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Another Good One Gone

Yeah, we only really hear about the famous people who we lose. The not-famous people, those are personal tragedies, but the famous ones, they’re not so much tragedies to us as a moment to pause and reflect about how a human being could be excellent.

Or maybe I’m just cold? Or distracted? I mean, obituaries and goodbyes propagate through the blogosphere and people mostly post videos of the person singing or ranting, or choice quotes from their books, or whatever. Maybe people are moved to tears, maybe not. Me, I just kind of pause and go, “Huh. Another good one gone. Damn.”

Because after all, we’re all going to go that way too. And in the end, I’m not sure how important it is that many remember us, or few, or none. What matters is what we do along the way, how we get to that end point, and whatever.

But I must say, Eartha Kitt did that thing she did so damned well. Here’s a video Gomushin Girl posted that clinches it:

And for some strange reason, makes me think about what my mom said when I discovered Sonny Rollins. I had Saxophone Colossus on the family hi-fi, which had by default sort of become my basement record player, and my mom said, “Oh, you like Sonny Rollins? He’s married to a white woman, you know.” Maybe not exactly those words, but that was the first thing that came to mind for her. Not as if it was a horrible thing, just, oh, the most notable fact about the man. Not that he was one of the few surviving saxophone legends, not that the man had once played a concert with a broken leg, but that he was in an apparently interracial marriage.

Note the word “apparently”: this was the early 80s, in Northern Saskatchewan, and identity politics hadn’t progressed too far. You were black, or you were white, and which one you were was obvious at a glance. In fact, I’m not particularly interested either way: I find it much more interesting Lucille Rollins was interested in science than what race she was or described herself as belonging to. But race was, if you forgive the pun, balck-and-white for my mother and me, back in those days. That’s the world I grew up in, the world she grew up in too, and only in high school or, really, in University did I learn different… and this conversation happened when I was in middle school, anyway. So I remember seeing her, at the time, on some PBS documentary, and unselfconsciously thinking that she sure looked like my French-Canadian (ie. white) relatives, but also wondering why a marriage across racial lines would be such a big deal.

At some point only moments later, or so I remember it, my mother and I talked about it, and she said something along the lines of how I probably wouldn’t marry a black woman. Why? Not because interracial marriages are horrible and bad things, but because, as she put it, “What would you have in common?”

Which struck me as odd, seeing that there were black kids growing up in the same town as me, shoveling the same snow off the same sidewalks, playing the same games in the schoolyard, dodging the same bullies at school. When I pressed her a little more, she said, “You couldn’t handle a black woman, Gordon.”

I didn’t press for more explanation, and I still don’t know what she meant. Maybe it was some holdover from her experience in the bush in Malawi, which for your average Canadian was like traveling to an alien world I suppose. Or maybe she felt that cultural differences would get in the way. I’m loathe to dig too much deeper into it, since this is the same woman who sternly cautioned me not to stare at people of different races at the shopping mall, who told me, and I remember it verbatim, “Good and bad people come in all colours and races,” and who after all chose to spend years in the remote bush in Malawi trying to give the native people modern medicines and help them not die in childbirth. Who herself, as a child in middle school, angrily decided the nuns had it all wrong when they said that unbaptized Africans would go to hell just because they weren’t Christian.

(Which isn’t to say problematic elements of racialized thinking don’t persist in the minds of people with open hearts who try very hard to be fairminded and be no-racist. It’s just to say that this isn’t a condemnation of my mother. To whatever degree I manage to see more to people than their race, I credit my mother for challenging me to do so from an early age. I credit her with criticizing a lot of racist things that happened in the towns we lived, and criticizing the unfairness of the way race and economic class so often seemed to correlate. I’m not perfect, but however decent I am, it’s a credit to my mother’s efforts. And my Dad’s, though in a more complex way I don’t feel like unpacking now.)

But anyway, that weird, uncertain moment (which I’m sure she wouldn’t remember if I asked her) ran through my mind as I saw the above-embedded video on Gomushin Girl’s site, I think because Kitt was so cute in the video, but also with this hard-to-handle undertone. It gets you thinking about the issue of self-presentation as a minority in a society, and self-presentation as a minority performer in a society that was still quite bigoted against your people. Very interesting and bewildering, all these strong, beautiful, hard, and downright shocking figures we see in American pop culture. The presentation of self mediated by TV is one thing: the presentation of self mediated by mediated race and TV all at once is another. It’s a well you could fall into and never find your way out of. How to understand these figures, living in a world that seems lost to me, even if the French saying is true about plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?

And the other thing I thought was, “Another good one gone. They sure don’t make ’em like they used to.” By “them” I mean entertainers, by the way. I wonder how many contemporary music stars could be filmed live, dressed like that, and hold our interest the way she did in that video. Let alone carrying off a song so laden with hilarious irony. (Cheat at jacks? Shoot pool? Evil? Ha! Check out that smile!)

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