Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Elvis and Racism: Round Two

Here's how this sort of thing usually plays out: it starts when some voices in the black community express their opinion that a prominent white figure (in this case, Elvis Presley) may be, or is, or was, a racist.
A prominent white defender (in this case, Peter Guralnik, on the op-ed page of the New York Times) then comes forward to assure us that it isn't so.

This is supposed to end the discussion.

Everyone is then invited to meditate on the good works of the accused, with particular emphasis on how black people are thought to have benefited from them.

I know the rules of the game. I just didn't feel like playing by them, when I wrote my response to Guralnik's op-ed. Consequently, I have been accused of smearing the King's memory and cordially invited by rockabilly enthusiast David "DC" Larson to "shut up."

At least Larson didn't accuse me, as another writer did, of implying that "Guralnick is OK with ax handles if Elvis' historical legacy is at stake."

Let me set a few things straight.

First, I didn't argue that "Elvis was a racist." In fact, all I had to say in my earlier piece -- about whether he was or wasn't -- was "Who cares?"

I stand by that.

Second, I didn't equate Elvis with Lee Atwater, or Peter Guralnik with Lester Maddox.

What I said was that part of Guralnik's logic -- that Presley's obvious love of black music is one indication that he couldn't have been a racist -- was flawed, in that it could apply as readily to someone as transparently bigoted as Lee Atwater.

(I suppose there is someone, somewhere, who will maintain that Atwater's dirty tricks stemmed not from bigotry in the heart but from heartless pragmatism. Again, who cares?)

I've also been charged with "guilt by association" for my comments about Elvis and the Statesmen Quartet. But it was Guralnik who associated Elvis with the Statesmen in this context, by invoking them as an example of Presley's "egalitarian" tastes.

Look: in 1964 Lester Maddox hit the roof of a black minister's car with a pick-ax handle, outside his restaurant. He later sold thousands of ax handles as "souvenirs" of his resistance to integration and "Godless Communism."

In 1971, the Statesmen were happily singing backup for Lester Maddox, on an LP called "God, Family and Country."

Six years later, according to Guralnik, they were singing at Elvis's funeral, by request.

It isn't about holding Elvis responsible for what some white gospel singers did. The point is that publicly linking themselves with a notorious race hater wasn't enough to get the Statesmen excluded from Presley's circle. What could they have done, do you suppose, that would have amounted to "going too far"?
Had Guralnik simply marked the 30th anniversary of Presley's death with a reflection on his role in opening the door and breaking down barriers, I'd wouldn't have bothered responding. Although frankly I do think the tired old meme was a bit of a stretch to begin with. It's one of those things we've heard so often, we all think it must be true.

Did Elvis really open the door for black artists? Was that ever his express intention or conscious motive? Or did he merely open the door for himself and other white artists to sing black music -- and to "sound black" -- without apology?

True, it all resulted in more opportunity for black artists, so much so that Little Richard could declare that the total effect of Elvis was "a blessing." You can give him credit for that, and for knowing the good stuff when he heard it, without trying to make him into the Frederick Douglass of modern music.

To depict Presley as some kind of great emancipator implies that artists like Chuck Berry and Fats Domino needed some white guy to set them free. One listen to "The Fat Man," and you know that Fats was already more free than Elvis would ever be, in 1949.

But Guralnik wasn't content to praise Elvis for his contributions; he had to set up a Straw Man, by whom Elvis had been "turned into a racist." That's what opened this can of worms.

If Guralnik was unaware of that Statesmen/Maddox album, it's simple: he shouldn't have been. (Did Elvis own a copy?) If he did know about it, why bring up the Statesmen in an article defending Elvis from a charge of racism? I don't know the answer; it's a pure puzzlement.

A commenter on this blog, who claims to have spoken with Guralnik recently, described him as believing that criticism of Presley in the black community is based on the following reasoning: "Elvis benefited from white racism -- that is why he was hailed as 'The King' -- so why would he not be a racist himself?" I doubt that those are Guralnik's words. I prefer to think it does him a disservice to suggest that he would stake his argument on so shallow a construction.

Others, like David "DC" Larson, in the absence of "proof," hotly attribute the charge of racism to urban legend, "slanderous myths" and a willingness to smear "the King."

To assume from the outset that the thinking behind "a view common in the African-American community" couldn't be reality-based -- that strikes me as interesting in itself.

Before leaping into full denial mode, and assuming we know why people think what they think, shouldn't we at least turn to a few representatives of the people who believe Elvis was a racist and (rather than demanding proof) say, "Can you tell us why you feel that way?" And then listen.

That the New York Times op-ed page editor should have done so -- before printing Guralnik's piece -- goes without saying.

A few more thoughts:

To give Elvis all this responsibility for racial progress and crown him "the king of rock and roll" is not unlike branding Bob Dylan "the voice of a generation," an asinine label Dylan has always had the good sense to reject. Bubba Ho-Tep was probably much closer to the truth.

Elvis himself said: "The king of rock and roll is Fats Domino." What part of that was unclear?

If the music of Elvis was really such a "socially unifying" force, I'd expect to look around and see some social unity. At least in places where his presence was felt and much of his music was made. Instead, I look at Nashville and I see one major black artist -- one! -- in a century of white singers, and no sign of another since Charlie Pride left the scene. If anybody that works down there today is embarrassed by that, they're keeping it to themselves.

And finally, if I could sit down with our rockabilly expert and Elvis defender David "DC" Larson, I'd ask him if he knows what attracted him to a genre where virtually all the artists "happen" to be white.

"Shut up," he'd probably explain.


Dr. Idris said...


One thing we know for sure. Elvis was a pedophile! Priscilla was only 14 when Elvis moved her into Graceland. He had other girlfriends even younger than that. How long do you think it was before he tore into little Priscilla's nappy dugout?
Huh? Huh?

Was he a racist? Most likely yes. Nearly every Caucasian who is reared in Amerikkka, and goes through this eurocentric educational system is trained to be racist. You can't escape it.

Just remember Caucasoids outnumber African americans at more than a five to one ratio. So just because millions of Whites vote for a White person over a black one doesn't necessarily prove that the White person is better, or smarter.

And so it goes.


Alamaine said...

The 'Who cares?' position is probably correct. Whether Elvis was a 'racist' or a 'paedophile' is only material in our modernised culture that finds the time to find causes about any- and everything, past and present.

We must recall that in Elvis' dayze, things were different and acceptably so. Should we assign some other importance to the likes of Presley or any of the others of his ilk, other than music, this is a big stretch given that many - if not most - people were merely going along with the times, going along to get along. In Suhthuhn culture, one merely had to conform to the prevailing attitudes and conventions in order to survive. Elvis' pelvis-icating was merely an extension of his musical style that resonated with his audiences.

Recall that in them olden dayze, there was a difference in the perception of who was old enough to 'couple' and who was not. It was the 'Pelvis'' rival, Jerry Lee Lewis, who got into trouble for having an underaged wife - but only in England. The ages of consent for sex and marriage have changed over the years but only corresponding to advances in medicine and socialisation. The South was probably a little behind the times in that the Civil War was still being fought, requiring replenishment of armies long dead, utilising the only tools they had from the earliest possible moments (i.e., girls and women in transpubescence). Elvis' future parents-in-law, career Air Force (as I recall) officer material, approved of Prissies' living arrangements IAW established cultural norms.

The point remains: 'Who cares?' Elvis is dead. The olden dayze are dead. If we want to make a good argument about the 'Pelvis,' we can address the 'Christians' who seem not to find idolatry of Elvis to be a blasphemy, while devoting their emotions and a religious-like fervour on a mere mortal who was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Elvis was not a 'god,' merely an expression of what there might be of one. He was eventually shown to be a weakling (despite his isolation, love of martial arts, and association with empowered people), prone to be reliant on those who found his corporeal entity to be a useful tool toward Earthly riches and glory (something else proscribed by 'Christians'), employing not Spirit but better living through chemistry to keep him up and down and all around.

Reliving the past in the present is fraught with perils and pitfalls. Reenactments are indeed fun but they must be taken in the context of the times in which they are done, realising that the psychologies are quite different and the expectations are alien to one another, between the originals and the make-believers, the latter using a lot of made-up junk to make themselves feel good about what they are doing. Pseudo-religious devotions to people or times rely a lot on fantasy and imagination, forgetting that what they are a-copying was real life.

John Madziarczyk said...

Here's an interesting tidbit of information:

A while ago I was looking for cheap live Elvis recordings and bought something called "Live at the Hay Ride", on CD. Although the sound quality was beyond bad, Elvis had an interesting intro to one of his songs. Unfortunately I don't remember which one, but the CD should be out there.

His intro went something like this: "Here's one that climbed the charts from [lists places], it even did it over in Africa, although I don't know how those ooba-joobas got it."

O'Brien & Goldberg said...

I don't know if Elvis is a racist or not but I do know that the ugly association-based guilty pronouncement you hand down add little.

Fresh from associating Elvis with Lester Maddox, you imply that D.C. Larson is a racist because he likes rockabilly.

Let me see if I can get this straight -- a fondness for black music doesn't exonerated one from a racism charge but a fondness for "white" music is "interesting".

David Vest said...

I don't think that David "DC" Larson is a racist! That conversation I'd like to have with him would be friendly. And lively! I bet he'd have something interesting to say about the way segregation keeps on being re-created in these music categories.

Same goes for Guralnik. I took issue with his op-ed, and he and I would probably draw different conclusions from some of the facts he uncovered in his research, but he's the one who uncovered them, and anyone with the slightest interest in Elvis knows that his books are indispensable.