Here I go again, trying to make sense of a White Black world. It's awkward but I keep trying. Shirley first came to my studio in the 80s with her guitarist Sam. This was my first lesson. We recorded two songs that day. One was called “Jesus is a Rock in a Weary Land.” I remember that one because it was the song that almost got me born again when we played it in a basement Pentecostal church in Bed Stuy. I remember so clearly the dust rising from beneath the floorboards as my feet stomped uncontrollably. People were shaking as others would form circles around them to keep them safe. I don’t remember if this was my first gig with her. It might have been just the two of us with a drum machine and my keyboard or it could have been a full band. All I remember is the room lifting off the ground and The Elect Lady repeating “Have you been born again” over and over. She got right in my face and I felt my knees buckle. If I didn’t feel a responsibility to keep playing I might have gotten down on my knees for Jesus.
That song was the A side of a 45 that I hung on my wall. I wish I knew where that record is today. My memories after that are like a dream. I took taxis to her neighborhood to rehearse. Her neighborhood scared me. I’d hear gunshots. Band members would meet me and escort me. It wasn’t til years later that I learned how safe I was as a White person.
What really scared me though was the culture onto which I projected my biases. I thought I was a novelty for her act. I was blind to the loving community I was welcomed into. I’m only now starting to find trickles of understanding as to why we were brought together. These glimpses are personal to me. My understanding stays within my White experience in a Black White country.
It's a Whiteness-controlled country. What the rest of the world sees is the fruits of people finding ways to live in an impossible world. It’s a miracle. That’s what genius is. It pulls a rabbit out of bottomless, dead end hat. That’s jazz and hip hop. That’s American music. Even the music that White Supremacists play has vines that grew out of the roots of Black Music. This music that miraculously sprang from unfathomable trauma brings is a humongous percentage of our National GNP. What percentage goes towards healing that trauma? What percentage goes towards perpetuating that trauma? Without Blackness we would be unrecognizable. It’s a White country that is Black.
At some point, The Elect Lady chartered a big bus to go on a gospel tour to North Carolina. It was filled with members of her congregation, other preachers, and of course, the band. We only went to black churches. I felt very White in a Black White world. It was stark. But it was also a dreamscape. It’s where I learned how you can stay on one chord with no groove for what seems like an eternity while the preacher takes the congregation deeper and deeper into the collective nirvana. I saw preachers throwing microphones back and forth across the stage in call and responses to each other and the congregation. I would hear them say to the congregation that we’re almost at the end only to discover an hour later that we’re just getting started. Since then I’ve always considered my audiences congregations.
I was born a Quaker. I was taught to not be racist and so I wasn’t prejudiced. We harbored an 18-year-old kid from the South Bronx who went AWOL from the Vietnam War. I think I was 15. He brought his drum set and we jammed. He introduced me to the Temptations. I showed him my Jimi Hendrix album, the only Black artist I knew. He tied a rock to a rope and threw it over a branch so we could make a tree swing. I was surprised that a city boy could do such a country thing. One day my mother asked me to call him to find out why we hadn’t seen him in a while. It seemed like hours that I twiddled the telephone wire connected to the wall and practiced putting my fingers in the different holes in the dial. And then I heard the sound that lets you know the phone is ringing just like today. My mother had taught me to let it ring six times before hanging up. More than that and you start to annoy them. Less than that and they haven’t had time to get to the one phone in their house. Even today, I can’t stop counting the rings. Six rings. I gave him an extra one ‘cause I didn’t want to go through this again. He answered the phone! “Are you coming back?” I asked. I don’t remember what he said.
Years later my high school teacher said he was late because he got mugged on the way over. I don’t know what I said that prompted him to reply, “I didn’t say they were Black.” My vision became blurry and the room shook up and down. This teacher taught me many things but this might have been his most earth-shaking lesson.
Oh yea, so I was born a Quaker. I didn’t know nothing of Christianity except one thing my dad taught in Sunday School using clay to demonstrate. It had something to do with Moses so it was probably lifted from the Jews. I don’t know how I carried this notion that Christians could be trusted more than regular people. But when Shirley sang, “I went to church one day. Met Satan on my way. Satan tried so hard to turn me around. I said I turned around before, but I won’t turn around no more. I’m going back to church to serve the Lord,” I replaced the words Satan, church, and Lord with my own words in my ears before they went too deep in my head.
But one day I bought a bible just so I could see Shirley smile when I brought it to a recording session.
I now live in a city that was once a Sundown town. Its Whiteness is intentional. I’m amazed at how little connection I have with the many Black musicians I shared musical intimacy with in NYC. I’m amazed at the arrogance I showed them. I thought I was just one funky White dude.
OK, so about those trickles of understanding. I wonder if there was some recognition when Sam saw me playing in the subway. I’m just gonna level with you. The music that I found in myself was a miracle. Without it, I don’t think I would have survived my own personal trauma. I don’t think I knew it at the time, but the tears welling up in me now tell me that I recognized someone. I saw a brother. I don’t know what Sam saw. Maybe he saw a novelty. I doubt it because of the brotherly way he related to me. I don’t know what Shirley saw. But she brought me into her community with open arms.
Her community had created safety for Black people. Even with bullets flying, it’s safer than what Whiteness has created. Why would Shirley open her arms for me? How often have Black people opened their arms only to get fucked over?
Why do they do that? Are they special? Is that just what humans do? We open our arms and we keep opening our arms over and over again. Even if we get hurt, we open our arms. ‘Cause we see possibility. But the privilege of Whiteness shuts down possibility. Whiteness freezes our humanity because Whiteness isn't real. It’s not human. We think we have more to lose than we actually do. So we tend to close our arms to the Other.
Here’s my story: The Elect Lady Evangelist Shirley Davis and her community saw possibility in me. Yes, we open our arms over and over again. But when you get hurt over and over again, you get a little careful. You only go out of your way to invite people in who show a little vulnerability and the possibility of a safe bridge. Lord knows we need more bridges. I think she saw my vulnerability hiding behind my arrogance. I’m kinda hoping that writing this blog could be the keystone in the bridge between me and my humanity I’ve been subconsciously trying to build since those days.
I wish I still had the plaque from Shirley that said, “To Johnathan Best for his dedication to Gospel Music.” If I knew Sam’s last name, I could have a fighting chance of finding both of them. I mean, finding Sam would be a Godsend in of itself. He taught me how to play Gospel music for God’s sake. I just typed “elect lady evangelist shirley davis” into google again and something came up!!!
Oh damn. It was this blog that I’m working on. Well, I guess that even if I’m building a bridge from myself to myself, may God be with me.