No One Was Chasing Daniel Boone
Published, in different form, in Commonweal
On January 4, 1991, when I left my adopted home of New York City to go to Spain, I was twenty-seven years old, coming up on twenty-eight - young, but not as young as before. Wrongly or not, at twenty-seven people sometimes sense that certain things must be embarked upon soon if at all, and for me one of those things was living abroad. Technically, I had done so already; for four months in 1983 I lived in London as a participant in one of Oberlin College’s programs for overseas study. During that time, however, such things as rent and food were not concerns – the college paid London citizens to house us students and also gave us a weekly allowance. What I wanted at twenty-seven was to live in a foreign country as an adult, to be thrust into another culture without my school to act as a buffer, to make it or not make it through my own efforts, and to have these experiences before the responsibilities of later life – not much later, as it turned out – came crashing down on my head.
That was part of it, anyway. The other part was that I fancied myself a “serious” writer, and it seemed to me that a rite of passage for any serious black writer was to live abroad for a while. Richard Wright had done it; Chester Himes had done it; James Baldwin had done it. It was Baldwin who concerned me particularly. During my mid-twenties I read almost everything he ever published, including the essay “The Discovery of What It Means to be An American,” in which he had written that he went to Europe wanting “to find out in what way the specialness” of his experience as a black American “could be made to connect [him] with other people instead of dividing [him] from them.” It was in Europe, he wrote, that he “proved, to [his] astonishment, to be as American as any Texas G.I.” I felt it important to experience the same thing. It didn’t seem important that the America Baldwin had escaped in order to understand had existed in the late 1940s while I was reading him four decades later, or that I was not consciously aware of a need to locate and define my Americanness. If James Baldwin thought it was a good idea to go to Europe, that was enough for me. Even if I did not know what, in concrete terms, I was going there to find, perhaps by tracing other men’s steps I would find it nonetheless and, at the same time, discover its value. There is a black character in Blind Man with a Pistol, Himes’s riff on the chaos of the 1960s, who seeks to help his people by organizing marches; this character, whom Himes describes as being “not very bright,” shows no evidence of understanding why a march – as opposed to some other action — is a valuable thing; he simply knows that others have done it before him. That character may as well have been me. So it was that I quit my job, gave up my Harlem apartment, and flew with my girlfriend to the city of wonderfully weird buildings, siestas, motorscooters, beer with breakfast, 10-PM dinners, dirt-cheap wine, and unrepentant smokers: Barcelona.
* * * *
My girlfriend and I hit town with no jobs, no apartment, and next to no knowledge of Spanish - we had taken a class together, but mostly we expected to just pick up the language in Spain. (Charitable friends and relatives pronounced us “brave.”) About all we did arrive with, besides luggage, was a reservation at a pension, where we were allowed to stay indefinitely but where we had no access to a stove or refrigerator. That meant that our meals consisted of either restaurant food, which we had to keep to a minimum in order to save money, or food products, many of them dubious, that wouldn’t go bad in our room. Searching for a job in a foreign city is a job in itself; looking for an apartment in one is no piece of cake, either; and doing both at once can drive even the most optimistic soul to the edge of despair. (Somehow, in the middle of all this, I felt there was time for me to start writing a novel. Because our room in the pension had no partitions of any kind, I carried my pen and composition notebook to bars, where the floors were carpeted with cigarette butts, and when I returned after an hour’s scribbling, my girlfriend would fan the air to drive away the smell of smoke.)
After about a month, things stabilized – “stable” being a relative term. My girlfriend picked up some cash babysitting and also got freelance editing work from the States, and I found a job at a language school that sent me out to different companies to teach English to businesspeople. We moved from the pension to a series of apartments, each of which, while imperfect in its own way, had such essentials as a stove and refrigerator. I was thus free to work on my novel and to set about making the discovery Baldwin had written about.
And I did discover some things. One was that race was not much of a problem in Spain, at least not a problem in the way I was used to thinking of it. The Spaniards we dealt with through our work treated us well; some of the ones we passed on the street tended to stare at us, not with hostility, but with curiosity: the kinds of looks that a Spaniard might get walking through the all-black Washington, DC, neighborhood where I grew up. I neither saw nor heard about any race-related atrocities of the kind we’ve become used to in the United States. On the other hand, I also didn’t see enough black people on an average day to form a decent poker game, much less constitute a group large enough for the Spanish to have an attitude about. That fact doubtless contributed to a few episodes that occurred during our stay in Spain. Each was minor in itself, but taken together they highlighted some differences between that country and the United States.
One of them involved the school where I worked. Because I’d had no experience teaching English, the director of my school had me observe other teachers in action before doing it myself. One afternoon I sat in a classroom with another teacher and waited for her students, three high-school kids, to arrive. The first of them saw me at the same time I saw him, and his expression, before he had time to change it, gave me a rough idea of how many blacks he had had contact with before that day. Another episode involved being a consumer. I was in a store with my girlfriend the first time I saw what apparently were popular items in Barcelona: chocolate candies whose wrappers show what is supposed to be an African child – a bubble-eyed, scantily clad figure with ridiculous lips, holding a spear. (I quietly crushed between thumb and forefinger as many of those candies as I could before being stopped by my girlfriend, who was not unsympathetic but didn’t want to see me hauled off to a Spanish jail over a bag of chocolate candy.) The last occurrence involved my one private student, a 29-year-old man named Alphonso. He and I had class three times a week at his apartment, and over the course of a few months we developed a certain affection for one another. As part of our last lesson, I played a recording of one of my favorite songs – Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home” – and discussed the lyrics with Alphonso. When we’d finished the discussion, Alphonso said “Just a moment,” then went off to another room, returning a few seconds later with an album of his own: a collection of 1960s American soul hits that he loved, tunes by the likes of Otis Redding, Booker T and the MGs, and Sam and Dave. On the cover of the album was a large black egg, onto which were painted red lips as huge and silly as the ones on the bag of chocolate candy I’d seen in the store.
In themselves, those three occurrences may seem too trivial to mention, particularly when compared with some of the things (the Rodney King episode, say) that have taken place on this side of the Atlantic. To compare one set of events to the other, however, is not to set small potatoes next to bigger ones but to set potatoes next to bananas. What I found so interesting about the three episodes I have mentioned is not that they were so terrible — they weren’t – but that none of them would likely have occurred in the United States. Whatever a white American high-school student may think of me, he has seen me before; as a black man, I am part of his world. Store owners and managers in America (with the exception of certain parts of the South) wouldn’t sell candy or record covers like the ones I saw in Barcelona, because they know too well what might happen to their stores if they did. Those little acts by Spaniards were akin to the things a child does before it knows better. And as delightful as a child may be, one eventually craves the company of an adult.
So I knew, from my reactions to things in Europe, that my sensibilities were not European. But unlike Baldwin, I had not made the second step of discovering my Americanness. And I was not to remain in Spain long enough do so. My girlfriend and I proved able to survive there, but that seemed all we were able to do; our preoccupation with staying afloat financially and our downright surreal living arrangements - a subject for a different essay - left us with little energy to embrace Spanish culture, to find out about Spanish people. After a while we began to question the purpose of merely getting by in a foreign country. Our original intention had been to stay in Spain a year; after half that time, we were back in the United States.
* * * * * *
Through my girlfriend’s ingenuity, we had an apartment lined up in Brooklyn before our return. My girlfriend soon found a full-time job. I contributed a little something to our life together through freelance writing, a series of temporary and part?time jobs too dumb even to mention here, and, finally, a full-time gig of my own. We were married in 1992; not quite a year later – on my thirtieth birthday – we found out for certain that, as we had suspected, my wife was pregnant.
Yet I had still not found the thing I had sought in Spain – the way in which I, a black man named Cliff Thompson, personally fit into the American scheme. My search was hampered by the fact that I looked on it as an academic matter. I felt no intense need for such knowledge. That was because the purpose of this knowledge was, presumably, to provide me with a system for confronting the challenges I faced as a black man in America - and, as I would’ve known had I given it any thought, I already had such a system, though not one I had ever put into words. Boiled down, my beliefs were (1) that aside from advantages or burdens placed on them by societal forces, all people were essentially the same; (2) that I should treat any person accordingly until or unless that person gave me a reason to do otherwise; and (3) that I should receive the same treatment in return. I still adhere to that system, because I think it’s a good one, as far as it goes. But in a nation as color- and origin-conscious as ours is, such a system does not go far enough. And for a black American, to be without adequate mental preparation for what he or she will surely someday face is to be on a football field without a helmet or shoulder pads. Calamity may be avoided for a down or two, but eventually –
The night I was personally laid out on the American racial/ethnic playing field was in April of 1993, when my wife and I went by invitation to our first Seder. Of the seven or eight people present, my wife and I were the only non-Jews; I was the only black person, a fact that in itself made me neither happy nor unhappy. During the meal, everyone participated in the readings, which I found interesting and enjoyable. It was when the ceremonial portion of the evening was over and the after-dinner chit-chat began that the whole thing soured. The discussion turned to memories of such things as Jewish camp songs, memories that I, having grown up in northeast Washington, D.C., did not share. As the reminiscing went on, and I continued to sit quietly through it, a sadness began to overtake me, not so much because I was excluded from this conversation as because I couldn’t imagine a similar one in which I would be an active participant. My African-American friends and I could - and sometimes did - take nostalgic jaunts in which we laughed over black fads, films, and hair-care products from the 1970s. But what was the black American equivalent of a Jewish camp song? Where, in other words, were the fondly remembered pieces of a black tradition that didn’t make us laugh? What constituted our celebration of ourselves? Our Seder? There was, of course, Kwanza, an annual, not exactly widespread African-American celebration developed relatively recently – too recently for me to have embraced it as a tradition. There were, also, the trappings of the black church, the all-day-Sunday services and screaming, sweating Protestant ministers, but those were, at least ostensibly, more about Christianity than blackness – and more importantly, as a lapsed member of the staid Catholic church I couldn’t claim those things as part of my story, either. At some point during the discussion of Jewish camp songs, one of the reminiscers, a woman, said to another, “It’s cool that you and I just met but we have this in common.” Was there really no positive tradition that all or most blacks had in common? The more I thought about all this, the worse my mood became, and the quieter I got, until the same woman – I will call her Sue – turned to my wife and me and said, “You guys aren’t holding up your end of the conversation!” Another guest, a woman who, unlike Sue, was actually a friend of mine, kindly tried to draw me into the discussion by mentioning subjects she knew I was interested in and encouraging me to talk about them. But the things she mentioned, having nothing to do with my black heritage, seemed hopelessly trivial, and to have them introduced as stand-ins for my cultural identity felt like an insult. Instead of opening up, I retreated further into my silent gloom. When, after what seemed a week, our evening together came to a close, Sue shot a mean grin in my direction and, joking only partially if at all, said something to the effect of, “Have something to say next time!” I am a gentle man; I left the Seder capable of second-degree murder.
For the Seder had not only made me realize that there were no traditions I held sacred: it had made me see that I knew of no sufficient basis for such traditions. I saw now the extent to which I had failed to discover where or what I had come from and, by extension, who I was. I was a writer whose view of the world was based on – what? I was about to bring a child into the world, a child whose father had a sense of himself founded on – what? The two questions appeared to have the same answer: thin air. James Baldwin had realized in Europe that he was an American; he had, by setting himself in contrast to what he was not, discovered what he was. That plan had not worked for me.
The Seder had made me understand, on an emotional level this time, that I needed to feel my roots, my connections to others - and that I had not found those connections in Spain. But if they were here in America, they were here only by default - by the fact of my not knowing where else they were. I knew that Afrocentric blacks felt themselves to be Africans living on American soil; I applauded their confidence and wished them well, but I did not feel myself to be one of them. I thought it regrettable, to say the least, that my link to the Motherland had been severed, but in my view the damage had been done, and was irreparable. I had never been to Africa, spoke no African languages, knew not which of the many African tribes my ancestors had come from, and felt incapable of embracing an emotional and intellectual connection that did not exist.
So – I was an American. My failure to be excited by that did not reflect an ignorance of black American history; since elementary school I had known the stories of individual achievement, the stories of Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, George Washington Carver, Charles Drew, Martin Luther King, and others. I knew about the bravery of black soldiers in every American war since the Revolution, about the daring of the black cowboys, about the artists of the Harlem Renaissance. I was proud of those things. But they felt like fragments – not the solid earth on which a tradition rested, but individual clods scattered over a sea of slavery, poverty, victimization, and plain old bad luck. What I needed, and didn’t seem to have, was something that would unite those pieces and even reconcile them with all the misery – something that would connect the dots of my heritage and show me the picture, as a Seder did for Jews. And the thing was, I couldn’t draw the picture myself; in order for this thing to connect me to other black Americans and thus to America itself, it had to be there already, it had to be good and old; I could not create it because I needed to have come from it. And I needed badly to find it – only then could I feel my Americanness, my anything-ness.
Largely because of Baldwin, I had gone to Spain looking for it. Largely because of another, less widely known writer, I found it. Baldwin had told me he was an American; Albert Murray had made me understand the way in which I was one. It was through reading, seeking out, and talking with Murray that I came to recognize the quality that characterized black Americans’ achievements and that also took into account all our misery and adversity: resourcefulness. Webster’s defines “resourceful” as “capable of devising ways and means” – as being able to create a way where none exists. Going from nothing to something, making one’s way against the odds, is a quintessentially American idea, which makes blacks a quintessentially American people. As Murray wrote in The Omni-Americans, “The legendary exploits of white U.S. backwoodsmen, keelboatmen, and prairie schoonermen . . . become relatively safe when one sets them beside the breathtaking escapes of the fugitive slave beating his way south to Florida, west to the Indians, and north to far away Canada through swamp and town alike seeking freedom – nobody was chasing Daniel Boone!”
Of course, resourcefulness is an idea, not an activity; a concept, not a celebration. But resourcefulness had been translated into an activity, a celebration, which, miracle of miracles, was already part of my life: jazz. I couldn’t claim to be an expert on jazz or say that my parents had played a lot of it when I was a child, but I had begun listening to it years earlier, in my mid-twenties, and it had affected me sufficiently to be the subject of the novel I had begun in Spain. I had fallen for the sound of jazz, yet I had not fully understood the way in which it carried my heritage within it. The Founding Fathers of the United States made their own rules, followed them, and profited by them; American descendants of Africans followed those same rules to the limited extent of their usefulness – and then simply made new rules: witness Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Frederick Douglass and the abolitionist movement, Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggle. That relationship between the two worlds found its way into music. The black American creators of jazz took existing musical forms and brought something of their own to them, making something new. And whereas classical and popular musicians played the notes that were already on the page, well or badly and with or without feeling, modern and contemporary jazzmen, within the structure of a given piece of music, used their mastery of their instruments and their powers of improvisation (resourcefulness!) to create art in the moment. Jazz, simply put, was black resourcefulness set to music: its product as well as its metaphor. Once I finally understood that, I listened to jazz with new ears. And this time, ironically – after having searched for evidence of a unified tradition - I found that I was hearing each tune not as a collective sound but as the contributions of individual people. I marveled at the dexterity of the saxophonists Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and the trumpeter Clifford Brown; I thrilled to the sound of the saxman Paul Gonsalves tearing his way through “Diminuendo and Crescendo” and to the drummer Max Roach creating thunder on “Sweet Clifford.” (I should add, in the interests of inclusiveness, that I’ve also become quite fond of Bill Evans, Benny Goodman, Gerry Mulligan, and Django Reinhardt.) Listening to jazz became for me a kind of, dare I say it, religion - without, I hope, the dogmatic, divisive connotations that word sometimes takes on, but with the joyful appreciation that the word should suggest.
At yet where, in the end, is the value in this kind of self-discovery? In order for it not to remain navel-gazing for its own sake, it should make one secure enough in one’s identity to then explore other people’s worlds. I have begun to read about the histories of other peoples while also boning up on my own story. Who knows, even if I never make it back to Spain, I may one of these days attend another Seder, if anyone will invite me.
All of this leaves at least two problems unsolved. One is that the tradition I have embraced, by its very nature, spits in the face of tradition; resourcefulness and improvisation are about the making of the new, not devotion to the old. That suggests that I have things to learn - which is not the world’s worst predicament. The other problem is that none of this necessarily makes for good after-dinner chit-chat. But it does make for its own kind of meal - that is, sustenance - something that will, as the old folks say, stick to my ribs, something to help me through tough cold days in America.