"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)
Despite all the paeans to a mythic “post-racial” America, this country is, alas, not “post-racial” — and whether it should be or not is up for debate in Baratunde Thurston’s at once hilarious and biting new book, “How to Be Black.” A comedian and Onion editor by trade, Thurston uses his book to take on many of the racial issues that are deemed too controversial or too uncomfortable to even talk about, much less focus long-form writing on. The result is a tome that achieves the near impossible: mixing laugh-out-loud humor with a super-serious discourse on some of the most important-but-divisive issues in American society.
Recently on my weekday morning radio show on KKZN-AM760, I spoke with Thurston about the “post-racial” concept, how white people can honor Black History Month, how African-Americans can be a “black friend” to white folk, and many other topics that his book courageously addresses. What follows is an edited transcript of our discussion (you can find the full audio podcast here).
February is Black History Month and your book starts out with a guide to how white people can honor that celebration. But one thing you hear from conservatives every year is that Black History Month is supposedly outdated in the so called post-racial era. Do you agree or disagree?
There’s a short answer, which is maybe. And I say maybe because the month has given a lot of people an excuse to cram a bunch of black history marketing activities into a 28-day period without considering what the purpose was.
Black History Month started as Black History Week, and it was created by Carter G. Woodson because there was no representation of black folks’ contribution to American history. I hope we get to this point, and we’re probably doing a better job, but we can always do more to integrate black history into American history, because you can’t really separate it. It’s an honorable goal, to try to highlight it in a whole month, but the ultimate goal is to integrate it such that we don’t see it as something separate.
That’s part of the problem we have to get over, that “it’s a black people thing.” No, it’s really an American thing, too. Integrated into American history is where we want to end up.
Your book focuses on the concept of blackness in the context of our so-called post-racial politics. This idea comes up often in our politics in the form of people asking whether President Obama is “too black” or “not black enough.” It was the same thing so many asked of Bill Cosby in the 1980s. In light of that, how do you define “blackness”?
The beauty is that it actually means whatever any black person is doing. I interviewed a comedian and friend, Elon James White, and he said, “Don’t do something or not because it’s black, you do what you do and you open the doors of blackness in doing it.” And I think for such a long time we’ve had this image and idea of blackness that was really controlled by people who didn’t have black folks’ interest at heart. Their core goal was a very commercial goal. You take, for example, hip-hop images, or the narrow slice of hip-hop images we’ve got on a mainstream basis, so the idea of what blackness is, is much broader than the reality of what people’s experience of it has been from a media perspective.
I think and hope we’re getting closer to expanding that as more people have a voice to kind of share their own blackness.
Do you think the notion of blackness in the larger pop culture still has a bad connotation? Or, do you think it’s now been transformed into something that comes with good connotations?
There has certainly been a transformation, I think things are getting better but I do think there is some limited view and an often negative connotation.
Certainly, if you want to get really into the outcomes of people’s lives, black definitely has a negative connotation, subconsciously to a police officer, for example. If you just look at the rates of stop and frisk, or arrests versus prosecution, the entire criminal justice system sees black as a negative. The entire mortgage system saw black as a negative when it over-promoted subprime mortgages to people who weren’t qualified only because the variable that was different was their race, they were black and Latino. And class is tied up in that as well, so I don’t want to ignore that.
Pop culturally, black is super-sexy, super-cool. You know you have attractive black people, you have black athletes, black entertainers. Certainly hip-hop has started in a black community but it’s become this very global, youth-driven phenomenon and people, you know, being black, being associated with blackness. Stuff White People Like was a great site that Christian Lander set up, and one of the things that white people like is having black friends. A certain type of white person at least.
So, the coolness with being black is balanced by some of the still realistic sub-optimal outcomes of being black in this country at the same time. I don’t want to make an equivalence between the two, it’s both. Black is great but it also can suck.
The conventional way that American society celebrates Black History Month is to remember the African-American struggle as one of great leaders, like Dr. King. Like so much of our history, the rank-and-file people in the movements for equality are largely forgotten or ignored. But in your book’s chapter “How to Be the Black Friend,” you make the really important point that every black person who has non-black friends automatically has the burden of being an ambassador for an entire people, and is ultimately a participant in the movement for equality.
Well, one of the theories (of change) is that actual change, actually touching the hearts and souls of folks doesn’t happen in legislation, it doesn’t happen because a very famous person says it should happen, it happens when individuals at some level connect. And partly that was a theory of integration that goes deeper than that; it’s about relationships.
We’re people, we’re social, we get changed by interactions with other people, often for the better. So the theory that I offer in how to be a black friend is, look, we have lionized certain types of people and movements and that’s great, but we have undersold the contribution of the black friend who told their white friend, no, you can’t touch my hair. No, you can’t say the N-word. And when they did that, that small, private, relatively quiet act of diplomacy, they were also human rights and civil right activists. They were diplomats, they were behind-the-scenes, undercover operatives preventing further racial tension, really easing the relationship and it’s not simply a black/white thing.
I use black as an example because that’s my life, but I think you find immigrant communities of all kind have this experience. You find men of all kinds, you find homosexuals, and women as well have some version of this ambassadorship, or representing your folks. The book’s advice is to take advantage of it, have some fun with it and pat yourself on the back, you’re doing God’s work, you’re doing the Constitution’s work.
Do we live in a post-racial society, as the media insists? And whether we do or not, would it be such a good thing if we did?
We don’t live in a post-racial society and the way that the term has been commonly tossed around, I don’t think we want to live in a post-racial society, either. I asked one of the people I interviewed in the book, “How is post-racial America treating you?”
She said, “What is that supposed to mean? Does that mean I can’t be black anymore? Or does that just mean they’re trying to get rid of affirmative action? Because that is kind of what it sounds like.”
We don’t need to get beyond race to the point where we’re ignoring it, and not trying to solve some of the problems that are still based around it. We can work through it more consciously and more compassionately, we can get better at it. But the idea of post-racial is sort of a hack — a sort of a shortcut, to say, hey, basically, look, we got a black president, we got it done. We don’t want to do the work anymore — pretty much saying, “You guys can vote now, you’re in schools — sort of — and you’ve got a black president. What else do you people want?”
There is a sort of subtle frustration and exhaustion with the problem of race in America, and so what I’m trying to do in my book is remind us that race still exists, have some fun with it, because I think that can contribute to how we deal with it, and put people less on the defensive. But post-racial as a concept I think is problematic from the start. Because it presumes that race is something to be gotten over and ignored rather than acknowledged and embraced and contended with healthily.
In your book, you ask a group of your friends when they first realized they were black? Tell me your answer to that question, and what that moment of realization meant to you, and what made it so important.
My own answer to that question involves three parts. I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment I knew. When I was in kindergarden I had a crush on a little white girl and I sang “Ebony and Ivory” to her, which even to my memory is just weird and awkward and hilarious.
My mom was very politically black and we had maps of Africa and posters of black artists and civil rights leaders on our walls, and she certainly reminded me. And then I had a very singular moment of sort of a negative experience when I went camping — which black people do! I went camping with my mother and a friend of mine and he was also black, and we went swimming in the lake, and a little white kid, comes up off the shore and says, “There’s N-words in the pool!” But he didn’t say “N-words,” he said the actual word. And we were like, “Where? Where are they?”
And we were looking, and we were upset too, like what does that mean? We knew what he really meant, and we had to choose. Were we going to kick this little kid’s butt? We both knew karate really well, or are we just going to eat it, because we’re in rural Virginia in a culture we don’t know. We’re not sure what’s going to happen to us if
we execute our right to not have that happen to us.
So I have this spectrum of experience where it’s the pride of blackness I felt at home with the awkwardness of preschool, that’s sort of balanced by this uncertainty and, really, the shame that can be forced upon you by some really negative interactions.
Everybody that I asked that question to — “When did you realize you were black?” — responded with really serious, really painful and really hilarious answers, and we all have that. It’s just not about being black. When did you first realize you were white or a guy? It was probably a little awkward, a little shameful, and maybe a little full of pride. If we can connect around those personal stories and share that, we can close the gap and not get post-racial. Hell, maybe get more racial, but just have more fun with it along the way.
David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.More David Sirota.
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)