Saturday, 21 January 2017

Number Zero of Ten Or So Albums

Facebook, that strange non-place. So lovely. So toxic. So much of the world distilled into some sort of essence, though not the world entire because so much of what is important is missing. Quiet. Trees. Fresh air. One hundred other things.
There is music there, though. Videos of this or that new or nostalgic thing. And recently posts by many of my (Facebook) friends of the “10 albums that made a lasting impression on you as a TEENAGER,” to quote my (Facebook and ex-[brief]girl) friend Zoë quoting someone else. 
There’s ugliness on Facebook too. Minor and major. Mercifully I only deal with the minor ugliness, what with me being a straight white man in what can be called middle age.
Early middle age.
I thought these lists were a very beautiful thing. Then I woke up on Saturday and was scrolling leisurely through my feed and saw Zoë had posted a defense of her list. Then I saw that someone else had called their friends out for making the albums on their lists cooler than they should have been. Then I read a few more people’s posts on the topic of this list of ten albums. I hadn’t even had a chance to put my list together and already I was feeling shitty about it, so I posted:
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that this 10 important albums to you as a teenager thing has dredged up all kinds of weird shit amongst my friends and in my gut. It seemed so lovely, but has become "jokingly"—as in "hey, I was just joking, dude"—about what was authentically important to you as a teen and what is you looking back and trying to impose something on your teen self, be it greater or lesser coolness. I have some fantastic records from when I was a teen. I have some fantastic records that people now consider—even then considered—gauche. I listened to some still very cool shit. I work with teens every day and I am reminded how insanely intense the years between 13 and 19 are and how constant change and evolution are. My top 10 albums would have been different every week. As far as albums that I still like, well those would look filtered to be cool. As far as albums that have had a profound effect on me, those would be in line with the many, I think cool, manifestations of my person during and since my teen years. If you want the embarrassing shit, that's a different thing. But the policing of "honesty" versus "coolness" going on in my feed right now reminds me of, well, high school. Soon people will be accusing each other of being "phony" or "a hypocrite" and we'll all have nasty tastes in our mouths or indigestion because, after all, we are all middle aged now and gastro will probably be the result of trying to prove that we loved Drive Like Jehu back then. Or Gastr del Sol. Or Jesus Lizard. Or that we tried to puzzle out Coltrane. Or that when we were in grade 9 we earnestly loved, maybe that we still love Pearl Jam.
(Notes on my Facebook post:
(-I don’t “work with teens every day,” but I hope you will agree that five or fewer days a week for ten months of the year, minus two weeks at Christmas and a week in March, is close enough to excuse the hyperbole.
(-I’m not thrilled about the use of the word “gauche” here; I think “embarrassing" would have been better.
(-Gastr del Sol should have been the first band I mentioned, not Drive Like Jehu, so that “gastro” and “Gastr” could have nestled closer together. I’m no poet.)
I think lists tell a story, but I would rather hear, would rather tell, the actual story around the album. So here we go, here is a series of short memoirs about the lasting impression made by ten or so albums from when I was a teenager, for what it is worth.
Below is number zero of ten or so.

0.     A pre-teen album, from when I was 12 Years Old, I think. Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet
Grade seven was my first of two grades at Montclair in Oakville. 
Andrew L., with whom I’d gone to pre-school, whose mother worked with my mother, went there as well. He was one of the few people I knew other than the handful who transfered there from my rural primary school, Percy W. Merry.
There had not been a lot of black people at P. W. Merry. Nor were there many black people at Montclair.
My dad worked with a black man, a surgeon, Ofei, from Nigeria I think. Or Ghana. The country wouldn’t have been significant to me or, probably, to my family. Only that it was in Africa would have been significant from our vantage. Ofei and his wife and children came over for dinner once or twice. Ofei became the first black member of the golf course my grandfather and aunt belonged to. In my family’s story of Ofei, my grandfather—born in Markham in 1915, and once racist in that way that one is when one has no one towards whom to be racist—was instrumental in this breaking the colour barrier at the golf course. Ofei was the surgeon who removed from my grandfather the lung with the malignant tumours. Ofei gave my grandfather three more years of life in my family’s estimation.
Now that I’m thinking of it, though, there was a black person at Percy Merry. And how could I forget Norman A., Norm, one of my best friends for a few years, which when you are in primary school is no small thing. He was one of the few who attended Montclair as well, one of the few who went with me. But at Montclair Norm and I had a falling out. As I understood it, he was shoplifting from the convenience store across the street and across the high school football field from our school. And then our house was broken into and a pocket watch my grandfather had bequeathed me, the Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card and twenty dollars from my parent’s closet was all that was missing. One of my favourite baseball bats—one of Norm’s and my favourite baseball bats—was by the front door instead of in my bedroom, as if whoever had broken in had gone first to my room to grab this weapon like a talisman or security blanket or whatever. Which is to say that we suspected Norm.
But which is all to say, all of the above is to say, that I did not fear a black planet. These two men, a surgeon who prolonged my grandfather’s life and one of my best friends, did not constitute a threat to the overwhelmingly white part of the Greater Toronto Area that I lived in. Nor, I’ll say, did I perceive blackness as a threat. Maybe more of a novelty.
I had a lot of the Rap Traxx compilations on cassette and would listen to them while I played Nintendo. Super Mario Bros. and Bionic Comando. De La Soul’s “Buddy” off Rap Traxx 3 was the big discovery for me on those albums. I’d had Run DMC’s Raising Hell for a few years, nestled in my collection beside my Rush cassettes. I bought De La’s Three Feet High and Rising and listened that to death. Bought Young MC and Maestro Fresh Wes, too. At some point I bought Fear of a Black Planet.
I couldn’t remember if anyone mentioned Malcolm X on Fear of a Black Planet. “Welcome To The Terrordome” was my favourite track for its air-raid siren sound and the fury of Chuck D’s delivery. The other day I looked up the lyrics. I have no idea what sort of sense they made to me when I was twelve. I know that I could rap along with some accuracy. And there, in the third verse is Malcolm X.
…How to fight the power, cannot run and hide
Bullets shouldn’t be suicide
In a game a fool without the rules
Got a hell of a nerve to criticize
Every brother ain’t a brother
’Cause a black hand squeezed on Malcolm X the man
The shootin’ of Huey Newton
From the hand of a nigger pulled the trigger

And maybe—somewhere between my sister Emma’s piano lessons and Oakville Place, a short drive that for some reason I associate most strongly with listening to my Fear of a Black Planet cassette—Mum and I had a conversation about Malcolm X.
Maybe my friend Andrew L. told me about Malcolm X. Andrew’s Mum, Barb, was more up on social justice stuff than anyone in my family, at least as far as I could see then, as far as I can see now. Andrew, too—who got turntables and a mixer and a crate full of the latest hip hop LPs at some point around then—was more up on issues of civil rights and racism than I was, at least as far as I remember.
I know, though, that my dad, who still lived with my mum, sister and me then, found out about a black book store on Bathurst. When, years later, I discovered A Different Booklist I wondered if it was, thought that it must have been, then doubted that it was where Dad took me to buy The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The store I remember was north of Bloor, much larger than A Different Booklist and run by a white haired black man.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X has come up recently and it comes up with some regularity as I teach students who are black, who are otherwise racialized, who are women, who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, two-spirited, students who are subject to bias and prejudice. Maybe most significantly—though not most importantly—it comes up because I work with young white, straight, and/or cis-gendered, middle-class men. Men like me. And some of these young men feel that feminism or Black Lives Matter or really any acknowledgment of and action against oppression is unfair, that it somehow excludes them and targets them and concludes that they are, as individuals, fixed forever as the bad guy.
I can offer these young men anecdotes about listening to Ani DiFranco and feeling like she was singing about me quite literally, probably because of the narcissism of my social position and because my girlfriend at the time had given me the cassette with DiFranco’s songs. I can offer these men the fact that I then consciously shifted my thinking to consider the fact that Ani DiFranco didn’t know me, doesn’t know me, and that I didn’t have to be like the man or men that she was talking about and that I was probably in many ways not like the man or men she was talking about.
Or, more powerfully I think, I can offer these young men an anecdote about me reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In the book, Malcolm X calls the white man, The White Man, the devil. That’s me. At least that’s what I first thought. I talked to Mum about this, I’m sure. Little twelve year old me. 
Little was Malcolm X’s first last name, a slave owners name, the name he had when his father was murdered by white supremacists.
It wasn’t hard for me to understand that the white people who had made little Malcolm Little and grown Malcolm X suffer, the white people who built the USA, the white people who benefited from the spoils of a state and economy built on slavery, the theft of people—not to mention theft of land—the white people who continued to benefit from the oppression of black people even if they themselves were not the direct instrument of that oppression, that these white people could powerfully and without much of an imaginative leap be called devils.
I wrote a speech about Malcolm X and delivered it. I was selected to present my speech in front of the whole school. Dad agreed to take me back to the bookstore where we bought The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the white boy that I was and my white doctor dad bought a men’s medium shirt, black, with a white near-silhouette of Malcolm X and his name printed on the front. On the back was an excerpt from a speech that began, “I am not an American. I am one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism.” I wore my new shirt when I presented my short speech about Malcolm X in front of the school. I also wore, proudly, an Africa medallion that Nicole W., my black classmate, loaned me.
I had the T-shirt for years. When I wore it in grade 9, I became a magnet for skinheads. One of them, whom everyone called Squirt (and with whom I keep in touch via Facebook) asked me if I was proud to be white. I was not. I have a feeling it was him who introduced me to the phrase “race traitor,” a phrase that when I was sixteen or so I saw boldly printed on a white T-shirt worn by a guy sitting on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago. Racetraitor, I would later learn, maybe when I was still a part of the overwhelmingly white, straight and male Mississauga-Oakville-Burlington hardcore scene was a band in the Chicago hardcore scene, which scene I suspect was similarly largely white, straight and male. 
I reluctantly threw the Malcolm X shirt out when it became nearly transparently threadbare sometime in my late twenties or early thirties.
Today, I’m still not frightened of the idea of a black planet, but I suspect that the election of Donald Trump in the USA, the ongoing endemic of police and state violence against black bodies and the necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement, to name a few easy ones are signs that too many people are afraid of a black planet, at least in the US and, really by extension Canada, or at least the part of Canada where I live.

Credits: “Welcome To The Terrordome” lyrics by Chuck D quoted in The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois

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