There was black, there was white, and then there was black and white: jazz and rock and electric blues and stuff so new you couldn’t categorize it. All along, there was wondrous pandemonium, fevered mingling, one tribe swapping their pretty beads and shiny mirrors for the pelts and dried fish of another. For that we should be grateful, or at least resigned, because American culture has one great theme—race—and one great art form—pop music—and the two will always be inseparable. Race and pop music will always be the twin helices of America’s cultural DNA, or so I would like to believe: Long may they wave.
I was born in the last days of World War II, when the phrase “civil rights” did not yet mean much to most white Americans, at least not in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The races mixed freely, but only up to a point—and entirely unself-consciously. Everybody knew where to go, what to do and how to do it. This social knowledge was so thoroughly ingrained that it was another twenty years before any of us even thought about going somewhere our great-grandparents hadn’t been, or doing something new and doing it in a way that hadn’t been done as far back in one’s family as one could remember.
My typical Louisiana day in the early 1950s began with the arrival of Dot, my “black mama”, and Alphonse, the Haitian yardman. My mother was a schoolteacher and my father a college professor, but we lived on a working farm, so my brother and I were feeding chickens or watering horses as Dot began cooking and cleaning and Alphonse sharpened his tools. The schools we attended were segregated, but at the end of the day and on weekends we played with black children, such as Siebel and David, whose parents worked on the much larger Burden plantation down the road. Siebel was close to my age, and often he and I listened to the radio and danced, if you’re prepared to call yelling, throwing our arms in the air and rubbing our fannies together dancing. Moving from the all-white world of school to a mixed one before and after was effortless. I certainly didn’t question it, and nobody else seemed to notice either.
My parents favored classical music, but, in what I’m sure was an effort to hook my brother and me on “good” music, they tended to choose works of a syrupy or bombastic nature: Scheherazade, Bolero, the Toreador aria from Carmen, Peter and the Wolf, the William Tell overture. We listened dutifully, even making up our own lyrics to songs we couldn’t understand. When the older folks weren’t around, however, my older brother would put on the jazz records he had somehow managed to sneak into the house. These babies were 10- and 12-inch 33 1/3 rpm LP albums made of brittle black vinyl, and if we didn’t drop and break them first, we played them till they were gray.
Our need for secrecy didn’t have a racial basis: By that time, the idea that black music was subversive had already come and gone. Fats Waller and Cab Calloway raised many white eyebrows in their day, but first Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor and then George Gershwin had long since made jazz respectable. In Baton Rouge, at least, this meant that if white bands played it and it was okay to listen to them, then it must be okay to listen when black bands played it, too. Besides, Benny Goodman’s band was even mixed-race, and it played at Carnegie Hall.
No, the reason for the secrecy had to do with the folks. What self-respecting kid wants to listen to his parents’ music, even if it’s good? If you’re a kid and you’re not trying to define yourself through music that your parents would find different, possibly incomprehensible and maybe even repulsive, you’re not doing your job. But if my parents thought that Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ riffing was outrageous, well, then they hadn’t heard anything yet. It must have been either in late 1955 or early the following year that I switched on my little green plastic Westinghouse and heard a clear, loud voice say, “AWOPBOPALOOMOPALOPBAMBOOM!” What the heck was that? Who was that? What did it mean?
Black + White =
As Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones said, Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” is the song that turned the world from monochrome to Technicolor. Certainly the backdrop in 1955 was pale, indeed. The Billboard chart toppers, the hits that year were, first, Perez Prado’s “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White”, followed by Bill Haley & His Comets with “Rock Around The Clock”, then Mitch Miller’s “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, Roger Williams’s “Autumn Leaves”, and, at number five, Les Baxter’s “Unchained Melody.”
True, “Rock Around the Clock” marks a milestone in rock history: Haley, a country performer, is credited with, not the first rock ’n’ roll record (that title has many claimants) but, in the cautious wording of Wikipedia’s multi-headed scribe, “the first recording to be universally acknowledged” as a rock ’n’ roll record. Compared to the syncopated Little Richard and Chuck Berry songs that would soon be on the charts, the plodding “Rock Around the Clock” betrays its country origins. Yet even today it sounds like a revolutionary anthem in contrast to the other four hits of 1955, mainly instrumental wallpaper, soothing sounds for grown-ups whose musical ideals resembled those of the then-primitive marketing engineers who picked tunes for department store elevators and dentists’ waiting rooms.
As far as what early rock lyrics meant, well, they meant nothing—and everything. In Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ’n’ Roll (2006), Rick Coleman notes that many early rock singers used nonsense syllables to stand in for traditional African drum patterns meant to be tuneful rather than merely rhythmic. The start of “Tutti Frutti” is the most dramatic instance, but Jesse Hill’s “Ooo Poo Pah Doo” and Smiley Lewis’s “Tee-Nah-Nah” are other examples. Later on the la-la-las in many of Sam Cooke’s songs became an extension of the idea; the “yeah, yeah, yeah” of the Beatles’ “She Loves You” is the best known example of syllables taking the places of actual words. In fact, the studio engineers who recorded “She Loves You” thought the repeated yeahs were substitutes for the real lyrics that the Beatles would produce when the session began.
Had the engineers known more about the hybrid nature of rock ’n’ roll, they wouldn’t have been surprised. The inaugural members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, James Brown, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and Ray Charles. Six black musicians, five white ones. The Hall of Fame did not retrospectively produce this potpourri in a deliberate act of racial balancing. It just happened that way, and that, precisely, is why it remains so important.
Clearly, musical influences in those days were moving, as the “Twist” lyric said, “up and down and all around—one, two, three, kick; one, two, three!” So the Beatles covered the Marvelettes’ “Please, Mr. Postman” and, as Gerald Early writes in One Nation Under a Groove (1995), Fats Domino covered a country and western tune, “Blueberry Hill.” According to Rick Coleman, Domino was very upset when Hank Williams died on January 1, 1953, saying, “That country music tells a story; that’s just like rhythm and blues. Look at Hank Williams—he was 29 when he died, and the songs he wrote, man!” He went on to record three of Williams’s songs, including his signature “Jambalaya.”
A few months ago I heard Little Richard in concert. He’s not in the best physical shape these days, but he began by announcing, “I am the beautiful Little Richard, and you can see that I am telling you the truth!” He meant it, too—because he still sounds great. He kicked off his show with “Good Golly Miss Molly” and then went into “Blueberry Hill”, alternating throughout between his own hits and standards by Ray Charles, Hank Williams, Bob Seger and such lesser-knowns as his fellow Specialty Records artist Larry Williams (“Bony Maronie”). Little Richard sang spirituals (“I Saw the Light”), country songs (“Jambalaya” again), and even “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Not long after, I spoke with Willie Ruth Howard, Little Richard’s cousin, to gather material for a book I’m writing on the singer, and she told me her favorite performance ever was when Little Richard sang, not one of his own hits, but Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
To the pioneer rock performers, then, the most influential music of our times was as black and white as the 88 keys on a piano. Other musical forms before rock had pushed in this direction: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Pearl Bailey and Lena Horne could sing “white”, and Louis Armstrong could make “black” music universal, but it was the early rock phenomenon of the middle 1950s and 1960s that really did the trick. The mixing of the music and the civil rights revolution became so fused in the subconscious of young Americans like me that we could not have told you then where one stopped and the other started.
What, then, does what some are calling the “re-segregation of American music” mean? In his October 2007 New Yorker essay, “A Paler Shade of White: How Indie Rock Lost Its Soul”, music critic Sasha Frere-Jones analyzes the question with unusual acuity and insight. He juxtaposes two concerts by the Canadian band Arcade Fire. The first concert, writes Frere-Jones, was “ragged but full of brio”, and he recalls spending the evening “happily pressed against the stage.” But by the second concert, four months later, it became clear there was something missing from the band’s DNA: “If there is a trace of soul, blues, reggae, or funk in Arcade Fire, it must be philosophical; it certainly isn’t audible.” What was missing was “a bit of swing, some empty space, and palpable bass frequencies—in other words, attributes of African-American popular music.”
If, as Frere-Jones rightly put it, rock ’n’ roll is “the most miscegenated popular music ever to have existed”, then why did rock undergo a “racial re-sorting in the nineteen-nineties?” To find an answer, he goes back to the 1920s, when folk music was being recorded for the first time, and it was not always clear where the songs came from. It’s a given that African slaves shaped the rising and falling patterns of blues singing, but scholars now believe that such modes as the call-and-response singing integral to the African-American church may have been brought over by illiterate Scots who learned scripture by singing back lines as their pastor read them aloud. A case in point is “The House of the Rising Sun.”
In Chasing the Sun: The Journey of an American Song (2007), Ted Anthony points out that the first known recording of “The House” took place in 1937, when 16-year-old Georgia Turner sang into a 350-pound Presto “portable” reproducer, a needle-driven recording machine operated by Library of Congress researcher Alan Lomax. Twenty-seven years later, The Animals, a provincial English band, were asked to join the British tour of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. The Animals’ musicians knew this was their chance to make it big, so they looked for a song that would make an impact. “I realized one thing”, said lead singer Eric Burdon, which is “you can’t outrock Chuck Berry.” The song had already been covered by Josh White, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone and others, so organist Alan Price, one of the unsung geniuses of 20th-century pop music, wrote a new arrangement that opened with boiling arpeggios instead of the traditional gentle strum and churned like a hurricane, its center shot through with Burdon’s hellfire cries of a soul trapped in pain and anger.
So striking was the arrangement that the song is often attributed to Burdon and his group. But Anthony suggests that no one person wrote it, not even the Georgia Turner whom Alan Lomax credited (along with Bert Martin, who contributed “other stanzas”) as the author. Some of the songs that really get under our skin aren’t written so much as assembled. Anthony quotes cultural historian Greil Marcus as saying that many songs emerging from “the old, weird America” are made out of “verbal fragments that had no direct or logical relationship to each other, but were drawn from a floating pool of thousands of disconnected verses, couplets, one-liners.” These fragments eventually achieved “a kind of critical mass.” Anthony writes of what he calls “handmade music” on one page and “mongrel music” on another. The latter isn’t a negative description as Anthony uses it: Our mix of “heritages and experiences and outlooks and travails makes us stronger and healthier”, he writes, “both in our culture and in the music. . . . We come from what we believe is a single world, but it is so many, all existing at once.”
It’s easy to see how listeners might think that a song which in fact sprang from a whole forest was cut from a single tree. After all, if arrangers do as complete a makeover of a song as Burdon, Price and their band mates did with “The House of the Rising Sun”, their artistry will often erase their own path to the discovery of the song in the first place. What baby boomer can claim not to blush upon learning that the Stones’s “Love in Vain” or Cream’s “Crossroad” was actually written (or at least recorded) decades earlier by blues legend Robert Johnson? The borrowing (or theft) by white musicians from black ones is well documented. Sometimes the theft is even acknowledged in retrospect, as when, for example, Hot Tuna signed up Papa John Creech to play fiddle on their two counterculture-era electric blues albums. But what’s interesting is how the flow went in the other direction as well: It was a milestone in English rock when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards met on a train between Dartford and London in 1960 and Jagger lent Richards an LP by Muddy Waters. But before long, Otis Redding was covering the Stones’s “Satisfaction”, just as Little Richard included such “white” standards as “Baby Face” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” on his early albums.
Sure, the recording industry in those days was racist and predatory. Industry execs quickly had Pat Boone and Bill Haley cover Little Richard’s songs, and the blander versions initially outsold the originals. But music lovers caught on fast, and the Georgia Peach was soon outselling his pale imitators. And if the industry wanted to hide the fact that rock ’n’ roll came from such pioneers as Little Richard and Fats Domino (who said modestly of his role, “Well, I wouldn’t want to say that I started it, but I don’t remember anyone else before me playing that kind of stuff”), white musicians were often more frank. “A lot of people seem to think I started this business”, said Elvis as early as 1957. “But rock ’n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that.”
In Blue Monday, Rick Coleman writes that “Presley’s unprecedented fame obscured black pioneers like a supernova obliterating neighboring stars, making him the unwilling figurehead of white denial, even as he insisted that rock ’n’ roll began as rhythm and blues.” He quotes cultural theorist Joseph Roach on “the staggering erasures required by the invention of whiteness.” Elvis has been unfairly accused of hijacking R&B;, but Coleman views him rightly as “unwilling”—as in no more willful than a supernova (literally, according to the dictionary, “an extremely bright, short-lived object that emits vast amounts of energy”). My friends and I (white and black) who grew up on Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard sneered at the naive souls who thought Elvis “started this business”, but in doing so we overlooked Elvis’s single most significant cultural contribution: Elvis gave white people back their bodies. His moves may have come from Congo Square, but if Elvis hadn’t wriggled his hips on television (everybody, or at least the teenage viewers, knew what Ed Sullivan was hiding when he had his cameramen shoot Presley from the waist up), we’d all still be doing the foxtrot.
It was on the dance floor, and not just in the music, that the races really came together in postwar America. Coleman recounts incidents ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime, an example of the former being the 1956 Fats Domino show in Houston in which blacks were allowed to dance but not whites—though when white teenagers hit the dance floor anyway, it was decided that only whites could dance. “I won’t play if Negroes can’t dance”, said Domino in a rare outspoken moment. When teens of every shade began to bop together, police stopped the show, provoking a riot. On a happier occasion, the sheriff in a Mississippi town tried to replace a rope that segregated dancers had knocked down, but the mayor stopped him, saying, “Everybody here knows each other.”
In a mirror image of this scene, Buddy Holly and the Crickets were booked at the Apollo Theater in 1957 by a promoter who had assumed they were a black group. They won over the audience anyway, though not at first, as portrayed in the 1978 movie The Buddy Holly Story. They were booed their first time on stage and needed to perform twice more before the applause came and people started dancing in the aisles.
Later, after the civil rights movement had made its explicitly political mark on American conscience and consciousness, rock impresario Bill Graham introduced audiences at the Fillmore and the Fillmore West not only to white groups like Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Grateful Dead, but also to artists like Otis Redding, Chuck Berry and Santana, often on the same stage. By then, no one thought much of it. No one even thought it particularly strange that perhaps the most innovative rock guitarist of the late Sixties was Jimi Hendrix, a black guy. The black-white mix of early rock now seemed perfectly blended, best symbolized perhaps when Billy Preston became for a time a semi-permanent feature of Beatles concerts.
For all that, the most successful popular musicians from the middle 1970s to the early 1990s were white (Michael Jackson being the notable exception). That changed with the 1992 release of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, featuring Snoop Doggy Dogg, in which the wondrous mixed up black-and-white pandemonium began to come apart. “You could argue”, writes Sasha Frere-Jones, “that Dr. Dre and Snoop were the most important pop musicians since Bob Dylan and the Beatles.” While he clearly means that they “upended established paradigms” and gave lasting expression to a form of hip-hop that, at this point, seems destined to outlast competing genres (including rock itself), he may as well have said that hip-hop gave African-American music such a mammoth presence that “white” music had to skedaddle into the enforced purity of indie rock. Commercially successful groups such as the Flaming Lips and Wilco, writes Frere-Jones, drew on psychedelia, country rock and the Beach Boys, whose Brian Wilson is “indie rock’s muse.” And so “in the past few years, I’ve spent too many evenings at indie concerts waiting in vain for vigor, for rhythm, for a musical effect that could justify all the preciousness” and sabotage the “lassitude and monotony that so many indie acts seem to confuse with authenticity and significance.”
What’s bad for “white” music, though, has clearly been good for “black” music, at least in the sense that black pop and “rock” musicians are now as visible and influential as white ones. As such, they’re pressured to create distinctive sounds, ones that draw from no other artist or genre. They’re aided in this by a 2004 Federal appeals court decision that using as few as three notes from another work could be a copyright violation, thus making the sampling of another artist a practice forbidden to all but the wealthiest musicians and below-the-radar DJs. Meanwhile, the indie rock that so many young, affluent white kids listen to these days is missing something. As Frere-Jones puts it, “the uneasy, and sometimes inappropriate, borrowings and imitations that set rock and roll in motion gave popular music a heat and intensity that can’t be duplicated today, and the loss isn’t just musical; it’s also about risk.”
What does Frere-Jones mean by “risk?” That white rock musicians are afraid to borrow from contemporary black music because its lyrics actually mean something? In the New Yorker issue following the one in which Frere-Jones’s essay appeared, several letter writers mentioned indie rock songs with African-American roots, though none did noticeable damage to his portrait of a fragmented musical landscape. Indeed, one reader pointed out how hard it would be today for a white group to steal a black song—as Led Zeppelin did when they turned Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love” into their first hit single, “Whole Lotta Love”—given the extent to which black music has become overtly political. Indeed, this is the point Nelson George argues in the final pages of Hip Hop America (1998), where he points out that hip-hop remains viable because the nation’s problems—poverty, dysfunctional schools, drug addiction, the rift between classes—are as marked as ever. “This is all terrible for the social fabric of the nation”, writes George, “but it is prime fodder for the makers and consumers of edgy, aggressive culture.” And the same logic applies to the commercially successful adaptations of American black hip-hop in youth cultures in Germany, France, Poland, Israel and even Lebanon.
In other words, there’s too much money to be made out of social rot and alienation. There is so much money to be made, indeed, that the music that once stood on its own two dancin’ feet in the days of Little Richard and Fats Domino is now seen a gateway to even more lucrative enterprises. The rapper Jay-Z, who is also president and CEO of Def Jam Recordings and Roc-A-Fella Records, noted in a November 29, 2007 Rolling Stone interview that the new music business is “all about brands. It ain’t just about music anymore. Music is a great foundation for so many other things. We have to make money in different ways.” Jay-Z seemed unfazed by the interviewer’s invocation of a sardonic quote from comedian Chris Rock, who quipped that “Stevie Wonder’s records would have been shitty if he had to run a clothing company and cologne line.”
Besides, as the always-perceptive Kelefa Sanneh notes in a December 30, 2007 New York Times article about declining hip-hop sales:
Because hip-hop is so intensely self-aware, and self-reflexive, it came to be known as big-money music, a genre obsessed with its own success. If we are now entering an age of diminished commercial expectations, that will inevitably change how hip-hop sounds, too.
It could be that no one has to kill this golden goose; unless buyers suddenly clamor for rap songs about the joys of cocooning in years to come, rappers might find themselves on the same low-cal economic diet as the rest of us.
Breaking Up’s Not Hard to Do
So the rock and pop music that used to be the real engine in a car full of teenagers is now just an accessory, like the hood ornament or custom license plate on a car with a single kid at the wheel. Niche marketing is all. Once fragmentation was something that happened; now it’s something that’s orchestrated, and it makes the creative spontaneous mixing of forty years ago close to impossible. A September 2, 2007 New York Times Magazine profile of Rick Rubin, co-head of Columbia Records, describes how the label assembled a group of twenty college students in an attempt to “take the pulse of the elusive music audience.” Contrast this corporate approach to taste-making with Little Richard and a bunch of session musicians goofing around in a New Orleans studio until they came up with “Tutti Frutti.” Try to imagine any work of genius written according to a corporate model: If, in the 1850s, Harper and Brothers had polled readers on what they wanted in a book, Moby-Dick would be shorter, wouldn’t have Ahab as a central character, and would likely end with a victory party on the deck of the Pequod complete with fruity drinks and hula girls.
If record companies cater primarily to niche audiences, there will be an additional effect beyond the obvious one of fragmentation. Yes, the niche audience will get more of what it wants, and that’s the idea: happy customers, wealthy companies. But the downside is that the audience will cut itself off from anything new and interesting, a song or even an entire musical genre that may turn out to be more engaging than the programmed choices on their iPod. In a revealing article by Neil MacFarquhar titled “Muslim Singer With a Country Twang” (New York Times, November 13, 2007), a Nashville music reviewer was asked to listen to the songs of Kareem Salaama, a singer born of Egyptian parents in Ponca City, Oklahoma. The reviewer pointed out that, Salaama’s artistry notwithstanding, songs expressing divergent viewpoints on such matters as war are no longer played on country radio (even if you’re Steve Earle), and that the last African-American country star was Charley Pride, decades ago. The article added, “Culturally, it is a homogenous [sic] genre. That makes for some boring music, and it would also make it difficult for someone like Kareem to break through.”
More to the point, the burden of niche marketing is that it makes it difficult for American music to grow and change the way it always has in the past. David Brooks’s November 2007 New York Times column, “The Segmented Society”, argued that, in the 1970s, artists like the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen drew on a range of influences to produce songs that might be tinged by country, soul, blues or all three, and the results were gigantic followings and huge arena shows. But at some point “the era of integration gave way to the era of fragmentation. . . . There are many bands that can fill 5,000-seat theaters, but almost no new groups with the broad following of the Rolling Stones, Springsteen or U2.”
The still advancing fragmentation of the American musical audience exemplifies “long tail” marketing, as described by Chris Anderson in The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (2006). Anderson studies the social effects of such “long tail” companies as eBay, as opposed to old-fashioned “big dog” ones like Sears. Once again, the effect is not merely on the music: As Brooks says,
It seems that whatever story I cover, people are anxious about fragmentation and longing for cohesion. This is the one driving fear behind the inequality and immigration debates, behind worries of polarization and behind the entire Obama candidacy.
Yet it is this longing for cohesion that I see as the light, however dim, at the end of Brooks’s tunnel. If people want cohesion that much, the corporations will find a way to sell it to them. The “light” is the fact that cohesion is good; the “dimness” resides in its anesthetizing, homogenizing corporate form. And the music will follow, duly packaged. It may be anti-fragmentary music that duly re-desegregates black and white cultures, but very likely it will be crappy. It won’t sound like Little Richard, that’s for sure.
The longer one looks at a world fragmented by mass marketing into increasingly narrow niches, the more one is reminded of Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel, Looking Backward, the story of a man from 1887 who awakens in 2000 from a trance to find himself in a high-tech utopia. On a typical evening, the hero expresses a desire to go down to the band box in the park and listen to some live music, but his kindly guide explains that that’s not necessary anymore: Pipes connect the band to a listening room in every home, so citizens can listen to a concert simply by flipping a wall switch. But in a world of such ease, asks Bellamy, who is going to put on a suit or a pretty dress and stroll out arm in arm to enjoy the music? Who will enjoy watching children at play, seeing the leaves turning golden and orange, chatting with one’s neighbors?
Bellamy was disillusioned with an increasingly competitive industrial society, and he wasn’t alone: As many as 165 Bellamy Clubs sprang up in cities all over the United States so that readers could discuss his ideas, and maybe swing America back to a culture where people gathered on sidewalks to swap ideas and talk politics, culture, music. That idea didn’t take, and for a good reason: We can look backward, but we can’t go there. We have no choice but to live in our own time, knowing full well that it will be different five years from now—five minutes from now, as far as that goes. All pop phenomena pass, and tomorrow’s teenagers will gasp with laughter when they see images of today’s kids with their low-rider jeans and backward baseball caps, their iPods throbbing with hip-hop. Something else will take the place of all that, and no one can predict what that something else will be, any more than my parents down in Baton Rouge could have predicted the sound and look of Little Richard or the Beatles.
If I had my druthers, though, I’d vote for a world that has a lot less targeted marketing in it and a good deal more chance, more risk. In his brilliant study, Searching for Robert Johnson (1989), Peter Guralnick goes back to a time even before the era of rock ’n’ roll: the day of the itinerant bluesman. He quotes Johnson’s fellow musician Johnny Shines:
See, Robert was a guy, you could wake him up anytime and he was ready to go. Say, for instance, you had come from Memphis and gone to Helena, and we’d play there all night probably and lay down to sleep the next morning, and you hear a train. You say, “Robert, I hear a train; let’s catch it.” He wouldn’t exchange no words with you; he’s just ready to go. It’s really, I mean if a person lives in an exploratory world, then this is the best thing that ever happened to him.
It certainly can be the best thing. But with exploration and risk come some unhappy endings. My black playmates Siebel and David, the boys I raced with, fought with, laughed with, climbed trees and built forts with, danced with, dropped off my radar and I off theirs at some point as we went our separate ways. Years after I had left Baton Rouge, I returned to visit my parents and read in the Morning Advocate that Siebel had been shot to death by his stepdaughter. He’d gotten drunk and started hitting family members with a chair, until a bullet stopped him. By then I was a tenured professor with a wife, a child of my own, two cars and a mortgage. The professor in his corduroy, the dead man on the kitchen floor: You can’t imagine two more different endings. But for what seemed like the longest time, we were the best of friends.