I learn things from songs. One of the reasons I know climate change has been happening for a long time before we made it a “cause,” is because of the Christmas song, “Looks Like A Cold, Cold Winter,” by Bing Crosby.
One of the lines says, “it’s gonna be cold outside …RECORD BREAKING.” That means in 1949, they knew temperature records could be broken …which means temperature records HAD been broken …which means the temperature during each season was probably as fluid as it is now …in 1949.
It was so fluid that some songwriter casually put the phrase “record breaking” in a song. That means the knowledge of winters breaking temperature records …from year to year …was ingrained in the culture …in 1949.
Yeah, you can learn a lot from songs …if you really listen.
I used to do an old Billy Joel song in my set called, “Miami 2017.” It’s his take on being retired in Miami, THIS year, and thinking back on a cataclysmic event that happened to New York City, probably somewhere in the 1970s. The song is apocalyptic and dystopian and all those cool, writery words that essentially mean …screwed up beyond recognition. It paints a pretty bleak picture of the Big Apple in ruins: “They turned the power down …and drove us under ground …but we went right on with the show.”
I loved it. And it’s a lot of fun to sing and play. And it, of course, is pure fantasy and the nihilistic projection of an artist. But it does sort of encapsulate a certain feeling in the 70’s that I distinctly remember …the feeling that everything wasn’t going to be okay.
On the night president Obama gave his farewell speech, a couple of hours earlier, someone on the radio played Ronald Reagan’s farewell speech. I remember that speech. As I listened to Mr Reagan talk about the “shining city on the hill” I sort of teared up. Not because I worship Ronald Reagan or ANY president. Not because I long for the 80’s. But if you really listen to the idea of a shining city on the hill, it encapsulates how I (at least) feel about the idea of America; what it should represent to the world; what it COULD be.
What Reagan left in his wake will be debated for centuries to come. But the thing no one can deny is that he left optimism. I bought into it …and I still do. Before our eyes we saw what people could accomplish if they were unleashed and cheered on and not punished for succeeding. Even Billy Joel – the man who thought it was all falling apart – ended up with a super model wife and a mansion and a standing gig at Madison Square Garden. That beats the old man’s car, a jazz guitar and a tab at Zanzibar any day.
Not bad, 80’s …not bad at all.
As Mr Obama gave his farewell speech, I didn’t have the same sense of optimism. Obviously, I’m older and there are fewer things to be optimistic about when you know how they actually work. But the country is trying to find some footing we always thought we had and feel we have lost. We lurched toward Donald Trump to try to get it back. Still, Mr Obama’s presidency leaves us wrestling with some issues.
To me, the question was never the correct one: “Is America ready for a black president?” America is pretty much ready for anything. Americans would’ve probably accepted a black president years earlier than President Obama. But maybe the rift between races was deeper than we knew.
The question should’ve always been: “Is a black president ready for America?” THAT question is one we’re still asking 8 years after our first president of color is about to leave. Mr Obama is an elegant man. I said that in my very first piece about him. I still believe it’s true.
But the experience someone of color brings to the office of president is something we’ve never seen before. Many times, where we (the majority of white Americans) saw triumph …he saw treachery. Where we saw greatness …he saw gaps. Where we saw black and white …he saw shades of grey. And policies aside, THAT part of our shared experience is the part we have to heal in this country, or we’ll never move forward.
Black people see our history differently than we (white people) see it. And how can you blame them? Winning the Civil War means a lot more to them then preserving the union. Thanksgiving pilgrims aren’t sympathetic characters to them. They probably relate more to the natives. The founding fathers aren’t kindly, gentlemen farmers to them. They’re slave owners.
So when we talk about “getting back to the founding” and “what the founders believed” and all of that philosophical chatter, what they hear in the back of their mind is, “I’m going back to being 3/5ths a person and back into slavery. They might now say that …but there HAS to be a little voice, somewhere reminding them of where they fit into the early American system. There are no “good old days” for black people in America. NOW is the best time of their existence here. As white people …we should always remember that.
Conversely, black people should know that most white people recognize the horrible institution of slavery and systematic racism. When we talk about the founders and the constitution and the declaration of independence, we are recognizing an ingenious system of government that has endured longer than any other representative republic in history. And that’s a good thing. We want them to participate fully in the promise all those documents offered but failed to deliver on in the first part of our history.
And we can only be berated for so long about what our great, great grandfathers did. If you have a German friend, you can’t stop the conversation every so often and say, “hey …remember when you guys tried to kill all the Jews? Damn …that sucked.” After a while your German friend will clam up and stop talking to you. Then he’ll just stop hanging out with you altogether. Because he is in an impossible position. And he didn’t do anything. And he can’t change who he is or where he was born.
These are the conversations we don’t want to have …but we need to have.
Mr Obama’s farewell speech was graceful and …again …elegant. But so much about his presidency was as much about an experiment in race relations as it was anything else. And I, for one, can’t wait for the day when the shade of someone’s skin is purely incidental and has no bearing on how we view them. I, for one, believe that was the “dream” MLK talked about. I have that same dream.
History will judge the Obama presidency. Some are calling him the worst president in history. Some are ready to put him on Mount Rushmore. But I believe one day the asterisk of *first African American president* will fade and be inconsequential. I hope that is sooner than later. Because until then we’ll never totally be that shining city on a hill.
And the uneasiness Billy Joel felt in Miami 2017 will always be lurking around the corner.