Sunday, August 28, 2011

Black and White

Black and White Poem
by Barbara Pixley

You could hardly see for all the snow,
Spread the rabbit ears as far as they go;
Pull a chair up to the TV set,
"Good Night, David. Good Night, Chet."

Depending on the channel you tuned,
You got Rob and Laura - or Ward and June;
It felt so good. It felt so right,
Life looked better in black and white.

I Love Lucy, The Real McCoys,
Dennis the Menace, the Cleaver boys;
Rawhide, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train,
Superman, Jimmy and Lois Lane.

Father Knows Best, Patty Duke,
Rin Tin Tin and Lassie too;
Donna Reed on Thursday night! --
Life looked better in black and white.

I wanna go back to black and white,
Everything always turned out right;
Simple people, simple lives...
Good guys always won the fights.

Now nothing is the way it seems,
In living color on the TV screen;
Too many murders, too many fights,
I wanna go back to black and white.

In God they trusted; alone in bed they slept,
A promise made was a promise kept;
They never cussed or broke their vows,
They'd never make the network now .

But if I could, I'd rather be,
In a TV town in '53;
It felt so good. It felt so right,
Life looked better in black and white.

I'd trade all the channels on the satellite,
If I could just turn back the clock tonight;
To when everybody knew wrong from right,
Life was better in black and white!
A song that the Landmark church guitar-playing worship leader sang at the Union Gospel Mission Thursday night left an impression -- and not one that I think was intended.

The title of the song, for which the worship leader may have composed the tune, is “Black and White,” based on a poem, which I found online [see sidebar]. It was about black-and-white television and the simple straightforward TV shows of the 50s and early 60s. The theme of “black and white,” was a time when, supposedly, moral differences were more clear-cut and life was simple and happy. At one point the song expressed longing for a specific year: "if I could, I'd rather be,/In a TV town in '53;/It felt so good. It felt so right."

But of course any ideation of the 50s is in reality wrongheaded. Those supposed halcyon days of yore are romanticized because of our mind’s inclination to create Great Olden Times by fabricating a false past. TV stars mentioned in the song – like Rob and Laura, Ward and June -- are all white people, with the exception of Ricky Ricardo [the Latino husband in "I Love Lucy," but not cited directly] and a couple of dogs.

Nat King Cole
No black people are mentioned because, as people my age [57] would know, they didn't appear on television of that time, except for the lamentable exceptions of "Amos and Andy," which was funny if you could get around the   racism, which you can't [The NAACP was at the fore in protesting the series immediately after it began.] and Nat King Cole's show, which was popular, had episodes only 15 minutes in length, and couldn't retain advertisers, so it was quickly cancelled.  There was also the character of Rochester, played by Eddie Anderson, who was Jack Benny's wise-cracking gravel-voiced black valet on "The Jack Benny Show." Rochester was the exception that makes the rule: an admirable character who almost always got the best of Benny in their verbal jousts.

The Truth, which should matter greatly, is that the 50s was a time of overt racism and segregation.  Hate mongering was widespread and protected.  It was a horrible time, covered over by a patina of calm in segregated white neighborhoods.

The TV shows, including the sitcoms, and the movies of the time were generally unimaginative and unrealistic and absurdly wholesome.  A rebellion in the form of an escalation in the civil rights movement and the 60s freedoms-seeking movement, and women's rights and all of that was overdue.  Hooray for the end of the 50's!

It's difficult to understand how very "tone deaf" the worship leader was to have sung his song, with its backward lyrics, in the mission where something like 40% of the people in the seats are black homeless men and where 50 is the average age.  But make no mistake, even if everyone in the seats was white, the song was undignified and ignorant and cringe-worthy.

Landmark's worship leader is by no means a bad person, but I do think he would benefit from gaining a better understanding of the chapel audience that he stands in front of, and our challenges.  To his great credit, the worship leader likes to bring interesting things and oddities to sing for us at the mission.  Very often he sings a song he has wholly composed himself.  One time I recall he came with a re-worded version of John Lennon's "Imagine."  I cringed when he began the rendition of the song, wholly at odds with Lennon's wording, but cheered at the end.  As much as Lennon's words and vision are in line with my thinking, the worship leader's riff on the song was still very clever and kindly.

But PLEASE.  I do understand that the religion of the mission is conservative.  But let us not go backward in time to a backward time, the terrible 50s.  THAT old-time religion should be forgotten in acknowledgment of the mistake that it was.
------
Just by happenstance I got of couple of reactions from mission guests, both black men in their 50s, to the "black and white" song.  The first man was pretty disgusted with it.;  The second man, a friend, said his hellos to me when I was first beginning to compose this post at the library.  I told him what I was writing, and he told me he was in the chapel then and heard the song.  He said while he was hearing it he was wondering if he was the only guy who noticed how offensive the song was.

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