compassionately about us. Whether I am writing about poor white folks in northern Vermont, as I did in JUDEVINE, or about black folks in America, I want to approach my subject with sympathy. Through writing I want to help us achieve deeper understanding.

I want to begin by reading two little essays I’ve written. Both of these essays have aired as commentaries on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” I’ve come to think of these short radio commentaries as a new literary form, sort of a prose sonnet: tight, compact, carefully controlled and developed in less than three minutes, a new kind of strict form. This first one, called STICKING UP FOR LARRY DOBY, is a memoir of sorts. It aired the day before the All Star Game in July of 1997, the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in major league baseball.

STICKING UP FOR LARRY DOBY
As everybody knows by now, 50 years ago this year Jackie Robinson became the first black man to enter white baseball. This total focus in the white media on Robinson to the exclusion of all the other black baseball pioneers has something to do with The Great American obsession with The Best, The Greatest, The First. It’s as if, since Jackie Robinson was first, nobody else even exists, and I am afraid everyone is now going to spend this year remembering Jackie Robinson and in the process they are going to forget, or never even hear about, all those other black baseball pioneers who entered white baseball shortly after Jackie Robinson and who also suffered plenty. Something as momentous as the integration of baseball doesn’t happen because of one person; it happens because of many people, just as the civil rights movement didn’t happen just because Rosa Parks refused to move the back of the bus.

Therefore, I want to remember someone who was second and hope that he will stand for all those others who were in their own suffering ways also second. I want to remember Larry Doby, who joined The Cleveland Indians only 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson had joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, Larry Doby the second black man in white baseball and the first black man in the American league.

I can’t remember 1947, but the summer of 1948, when I was eight years old, is as clear to me today as the view right now outside my window, because during that baseball summer I acquired my first childhood idol, and the object of my adoration was the man who played center field for the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians, a 23 year old black man whose name was Larry Doby.

I don’t know why my first childhood hero was a black man. Maybe it was because I knew that Larry Doby was an underdog . . . like me, a painfully shy, skinny, good-at-nothing, ignored-by-everyone little kid from the streets of a working class neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. My father, who never made it past the seventh grade and who knew that he too was an underdog, said to me, again and again, “Stick up for the little guy, Bud.”

I knew nothing at the age of eight of the brutal details of racism in America, but I knew how I too often felt and I too often felt invisible. I knew how it felt no matter what I did never to be seen for who I really was. And therefore, when my friends talked about “that nigger Larry Doby” or their fathers said “If that black bastard strikes out one more time I’m gonna kill him!” I seethed with an almost uncontrollable rage, because Larry Doby stood for me, and I wanted to stick up for him, but I was too little and too shy.

One Sunday in February 1997 The New York Times ran an article about Larry Doby. He was 73 years old then. There was a picture. He gazes quietly at the camera, his right hand folded gently against his face, his forefinger extending up toward his round, bald head, a gentle, almost-smile in his eyes and on his mouth.

I looked into his face and I remembered that skinny, little white boy and his first real hero, a black man, and because I’m not little or shy anymore, I wanted to do what I couldn’t do back then; I wanted to stick up for Larry Doby, because in the summer of 1948, Larry Doby began to help me understand what it means to be invisible. He also taught me something about courage, perseverance and grace. Because of Larry Doby, I began to love and identify ever more strongly with the underdog, the little guy, and as my love increased so did my indignation and my rage and grief.

– – – – –
This second commentary more of a very short story and is called INCIDENT IN BOSTON.

INCIDENT IN BOSTON
Not long ago I was walking along the street in Boston when down a side street came an old man in a wheel-chair rolling right down the middle of the street and into three lanes of on-rushing traffic on Huntington Avenue.

Suddenly cars were swerving everywhere, horns blaring, tires squealing and drivers trying to weave around the old man and his wheel-chair so they could get going. I knew I should go after him, but, for some reason, I didn’t. I stood there and watched.

Then an old car with a bad muffler pulled out of the snarl of cars and to the curb and a young man hopped out and boldly walked into the traffic and up to the old man. The young man was wearing a knit cap and a sports sweatshirt of some kind and hugely baggy jeans and high topped sneakers. He took hold of the old man and his chair and gently wheeled him back toward the curb, then tilted the chair up and onto the sidewalk. He bent over the old man and said something to him. The old man nodded his head. The young man patted the old man’s shoulder and moved away toward his car.

Then the young man turned and looked straight at me and shouted, “Why didn’t you help him! What’s the matter with you! Why didn’t you help him!” I wanted to apologize, tell him I meant to, but it was too late; the young man was already in his car and driving away.

As I continued down Huntington Avenue that day feeling embarrassed and ashamed, I thought about that young man, that young black man, driving along talking to himself about how self-centered, indifferent and cold white people are.

And I also thought about how many white people would step away in fear, cross the street, if they saw that young black man coming down the sidewalk toward them, how they would step away from this Good Samaritan, this young black man who put himself at risk, who acted with compassion and was, in that moment, something I was not, a credit to his race–the human race.

– – – – –
I am working on a new book with the working title of DIFFERENT AS BLACK AND WHITE. The book will be a series of interviews with black friends about race relations in America. I want to turn now to this work in progress and read some excerpts from an interview WTM Johnson who lived not far from here in Glen Mills. Bill Johnson spent his life as a research chemist in private industry and later at the University of Pennsylvania and as a teacher at Lincoln University. In 1949, Bill Johnson was the first black chemist ever hired by the Dupont Chemical Company. Bill died of cancer a couple of months ago at the age of .

Bill Johnson’s life was a challenge to, a rebellion against the status quo. He stands solidly in the tradition of great American individualists who are willing to confront anyone, challenge anything for the sake of what they believe to be the truth. This attitude toward the world is, in Bill Johnson, absolutely consistent whether the subject is science, education, civil rights or politics.

Here are some excerpts from my interview with Bill.

“The poor people in this country for a long time to come are going to be Black people, because of the unchangeability of our skin color. I can’t understand why white people can’t see this. They continue to say, well, my parents came over here, they were immigrants, they couldn’t speak the language and all this stuff and they got along all right, why can’t you do it? Lady, can you change the color of my skin? Can you change my hair?

“And it’s also a matter of what color of the skin. One of the reasons that I’ve been as lucky as I’ve been is the color of my skin. If I were as dark as my grandfather, my problems and difficulties would multiply, which is a tragedy. Look at the clothing catalogues. The Black people in there they look damn near white. Black people know that. They notice that.

“I was going to tell you about some of my Army experiences in the Second World War. After I finished basic training in Georgia, I got my orders to go to Atlanta. I went to the big train station there and I noticed a whole group of German prisoners sitting in there under guard, so I just got in the line to convert my orders into a ticket. Pretty soon two MPs (Military Police) came over to me and asked to see my orders. I showed them my orders; and they said you’ll have to get over in this colored waiting room, so they marched me from there to the colored waiting room and here are these prisoners of war, the enemies we are fighting against, just sitting in this train station! Most white people have no idea how much racism Black people have suffered and how much anger there is in me.

“I can also remember something else. We were in Camp Swift, Texas. I think this may have been just after the war ended. We were a battalion, a Black battalion and two white battalions making up a regiment. And I can recall that one day they notified us that we were going to have a regimental track meet and that we were invited to participate. We heard about it that morning and the track meet was that day, so anyway we went out there–I was just a spectator–and we got there and we saw all these white guys runnin’ around out there in track suits and track shoes and our guys, some of them had to run in their army boots, just stripped down to their underwear, no equipment, nothing.

“They had two prizes, a company and a battalion prize. We won ‘em both. Our boys beat the shit out of ‘em. And do you know what does it? What drives you? Anger at the damn racism. That’s what drives you. Anger at racism. It was just two awards, a company award–we won that–and a battalion award–we won that. Our guys had fierce feeling. Those other guys were competing. We were protesting. Protesting against the goddamned racism that had blighted every life, had twisted our sense of loyalty to our country.

“I’ve had white people tell me, well, you’re educated and successful, you’re not bitter. I said, what do you mean I’m not bitter? I said, you have no idea how bitter I am. They want me to take all this abuse and not be bitter? Goddamnit, I am bitter. I’m angry. They have no idea of the depth of anger in me.

“I’m talkin’ about racism. We Black people live in a different world. Some of my friends, my white friends, the sensitive ones, know that and they don’t try to pretend it isn’t that way. But a lot of white people think that when a Black person has a decent job and all that, like me, that I’m one of them. Huhuh. No. I’m not one of them. Not at all. I come from a different planet. I’ve seen things and felt things and suffered things . . . they have no idea.

“This one white guy once, I guess he thought he was being nice, he says something like, I was glad that this happened for your race. Well, Goddamn, I thought I was a member the human race. There’s always that gap there, always that difference.

“At the University of Pennsylvania I’ve had people say, and I’ve heard this broadly, especially among young white people, well, I didn’t institute slavery, I didn’t deny employment to Blacks, I didn’t do these things, so why should you charge me with it? My answer is: you’re absolutely right, you didn’t do these things, and that’s a position that you have a right to take. But /fortunately for humanity there have always been a few people who assumed the responsibility for taking action, for putting themselves at risk to remedy injustices. /The only progress we have ever made toward a decent society, a decent world, has come from people who, although not compelled to do so, took the responsibility to make a fight for justice, to say yes, I have a responsibility to fix it, maybe I didn’t directly cause this problem, but I have a responsibility to try to remedy it. That’s my responsibility as a human being. We have an ethical responsibility to fight for justice.

“We didn’t contribute directly to building all the just aspects of the society either; we didn’t contribute directly to the creation of freedom of speech that we now enjoy, but we do have a responsibility to build on it, we have a responsibility to use our freedom and to fight not only for Black people but for women, homosexuals, justice for every other minority. The only sound basis for a good society is no discrimination at all, overt, covert, of any kind, against anybody. We’ve got to try to take care of every human being.”

– – – – –
Let me end where I began. For me important writing grows out of a sympathy, a passion and compassion for our human condition. Through writing I want to help us all achieve deeper understanding which I believe will lead to greater sympathy. This is the most important function for writing in society.

By way of ending, I want read a poem by one of the greatest poets America has ever produced, not one of the greatest African-American poets, one of the greatest poets: Paul Lawrence Dunbar, who was born in 1872 and died in 1906–a short life: 34 years. The poem is called:

SYMPATHY
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals–
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting–
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings–
I know why the caged bird sings!

© 1998, 1999, 2000, by David Budbill, all rights reserved,
permission to reprint must be gotten in writing from
David Budbill: david@davidbudbill.com
or from the publication in which the essay first appeared.

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What white people and white privilege can learn from the overwhelming support for President Clinton during his Impeachment trial among Black Americans. First appeared in The Judevine Mountain Emailite #6, January 21, 1999

Why is it a large majority of Black Americans support The President in his Impeachment battle and what can we white Americans learn from this overwhelming support?

Here is a list of some titles of books by Black American writers: THE OUTSIDER, I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS, INVISIBLE MAN, THE SLAVE, NOBODY KNOWS MY NAME, THE WEARY BLUES, BENEATH THE UNDERDOG.

It is this particular vantage point: OUTSIDE, that qualifies Black Americans to see what goes on in America in a way almost all white Americans cannot. So when you hear some young white, male college student talking on the radio or Ken Starr and his cronies going on and on about “the rule of law,” understand that it is a question of WHOSE rule of law.

Black Americans know that the rule of law used to say that slavery was just fine and only two generations ago the rule of law prevented them from drinking at certain water fountains or sitting in the front of the bus. So much for the sanctimonious old white guy appeal to “the rule of law.” THE RULE OF LAW DEPENDS ON WHO YOU ARE AND WHO IS AFTER YOU.

Which is why, On Sunday December 13th at a newsstand in Canton, Ohio, when asked about what he thought of the attempt to impeach the President, Jack Mayle, a retired steel worker said, “It’s wrong. I’m an African-American and I recognize a lynch mob when I see it.”

It’s why when Noah Adams asked Dubra Lazard on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED recently: “What about the issue of perjury? As you know there are people in prison right now on charges of perjury,” it is why Dubra Lazard replied: “Yes, and they had to dig like ferrets in order to find enough people who were actually serving time for perjury in order to parade them before . . . the American people . . . . If you think about the O.J. Simpson case with the police officer [Mark Furman] who lied over and over and over. . . . He’s not serving any time for perjury; it was a big deal about his perjury and for some reason he could not be tried for the perjury.”

Proving yet again that we white folks had better listen when our Black brothers and sisters break it down for us, because they understand how the white world works–they know from painful personal experience about the essence and the mechanics of “the rule of law” in America–far better than we in our white privilege ever have or ever will.

© 1998, 1999, 2000, by David Budbill, all rights reserved,
permission to reprint must be gotten in writing from
David Budbill: david@davidbudbill.com
or from the publication in which the essay first appeared.

Read More...