"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
When I was about 6, at the moral and political apex of the civil rights movement, my liberal, Irish Catholic father told me a story that changed my life: Dark-haired Irish folk like him and me, he said, were black Irish, the offspring of seafaring Moors from Africa who mixed with fair-skinned Celts in Ireland long ago. His kinky anthropology lesson was meant to show that racism isn’t just wrong, it’s stupid: That person you think you hate may well be kin. And I believed him.
I grew up adoring black people, even though I didn’t know any, except from TV. Mine was one of those 1960s middle-class families brought to social conscience by television. We watched in horror as white sheriffs fire-hosed black protesters in the South; in awe, even reverence, as Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers made nonviolence a spiritual and political practice.
To a devout Catholic girl — I grew up reading the lives of the saints, wanting to be a nun or a missionary — the civil rights movement was the struggle of good and evil written quite literally in black and white, a story from the pages of my saints books come to life. Wanting so desperately to be good, choosing sides was easy. I was good; I was black Irish; I was not white, not really.
It would take me 30 years, two careers, motherhood and a broken heart to accept the obvious: I am white, sort of. (Though the new census, which allows people to mark more than one box, intrigues me, because it might make for a more complicated racial reckoning.) But I became white just in time to become a minority in California, so strangely, little has changed for me: I’m still watching a mulatto country trying to eradicate some racial boundaries and hierarchies while enforcing certain others. Even more confusing, today I find that the vocal racial purists are as likely to be black, Latino or Asian as white. Each group has at least one thing in common, though: Our rhetoric about race can’t even come close to capturing our mixed-up reality.
What’s most amazing is how much our black and white racial paradigm — victim vs. victimizer, the patron and the patronized — still prevails. And yet it’s an outdated script, reducing Asians, Latinos and the growing number of multiracial Americans either to bit players in our national drama or a vast army of victims (an identity most non-white Americans viscerally reject). But many of us cling to the paradigm, because we have no other way of envisioning racial relationships. I know that I myself clung way too long to a black-white, good-evil motif, obsessed with the possibility of racial retribution and redemption more than justice.
I was a type, a stereotype even, and a walking paradox: a civil rights do-gooder motivated by racial animus against my group — in short, a self-hating white person. Not all Caucasians in the struggle are the same, but over the years I ran across a lot of me. And the fact that mixed-up white folk are the most likely to get involved with civil rights work results in a deformed political culture, one in which there is little white participation in our national conversation about race beyond the right-wing scapegoating of a Pat Buchanan and the masochistic piety of guilty Mumia cultists on the left. Meanwhile, the coming white minority is getting little help in developing a language for its changing and legitimate concerns.
It took me a long time to come to terms with this, but after an adulthood spent believing I was part of the solution to racial strife, I finally came to admit I was part of the problem.
My views on race were an odd fusion of early childhood Catholicism and adolescent rebellion. I was a misfit in my extended family, whose working-class Irish racism clashed with my college-educated father’s tolerance. Plus, we all suffered from the Irish Catholic dysfunction Frank McCourt has made a clichi, but set on Long Island, not in Limerick: alcoholism, bad fortune and early death, borne with stoicism, denial, love badly expressed and more alcohol. I grew up and, especially after my mother died, exiled myself from my ignoble heritage, and all the loss.
But it wasn’t until my father died, too, about a dozen years ago, that I got the first useful clues about the source of my lifelong affinity with black people. Hideously depressed, I started doing consulting work on poverty and race issues, going to work for a black-led anti-poverty group in Oakland, Calif., and after feeling like an outsider at every job I had ever had, I finally felt at home.
Now the cause of my comfort seems obvious: Black people have a cosmology of suffering, a culture that makes sense of injustice and misfortune. White people in trouble are shit out of luck, stuck with a culture that acts like bad fortune is not just deserved, but contagious. Every black person knows in their soul that life is deeply unfair, while a remarkable number of white people skate through most of their lives unscathed, unmarked, unaware of the stacked hand they’ve been dealt. And I have always hated them.
I think hate may have had more to do with my racial views than love, but for a long time that didn’t matter: I thrived in my new world. I grew up there. After years working in white lefty organizations that only fed my ambivalence about success and achievement, I found myself surrounded by ambitious, accomplished peers, most of whom happened to be black. They liberated me to want more, do more, dress better and have more fun doing it. I was shielded from white girl guilt because it was all in the service of a higher goal: civil rights, social justice, uplift of the poor.
Emotionally, what I got from my new world bordered on the hackneyed: damaged white person finds solace and redemption through warmer, darker folk. But that’s not it, exactly. I got a lot of nuts and bolts survival skills: silence instead of talking all the time. Strategy. Looking behind the surface of things. Patience and perseverance. Perspective. The long view. It was my black friends, ironically, who focused me on how much my Irish family gave me, for instance, and jolted me out of my white self-pity and shame about what they didn’t.
It’s hard to believe now, but for a stretch of time — years even — I didn’t think about being white. Partly it’s that my friends were sane, kind people — a little nationalism here, some misguided Afrocentrism there — but mostly I was welcomed. Occasionally, though, I found myself thinking about my lone black friend in high school, who was one of the lone blacks in our town, period. He was always being told by jerky classmates not to be hurt by racist comments, because “you’re one of the good ones.” No one ever said that to me, but they didn’t have to — I knew I was one of the good ones, and only occasionally felt the outsider.
In fact, the worst culture clash was crossing back, whenever I had to see my extended family. It almost got ugly a few years ago, when I travelled for a meeting on urban poverty to a city where my once favorite cousin, formerly a hippie and artist, is now a cop. I never call him when I go there, but this one time I do, and we meet — where else? — in a bar; the first of many, with his cop partner and the partner’s girlfriend. Suddenly they start talking about “the niggers” and telling racist jokes, but my cousin stops them, gallantly, like he’d protect another girl cousin from locker room jokes. “You can’t talk like that in front of my cousin,” he starts, but he runs out of words at their look of shock. They’re mystified, waiting for an explanation. What could possibly be the reason they can’t talk that way in front of me?
He jokes: “She’s married to a black man!”
“That’s right,” I agree calmly.
But now my cousin panics; the joke has bombed. Nobody is laughing.
“No she’s not! She just doesn’t like jokes like that; she never has, even when she was a kid.”
The other cop shuts up, chivalrous if contemptuous, but the girlfriend finishes the joke, testing me. And I glare at her with deep disgust. I hate these people and then I hate myself for hating them. I’m a self-hating white person in an Irish bar. My cousin’s racist friends are paying for my drinks. I have more than a few.
Finally they leave and my cousin and I begin a kind of ritual lament: What happened to our family? Boy, did a lot of people die! Why did everybody drink so much? I tell him how I’ve always felt like an outcast, too smart, too awkward, with a righteous liberal father and a mother who died too young; not quite part of the family. He’s not entirely surprised; I think we’ve been over it before, drunk and maudlin in some other bar, but I can’t really remember. He says what I think he always says: You’re my cuz. (Like a lot of white cops he talks black, throwing around “cuz” and “bro”and “blood” not even ironically anymore.) I love you, he continues. I’d do anything for you.
What I want him to do is not be racist, and I drunkenly try to accomplish this. He tells me he didn’t start out racist; working on the street made him that way. I explain to him exactly the kind of work I do — the writing about welfare and poverty and urban education, the friends I have of every race — like I’m confessing to some double life. I say that if he lived in my world he’d see things differently: I have black friends — get this! — who are smarter than me. They have nicer homes. Their kids are better behaved than mine.
He says if I lived in his world I’d see things differently too. He sees black drug dealers, wife beaters, killers. Drunk and distraught, I finish with my trump: “My black friends are incredible people. They would do anything for me. And they have better families than we do!” He really can’t believe this; he has a hunch it could be true. At about 5 a.m. we stagger back to my hotel and I pass out.
He calls me the next morning, thoughtfully, to make sure I wake up in time for my meeting with my black friends to talk about racism and poverty. He tells me he loves me. But the next time I see him, a few months later, at a family reunion right after the O.J. Simpson acquittal, it’s clear something has changed between us. The acquittal has most of my family furious, with that white sense of vulnerability and grievance the O.J. verdict catalyzed nationally. Somebody notes darkly that white prosecutor Marcia Clark is dating black prosecutor Christopher Darden.
“You must love that,” my cousin sneers at me. And there it is: that old racial fear, that the civil rights movement was just a cover for black men to run off with white women, finally spoken aloud.
And he was right: By that time I was involved with a black man, somebody I’d met through my work. When I started in the field I was married, and I would chuckle when black female colleagues jokingly complained about the white women in our work who dated black. They weren’t talking about me. I had a husband, and he was white (Jewish, for the record, which my ex didn’t consider white, but my black friends mostly did).
But once I was divorced, as I got deeper into the work — meeting a lot of great young professionals, forming new organizations, traveling and socializing — it seems inevitable that I’d wind up with someone black. I didn’t mean to; we were colleagues, then casual friends and then suddenly it was more than that. He pursued me; at first, I resisted. I say that not out of pride but to explain why, after a few months, I was shocked when he confessed that our relationship could of course never go anywhere, because I was white. He wasn’t proposing ending it; just giving me a heads up that it could never be permanent, or even terribly public. Furious, I ended it, then took him back, and the drama went on for over a year.
Looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened to me — the rejection, that is, not the drama. It shook me out of my naive idolization of black people and my hopeless flight from myself. But it took me a year to accept it, because it was so far out of my experience: We, people like him and me, were about bringing down racial barriers, not enforcing them. I literally thought this was part of my work, creating the new post-race America. Sure, I knew about black men who didn’t date white women, but I didn’t think I knew anyone stupid enough to be a dating nationalist — let alone that I was sleeping with one.
Plus, there was an ease between us, a strange instant intimacy, that confirmed my intuition that this was meant to be. I’d briefly dated black men before, without having this feeling, so I was sure the connection had nothing to do with race. Now, I’m not so certain. I think for a while I felt hugely liberated, stepping out of the boundaries and conventions of my culture and my family, to be, simply, myself — what we all want in a love affair and so infrequently get.
And while I adored my father, I avoided men who reminded me in any way of his Irish Catholic passivity, his insistence on seeing only good in the world and his inability to fight back against what’s bad. What better way to avoid him than to date someone black? Of course, in the end, the black man I fell for, with his obeisance to the needs of his “community” and his endless dithering about our relationship, reminded me of nobody more than my father.
But during my year-long struggle to make the relationship work, I was weirdly, manically happy. I was on a mission. The personal most definitely had become political. I wasn’t just trying to win this man’s heart but save his soul. The 6-year-old Catholic girl within could not let him commit the mortal sin of racial prejudice. In our fights about our future, I found a new white sense of grievance, and felt liberated to call him on his reflexive, anti-white attitudes. One thing that had actually bugged me early and often in civil rights work was the tendency to lump together “people of color” as automatic heroes, and to leave whites out of coalitions around education and urban reform. I started objecting to it, first with him, then in larger groups.
And there were small victories along the way: He left my bed one April 4, the anniversary of King’s murder, to do a morning radio show on race relations. I listened in, still under the covers, as he issued a call to change. He included “people of color,” but then corrected himself and welcomed “progressive people of all colors” to join the struggle. I settled back into pillows that still smelled of him, feeling briefly vindicated.
It didn’t last. And my reaction when it ended for good still shames me. Amend the old saying to read: Hell hath no fury like a white woman scorned for her race. I felt like our break-up was a political issue, and I expected our friends to support me — even forcing some of them to choose between us. Most did, but what stings is the number of black friends who didn’t. At least a couple of supposed friends stopped speaking to me, angry that I’d turned out to be just another white woman chasing the black man, and with the nerve to be mad at him when it didn’t work. His social life continued unchanged, of course, while I was no longer invited to certain parties. I got a taste of the racism in the black community that says white folks are all right, but you wouldn’t want your brother to marry one.
And I was mad. Really, really, really mad. I latched on to my sense of grievance as a distraction from my broken heart. I had a political issue here. Finally I was a winner in that popular 1990s game (too bad Regis didn’t think to MC it): “Who Wants to be a Victim.”
Eventually I got over it. But when the storm passed, I was a new woman: I wasn’t a self-hating white person anymore.
This, of course, is the best thing I could do for black people, who naturally stumble under the burden whites like me place on them — to be both the victims we save, we white saviors, and the saints who redeem us, the suffering white sinners. This is not a healthy relationship.
But the experience made me realize just how big a problem it is that whites like me are the most likely to care about and work on race relations issues. Just as there are black people who fit themselves into white settings by assenting to the conventional group wisdom and avoiding confrontation, so there is a type of white person who works on racial issues, who bites her tongue when a line is crossed from truth to demagoguery, or from justice to retribution, for fear of reminding everyone that she is white. Angry, wounded, we are exiles, misfits in our own group, looking for a place to belong, and often we ourselves are more into retribution than justice, anyway.
After my wake-up call, finally resigned to being white, I started speaking out against the casual, mindless anti-white racism I had always ignored. We’re not talking Klan violence here. The vast majority of the people I worked with weren’t racist. But there was a fairly common, reflexive use of white as an epithet — white politician, white funder, white teacher — without modifier or qualifier. White had become shorthand for “arrogant, ignorant, out of touch.” I began to say a polite “Excuse me?” when I heard these casual slights, the way my black friends did at white insensitivity.
And I had a few arguments. I remember fighting to include the problems of white kids in a youth initiative that was designed to focus on Asians, Latinos and blacks — as though white youth are well-served by our bankrupt, sclerotic public bureaucracies and schools. I’ve defended Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown against charges that his crusade to clean up Oakland is racist: One thing working in Oakland taught me is that black political power doesn’t equal black advancement, and I no longer pay much attention to race when voting.
And I’m on the verge of becoming a crackpot when confronted with attempts to invoke a grand “people of color” coalition against whites. Early in my awakening I quarreled with an Asian-American colleague who formed a “people of color caucus” inside a do-gooder group that was white-led, but mainly comprising minorities. Why do that, I asked him — cautiously, nervously — why exclude white colleagues and allies, especially when they were the minority? Was there a program goal? He was silent for a moment, then angry. “We’ve been excluded for so long — they should know how it feels.”
Indeed. Revenge has come to seem like the motive behind a lot of civil rights policy. There’s always been a tinge of payback and retribution, for instance, in the way school integration, affirmative action and other civil rights measures were implemented — mostly at the expense of poor and working-class whites — and until recently I didn’t care. Probably, as a self-hating white person, I liked it. But with hindsight it’s easy to understand the racial unraveling of the last 20 years.
Affirmative action, to take one example, was always an imperfect way of distributing opportunity, but it made sense in a time of optimism and perceived abundance. In a time of scarcity and contraction, it became predictably divisive. Likewise, we moved to provide public education to all children — often forced by the courts to do so — without hugely expanding education spending, which sometimes meant taking from kids who had and giving to kids who didn’t. (There’s no room to discuss the idiocy of forced busing, except to say that just like forced anything, it only affected those without other options.) Now that the pie is expanding again, maybe the nation is ready for new remedies, but this time they should be far less about race and more about class and inclusion.
It must be said that my rehabilitation from white self-hatred probably started with the birth of my daughter, a blond Irish-Jewish tomboy who has always been drawn to black kids. Now, being a parent in an urban public school, I see how little public education is working for any ethnic group. In most classrooms, understaffed and oversized, conformity is valued over education, and kids who are different, whatever race, get the shaft. But our advocacy groups are divided into identity and interest subsets, which tend to fight among themselves, and thus the true shame of our cities — their unforgivably bad public schools — reach critical mass.
In the end, it’s my daughter who’s showed me the way out of our zero-sum racial blame game. In preschool, coming out of the December-January holiday season, she described her ethnicity in terms of celebrations: she was Hanukkah and Christmas, Kwanzaa and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. At about 6 she told me if she was part-Jewish, I was part-Jewish, since I was her mother. And instead of lecturing her that no one can be part Jewish (or breaking the bad news that because her mom isn’t Jewish, some Orthodox Jews will say she couldn’t be Jewish if she chose to be), I agreed with her. I’ve always felt part Jewish, what the hell; I’m part Jewish. Now we light the menorah at my house, too.
And recently I shared with her my father’s story about the black Irish. She broke into a big grin, part mischief, part wonder. “I’m black, too! I’m black! I can’t wait to tell Marquice!” She ran off to tell her half-black, half-Mexican friend. But her reaction made me think: When the census form comes to our house next month, what box — or boxes — will I check? I’ve got a subversive urge — part mischief, part wonder — to check white and “other.” If my tortured journey toward racial understanding has taught me anything, it’s that we all need to get out of our boxes.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)