Tag Archives: Racism

Lady Day

Lynn, Richard, Possum, and I made our way into the Wyndham, got some drinks, then headed into the auditorium.

The show was Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.  The premise is that Billie Holliday, the American jazz icon, is performing at a run-down bar in Philadelphia right before she dies, age 44, in 1959.  It’s a two-hour monologue and song book, accompanied by a man who plays the piano, tries to stop her from shooting up, then procures heroin for her.

I don’t go to a lot of live theatre.  It always feels to me like people are talking in a stilted way: “Look at me—I’m acting!”  I was leery about going to any American show in Britain.  On my first trip to England, my cohort of volunteers—who were from all over Europe and Asia—insisted on going to a west end musical involving a loud-mouthed Texan in a big hat.  There was also lots of waving and shooting of guns.  I squirmed through the whole thing.  The group members loved it and laughed all night about “typical Americans.”

Lady Day would be performed by Audra McDonald, with actual audience members on stage as though they were customers at the bar.  This was a bit strange, since McDonald and the musicians were dressed in period costumes, while the customers/audience members were dressed in contemporary clothes.

We were seated at a café table right below the stage.

I loved Billie Holliday as much as anyone; I had listened to her songs over and over, especially in my angst-ridden 30s, but would I be able to sit through two hours of angst?  And my chair was wobbly!

Then McDonald began her performance, and within moments all distractions melted away and I was riveted.  I knew Billie Holliday’s story—raped as a child, raised by a single mother, addicted to drugs and alcohol, did prison time, full of regret over not having children and a string of abusive relationships.

McDonald’s voice was well up to the task of Holliday’s songs; when the first strains of “Strange Fruit” began I teared up instantly.

Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees


Pastoral scene of the gallant south

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh


Here is fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

So the show was about Holliday’s life, but also about racism in America, and the lot of being a famous woman performer, and love, and addiction. Believe it or not she was also very funny.  I wanted to run up onto the stage and hug McDonald/Holliday, tell her everything was going to be alright and that I would take her home and take care of her.

I didn’t find myself feeling defensive about the theme of racism.  In fact, just the opposite.  Racism is a reality in America and always has been.  It’s something we’ve had to struggle with, collectively.  We’ll probably never see the end of it.  I’d like to think that as older generations die off, younger ones will be less racist, but the crowds in Charlottesville at the white supremacist rally last year were mainly young men.

So why would I feel proud of my country?  Because at least half of us are fighting this shit. At least half of us are fighting back–marching, writing essays, lobbying our elected officials in opposition to racism and other “isms.”

The performance ended; we looked at each other and I spoke first, “I feel like a wrung out rag!”

“That was intense,” said Richard.

“I’m exhausted!” said Lynn,

Added Possum, “I never knew!”

We went back to the hotel, ordered some wine, and talked for hours about racism in our respective countries.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill was made into a TV show; if you want to watch it it’s here.

Have a box of Kleenex handy.

Jim Crow, Old and New

This is the latest in a series of posts about a road trip from St. Paul to New Orleans that starts here.

If you don’t learn something about yourself when you travel … well, that’s okay—I’m not going to sermonize—but I was pleased to learn something important about myself in Memphis.

In the morning, Lynn and I took a walk along the riverfront, which is beautiful:


We walked back to Beale Street, found a restaurant, and ordered breakfast. We were excited to try southern foods like grits and biscuits.  We waited, and waited.  You could say this restaurant put the “wait” in waitress.  She kept coming by and giving us a dose of another southern treat—calling us “honey”, “sweetie”, and “darlin’” as in: “Your food’ll be up in just a minute, darlins’”

It seemed like half the morning passed away before we got our meals, then we wolfed them down and headed over to the National Civil Rights Museum.

It was difficult to find—there was no signage—but then we turned a corner and there it was, the former Lorraine Motel where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  I recognized it immediately, having seen it a hundred times in iconic photos.

TENNESSEE, UNITED STATES - APRIL 04:  Civil rights leader Andrew Young (L) and others standing on balcony of Lorraine motel pointing in direction of assailant after assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who is lying at their feet.  (Photo by Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

And this was the beginning of learning something about myself, because I got so choked up I had to turn away so no one would see me in tears.

I have been to Holocaust museums in Washington, DC; Jerusalem, Berlin, Prague, Chicago, and elsewhere, and they’ve been tear-filled experiences too.  But then, I’m Jewish.  Were my tears only because the story was about my people?  That fear—that I only felt empathy for my own kind—was laid to rest in Memphis.

Can a Man

I wiped my tears away but they welled up continually inside the museum, which was one long, sad horror show that traced the abuse of African Americans from slave days up through the assassination in 1968.

There was a large group of school children, mostly African American, going through with docents.  I wondered what they felt seeing Africans in chains, the police dogs, the fire hoses?  If it was my kid I would want to be on the tour to put my arm around him.  There was the usual laughing and fooling around that any group of kids will exhibit, but I wondered if they would have trouble sleeping that night.

I commented to Lynn, “A coworker of mine at Oxfam used to find every opportunity to mention, ‘the UK never had slavery’ in a superior tone.”

“We may not have had slaves in the country, but we certainly benefited and participated in the system,” Lynn replied as we read a display about how global the slave trade was.

And of course it didn’t end with the abolition of slavery.  “Jim Crow” was the system in the southern United States from reconstruction up through the civil rights era in the 60s that kept “negros” in their place.  Here are a few of the ridiculous laws from that time:

Baseball Law Mulattos Checkers

Really?  Checkers!?  Who knew checkers could subvert the social order?

Then we marched slowly through exhibits about bus boycotts, lunch counter protests, and strikes.  Then there were the cross burnings, lynchings, and bombings by white racists; somewhat counterbalanced by the support of white and other allies (including Jews).

Lunch Counter I am a Man Bus Boycott Activists

I watched a video about James Meredith, the first black student to be accepted to the University of Mississippi, in Oxford Mississippi.  Of course he hadn’t mentioned his race in his application, and when he showed up to enroll all hell broke loose.  After weeks of rioting by whites, which resulted in two deaths, he was reluctantly let in, and as Lynn read later, he did graduate and lived a normal life afterwards.

The museum was really well done.  There was a second building that explored African American activism post 1968, but after three or four hours in the first building we had to leave.

Last week Vince and I talked to a group about mass incarceration.  One of the audience members referred to it as the New Jim Crow.  I agree, although in my opinion it’s about poverty, addiction, mental health, and class as much as racism.

Do Gooder Abroad

The first overseas trip I took was to London. It was 1987, and Vince and I had become obsessed with Dr. Who and spoke to each other in terrible English accents. I read that the guy who played the Doctor, Tom Baker, was going to be in a play in London. Like so many trips I’ve taken since, it was that slim thread of a reason that got me started.

But I had also gone to a lecture by Arthur Frommer, the travel guru, on how to travel cheap. He mentioned volunteering with places like Volunteers for Peace. I paid my $400 for the one-week “experience”, bought a plane ticket, and away I went.

Looking back, I can hardly believe I did it. The only other country I’d ever visited was Canada, where in those days you could flash your driver’s license as you drove over the border. I don’t remember what I did there; probably fed potato chips to black bears out of the car window.

My mom was more than happy to keep Vince, who was nine. He was happy to be spoiled.

I went a week before the program started and from dawn to dusk saw all the sights. With my map in hand, searching hopefully for a street sign and stopping people to ask directions, I must have reminded them of Crocodile Dundee in the scene where he says “G’day, mate,” to every passerby on the sidewalks of New York. As I was informed in due course by my fellow volunteers, I was a “typical American” because I wore jeans and what we used to call tennis shoes and I complained that there was no Diet Coke or ice or ketchup.

I was dazzled by the Crown Jewels. I saw Tom Baker on stage in “An Inspector Calls.” I went to Friday services at a synagogue and saw a woman with numbers tattooed on her arm. I got lost over and over which led me to the Dickens Museum, which turned out to be my favorite museum. I was propositioned by a creep in Hampstead. I stayed in a “hotel room” the size of a cracker box with a cold water bathtub down the hall lighted by a dim, bare bulb. I got the exchange rate backwards and paid way too much for a sweatshirt at the Hard Rock Café. I stole some toilet paper from a public toilet that had “Council Property” printed on every square.

You know, the usual London stuff. I took a lot of pictures of cars; I’m not sure why.


My VFP group included 20 20-somethings from Poland, West Germany, Holland, India, Sweden, Italy, Spain, and Mauritius, a country I’d never heard of.

We were there for a “work camp”—a terrible name but basically VFP housed us in flats in London’s East End and we babysat immigrant kids during a school holiday so their parents wouldn’t have to take time off work. The flats had peeling wallpaper, cold water, and mattresses on the floor. The smell of rotting garbage was constant.

I was bewildered that my fellow volunteers weren’t hooking up or drinking. I would have expected that from an American group, but these kids were so serious.


At night we were lectured to about how the Bengalis and Pakistanis and Indians came to work in the East End basically as indentured servants, and how now the National Front was outraged they “these people” were bringing their families over.

NF Boys

The kids were adorable and they knew an opportunity when they saw it. Another volunteer and I tried to take a dozen kids to Epping Forest, but before we got there they scrambled over the wall of a private garden and stripped all the apples off the trees. The homeowner ran out, screaming. I think if we hadn’t been foreign volunteers, she would have called the police.

This was when I thought, “What am I doing here, babysitting other people’s kids while mine is 4,000 miles away!?” It was my first extended time away from Vince and I couldn’t wait to get home.

And as soon as I got home I couldn’t wait to go on another trip.