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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: June 25, 2004
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Latest Update: June 25, 2004

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The backup copy of Paul Vitello's article is to be used if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you use this to the original URL: http://www.newsday.com/mynews/ny-livit133847373jun13,0,7684799.column. Original URL at Newsday.

On Friday morning, June 25, 2004, Saundra Davis forwarded this piece on our recent mourning:

The Genius, Ray Charles:

From Newsday by Paul Vitello

The very soul of our grief
Paul Vitello

June 13, 2004

America's long goodbye to Ronald Reagan was in its sixth day when Ray Charles died; and the news seemed to hit the TV screen like a crack of lightning, a revelation.

Charles' African-American face, his musical roots in black struggle, his very blindness all seemed to serve as reminders of something missing in the many hours of pious commentary about the 40th president's vision of America.

That face - the gleeful, grinning, shaded Charles - seemed as if it had cut into the tributes like a jazzy, boat-rocking riff inside a staid old hymn.

And what it seemed to say was exactly what nobody else wanted to say - that black people and their concerns did not exist for Ronald Reagan.

Amen, Mr. Charles.

There is not much debate about Reagan's record here. He was opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was initially opposed to the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, though he relented under threat of a veto override. As president, he vetoed anti-discrimination laws, vetoed sanctions against apartheid South Africa, blocked affirmative action initiatives, effectively dismantled the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, campaigned relentlessly against the federal Aid to Dependent Children program. During that campaign he used a racially charged and fictitious boogey-woman known as the "Welfare Queen" of Chicago, who he said had stolen $150,000 from the government using 80 aliases and 30 addresses, though no reporter or government official ever found her.

If Jennings or Brokaw mentioned any of this last week, I missed it. If CNN devoted an hour to Reagan's race-baiting record, drop me a line. As it was, the only reality check I saw on TV last week was Charles' face - the accidental but poetically just interruption his death brought to the celebration of Reagan's virtually all-white America.

Oh, I know that Ray Charles was invited to sing "America the Beautiful" at the 1984 GOP convention, where Reagan was nominated for his second term. And Charles accepted; don't ask me why. But the underlying spirit that gave life and subtext to Charles' famous rendition of that nice song - the blistering struggle of a black man growing up poor, blind and orphaned in a bounteous Jim Crow America - held no interest for Reagan.

Reagan seemed blind if not hostile to the history of African-Americans. His vision of this country was formed - as President George W. Bush said in his eulogy Friday - in a Midwestern small-town America of "open plains, quiet streets, gas-lit rooms and carriages drawn by horse."

Ray Charles grew up in another America, a racially segregated South where "even compared to other blacks," he told one interviewer "... we were on the bottom of the ladder looking up at everyone else. Nothing below us except the ground."

These two Americas have a long history, probably traceable all the way to the beginning of the institution of slavery in the country.

Neither Reagan nor Charles invented this history.

But it is hard to avoid the notion that Reagan openly exploited it. He wooed segregationist votes by launching his official 1980 presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., a town that was the site of the murders of three civil rights workers - James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman (of Plainview) during the "Freedom Summer" of 1964. "I believe in states' rights," he declared in that speech.

To woo segregationist votes, he lobbied to win IRS tax exemptions for Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., where interracial dating was openly banned.

To woo racist votes, and possibly even because he believed it, he promulgated the old, discredited charge that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Communist.

It may have all been based on his beliefs. His supporters say he was always true to himself. So be it.

But if President Reagan had a lot to say about the future, as his supporters contend, his political life had little to say about race that wasn't rooted deeply in the past.

Ray Charles was a musician and stylist who also recognized the existence of two Americas, black and white. Like Reagan, he too was apparently true to himself. But his musical campaign took a far different path. It led him to bridge, rather than deepen, differences. He played everything - classical music, traditionally "black" rhythm and blues songs, traditionally "white" country music standards.

He "claimed all of American music as his birthright," said one obituary writer. And in the end, in the coincidence of this notable man's death in the week of Reagan's political deification, Ray Charles' timing was uncanny, impeccable and true.

Copyright 2004, Newsday, Inc.

This article originally appeared at:
http://www.newsday.com/mynews/ny-livit133847373jun13,0,7684799.column
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Discussion Questions

  1. What is the effect of the timing of the two deaths?

    Consider that the mourning is ritually viewed as the time for a family to heal from its loss, and that normative expectations are that we focus on positive issues. The death of Ray Charles occurred as the country was mourning former President Reagan. The ritual of mourning was partially responsible for the praise being heaped on a president who had not been in the forefront on race relations.

  2. What provoked the clash here in what is to be honored?

    Consider that Ray Charles is also a celebrity and well loved for his music. But Ray Charles was also black and suffered as a black man under racial relations in this country. Thus we came up against the paradox of praising one hero (Reagan) globally, upon his death, for all his deeds during his life, when one set of those deeds (race relation issues) harmed the group to which another of our heroes, (Ray Charles) also being mourned, belonged. For those willing to think deeply about the social and political justice issues in this country, that clash produces congitive dissonance.

    We have conflict between two ritual behaviors: Speak no evil of the dead. And . . . Acknowledge the harm done by colonialism. imperialism, racism in this country. Speak no evil of the dead is the older of these two rituals, so that dominant discourse would tend to see that as primary. But as answerability is becoming more recognized each day as essential to our interpersonal relationships, of which our community is formed, the second ritual behavior of demanding acknolwledgement of complicity at least by our silence, is a more emotionally charged issue. Hence the clash.

  3. How do we handle the clash, which is likely to come up in ordinary conversation?

    Consider that there are real conflicts, real disagreements amongst us. But consider also that the need for consensus is socially constructed in the dominant discourse to prevent discord and encourage order in the ruling heirarchy. To accept consensus often means to be silenced. Paul Vitello chose not to be silenced. Others of us may not feel so bold, may be unsure of some of the facts as we recall them. But we can be aware that the desire to be a part of American History by honoring the 40th President upon his death, does cause harm to those who see some of his programs as harmful to them. Illocutionary understanding would say you don't have to agree or disagree; you just need to be open to hearing the validity claims on both sides. Talk about it. Talk to your friends and family about the values that are clashing. Allow these to be illocutionary discourses. Explain illocutionary discourse, and let everyone go away knowing that it is OK to mourn the death of a loved one, of a past president, without agreeing that all his acts were commendable. And it's OK to accept that Ray Charles accepted to sing "America the Beautiful" at the 1984 GOP Convention when Reagan was running for his second term. I don't know why Ray Charles accepted the invitation, perhaps he didn't know himself, but it was probably something like illocutionary understanding that America is Beautiful, but that that doesn't mean she does no wrong.

  4. So where's our reality check in all this?

    Each other, and our willingness to talk about the cognitive conflict openly, without a demand for consensus, with a focus on illocutionary understanding.

  5. Saundra just forwarded Paul Vitello's article. No comments. Probably no time to write. What does this tell us about the social construction of Dear Habermas?

    Mostly that I get to write it. I'm getting old, kids. This forwarding business isn't always going to work. But, if we look into this deeply, what are you saying when you forward these pieces? That you trust Dear Habermas to know the theoretical positions and the reasoned arguments that you're trying to share.

    What is it telling me? That we're all on a fast track, tired, sleep deprived, and yet, concerned. And that I haven't insisted on your doing the writing. I don't know whether that's OK or not. It's not in the sense of the traditional academy, which I reject, that you should display writing ability such as Paul Vitello displays. In the real world I grew up in that's pretty unlikely. In the social context we're living in that's pretty unlikely. And I am a writer and have those skills to share. I tend to think that you're staying in touch long after graduation and continuing to share and trust on the site, means that we will include more people in our community, and do a better job of educating us all.

    Of course, that means I'll never get the Distinguished Teaching Award. I'm not teaching what they want me to teach. But I am teaching what I believe will lead to social justice. So "good dogs" are accepted. They'll do instead.



Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, June 2004.
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