If You’ve Got Time
(A Discursive Book Review)
On Friday, May 1, 1970, tens of thousands of protesters descended on New Haven, Connecticut, to protest the trial of Black Panther, Bobby Seale. The demonstrations proceeded over the entire Mayday weekend with few incidences of violence, despite 4,000 National Guard and 2,000 State Police being confronted by demonstrators. Tear gas and pepper gas were used, a bomb went off at Ingalls Rink (with no injuries) and the Chicago Seven (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, et al) and their lawyers (William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass) were all on hand to protest the actions of the government. The charges against Seale were eventually dropped (they had clearly been manufactured to implicate Seale in a murder --- Connecticut still had the death penalty at the time --- and we now are well aware of Hoover’s attempt to systematically destroy the Panthers). That Monday (May 4th) saw the killing of four students protesting the Cambodia bombing by the National Guard at Kent State, Ohio. It was a turbulent and disorienting time in many ways.
As a student at Yale I had been involved in organizing the preparations for the Mayday (“Strike”) weekend at the college and did manage to get both pepper and tear gassed on Friday and Saturday nights, respectively. What the "Mayday" led to, for me, was a need to “do something” beyond the weekend demonstrations, particularly for the city of New Haven. As a result of my organizing work I landed a summer job at the Yale Council on Community Affairs where my primary responsibility was to catalogue “resources” the university had which might be utilized by a new “alternative” high school opening in the fall, The High School in the Community (HSC). Part of the job, then, was to work with a variety of community leaders and organizers who would help me figure out what “turned off” students might find “relevant” to encourage them to receive high school credit for what now would be considered “internships.” The High School in the Community was modeled after the Philadelphia “Parkway” Schools program, alternative schools that matched students with community members (everything from professors to plumbers) for extended “experiences” which would then translate as “credit-worthy" toward a high school diploma.
One of the community organizers I worked with was a man named Freddy Hill, who seemed to know everyone in the New Haven “ghettoes” (as they were called back in that day). Despite being a small city, New Haven managed to have an “under-resourced” community on its North end (Dixwell Avenue) and its South side (The Hill). One evening, after work, Freddy invited me and two other students working at the Yale Council to go out to dinner with him on The Hill. We did and that experience, quite honestly, was a lightning bolt for me. Walking into a bar and grill on The Hill behind Freddy, it became quite apparent immediately that we were not only the only white people in the place but this was not a common experience for the patrons. My perception was that all noise and motion stopped as we walked in and there was a long moment of suspended animation. And that’s when, like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, it struck me “like a silver bullet” --- “Whoa, this is how black people must feel all the time.” My Long Island bleeding heart liberal, voter registration volunteering white boy had never, prior to that moment, really considered what being black in America entails. Needless to say, we were not attacked or mistreated --- quite the contrary, as “Freddy’s friends fell all over themselves to offer to buy drinks, food, etc. My bubble induced, media fed, deep-seated prejudice (racism) was smacked good and hard upside the head.
I bring this story up because the Age of Trump has reignited a lot of concern over racism, as well as (I hope) a rising consciousness over the great racial divide that still exists in this country. Aside from Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, I doubt many white Americans are not aware of “the Talk” that is given to the children of our black neighbors regarding how to act when (not “if”) confronted by a police officer. Certainly there are numbers of shows (blackish, Dear White People, Orange is the New Black) that provide important insights into the continuing struggle for equality that persists in our nation. That said, I would offer Hari Kunzru’s new novel White Tears as a “must read” for anyone interested in advancing the dialogue about race in America in 2017. For a white American, in particular, the novel provokes soul searching and incites self-reflection.
Kunzru, a Brit who lives in Brooklyn (his father is from Kashmir & his mother is British), brings a genuine outsider’s perspective to our 400-year-old struggle. The novel itself is a mash up of the time travel in Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (or, on a more elevated plane, Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude) with the DeNiro/Rourke Angel Heart and Depp/Turturro Secret Window movies --- providing contemporary settings with flashbacks and a ghostly mystery story involving spiritual possession. Seth, an introverted white college student, who falls into a friendship with Carter Wallace, a charismatic man about campus exuding family wealth, tells the story. Their connection is through music and a particular blues song that Seth records in Washington Square Park --- from a disembodied singer, it seems. The boys cleverly add audio wizardry to the song and release it on the Internet as a “lost” blues classic --- never expecting someone to contact them with information about the very real artist and recording they produced. At that point the story takes flight and the pursuit of the original artist and recording leads to a trip South, horror and mayhem, a faltering love interest for Seth with Carter’s sister, Leonie, and a tale that, while totally incredible on one level, sucks a reader in as its shape-shifting, roller-coaster ending leaves you wanting to sit down and question the author --- not because the work is opaque but because there is so much there. Kunzru has put his finger on the pulse of the racial problem in this country and has rooted it in the blues. Steve Erickson writing in the NY Times Book Review on March 29 sums it best:
This is Kunzru’s song that we’ve never really heard but are certain we have. This is the song that winds up unmoored between the heart that’s felt it and the tip of the tongue that awaits the heart’s transmission, the song that dies with its singer until it rises like a spirit to wander American ground, in search of a promise that’s determined to keep itself.
White Tears is an excellent novel that wrestles with itself a bit in its middle section before Kunzru figures out how to send you careening into his brilliant finish. Seth is not an ”everyman” you will identify with, necessarily, but he is the perfect vehicle to drive you through this tale of love and despair, a blues elegy in its own right.