Tuesday, January 15, 2008

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Mr Shuck and Jive

Some things have come out of last week’s New Hampshire primary election, and not all of them are pretty. There’s the media frenzy about how Mrs Clinton actually has emotions, and whether that was “genuine” or just a ploy. Of course, it comes with the implication that only women get choked up and overwhelmed sometimes. And, I guess, that Real Men, in contrast, don’t eat quiche, or some such.

And, of course, there’s New York’s Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo, former HUD secretary under Bill Clinton, and now a supporter of Hillary Clinton. In a comment with no specific reference to Senator Obama — he was talking about how candidates have to handle these early primaries — Mr Cuomo said this:

It’s not a TV-crazed race. Frankly you can’t buy your way into it. You can’t shuck and jive at a press conference. You can’t just put off reporters, because you have real people looking at you saying “answer the question,” you know, and all those moves you can make with the press don’t work when you’re in someone’s living room.

You can’t shuck and jive.

Now, you’ve seen/heard/read the news about this, so you know about the flak he’s gotten about the comment. You can read the comments from NY Times readers in the link above, and see what they’re saying about it. Mr Cuomo’s side, of course, is saying that he meant nothing racist by it.

I don’t know. I have no inside knowledge, and I don’t know what he was thinking. Or whether he was thinking. And, really, I have no opinion on that.

But what I’d like to do is to put forth something to think about. Without judging. Just a thought exercise.

When I was young, black people mostly had to fit into white society. Music was a bit of an escape from that — white people loved to listen to “black” (actually, “Negro” or “colored”, as we said then) music. But otherwise, dark-skinned Americans did best when they tried to be as white as possible. Hair-straightening was on the way out by then (the early 1960s), but it was still around — the Afro hair style had a few years to go before coming into its own. And that was in the north; in the south, there were still very hard times.

In the 45 years since, a lot has changed. Black people still have to work extra hard to “make” it in what’s still a largely white environment, but there are intelligent and skilled and talented and influential Americans of African descent in all areas of our world. Denzel Washington doesn’t only get work when they need a minor black character. Shirley Ann Jackson is president of a prestigious northeastern university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Clarence Otis, Jr, is the CEO of the parent company of Red Lobster and Olive Garden restaurants. Colin Powell was one of our most respected generals, and then Secretary of State. Condoleezza Rice followed him in the latter role.

And now Barack Obama is a U.S. Senator, and has a real chance of being the 44th President of the United States. It hasn’t been easy for all these people to get where they are, but through their own hard work and the hard work of others a lot has changed in this country to make it possible.

One result of the changes in our society that’s enabled this is that black culture and white culture have mixed, and these days it’s not just that whites listen to black music. Customs, modes of dress, hair styles, and expressions have all blended, and “white” people sometimes use “black” slang and expressions... and not just when talking to or about black people.

As all the different cultures mix here in New York, we exchange things like food, like dance... like language. It isn’t just Jews who talk about chutzpah and say mazel tov; non-Latinos greet their friends with “Hola, ¿qué pasa?”; Italians aren’t the only ones to say “Basta!” when enough is enough.

Maybe... just maybe... Mr Cuomo said what he said just because it’s something he says. Just maybe, he really wasn’t aiming a barb at Senator Obama; just maybe, he didn’t even think of it that way at all. Just maybe, it’s one of those things that’s part of our blended culture.

And wouldn’t that be a good thing?

1 comment:

Lidija said...

Ay, yes, it would be a wonderful thing indeed. I'm glad to see the rest of the discussion playing out in (what seems to my white, privileged, European) point of view in a non-racially-tense manner. The rest - blame the press! They are so desperate for what amounts to fake news with easy fights to pick, that there is no talk of things like the economic issues at all!