Tag Archives: American history

Black, White, and Blues: A Commentary on Complex Truths and Traditions in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave

11 Aug

I forget just when I originally wrote this, sometime in the early 1990s, or maybe the late 1980s. A reference to FloJo sets 1988 as the earliest possible date, as that’s the year she set her “fastest woman in the world” records in the Olympics, but I may have written it a couple years later. No matter. Most of the references are, if not timeless, at least respectably old and well entrenched in American history (e.g. Thomas Jefferson, Nat Turner, W.C. Handy). Since TnT is all about truths and traditions I figued this little packet of poetic dynamite would be just the thing.

(Note: The hyperlinks in the poem are supposed to take you to notes at the end. But they don’t work too well. Still, if something in the poem is underlined, then there’s a note at the end commenting on it. The notes are in order.)

Independence Day, 2001: In Which a President Finally Frees His Slave Mistress

I

When Thomas Jefferson dreamed of Bessie Smith
Lincoln was shot and Michael Jackson got a nose job,
Atlanta was burned and Rosa Parks welcomed Neil Armstrong to the moon,
While hooded Klansmen invaded Star Wars with their laser whips
And FloJo embarrassed Hitler in Berlin.

The dream stained his sheets, the pleasure embarrassing.
Yet Tom needed his sweets and wouldn’t dream of his wife.
She was the mother of his children and the apple of his eye,_
But Bessie knew other things, secret hidden ways to sing
The blues, who do the voodoo? the long snake moan.

II

When Bill Handy had dinner with Mozart
Malcolm X traveled to Mecca and Lennon gave peace a chance,
The Declaration of Independence was signed and Haiti was born,
Bobby Kennedy was shot while chatting with Nat Turner at Trader Vic’s,
And Elvis became the King so he could buy his mamma a house.

It was a good evening. Amadeus sure could tickle the ivories,
And old Bill liked to tickle people, white folks too.
Wolfgang taught him the secret arts of notation so he could gather
Songs for Bessie to sing. That’s how the blues propagated.
Now old Tom could buy records and learn to dance.

III

When Jack Johnson escorted Marilyn Monroe to the theatre
Hiroshima was atomized so Nipponese could sing doo-wop in blackface
Chinese ghosts still haunting the Union Pacific.
Sequoya created his alphabet so the Cherokee could read Booker T.
And Augustine became a Christian before Aretha’s first was born.

The show depicted a familiar tableau:
Leontyne sang Aida in gold lame while Caliban
Fiddled with Queen Bess who couldn’t believe
That Tom had finally taken Shine’s advice and
Decided to jump ship and haul ass for New Jerusalem.

IV

When Bessie played with Martin Luther
Sometimes the magic worked, and sometimes it didn’t.
The writers of those manuals couldn’t cover everything.
Still, when Bird called and Louis Moreau played bamboula
Nijinsky would dance so fast he heated Chano’s skins.

Tom liked to watch but finally got hip to participatory democracy.
He embraced equality and burned his wig,
Freeing himself to perform unspoken acts
With his wife while the children were asleep,
Dreaming of genies and their magic lamps. Continue reading