"Where Is the Love?" Racial Violence, Racial Healing, and Blues Communities

Article excerpt

Where is the Love?" is the title of a memorably wistful duet recorded in the early seventies by Roberta Hack and Donny Hathaway; a lament for the way in which Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of redemptive interracial brotherhood or "beloved community," which animated the Civil Rights Movement, seemed to have dissolved in the aftermath of King's assassination, the riots that ravaged black urban communities, the militancy of the Black Power movement, and the war in Vietnam. The rifle's question might also serve as a touchstone for a reconsideration of the blues. What role does love, and the absence of love, play in the emergence of blues music and the creation of blues communities? Does love have the power to heal our blues, particularly the blues inculcated by racial violence and the persistence of what W. E. B. DuBois called the color line, the socioeconomic and attitudinal boundary separating white from black? Finally, is it possible to understand the contemporary blues scene, or elements of it, as an incarnation of King's beloved community--which is to say, as a brotherhood of equals, animated by love in the service of racial healing?

A New Yorker by birth, I currently make my home in Mississippi, a state fond of proclaiming that it is the home of the blues. Certainly, Mississippi is a home of the blues, if not perhaps the home, since it is the birthplace of Charley Patton, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and countless other foundational blues performers whose names are familiar to blues fans around the world. Mississippi was also unparalleled between 1890 and 1965 for the violence and humiliation that its white citizens routinely inflicted on its black citizens as a way of keeping an exploitative cotton sharecropping economy in place. In this respect, Mississippi was indeed the home of the blues: it was the wellspring not just of blues music but of blues feeling, a whole complex of emotions and attitudes engendered in its African American residents--a swirling mixture of fear, despair, fury, heartache, extreme restlessness, freely ranging sexual desire, and a stubborn determination to persist against all odds and sing the bittersweet song of that persistence. One of the most evocative descriptions of this Mississippi, the Mississippi that produced blues feeling in its terrorized and survival-oriented black residents, can be found in the autobiography of Danny Barker, a black New Orleans jazzman. "Just the mention of the word Mississippi amongst a group of New Orleans people," insisted Barker in 1986,

   would cause complete silence and attention. The word was so very
   powerful that it carried the impact of catastrophes, destruction,
   death, hell, earthquakes, cyclones, murder, hanging, lynching, all
   sorts of slaughter. It was the earnest and general feeling that any
   Negro who left New Orleans and journeyed across the state border and
   entered the hell-hole called the state of Mississippi for any reason
   other than to attend the funeral of a very close relative--mother,
   father, sister, brother, wife, or husband--was well on the way to
   losing his mentality, or had already lost it. (1)

Mississippi has changed a great deal since the dark, bluesy days evoked by Barker--orchestrated "massive resistance" to the Civil Rights Movement finally dissolving in the wary, anxious, exhausted, but also exhilarating rapprochement described by Willie Morris in Yazoo: Integration in a Deep-Southern Town (1971). My own institution, "Ole Miss," the state's flagship university, has been transformed from a bastion of white supremacy, where students and others rioted in 1962 to keep James Meredith from enrolling, into a comprehensively integrated campus (albeit with separate black and white Greek organizations) that features an activist Institute for Racial Reconciliation named for William Winter, a former governor (1982-1986) who made equal funding for public education the mission of his administration. …