Oh, what a glorious night!
This past Thursday, a friend and I had the blessed opportunity to sit at the feet of one of America’s premier intellects, Dr. Cornel West; unruly Afro, black suit, erratic hand gestures and eloquent philosophical musings followed, much to the delight of the near capacity audience at the Rose Theater located on the campus of the University of Memphis. Dr. West’s new book, Hope on a Tightrope, was available for purchase and a book signing was held after the lecture. I think I can officially proclaim Dr. Cornel West as the ‘Rock Star of Intellectuals’ because as he walked to the podium, random screams and whistles could be heard throughout the audience. I couldn’t help but flash the dimples at this because it made me aware of the fact that there are thinking people in this southern metropolis better known as Big Hick City (Memphis).
For those who have not had the pleasure of listening to Dr. West live and in person, his lecture squarely focused on the usual ramblings about corporate greed, the indifference of the larger society towards struggle, pain and poverty along with an official phrase coining of ‘The Age of Obama’. However, the most provocative reference of the ‘Blues People’ charged my attention span quite a bit. Of course I had heard of the term before as Amiri Baraka wrote a book by the same name, but the re-emergence of it piqued my interest greatly. Dr. West used the term to pontificate on the strife that this nation faces as we move along in the 21st century. Given the comparisons of this present economic turmoil with the Great Depression, if there is anyone arguing that trouble has NOT been looming over our heads for a while now, then I would like to have some of what they are drinking.
‘Blues People’ are basically comprised of the marginalized and the downtrodden with African Americans leading the pack. I suppose 244 years of slavery and roughly 80 or so years of Jim Crow indisputably qualifies us as the flagship bunch. In his philosophical slant, Dr. West seems to connect the suffering of Black people with the larger suffering of this nation; meaning there isn’t a better people who can show the world how to pull through a crisis than the Blues People. I must commend Dr. West for his brilliant ability to connect the dots. Considering that he was speaking in the city that is revered as the Home of the Blues, it was quite ingenious of him to link the music form, the people, the nation’s current condition, and the audacity of hope into one powerful conglomerate.
Blues progenitors emerged mostly from Mississippi cotton fields; broke, but resilient. When the hot Delta sun ceased from beaming on their heads for that day, you can hear the riffs of homemade guitars and gut-induced, melodic bellows that freshened the stale night air of silent despair. Dr. West alluded to the familiarity that he had with these people, mentioning the late Isaac Hayes as one of his personal favorites. Their songs spoke of trouble and invisibility, but their hearts spoke of hope.
(Chris Thomas King–Hard Time Killing Floor Blues)
This, proclaims Dr. West, is why a Blues People are necessary to uplift this nation and the world at large; because it seems as if we all have the blues these days in one way or another. With jobless claims increasing and Congress passing an extension of unemployment benefits, the Blues is a catchy little number to pick up and hum while circling classified ads and surfing Monster and CareerBuilder. The official holiday season begins on November 26th and some of us are bemoaning the fact that we have to let go of those precious dollars that we have been holding tightly to our chests. That is, if we expect to have some form of a decent holiday season. Family members are still kissing loved ones goodbye as they board military aircraft on their way to that debacle known as the Iraq War. Meanwhile, corporate CEOs are flying to Capitol Hill in private jets begging for bailout money while current bailout-ers are still standing with their hands out.
Yeah, we are definitely a Blues People because as far as this economic crisis is concerned, we wrote a song about it. Like to hear it? Here it go (think David Alan Grier’s Blues man from the popular 90s comedy sketch series, In Living Color). Modern day Blues People stood in long lines on November 4th to cast their vote for a fellow member of the Blues People; electing him to office because they consider him the best chance at changing this sad song we’re singing right now into a rhythmic, light-hearted celebratory anthem. While he’s working on that, let’s work on tuning up our guitars and harmonicas, grabbing a storefront stoop and playing until the wee hours of the morning or at least until we can smile without forcing it.
Thank you, Dr. West. As always, your prophetic notions resound loudly!