|Ebony and ivory.|
“Daddy, who’s that black man?” “Shh. Be quiet!” “But the black man?” “”That’s Dave Benton.” “Is he from America? He looks like Obama.” “No, he’s from Aruba, I think.” “Aruba?” “It’s an island.”
This dialogue took place at a Christmas concert at the Vanemuine theater in Tartu. And, I have to say, I quieted my child, not only because the rest of the audience at the Dave Benton and Annely Peebo concert seemed stiff and conservative and not welcoming of small children interrupting Härra Benton’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” but because she noted that Härra Benton is of a different race.
It was a reflex, of course and everything here is contextual. I am a product of place and time and have grown up thinking of people of African descent as being sensitive about their identity. But I am in my own way a time capsule, and little girls today don’t know much about Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, and, of course, the Reverend Al Sharpton, nor have they seen a Spike Lee movie. Even in the US, it seems like the passions of the postmodern, post-Civil Rights political correctness identity crisis have long cooled. And the fact is that Dave Benton is a black man, especially when he’s standing on stage next to Annely Peebo, who looks like the heroine of a Wagner opera.
It was a good concert by the way, a fun tribute to every stereotype about Christmas concerts — blaring saxophone solo, anyone? — and there was also the pleasant mismatch of Benton’s smooth operator finger-snapping crooning and Peebo’s scintillating soprano, which billowed up into the higher octaves like plumes of hot steam off an extinguished Christmas fire. My daughters’ favorite song was “Feliz Navidad,” and even the old ladies with the wooden faces were clapping along by that point, but my handling of the topic of racial identity also was turning in the back of my mind.
According to a book I have been reading called Nurture Shock, so-called white parents rarely talk about race with their children, and if they do it’s usually packaged in some gunky “skin color doesn’t matter, it’s what’s inside” gobbeldygook. I say “so-called white” because I think “white” is a bullshit term used by Americans to separate themselves from Europeans because of our/their massive hybrid inferiority-superiority complex (“I’m not a filthy cheese-eating European, I’m white”), but that’s neither here nor there.
The truth is that the “we’re all the same/skin color doesn’t matter” argument would never pass my kids’ sniff test. My eldest daughter is asking me questions all the time like, “Why are most rappers black?” And here I am, driving the road between Viljandi and Tartu, passing farmhouses and forests, wondering if I should start with slave work songs or Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” or just skip ahead to Grandmaster Flash and Sugarhill Gang. Or I could have said, “That’s not true, Eminem is a fine rapper and he’s not black. See, what are you talking about? Skin color doesn’t matter!” Too bad Mr. Benton himself wasn’t in the backseat so he could have leaned forward in his trademark white suit and answered simply, “because black people are awesome.”
Usually my response to “Why is that man black?” is “Because some of his/her ancestors came from Africa.” Seems like a pretty legitimate take on the question. The roots of many popular American music forms also trace back to Africa. Don’t ask me. Ask James Brown. Okay, he’s dead. But listen to his music. The answer is Africa. It’s a way of thinking I have picked up from the Estonians, for whom nationality is a deep and meaningful construct. The very words “German,” “Russian,” or “Finn” are loaded with shared ideas about those nationalities related to genetics and history.
In a way, I am teaching my children to think similarly. Connect the man’s blackness with Africa. Why is Obama black? Because his father was from Kenya. See, it’s no lie, and it’s not mixing up the message with complex concepts that little kids have a hard time grasping because they didn’t grow up listening to Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. And, to compare, why is my family white? Could it be that most of our ancestors come from Europe? Sometimes the answers to the most difficult questions are as deceptive in their simplicity as the melody of a good Christmas standard.