Whitey in the bar

I’ve received several letters from those who would prefer that I didn’t waste so much space talking about race issues. The general tone of these letters — and I’m being polite — is that talking about such issues as lynching, the continuing prevalence of racism in America, etc., does more harm to modern-day race relations than good. Better to put the ugliness of the past behind us and try to stretch the best face possible over the ugliness that persists.

While I don’t necessarily agree with that viewpoint, I agree that there are a number of other subjects on the planet that I find fascinating, and one of these days I’ll get to those subjects. Honest. I promise.

But in the meantime, I’ve got to admit that I can’t help but be interested in the numerous ways that race affects our culture unlike it does in any other nation on earth. The United States remains an ongoing experiment, and we’re all lab rats. Granted, some lab rats are a little more equal than others, but even the top-floor lab rats don’t have any more of a clue how this will all work out in the end than the rest of us do. And true-to-life episodes like the one you’re about to read that was sent to me by a white musician buddy of mine do nothing but heighten my interest.

The thing is, when it comes to race, as with so many other issues, it’s not always at the big events where the real show — or at least the entire show — is being played out. We all know about the Civil War, the civil rights movement, the march on Washington, D.C., led by Dr. Martin Luther King, the Million Man March led by minister Louis Farrakhan, just to name a few of what might be referred to as the big-ticket events. But hidden in the cracks between these events are thousands upon thousands of smaller but equally significant — and sometimes quirky — stories that you may have experienced yourself.

Kind of like this one that came via e-mail from my friend: “Had a fascinating experience at this joint ... last night. Leave it to (name withheld) to find these corner ghetto joints. Anyway, there was a DJ set up to play while we were on breaks. A guy of about 50 or 55, he was mildly fucking with me almost from the moment I walked in the door, saying stuff about ‘the white guy at the end of the bar’ over the microphone. Harmless stuff, really, but nonetheless a bold move to pull on a stranger. Naturally, I was the only cat in the club who didn’t have a ‘deep tan,’ except for the guitar player, a virginal-looking college type with spiked white hair. (Who, by the way, seemed honestly terrified of the whole situation.)

“The night progressed in typical fashion until one break when he played this ’60s militant music/poetry called ‘Whitey on the Moon.’ You know the bit, some guy playing bongos while some guy says things like ‘I can’t pay my rent, and Whitey’s on the moon. I can’t find a job, and Whitey’s on the moon,’ and so on.

“Black folks were getting down on him for playing it. ‘Oh, man, don’t play that “Whitey on the Moon” shit. Play some rap.’ He seemed very disappointed that his brothers and sisters weren’t into civil rights and black heritage like he was. Anyway, I dig that ’60s blacknik thing and perked up right away. I asked him, ‘What is this? The Last Poets???’ He ran right over with the CD case and listened in stunned amazement as I quoted my favorite passages from particular tracks.” (Editors’ note: it was really Gil Scott-Heron, not the Last Poets. Close enough.)

Safe to say, that fucked with his head and definitely derailed what seemed an orchestrated attempt to make me feel extremely uncomfortable. My man seemed sincerely crestfallen. Here’s this white guy, me, who looks like a rookie cop and is more familiar with this stuff than the black folks he knows. Not sure I can go so far as to say I made a friend, but I’ll bet you dollars to dimes I made a lasting impression.”

Safe to say? Yep, I’d say so. Just goes to show that sometimes it’s all in how you handle things. Since those of us who don’t live in places like Idaho, where the residents are rarely if ever forced to coexist with anyone of a different complexion, can pretty much count on experiencing more than a few racially uncomfortable situations in our lives, it’s pretty much an individual decision on whether you’ll rise or fold. Suffice it to say that the longer you fold, the longer you’ll look like being folded is your natural position.

So, in parting, consider this rather humorous example from my friend: “One time somewhere out West, I think it was in Oakland, a guy on the street tried to run some racial intimidation shit on me, presumably for his own amusement. I told him, ‘Jack, I live in Detroit.’ He moaned an understanding, ‘Oh,’ and walked away.”

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. E-mail [email protected]