The topic of race, in jazz as elsewhere, has often been framed as a binary: literally a matter of black and white. We saw this in many of our intraweb debates last year, though of course the issue goes farther back than any of us can recall. The implicit dualism is understandable, and there's obviously still much work to be done along that divide. I stand with both Nicholas Payton and Ethan Iverson, among others, in the conviction that we can gain something vital by talking about it.
In that spirit, I've been thinking a lot this week about what doesn't fit into the binary, and how we might enrich our jazz-and-race conversation by acknowledging it. Before we proceed, two quick homework assignments. First, watch the clip above -- one of the smarter, subtler pieces of sketch writing we've seen from Saturday Night Live in ages. And while I'm assuming that you need no briefing on the subject of Jeremy Lin, "Linsanity," or sports-media Foot in Mouth Syndrome, I'm also going to insist that you spent a few moments with this excellent essay by Jay Caspian Kang.
OK, done? Now bear with me; this will get a little personal.
One afternoon last summer, at City Winery, I had the great fortune of receiving an award from the Jazz Journalists Association. The presenter in my category was NPR's Patrick Jarenwattananon, who would score a JJA award of his own (for Blog of the Year). Taking the podium, I jokingly thanked Patrick for doubling the ranks of jazz media folk with all-too-easily-mispronounced Asian surnames. I thought this quip both innocuous and obvious, until about four seconds after leaving the stage, when I was greeted by Yulun Wang, of Pi Recordings. "Congratulations," he said. And then: "I didn't know you were Asian!"
For some reason, that took me aback -- perhaps because I tend to take my Asian-American identity as a transparent fact. Or maybe it was because I generally regard my minority status as something other than a defining trait. And yet: in our broader American culture, I'm certainly aware of a legacy of the Other. If we're talking about jazz musicians, my experience probably falls roughly in line with someone like Rudresh Mahanthappa (pictured at right with me, above, at that same JJA Awards ceremony). But I should qualify that statement: I'm talking about my experience since I moved to the mainland.
Before then, growing up in Hawaii, I was technically part of an Asian-American majority. I say "technically" because of the unique ethnic dynamic of Hawaii, which casts the term "Asian" as largely irrelevant, a useless catchall. As any local will inform you, you're Japanese or Chinese or Korean or Okinawan or Filipino or Hawaiian or Samoan or Tongan or Micronesian -- or haole, meaning Caucasian. (In the islands, African-Americans and Jews are a statistical anomaly.) The specificity of these distinctions, I now realize, is unusual. If you were to apply the term "Asian-American," in the way that "African-American" serves as a blanket term for a continent's Diaspora, then, yes, I grew up in the luxury of a dominant culture.
And yet: I also grew up with a troubled family legacy. In 1941, when my father was only a few months old, he and my grandparents were shipped off from Honolulu to an internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas, and then to another camp in Tule Lake, California. My grandfather, an Issei (first generation immigrant) from Okinawa, had been flagged as a potential threat by the U.S. government, for the simple fact that he was literate and conversant in both English and Japanese.
So my father spent the first four years of his life behind barbed wire; one of my aunts was born in camp. And when the war ended and the camps were dissolved, my family returned to a world in which everything had been stripped from them: their business, their savings, their dignity. They rebuilt from scratch, harboring an incredible lack of malice toward the government that had so cavalierly discarded their rights as citizens. I became aware of this history at an early age, and for a while it became a small obsession of mine. My country, my captor.
I did outgrow my fascination with the camps, just in time to move to Philadelphia, where I immediately fell into a predominately black jazz community. I harbored no illusions about my cultural consonance with that community, but I did enjoy widespread acceptance. The big question for any and all comers was: Can you play? I could, and I did. Which was something I never took for granted, though I did allow it to foster an incipient jazz utopianism. (We've all been there, amirite?)
Since then, I've occasionally been reminded of harsher realities. It happened six years ago, when a scrupulous and well-intentioned article was misconstrued for political purposes. And it happened last fall, on a far smaller scale, when Nicholas Payton decided to take issue with a feature by my colleague Ben Ratliff. Among the pointed questions he posed were these:
Why are the top two writers for Jazz music at the New York Times White guys? Jazz is still an African-American art form, right?
My answer to the second question is an unequivocal yes. My answer to the first is: not so fast. And here I refer you back to the Grantland essay by Jay Caspian Kang. (Seriously, read it.) Especially this:
...it has become standard practice among high-achieving Asian Americans to dodge any questions about race. This impulse comes, I believe, out of guilt and a pervasive, irrational fear that if we talk too much about prejudice and act too indignant over insensitive comments, the powers that be will reverse the course of history and send us back to building railroads.
Here's the thing: I've spent most of my life seriously contemplating race, but willfully disregarding it as it applies to me. Like Kang, I spent my adolescence identifying with black culture, though my prism was jazz rather than hip-hop. I devoured Hear Me Talkin' to Ya when I was 14; I read Miles: The Autobiography the following year. And like Kang, I cultivated an almost romantic sense of cultural isolation. There's another racial category in the islands, a big one, called hapa. It's a Hawaiian word loosely meaning "half," though I'm told that in its strictest definition, it means "portion," or "fragment," or "less." This is the classification to which I belonged: hapa haole, or "half white." In a weird way, this conferred minority status.
For some idea of what I'm talking about, I refer you to Exhibit B:
This is a yearbook pic of the Iolani School Stage Band, c. 1993. (I'm on the topmost stair, cradling a ride cymbal.) Typical American high school jazz band in every respect -- except for the ethnic breakdown. Our bass player was African-American, one of the few in his class. (He and I also played in a grunge garage band; deep in a vault somewhere, evidence exists.) Stare long enough and you'll notice that the only haole is at far right. And he's actually hapa, part Hawaiian.
The "melting pot" analogy often applied to the islands has always been crude, but not untrue. There's an indigenous, historically marginalized minority whose culture nevertheless feeds a tourist economy. (It's not just for musical reasons that I've always felt rumblings of affinity with New Orleans.) My own experience was always complicated by a sense of being both inside and outside the mainstream -- decent preparation, as it happened, for life on the east coast, where my appearance has endeared me to Latinos, Indian Americans and folks of various Mediterranean extraction. Ultimately I can identify with the dawning realization Kang describes, that "blackness would always be further away than whiteness and there was a wide gulf of bad history that ensured the distance." And while I balk at the paradigm endorsed by Payton and others -- an implicit charge that I could only ever be black or white, and even if I were something else, I'd be white -- I can't really fault him for that.
I can, however, point out that a crusader for racial awareness might begin to consider alternatives to the either/or. Perhaps I'm foolish to have thought that the rise of a Rudresh Mahanthappa or a Vijay Iyer might have already kick-started that process. At any rate, if a Jeremy Lin is what it takes, then I'm grateful for more than his court awareness, his speed and his inside game. And the fact that folks are excited about the Knicks again. Let's all agree on that, at the very least.