MIGHTY MIGHTY, SPADE AND WHITEY: Clarence and Bruce, Friendship and Race

Clarence Clemons, said both my daughter and Bruce Springsteen this week, passed through his life doing exactly what he wanted to do. Bruce said the rest, which amounted to admitting that you can’t really do that, and the result of trying to is confusion and turbulence and discomfort and illusion. Except when it works. Then the result is clarity and joy, peace and truth miraculously revealed.

There are all sorts of meanings for what I watched Bruce and the Big Man do up there on those hundreds of stages for the past four decades, but the one that always struck closest to my heart drew them into the soul of the American drama and dilemma. Like Huckleberry Finn, the guilty boy, and Nigger Jim, the escaped slave, they traveled against the current even as they flowed with it, innocents abroad on a mission to redeem themselves of “sins” they hadn’t even committed in their quest for something closer to free.

Bruce and Clarence acted out their drama, which is our drama, in the exact same spirit as Twain, and with the exact same ambiguous result. At the end of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain was stuck because he had no ending. The ending he used is preposterous, obviously. But not because it’s over-reliant on the hand of God. The real problem is that it’s predicated on a false idea: Freeing one slave. You cannot free one slave, and since the slave owner is in the same prison as the slave, just like any other jailer, you can’t free two either. It’s all of us or none of us.

But the road to freedom, as a great song tells us, is a constant struggle, and whatever anybody else thinks, I know–I have witnessed it as fact–nobody in the history of that great race-mixing tempest we call rock and soul music, struggled longer, harder or more continuously to reach that promised land. A Bruce Springsteen show could not in fact slide on its knees all the way across Jordan, but it was determined to take every inch that had ever been given and then push further, if only a millimeter or even if rebuffed.

You could argue that Bruce and Clarence failed because they had no black audience to speak of (the idea that they had no black audience at all is a lie). But what need did the great majority of black people have to hear their story? (And why, for that matter, were most black listeners supposed to tolerate it being told in what, for their community, is an antique and discarded beat?). White Americans have the very strange habit of believing that racism and white supremacy and all that come with them are somehow problems for the black community to solve. This is absurd. Black people didn’t enslave white people and force them to come to America, and whip them and sell them, rape them and suck the life from them for profit. How could black people, then, end the consequences of those crimes? Black people did not portray whites as stupid, sinister, conniving, debased and debauched, thieving and rapacious, even though they’d have been able to marshal far more facts with far less fudging than whites have needed to spread such calumnies about them.

What I am saying is, America’s race problem has never been solved because white people refuse to recognize that it is only action on their part that can solve it. And Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons did not find a blacker audience because on the one hand, the anomaly of their enactment of the dilemma and its consequences, if not solutions, did not need to be impressed upon the black community. On the other hand, white people desperately require that story, even though when most witnessed that Pentecost on Thunder Road, which concludes with Scooter and the Big Man slipping each other a kiss right on the lips, they did not take away from it anything at all of what it was meant to mean.

Bruce and Clarence persevered, continually sending out their message over Radio Nowhere in case somebody, somewhere even might be listening. The real miracle is not that Bruce Springsteen was capable of finding so many  variants of this theme, from the stage show itself to anthems like “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “American Skin (41 Shots),”  and allusions peppered through his other songs. (How dumb would you have to be not to understand that this is one implication of, to choose the most obvious for instance, “Darkness on the Edge of Town”?) No miracle there—Springsteen set out to write about the heart of the country, and race was central to what he found there. In order to do an honest job as honest as he could, he had no choice but to tell the truth about who shackled whom, who has the key and what that key consists of.

The miracle was that Clarence Clemons, for all his affectations and clowning, playing for the most part accents and fills, found a way to portray a character not only of massive physical bulk but as massively stalwart, courageous, and dignified as the black part of this nation has always been. (If you doubt this, ask yourself how long you would be able to hold your community together if it were nightly vilified on television, erased from history where its story could not be falsified altogether, and beaten down by the cops and the other authorities as a matter of principle, while not even being granted its own name, instead referred to by a batch of code words as puerile as they are vicious.) Like Bert Williams and Louis Armstrong and a handful of others who crossed over not Jordan but simply the color line, Clarence held himself together at a cost that no white American, not even someone who studied him for decades and saw what the game was from the first encounter,  can pretend to fairly estimate.

There were, of course, several versions of Clarence Clemons but if we stick simply to the artist, the musician-thespian, the most obvious other is the Clarence Clemons of his solo records, with the Red Bank Rockers and Temple of Soul. This music, readily available even now, though it never sold much, harkens back to a version of the soul music Springsteen so often draws upon, but also to the honking R&B music of the Big Man’s own youth. In that music, the guitar stayed in the rhythm section and the sax took instrumental center stage. Clarence was almost ten years older than the rest of the E Street Band and here, he let it show.

There is other, less well-known, harder to find Clarence Clemons music on which he portrays another version altogether, a seeker, a  world traveler, influenced by the new age music of Narada Michael Walden (who produced and wrote Clarence’s one hit single, “You’re a Friend of Mine,” a duet with Jackson Browne), and by the time he spent in China wooing his fourth wife.

I mention this not only to emphasize that Clarence Clemons was a man, not a mythic figure—or rather, not only a mythic figure—but also to point out what sacrifices he made, what impulses he did not indulge, what roads this man so committed to doing exactly what he wanted to do chose not to travel. I am not crazy enough to make him out a martyr—he was too hedonist for martyrdom. But it cannot have been much fun to travel through America in the mid-‘70s, the wounds of the civil rights movement yet so raw and its mission even now unaccomplished in so many places, as the only black man traveling with a group of white hippies—and he, quite often, dressed to the nines, as if he were the impresario running the whole show. As Bruce said in his eulogy, there were times when not even Clarence was big enough to shoulder past all the confusion and contradiction of race bigotry, and, once David Sancious left, which was not very long into the story, do it alone.

The other side of that is, being treated as the safe, harmless, “why can’t they all be like this” black man. I loved Clarence, he paid me any number of small kindnesses over they years, mainly just always being glad to see me, but the idea that he was harmless is an absurdity, an insult and a symptom. Like any large orbiting object, Clarence had a powerful gravitational pull and while nobody who got caught up in it was endangered the way the ones who got pulled into the Keith Richards circle were, it was easy to see from whatever safe distance one could manage that the games inside Clarence’s circle were played on his terms, or not played at all. I mean, this is a guy who produced an autobiography that was admittedly half-fiction and lied so much of the rest of the time that even his bandmates weren’t sure where the truth lay in some of it. (Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales also happens to be one of the greatest rock’n’roll books ever written and possibly the funniest.) They can’t all be like that because you don’t know what even that one guy is altogether like. Which doesn’t mean that the role he played on stage was just an act, either. Is complicated safe and harmless? I don’t think so either.

So…there they are, Scooter and the Big Man, the Boss and the King of the World, little Bruce and towering Clarence, and for all those years, through all those shows, through all that time, they did one thing, as static and yet as ever-evolving as Krazy Kat albeit with a larger cast. Bruce tried a couple of other foils—Crystal Taliferro on the Human Touch / Luckytown tour, the huge Art Baron and the small Larry Eagle with the Seeger Sessions band. But in the end, if there was one thing that made the E Street Band the most essential tool of the greatest live entertainer white America has ever produced it was the gravitational pull between him and Clarence Clemons.

Curtis Mayfield, one of Bruce’s greatest unacknowledged influences  wrote a prophecy in one of his songs that applied to the Scooter and the Big Man tableau: ‘Mighty, Mighty Spade And Whitey / Your black and white power / Is gonna be a crumbling tower.” That was not a prophecy of them but of what they fought against.

Bruce and Clarence could not pull down the tower in which America is shackled, no two humans could do that, but they inflicted their share of damage and from the places I’ve sat and stood and watched them do it, their effort, properly understood, had something of grandeur about it. They were these two guys who imagined that if they acted free, then other people would understand better that it was possible to be free. How close they came is harder to see than how far the rest of us are from that goal. But there are hearts and minds a few steps closer to liberation out there because of them, people who had fun until it stopped being just fun and grew inside them.

One of the other roles Clarence Clemons played for Bruce Springsteen is also not much remarked upon but it was crucial. When Bruce ran out of words—or more precisely, when the words could no longer tell the story—often as not it was the Big Man and that shining brass horn that took center stage and blew out the rest of the truth for us to hear. If you want to measure Clarence Clemons as a musician, consider what it must have been like to have to find a solo that could stand up after lines like “And the poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all / They just stand back and let it all be.” Then consider that, even if it took 16 hours in the studio, he found it.

During a concert, during one of Clarence’s solos, if you happened to look away from the horn and the giant blowing it for a minute, you’d see Bruce standing at center stage, chest thrust out, mic dangling from his hand, jaw jutting, in command and serene in the confidence that his story was being told, and told again anew, sending light not just into the darkness but out against it, too.

I am sure he will find other vehicles—he always has had a few, including his own fingers speaking through his guitar. But it will never be quite the same, cannot be. Because on that dark and stormy night on the boardwalk, when the door blew open in that little barroom where the band was playing and the Biggest Man in the World stepped through it, the force behind it was not merely the wind but also fate. And not their fate alone but also ours.

In this respect, it is not only Bruce Springsteen’s job to find a way to replace what Clarence Clemons meant, it is also yours and mine. It’s all of us or none of us and the cost is high. At the end of his eulogy on Tuesday, Bruce said that he and Clarence enacted a beautiful anomaly of two people who loved each other so much that race absolutely didn’t matter. He also said he thought they might need to be together in another lifetime to finish the job of making sure that their relationship was not an anomaly. But really, those lifetimes ought to be right here, right now—they ought to be our lives.

Farewell, Big Man, see you in the land of hope and dreams. Thanks for helping drag us there.

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73 Responses to “MIGHTY MIGHTY, SPADE AND WHITEY: Clarence and Bruce, Friendship and Race”

  1. […] Dave Marsh: Clarence and Bruce, Friendship and Race, by Dave Marsh NJ.com: Steven Van Zandt: ‘We will continue to make music and perform‘, […]

  2. Dave says:

    Also, I forgot the terrific piece on Clarence’s music written by Tom Moon, a musician and a fine jazz/music writer, at
    http://www.najp.org/articles/2011/06/clarence-clemons-more-than-a-s.html

    Great stuff about what Clarence did with his style, where that style came from, and why it mattered. The descriptive writing about Clarence’s tone, for instance, are well beyond anything I’ve ever read or written on that topic and to my ear, absolutely right on.

  3. […] homenajes llegan de la mano de Dave Marsh (en su blog: “Clarence and Bruce, Friendship and Race“), de Nils Lofgren (en su página web: “La pérdida de Clarence es devastadora“) […]

  4. Magnus Lauglo says:

    Dave,

    No, I don’t think Clarence was ever obliged to be anything other than true to himself. I never met the guy, but my impression as a fan, is that he just happened to be a larger than life character who had a unique connection with Bruce, and that Bruce over time magnified Clarence’s general personality into an onstage character we knew as The Big Man. I’m not suggesting it was an insincere stage act or anything like that, but I have always assumed that Clarence, (just like Bruce and Steve) hammed it up a little extra for the crowd.

    I think my point was simply noting that for all the progressiveness of their relationship, I don’t think Bruce and Clarence challenged white America’s assumptions about African American men. Imagine if Sancious had stayed in the band and Clarence had left in ’74. Now I don’t know whether Sancious would have been a natural choice for an onstage foil for Bruce. But if we can imagine Bruce’s music developing in a more jazz-influenced direction, while still remaining rock enough to become popular and mainstream, well the racial dynamic and significance of the band would have been different, that’s all.

  5. Stacey Kofman says:

    Dave, your tribute to C is beautiful and heart felt. Thanks for letting all of us see your tribute. I have followed Bruce, in concert, since 1984 and always loved listening to “The Big Man” My brother introdued me to Bruce in 1976 and I thank him and treasure the concerts we attend.

  6. Shawn Poole says:

    FYI to Dave and everybody: The full transcript of Bruce Springsteen’s eulogy for Clarence, referenced by Dave in “Mighty, Mighty…”, is now available to read at Bruce’s official website: http://www.brucespringsteen.net

    Also, here’s the direct link for Bob Davis’ piece on Clarence (and for the rest of his Soul Patrol website): http://www.soul-patrol.com/newsletter/2010/news5/clarence.html

    Incidentally, as a Philly boy, I’m very glad that Davis and Tom Moon, both Philly-area-based writers, contributed such strong pieces on Clarence and his legacy.

  7. […] two quotes, of course, are seen here out of context. Read the Marsh article in full. Then play the Born to Run album in full. Then ask yourself once again about your role in […]

  8. pam joy says:

    Dave,
    I wanted to thank you for your powerful and uplifting response to my comment on your article. It’s moments like this that take us all closer to the Land of Hopes and Dreams. Living in the segregated Milwaukee area for years, it always surprised me that whenever I deal with parents or members of classes I take professionally, etc. who are black, they immediately befriend me and know I am one who welcomes, cherishes and desires their friendship and perceptions. I did ask why and they just say they can tell by “looking” at me–I’m different. That alone shows the power of all that Bruce and Clarence and E Street particularly wanted to get across in their message. I am looking for the day that it isn’t a different look, but one all give each other. I have friends of color who can’t visit me out in the boonies due to a particular village on the way that pulls over all black people (NAACP very involved of course and Cheif of Police lost job but still a concern)………………very 1940s. I do smile though when my mom saw Clarence and Bruce on the Today show in 1999 speaking of the 41 Shots song (could be Milwaukee too obviously) and was totally blown away with their intelligence, heart, respect, etc. That is the message we all need to continue loud and clear until everyone gets it. Music is probably much more effective than what I do but I will keep doing my piece as well.
    Again thank you so much for the personal response and comment–a highlight of my life. 🙂
    Pam

  9. Dave says:

    Magnus:
    I’d stay away from reading the eulogy again. It is going to smash your assumptions.
    I never said Clarence was “obliged” to do anything. In fact, the idea that he wasn’t and shouldn’t have been is the point of my “Why can’t they all be like that?” paragraph.
    The idea that Bruce’s music had to involve in a more jazz-like direction in order to affect the racial dynamic is precisely a reflection of the kind of false consciousness of which you accuse me. Bruce Springsteen being a jazz musician would have meant he reached fewer people deluded by white supremacy, not more. And it is the people deluded by white supremacy who have a problem to solve, whether you have figured that out or not.
    As for whether they challenged those assumptions about black men in America, on that point, you definitely need to read the majority of other comments here. Listen to Steve Van Zandt’s radio eulogy (which I am pretty sure you can access at renegadenation.com). And then, by all means, read that eulogy. Because you have some illusions that badly need reconstructing.

  10. Magnus Lauglo says:

    Not sure that I follow entirely, which is OK, because I’ve always felt this was a complex issue. I will defintely go back and reread. And I didn’t mean to accuse you of any kind of “false consciousness”. I listened to Steve’s radio eulogy and liked it a lot.

    I don’t think I said that Bruce needed to be jazzier to affect the racial dynamic, I think I simply noted that a jazzier ESB with someone like Sancious in the band would likely have had a different racial dynamic. I do agree with you that such a band would likely not have attracted as big of a popular white following.

    At any rate, I’m curious on your thoughts on the following article:

    http://www.theroot.com/views/springsteen-and-clemons-musics-buddy-movie?auto=true

  11. Michele Marsh says:

    I’m a little late to this party, but Dave I wanted to thank you for revealing something to me that I had not realized in my years as a fan of Bruce and the E Street Band. I am actually embarassed that I never thought about the racial issue when considering the dynamic of Bruce and Clarence. Thank you for not only making me think about their impact on this issue, but also for starting this dialogue. Anyone that believes that racism and its impact are not alive and active in our country is fooling themselves. You don’t need to look past the fact that most of the people living in poverty in our nation are people of color to see the devastating impact. Systemic racism continues to prevent social justice in our society. As you so eloquently state, this is not an “us” and “them” problem. Its just “us” – there is no “them”. Bruce so often states during his shows that being an American comes with duties and responsibities to be informed and to take action on what you believe in. Let Clarence’s life and the work that he and Bruce did together remind us all of our duty. The time is now.

  12. Bruce Herman says:

    Dave,
    Thanks for your insights about Clarnece, Bruce, race relations and friendship. Back in the late 70’s,as you know, Bruce and the band were big in the east coast but not quite the same on the west coast. I was living and working for a California winery and turned lots of folks onto his music. Somewhere between albums, Clarence was touring and I saw him in San Francisco with the Red Bank Rockers. I sent a bottle of our sparking wine back stage with a note the said, “Clarenece, been a fan of yournand The Boss for a long time. Blow the hous down!” Had a great time at the concert. About a month later, I’m sitting at my desk in California and the phone rings. A deep and unmistakable voice says, “Bruce, this is Clarence and thanks for the champagne” Of course, at first thought it was a joke but very quickly realized that it was The Big Man, taking the time to thank me personally for sending him a note as well as the wine. We talked, I found out that he liked big red wines (not surprising as that seemed to fit both his stature and personality). On my next rip to Jersey, he and I met at Big Man’s, we tasted a bunch of wines together, I left him some wines for his cellar and thanked him for all the pleasure he has given me through his music. His small jester of gratitude and civility will be something that I will never forget. Thanks Clarence

  13. Dave says:

    Wow! Thank you for having the patience to listen to me thinking things through about a topic so many find simply distasteful. I really do appreciate it.

  14. Dave says:

    I can see Freedman’s point, but I don’t think that’s the whole story.
    I tried to present his truths (“Bruce and Clarence could not pull down the tower in which America is shackled…”) but also to deal with the other side of it, which is what it means to try, even if the trial is not met with success. And what is the cost of placing yourself in a situation, as Clarence did, where everybody black and white (well, almost everybody) sees you as skating through on the high side of life when really, you’re surrounded by the pits and every once in a while somebody tries to drag you in.
    I live in a country, I am a citizen of a nation, in which any human who does not call a person a nigger to that other person’s face, does not burn crosses and make hate speeches, feels entitled to present his/her self as not a racist. And perhaps so…but white supremacy is another, uglier matter and it looms all around us. That’s what Freedman is really grappling with–the sense that, even with what they were trying to pull off, Bruce and Clarence’s tableau could still be absorbed into the white supremacist story about what a success the U.S. has been about race relations. Why, hell, we have a black President–a RICH black president, of course, while the average household wealth of black people in America is 1/40th (that would be about 2.5%) of the average white household wealth, about one-third to one-half of all black males will eventually wind up in a state or federal prison, and the condition of public education in residential areas that are predominantly black, Latino etc makes a mockery of both Brown V Board of Education and Plessy v Ferguson on a daily–no hourly–basis.
    THAT is what “My City of Ruins” is about–it might also resonate with heartbroken finance executive widows and that’s all right with me. But it’s this other stuff it was written about. Anybody who goes to Asbury Park and doesn’t see that ought to poke out their own eyes. Or rather, doesn’t need to, they’ve already turned off their brains and their hearts.

  15. Ken Hreha says:

    Dave;

    Having just reading the eulogy that Bruce Springsteen gave for Clarence Clemons http://www.brucespringsteen.net/news/index.html it’s profoundly that Clarence ensconced his passion for music to better humanity in which he accomplished in a universal manner as echoed in Bruce’s words “Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die.” Springsteen’s beautiful eulogy for our beloved Minister of Soul couldn’t be more endearing, this suffering world lost a good one with Clarence’s passing. We’ll miss our Big Man!

    Ken Hreha
    Dryden, Mi

  16. Dread Scott says:

    Dear Dave,

    First, let me say that Bruce has Black fans. I’m one of them and I still fondly remember sitting, or rather standing, in the 8th row at Rosemont Horizon outside of Chicago and seeing him on the River tour. It’s still one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.

    I appreciate your thoughts on Clarence’s death including commenting on the “why can’t they all be like that” and your forthright point that white people have a lot of work to do to end white supremacy. But I think that it is an unfair to evaluate Scooter and the Big Man’s mission as to whether they ended racism or even had a Black audience. That Springsteen never had a significant following amongst Black people has at least as much to do with how severe Apartheid in music is as it does with the ideas Springsteen explores in his songs. I doubt that Hendrix, Living Color and Lenny Kravitz had a much different fan base than Springsteen. As for what Springsteen wrote and writes about and whether that contributed to his predominantly white audience, I think that this is part of the picture. Race is unfortunately where I think he hasn’t been able to find a way to indict and inspire the way he has on so many other themes. Lyrics that might encourage more Black listeners to cross the musical genre color line mostly aren’t there.

    There is every appearance that Bruce and Clarence deeply loved and respected each other—both as musicians and in a friendship that went beyond the music. Bruce’s music wouldn’t have been the same without Clarence’s horn and it is clear that he relied on Clarence as a foundational element of his sound. It says a lot about this country that it is an anomaly for Springsteen and the Big Man to be in the same band and be such public friends. But a Black guy and a white guy being friends and “acting free” won’t end racism, even if the friends are some of the most well known musicians in the world. And I don’t think that they set out to do this. They set out to make great music and be friends. It would have been better if the music more often addressed the systemic racism that defines this country. But it didn’t. American Skin is unfortunately an exception not a rule. And in death to ascribe that ending racism was part of their mission both minimizes the actual struggle that will need to be waged to end white supremacy and the beauty that was their music.

  17. Dave says:

    I much appreciate your comment Dread.
    But I’m a little mystified about the points you seem to think I make–I say explicitly that no two people can end white supremacy/racism, and pretty much word for word that Bruce (and Clarence) did have a black audience, and spell out some of the important reasons why.

    You may insist that Bruce and Clarence didn’t “set out to do this,” but if you read Bruce’s own words at brucespringsteen.net, you’ll find out that the reason you’re wrong isn’t because I say so.

    I’m not trying to minimize the struggle. I’m trying to use any lever I can find, including the death of my friend, to wage the struggle.

  18. Shawn Poole says:

    A big problem I have with Samuel Freedman’s piece (which I stated in his comments section, too) is this: Like Dave’s piece, it also attempts to at least begin analyzing what their white audience learned and didn’t learn from Clarence’s and Bruce’s onstage relationship over the years. Unlike “Mighty Mighty…”, however, Freedman’s piece does so by ignoring some very basic E Street history (if not music history in general), the most obvious example being his ridiculous assertion that Clarence’s importance in the band diminished significantly and remained minimal (at best) after 1975 or so.

    As I predicted when I first commented, I’ve been returning repeatedly to your piece, Dave, especially as the list of insightful/challenging comments grows. Unfortunately, there currently aren’t many (any?) other places where such a serious discussion is still continuing about what Clarence and Bruce achieved, what they couldn’t achieve and why it all still matters.

    One personal reaction I’ve had to all of this is to get inspired recently to write the following list of thoughts, mainly for myself at this point, built around Clarence’s beautiful onstage nickname. Perhaps I’ll try to share/post/publish some form of this at some point somewhere else, but for now at least I’d like to share it with the folks here; feel free to comment/criticize/etc. I offer it not as any kind of Big Answer to Big Problems, but perhaps at least a way to help move the discussion forward a bit more, in the spirit of the Big Man:

    B-I-G M-A-N: Six concrete ways we white fans of Clarence Clemons can truly honor his legacy…

    B – stands for “Begin/continue helping ourselves and other white people in our communities to unlearn our assumptions about black people and black culture.” The essence of the Scooter-meets-Big-Man myth/pageant, enacted in various forms onstage over the years by Clarence and Bruce, always revolved around our discarding incorrect assumptions/fears about black people and developing greater understanding/trust/unity. Even (or perhaps especially) after the election of the first African-American U.S. President, most white people continue to ignore far too often the reality of white-supremacy in our society and its devastating effect on the overwhelming majority of black people and other people of color (at our own peril, as well). How exactly do we begin changing this? We start by moving to the next letter, which fittingly is “I”…

    I – stands not just for our taking “individual” as well as collective responsibility to do something about fixing this mess, but it also stands for “information” and “interaction”. If we’re serious about changing the way we think and act, and encouraging others in our various communities to do the same, then we’re going to need a lot of good information at our disposal. There’s a lot of it out there, too, if we’re willing to dig for it. One good place to start is with the books/essays/etc. of Tim Wise (http://www.timwise.org/about/), among the best current writers/speakers/activists around anti-racism education. One of Wise’s more recent online essays on the real meaning of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, “Twisted Dream: The Disappearance of the Real MLK” (http://www.timwise.org/2011/01/twisted-dream-the-disappearance-of-the-real-mlk/), is also one of the shortest, clearest explanations ever written about how unchallenged white-supremacy eventually hurts the majority of us white people, too.

    G – stands for “Go to where the people are.” It’s difficult for us to have much of an effect, if any, on how others in our communities think and act unless we create ongoing opportunities to listen and talk. We each need to be part of one or more places where we can connect with other people and share/discuss ideas on a regular basis—a community center, sports group, church, union, neighborhood organization, student group, seniors group, etc. It may not even necessarily be something that formal, maybe just a popular local hangout of some type where people tend to gather and gab. Online groups also have their place in this, of course, but ultimately the more face-to-face interaction, the better.

    M – stands for “Make yourself known as someone who cares about your community.” For the most part, people tend to be more receptive to challenging ideas when they’re presented by someone known already as a concerned community member. If we’re already active somehow around other community concerns, e.g. organizing a fundraiser for a community member who’s fallen ill, joining with others to demand more government funding for after-school programs, etc., more people may be willing to at least consider what we have to say about white-supremacy, etc.

    A – stands for “Avoid assumptions.” It’s often far too easy to sell people (including ourselves) short by underestimating their/our abilities to comprehend and/or act because we’re too young, too old, too this, too that. This is a mistake we truly can’t afford to make; good help for this kind of work already is pretty hard to find. History often shows that we never should dismiss anyone too quickly when considering important allies. To pick a very recent and relevant example, who but possibly Clarence Clemons (no stranger himself to being underestimated) could ever have predicted the major, beautiful role that Lady Gaga and her Little Monsters would play in honoring/recognizing him during the latter part of his career and life?

    N – stands for “Never lose hope.” We’re talking about a serious attempt to play a significant role in changing a set of problems that took hundreds of years to create. We don’t need (or have) hundreds of years to make significant changes, but those changes won’t happen overnight, either. Therefore, we need to remind ourselves that this won’t be easy, and it sometimes will be very scary and discouraging. Mistakes surely will be made along the way. Progress, however, eventually will be made, too. Mistakes also can be corrected if we’re willing to learn from them. We will reach people’s hearts and minds and help to change their lives, our lives and our world for the better, often without our ever knowing directly that we have done so, very much in the way that Scooter and the Big Man helped to change so many of us. Whenever we’re in doubt of any of this, we should remember Clarence Clemons’ words that Bruce Springsteen quoted at the end of his eulogy: “This could be the start of something big.”

  19. Shawn Poole says:

    It’s very encouraging to see that this discussion still continues and many challenging ideas and comments are still being shared. The ongoing dialogue inspired me to write the following, to help both myself and others remember some important ideas. Comments and questions are welcome, of course:

    B-I-G M-A-N: Six concrete ways we white fans of Clarence Clemons can honor his legacy by fighting white supremacy…

    B – Begin acknowledging that we still have a lot to learn and un-learn about black people and black culture, and begin helping other white people in our communities to do the same. The essence of the Scooter-meets-Big-Man pageant always revolved around discarding our learned fears and myths about black people. Even (or, more accurately, especially) after the election of President Obama, most white people in the U.S. continue to ignore white supremacy’s devastating effect on the overwhelming majority of black people and other people of color. We need to stop letting ourselves and our communities believe in harmful fantasies and instead begin paying more attention to black people and others who are very aware of the complex realities of twenty-first-century racism.

    I – Inform ourselves so we can individually and collectively begin fixing this mess. If we’re serious about changing the way we and others think and act, then first we’re going to need a lot of good information. It’s out there, too, if we’re willing to look. One good place to start is with the work of Tim Wise (http://www.timwise.org/about/), among the best current writers/speakers/activists around anti-racism education. Wise’s recent essay on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, “Twisted Dream: The Disappearance of the Real MLK” (http://www.timwise.org/2011/01/twisted-dream-the-disappearance-of-the-real-mlk/), is also one of the shortest, clearest explanations ever written about how unchallenged white-supremacy eventually hurts the majority of us white people, too.

    G – Go to where the people are. It’s difficult for us to have much of an effect, if any, on how others in our communities think and act unless we create ongoing opportunities to listen and talk. We each need to be part of one or more places where we can connect with other people and share/discuss ideas on a regular basis—a community center, sports group, church, union, neighborhood organization, student group, seniors group, etc. It may not even necessarily be something that formal, maybe just a popular local hangout of some type where people tend to gather and gab. Online groups also have their place in this, of course, but ultimately the more face-to-face interaction, the better.

    M – Make yourself known as someone who cares about your community. For the most part, people tend to be more receptive to challenging ideas when they’re presented by someone known already as a concerned community member. If we’re already active somehow around other community concerns, e.g. organizing a fundraiser for a community member who’s fallen ill, joining with others to demand more government funding for after-school programs, etc., more people may be willing to at least consider what we have to say about white-supremacy, etc.

    A – Avoid assumptions. Too often people’s abilities get underestimated because they’re too young, too old, too this, too that. This is a mistake we truly can’t afford to make; good help for this kind of work already is pretty hard to find. Therefore, we never should dismiss anyone too quickly when considering important allies, leaders, etc. To pick a very recent and relevant example, who but possibly Clarence Clemons (no stranger himself to being underestimated) would ever have predicted the major, beautiful role that Lady Gaga and her “Little Monsters” played in honoring/recognizing him during the latter part of his career and life?

    N – Never lose hope. We’re trying to change a set of conditions that took hundreds of years to create. We don’t need or have hundreds of years to make significant changes, but we also shouldn’t expect those changes to happen overnight. This won’t be easy work, and sometimes it will be very scary and discouraging. Mistakes surely will be made along the way, but they also can be corrected if we’re willing to learn from them. Progress eventually will be made, too. We will reach people’s hearts and minds and help to change their lives, our lives and our world for the better, often without our ever knowing directly that we have done so, very much in the way that Scooter and the Big Man helped to change so many of us. Whenever we’re in doubt of any of this, we should remember Clarence Clemons’ words that Bruce Springsteen quoted at the end of his eulogy: “This could be the start of something big.”

  20. kid rock says:

    kid rock…

    […]MIGHTY MIGHTY, SPADE AND WHITEY: Clarence and Bruce, Friendship and Race « Dave Marsh[…]…

  21. reverbnation hits…

    […]MIGHTY MIGHTY, SPADE AND WHITEY: Clarence and Bruce, Friendship and Race « Dave Marsh[…]…

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