Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Wright stuff

Perhaps the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is doing the only thing he can to help Obama, which is to give him a reason to repudiate Wright. What else could Wright do? He couldn't repudiate himself or crawl under a rock somewhere. At the same time, he's demonstrating how large an issue race is in this campaign. This is a primary where black Democrats are voting overwhelmingly for the black candidate & the older white Democrats are voting overwhelmingly for the white candidate. I could imagine Obama losing the popular vote in November yet winning in the exit polls simply because so many white Democratic voters wouldn't admit to pollsters that they'd voted for McCain or why. It's uncool to admit one is racially prejudiced.

Back to Wright. I listened to most of his speech to the NAACP on Sunday. He's a great stylist. But as he got deeper into his speech, his assertions became more dubious, his truisms harder to ignore. Strangely, he lectured the audience, including me watching in Dunkin' Donuts, on the impossibility of notating certain kinds of music in conventional western (or any) notational system so that the music could be performed by musicians who had never heard the music. It's what he meant, not how he explained it. This applies not only to jazz, blues, etc., but to a whole range of musics. Some very refined non-western classical musics aren't notated at all or you're expected to have the knowledge & chops to construct it from a limited amount of written information. It's legendary that marijuana & an almost telepathic ensemble virtuosity, rather than written arrangements, were the not-so- secret ingredients in Count Basie's fabulous bands of the 1930's. These facts were practically the first things my professor said in Introduction to World Music in 1973. This is old stuff for Wright to be dusting off in 2008. They should not be presented as mutually exclusive approaches. Nobody with a brain thinks jazz is "deficient" rather than just "different." Public schools are not forcing Bach & Beethoven into black kids anymore to the exclusion of African-American music. But they have be available for the kid who becomes Kathleen Battle. Schools are lucky these days if they have strong arts programs. One public school music teacher I've known is primarily a guitarist who can play any style, & another carries an electric keyboard from classroom to classroom & couldn't play Chopin if you sat her at a Steinway Grand & stuck a candelabra on top of it. Yet another is a flautist with disciplined lips who performs very entertaining music on an empty beer bottle if she's consumed the contents of said bottle. These people know how to teach music in urban schools. They have to prove it annually at Spring Recital time.

Wright went off on 30 year old research into right/left brain learning, as if the problem is that we just haven't instituted the correct pedagogy for teaching black children. I couldn't help but think of Dr. Maria Montessori & "self-directed learning." She developed it in Italy in the late19th Century, not in Detroit in 1970. But Wright has three college degrees from conventional classrooms & was speaking to the elite of African-American leaders of business & education. We know that a minimal level of success with poor children from crappy homes is less dependent on teaching methods than on in loco parentis, the school taking the place of parents. Feed the children & accept that many of them have nightmarish home environments & little parental supervision. Educators can't agree on what children ought to be learning much less how they ought to be learning it. I just read somewhere that they want to add a required 1/2 year of Economics to the high school curriculum. I assume it isn't Home Economics, which would be more valuable. Maybe it takes 4 months now to learn the definition of recession.

Rev. Wright is old school. His message is, "Deal with the reality." It's the in your face style that doesn't work well in American politics. Politics isn't about that reality. Wright came of age in an era when many white politicians were openly, proudly, arrogantly racist, & his generation of young black leaders courageously gave it back. Some of them were killed for doing it. Now, instead of standing with baseball bats in the doorways of segregated white schools, politicians like George W. Bush have learned to stand in the ruins of New Orleans & smile as they tell us how much they love all the good folks that don't live there anymore. Tell lies often enough & loudly enough, people start believing them, as Joseph Goebbels so astutely advised Der Fuhrer.

If you think Rev. Wright is radical (I think he's eccentric), keep in mind that he's also a tremendously successful pastor. Trinity, from which he has retired, is a United Church of Christ - not a traditionally African-American denomination. Anyone is welcome there, including gays & lesbians. Wright built Trinity into the largest congregation in the UCC, & it serves the poor of Chicago & serves them extremely well. So you can go there & hear the angry prophetic message - dire warnings for an unjust nation, along with the Gospel of the Sermon On the Mount, or you can attend an antiseptic mega church out on the interstate that holds flag-waving patriotic pageants every Sunday morning inspired by the finales of World War Two movie musicals.

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