Once you learn to read you will be forever free - Frederick Douglass

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dispatches From the Multicultural Edge

Jimi Hendrix 1942 - 1970
The other night the Obsessive Reader was driving home from work when her rush hour blues were dispelled by listening to a Pacifica Radio documentary on Jimi Hendrix.  The folks from the Pacifica Radio Archives had just uncovered a four-hour documentary on the boundary-shattering musician that had been hidden in the vaults and is now restored.
Named in 2003 by Rolling Stone magazine, "the greatest guitarist of all time," Hendrix never goes out of style.  Young people continue to discover him, just as imitators, acolytes, fellow guitarists and accomplished artists came to him while he was alive, to sit at his feet and learn, and after his death, to listen compulsively over and over, to his recordings.  And, it's important to consider Hendrix, too, not just as a poet of the guitar, but as a lyricist, too. 

The Obsessive Reader can remember a certain high school boyfriend with a life-sized poster of Hendrix on his bedroom ceiling, symbolizing the boyfriend's extreme adulation for the artist.  (How I - a teenaged Obsessive Reader - knew about the existence of the poster is another matter). The day in 1970 when Hendrix died from a drug overdose in London began as a grim, rainy morning infused with grief at the news of his death.   With eyes bleary from crying, the boyfriend arrived at school in a long, sweeping U.S. Army raincoat (the kind of military surplus gear popular with middle class kids during the Vietnam War).  A group of us huddled forlorn under the storm clouds, reluctant to go to class, incoherent with disbelief that the Voodoo Chile was gone, gone, gone.

Thanks, Pacifica Radio Archives, for restoring the Hendrix program and making it available to the public at a reasonable cost.

If you can just get your mind together
Then come on across to me
We'll hold hands and then we'll watch the sunrise
From the bottom of the sea 

                                     From "Are You Experienced?"

Ai  1947 - 2010
The Obsessive Reader was sad to hear that Ai Ogawa, a poet whose work I admire, died earlier this year.  The lack of value assigned to poetry in our culture was reflected by how hidden the news of her death was;  I found out by accident while doing some research.  

Ai - a professor at Oklahoma State University, published widely in literary journals, recipient of the National Book Award, American Book Award, the Lamont Poetry Award of the Academy of American Poets,  grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Bunting Fellowship Program at Radcliffe College and the National Endowment for the Arts - left behind a wonderful legacy of books.  Her poetry is nearly all written in the form of monologues by real historical figures or imaginary characters.  Her poetic vision has been called "fierce," "uncompromising" and "bleak." Her work ranges over the world;  she gave voice to murderous and desolate souls, a Nazi during "Kristallnacht," J. Edgar Hoover, Trotsky's assassin, the Atlanta child murderer, and ordinary Americans lost in sexual morass and racial traps, witnesses to wars, victims of economic greed, saints and psychotics.  There is humor, even glimpses of redemption in her poems, but, as Native American poet and musician, Joy Harjo wrote, Ai's "poems are frightening, but necessary."

the truth is always changing,
always shaped by the latest 
collective urge to destroy.
So I sit here,
gnawed down by the teeth
of my nightmares.
My soul, a wound that will not heal.
                            From "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer"

In musing about the lives and artistic contributions of poet Ai and musician Jimi Hendrix, out there on the edge, I realized that both claimed Native American ancestry, Ai said she was part Choctaw, Hendrix said he was part Cherokee. both refused to inhabit racial categories imposed by our limited culture.  

Ai was born Florence Anthony, the product of
"a scandalous affair" between her mother and a
Japanese man.  She changed her name to Ai Ogawa.
Ai means "love" in Japanese.

We will probably never know if Ai or Hendrix actually could count among their forbears members of American Indian tribes.  Besides, being "Indian" is not strictly a matter of genealogy, or what is crudely referred to as "blood."  More than anything, it's an issue of culture, belonging to a culture, having knowledge about that culture and respect for the heritage.  Scholar Henry Louis Gates wrote last year, 
That Cherokee Princess that family lore says is your great-great-grandmother most probably never existed. The sad truth is that the overwhelming percentage of African-American people have very little Native American ancestry in their DNA. ..Here are the facts: Only 5 percent of all black Americans have at least 12.5 percent Native American ancestry, the equivalent of at least one great-grandparent.
 Of course there are African Americans with Indian forebears, and American Indians with African ancestors.  That's how complicated America is.  But, as Gates put it, if black folks are interested in trying to understand their multicultural background, "seek the white man."  
African Americans...are a racially mixed or mulatto people—deeply and overwhelmingly so. Fact: Fully 58 percent of African-American people, according to geneticist Mark Shriver at Morehouse College, possess at least 12.5 percent European ancestry (again, the equivalent of that one great-grandparent)...In the ‘60s, we were fond of saying that we are an “African people.” Well, our DNA proclaims loudly that we are a European people, a multi-cultural people, a people black as well as white. You might think of us as an Afro-Mulatto people, our genes recombined in that test tube called slavery.
Hendrix's father, who raised him, 
changed his son's name from Johnny Allen
 to James Marshall Hendrix.  
One of his early stage names was "Jimmy James." 
Journalists and historians cite Jimi Hendrix' racial heritage as white, Cherokee and Mexican, as well as black. Ai, described her ancestral background as Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, African-American, Irish, Southern Cheyenne and Comanche.  In some ways, they are simply representative of so many who call themselves African American;  as the DNA experts discovered, and Gates above asserts, black folks are, by and large, a mixed people, a product of the New World, established, as it was, on the slave trade.  That's nothing new.  And it's evident throughout the New World, otherwise known as the Americas.  But in this particular part of the Americas, in the old U S of A., society has yet to wrap its head around the inherent multi-racialism of many so-called African Americans.  As Ai put it,
People whose concept of themselves is largely dependent on their racial identity and superiority feel threatened by a multiracial person…I wish I could say that race isn’t important. But it is...This is a fact which I have faced and must ultimately transcend. If this transcendence were less complex, less individual, it would lose its holiness.
I think what's most important about Ai and Jimi Hendrix is that they defied expectations imposed on African Americans; both refused to inhabit racial categories imposed by our limited culture.  As artists, they teach us that it's possible to move beyond the edge, speak in an original voice, and discover beauty in all its forms.  They show us that beauty as an aesthetic category isn't limited to what's pleasing or known;  it can be awful as well as awe-inspiring, it can shake you up, or appear alien.  What Ai and Hendrix seemed to know:  the possibilities of beauty are infinite.

As individuals and creators not easily defined in a society that likes its categories - especially racial categories - black, white and dumbed down, Ai and Jimi Hendrix were American artists, who in their lifetime and through their legacy could say with Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892) in Leaves of Grass
Every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you...
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself...
In all people I see myself...
I embody all presences outlaw’d or suffering...
I am large—I contain multitudes.


Gisele aka LA2LAChef said...

My mother told a story not long ago of my father ripping down a poster of Jimi Hendrix from the bedroom wall of my youngest brother. "We don't glorify drug addicts in this house," she recalled my father saying.She was telling me this because @40 years later she had come across another poster of Hendrix in the garage of the slightly older brother she now lives with. "I don't know how that poster survived", she said. I laughed, of course, as I recalled the slightly older brother as being an even bigger Hendrix fan than the youngest one.

The Obsessive Reader said...

Love your story, Gisele, and thanks for posting it! The Obsessive Reader.