Rhythmic Race Relations

The subject matter in this particular piece got the Reverend Jeremiah Wright in a bit of hot water around the time that President Barack Obama was running for President and was one of the many factors that caused Obama to distance himself away from the minister during his campaign. Since I’m no one of importance at this point and have no one directly in my inner circle running for President I’m gonna go ahead and write it as it’s something you likely know already…

Among the many sacrifices that my parents made for me and my two sisters when we were young was to send us to a private school from K-8th grade. I really don’t know that it was that big a deal in the grand scheme, especially since it didn’t pay off in that ridiculously high paying job that I’d hoped to have had by now, but I’m sure that they felt that they were doing the right thing by their kids by allowing us to be challenged in the classroom academically with kids with backgrounds and upbringings far different than my own. I learned to appreciate what other people liked and some of those things I even became an enthusiast of. My love affair with rock music started after Rich, one of my classmates, played, replayed, then re-replayed his favorite Styx album when I visited his family one weekend. After being told by my parents when I was 7 that I couldn’t play football because they thought I’d get hurt, I started playing soccer at the behest of a long haired kid in my 1st grade class named Pete, and subsequently had 3 different stints on crutches in14 years (good strategy there, Mom and Dad). There were several other things that I learned to appreciate that may not have come to my attention had I gone to the neighborhood school near my house where 99% of the kids looked like me. One of the things that I learned early on was how to appreciate the differences between the “thems” and the “mes”. My mother told me a story once about how I excitedly jumped in the car one day after my half-day of Kindergarten and told her that I knew the difference between White people and Black people and it was simply that God made Black people in different skin tones – light, medium and dark – while He chose to make White people in varying eye colors – blue, brown, grey, and green. Undoubtedly I thought I had it all figured out at age 6 but as I got older and learned more I learned more about what I, and others, consisted of and surprisingly aside from some fundamental things here and there I found that we and they weren’t that far apart.

Except for one thing.

The school that I went to was a Catholic school which meant that we went to Mass about 77 times per month (exaggerated for effect). Very seldom did we clap to any songs sung at Mass, we stood, we sang, we sat down, which of course did nothing for my rhythmic Baptist sensibilities; but there was one Mass where clapping was required and here is where my lesson in unsolvable race relations began. I can’t remember what the name of the song was but it was an upbeat number, there was an acoustic guitar playing and then clapping started. I wanted to clap along but the rhythm wasn’t quite right, I looked around at the majority of my classmates and they were putting their hands together in sync with one another but it still wasn’t right. I wanted to clap in unison with them but something in my body wouldn’t let me. It wasn’t that the clapping of the others wasn’t rhythmic; it was spot on but wrong all at the same time. I couldn’t stand there in the middle of Mass and not clap, could I? I mean, the song wasn’t rocking like the gospel licks that my mother led at my church but I had to do something to appear engaged so I started clapping the way my inner metronome told me to and it was at that point that the looks started in my direction. I was out of rhythm.

I looked for help from my Black friends but there were only 17 of us out of 153 White kids and 16 others in the Upper School so when I scanned my classmates I didn’t see the scattered faces like mine, only the faces of my White friends with puzzled “what’s he clapping to?” looks on their faces. I heard the song and everything in me told me that my clap was right. This is the way that my friends at church would have clapped to the song isn’t it? I stopped clapping and listened to the song’s notes echoing off the bricks and ornate marble statues in the sanctuary and I lightly clapped my hands in sync with the rest of the gathered students but it wasn’t right; everything in my being told me that it just wasn’t right, I couldn’t and wouldn’t fake it so I stopped clapping. I decided it was a conspiracy, in some way they were trying to make me go crazy rhythmically; some kind of Catholic Jedi Mind Trick aimed at Baptists and other Protestants and I decided that I wouldn’t go down without a fight. I started clapping again, feeling the rhythm of my ancestors coursing through my veins I clapped audibly; each palm strike sounding awkwardly in relation to the other students’ sound offs. I remember my teacher looking over at me with a curious glance, perhaps thinking that I was trying to be a wise guy and clap off beat on purpose; was she going to give me a demerit when we got back to the classroom? Certainly she wouldn’t do that because I was right. Right? My classmates were looking curiously in my direction now and I could have sworn that the marble statue of Jesus over the altar shot a glance over at the brown kid immediately to his left as if to say “Didn’t I create those folks WITH rhythm?” I caught the eye of one of my “skin like me” classmates and gave a look that said, “You’re with me on this, right?” He didn’t acknowledge, he just stood there with his hands resting on the pew in front of him, facing forward. He was a grade above me; perhaps the Catholic brainwash technique had already wiped out his will to fight the rhythmic wrongness. Or maybe…I was the one that was wrong.

I gasped at the realization that perhaps I was the outcast here. I was the one that couldn’t decipher the music enough to discern the beat on which to clap. That was horrifying! Dammit, I knew Michael Jackson choreography, I’d been singing, clapping, and rocking simultaneously since I was 5 year old member of the children’s choir at my church. I refused to believe that I was the one that was wrong. Then the song ended, the singing stopped, the clapping stopped, and everyone sat down. I sat quietly in my seat and wondered not only if I was sane, but if I was going to get detention for causing a disturbance during Mass.

Obviously, I was a nervous wreck when I went to my good ol’ Baptist church the following Sunday and took to the choir stand with the rest of my friends. Had I been brainwashed? When the music started would I know when to clap? Because, one thing is for certain, there would be some clapping going on at the good ol’ Baptist church. Then the notes started, and I waited, and my inner metronome started again and I knew where I wanted to clap but I hesitated, scared that whatever I’d experienced at Mass earlier in the week had shorted my musical circuitry. Our choir director gave us the signal for us to start to clap; I closed my eyes, winced a bit and when I clapped it was perfectly in sync with the 60 other 8 thru 11 year olds in the choir. I was relieved, the Catholic plan to destroy my inner metronome was thwarted, I’d been programmed too well, it would take more than one midweek Mass to destroy me! Then of course after a while I finally realized that folks like me typically clap on “2” and “4” while a good number of my White friends clapped on “1” and “3”, in simpler terms I learned that Black folk clap on the snare drum and White folk clap on the kick drum. Now, none of this is to say that all White people do this and all Black people do that; that’s the ploy of a lazy comedian that is too lazy to devise real material. I’m sure there are a number of Catholics and/or White folks that have similar rhythmic sensibilities as I. Quite frankly, no one can really say who doesn’t have rhythm, shoot, I thought I was right at Mass but I wasn’t; had my friends from school been at my church clapping on “1” and “3” they would have been wrong. So wrong, in this case, is a matter of where you are at the time.

So, of course there was no wild scheme to make me doubt my rhythm, no plan to sabotage my inner metronome, those were the wild indiscriminate thoughts of a paranoid 9 year old. In this episode though, I learned that this factor and this factor only is the main difference that separates the we’s and the they’s, followed closely by my Kindergarten theory that God made Blacks in skin tones and Whites in eye colors.

Now, here is that video of Jeremiah Wright I was talking about way up there at the top of this here blog…

~thanks for reading

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  1. This had me in my office trying to remember songs I sang growing up and how we clapped to them. Sadly, I just confused myself and probably made my co-workers think I came to work intoxicated. Hilarious stuff!

  2. Giggling as I just saw Bootsy on Tavis Smiley telling a story about James Brown who kept telling them to give it to him on the “1”. The two years I spent in an all girl Catholic school were enlightening to me as well.

    Smooches hun.

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