Henry Rollins: Jim Crow America
[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.]
Right now, I am in Big Rapids, Michigan. Before I got here, I had no idea there was such a place. I have been here for a few days now, filming for the show 10 Things You Don't Know About. We have been tasked with early call times, long drives and, thankfully, interesting work.
When I first started visiting Michigan in the early 1980s, I was always taken by how wide open some parts were. I associate the state with The Stooges, MC5 and Ted Nugent. Before shows, I would walk around and try to imagine what they were seeing and feeling when they were writing their music.
In Detroit, I would see stores with bulletproof glass, abandoned buildings and very tough people. I figured this hard urban environment, as well as the emptier spaces, afforded these musicians a lot to draw upon. Not to mention the time and boredom to gather the immense power found on their records. The MC5 were an in-your-face wake-up blast, the first few Nugent albums - post - The Amboy Dukes - are excellent rock albums, and The Stooges did their thing and threw the world away song after song.
When we arrived in Detroit two days ago, I walked around the hotel on almost empty streets and thought of The Stooges' ode to the massive expanse/sucking maw of the great big nothing, "1969." If you have not heard it, you should check it out. In a little over four minutes, they lay out the blueprint for punk rock.
As the sun set on almost zero traffic and one abandoned building after another, I saw at least two venues where I had done shows in decades before. I smelled pot. Ahead of me were four young guys crammed into a parked car, smoking out. Further up the block, three police cars. A few bars were open and one or two restaurants, but past that, as "1969" goes, "It's another year for me and you/Another year with nothing to do."
The air was cooling as I walked along a very wide street, free of traffic. On either side, the buildings were unoccupied. The size of everything, along with the almost total quiet, was like being on a film set.
I saw someone on a bicycle coming toward me. He stopped. "Henry?!" We both agreed that it was probably a strange meeting, which made it all the more memorable and strange.
For the most part, I love America in the summer. The heat makes hours stretch and mutate. Music sounds better and life compels one to live with more urgency.
On some nights, when it's too hot to sleep, I like to trip on the insane thoughts that rip my mind like I'm watching the most insane movie ever made.
As the years go on, I have come to enjoy the summer months even more than the fall.
I am currently in a small hotel next to a large supermarket. The parking lot is almost empty. Very few cars on the streets. Where have all the Michiganders gone? Again, it's so wide open and depopulated, it's like some kind of experiment.
I just came from perhaps the most draining day of our work so far. We spent several hours at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia located at Ferris State University in Big Rapids.
It is as stated. One display case after another of dolls, drawings, products and other items depicting African-Americans as buffoons, criminals, maniacs and animals. A standout image in this gallery of America on full fail mode is a photograph of several young black children with the caption "Alligator Bait."
As you can imagine, almost all the items are decades old, antiques almost. But there were several items that were new; somewhere someone is still cranking this stuff out, presumably supplying a demand.
In easily the longest and most intense interview we have ever done for 10 Things You Don't Know About, I spoke to the museum's curator, Dr. David Pilgrim. I remarked that some of the dolls depicting the "mammy" caricature looked as if they took several hours to make. That being the case, was it black or white people making them? If you were white, how do you hold your contempt for that long to create such a thing; if you're black, how does it feel to destroy your culture with every stitch?
I asked Dr. Pilgrim where he was able to find the thousands of items that crowd the shelves of the display cases. He told me that eBay is a good place, but garage sales and antique stores all over America also are fruitful for acquisition.
The museum's contents are only a small part of the damaging effects of the Jim Crow laws that were found all across America, including bright and sunny California. This history is not only an important part of understanding where America was but, in an age of states making it harder and harder for citizens to vote, it is relevant to note that we have been here before.
Dr. Pilgrim is an intellectually powerful man, and it took all I had to hang in there with him. Toward the end of our talk, we both almost simultaneously hit on the idea that one of the great nails in the coffin of inequality and prejudice was music. Much to the horror of bigots all over America, Stax, Motown and other labels created a bridge, bringing people together and helping to smash the wretchedness of Jim Crow to pieces. Music kicks ass on ignorance like nothing else.
Of course, there is more work to do. As awful as the things in the museum were, spending time with them is a good way to start a dialogue and perhaps forge a path forward. It's one thing to see these things in a photograph, but to stand in front of them - whoa.
It is great to be able to add Dr. Pilgrim to my list of Michigan heroes.
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