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Monday, June 13, 2011

June 13, 2011: Ebony and Ivory

Clarence Clemons, E Street Band founding member and the greatest rock ‘n roll saxophonist ever, suffered a pretty serious stroke over the weekend; Clarence would insist that I make clear that this is no obituary, not least because he’s had plenty of medical issues over the last decade and has bounced back time and again to rejoin the band on stage, but certainly serious news like this at least provides a great occasion to reflect on an amazing person and life. And despite the many fascinating stories and details of Clarence’s life (as he details in his hilarious and engaging recent autobiography, Big Man), to me what Clarence most fully exemplifies is one of the greatest interracial American friendships of all time. For more than 40 years, Clarence and Bruce have been friends and brothers, united by their shared passion for music and performing; race has not been absent from their friendship (I think there’s a reason why it’s Clarence whose voice opens and gorgeous solo closes “American Skin (41 Shots)”), but their bond has certainly transcended any category of identity. And to honor that bond, here are five other impressive and exemplary interracial American friendships (dealt with far too briefly, but as always with more at the links below):
1)      Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln: Two of the 19th century’s biggest men (literally and figuratively) happen to have been two of its more unlikely friends. The relationship was of course heavily dominated and circumscribed by slavery and Civil War, and by the prickly and iconoclastic personalities of both men; but as with most any great friendship, there was a core of shared respect and admiration underneath those social realities that can’t be denied and is well worth celebrating.
2)      Albion Tourgée and Ida B. Wells: I’ve written at length here about both of these inspiring individuals and about the issue, lynching, that brought them together. The friendship between the two was mostly conducted at a distance, through letters and journalistic support; but for two of the late 19th century’s most committed and passionate and talented writers, that likely made the connection that much stronger.
3)      W.E.B. Du Bois and William James: The relationship between a student and a professor isn’t exactly parallel to a friendship, of course, and Du Bois freely acknowledged (as in the autobiographical chapter linked below) how much of an influence his Harvard professor James was on his perspective and ideas. But Du Bois was far too brilliant and impressive not to impact all those with whom he interacted as well, and as scholar Ross Posnock (in his seminal Color and Culture [1998]) has documented, the influences and relationship were very much mutual.
4)      Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten: The role of white patrons such as Van Vechten in the Harlem Renaissance in general and with individual writers like Hughes in particular is a very complex and rich topic, and one that has its more challenging and even negative sides to be sure. But the truth, messy and complicated as it is, is that the Harlem Renaissance included writers and artists and intellectuals whose racial identities and heritage were as diverse as their ages, genders, nationalities, sexuality, perspectives, and styles; and whatever else we say about friendships such as that between Hughes and Van Vechten, they certainly embodied a place and a moment where old categories and limits became much less limiting and new voices and possibilities found beautiful and lasting expression.
5)      Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon: A pair of sportswriters and commentators might seem out of place on a list like this, but I’d disagree; sports has been a huge part of American culture for at least a century, and ESPN has significantly elevated that cultural presence over the last few decades. You could make a strong case that Tony and Mike have been among the most recognizable faces of that network and so of sports in America for many years now, and that means that an interracial friendship, one featuring two very different men who are able to disagree loudly and humorously, one in which the topic of race is certainly not off limits but far from defining, has been a defining presence in our national narratives. No pardon needed, guys!
Of course I hope that Clarence makes a full recovery, and the greatest musical friendship (of any kind) I’ve ever encountered can see many more years and many more hugs on stage. But it’s already cemented it’s spot on a list like this, and in our national consciousness, too. More tomorrow,
PS. Five links to start with:
1)      Info on the best book on Douglass and Lincoln, John Stauffer’s Giants (2008):
2)      Abstract of the best article on Tourgée and Wells, by my mentor Carolyn Karcher:
3)      The section of Du Bois’s autobiographical Dusk to Dawn (1940) that focuses on James:
4)      Review of a collection of Hughes and Van Vechten’s letters:
5)      OPEN: Any nominees?

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