03 December 2008

Odetta

I was a '50's nouveau-riche private-schooled Connecticut white boy. I was born in late 1950 so I lived my childhood years, unbeknownst to me, during a decade of social fermentation leading into the civil rights movement of the early '60's.

To me, as a child, negroes were women. Negroes lived and worked in our home doing laundry, ironing, mopping, cleaning, serving guests at my parent's cocktail or dinner parties. Negroes dressed in starched pink, grey, or blue uniforms with starched white collars, wrist cuffs, linen aprons, and white buttons down the center length of their uniform dress. Negroes had Sundays off, who left my house to attend church and returned at day's end to go into their separate bedroom, with lavatory and shower, to reemerge for work the next day. A series of these women, who were overseen by my Mother, moved into and out of our home. Somewhere in the '60's, after my family had moved to Ohio, these women faded away.

I was to be seen and not to be heard in my family, and so it was for me with these women, who served as extensions of my Mother. I was allowed to sit with them in our kitchen or laundry room watching them work. Our "help," as my Mother called these workers, never cooked for me or my family. Cooking was my Mother's sole province.

I did not become aware of verbalizing my de facto cultural and socio-economic segregationist upbringing until I summoned a child vendor at a professional baseball game by calling out, "Oh Boy!" I was immediately hushed and scolded, physically pounced upon, by my older sister and brother. Well what I said seemed normal to me, besides he literally was a boy selling Coca~Cola. The social nuance in the taboo was lost upon me. The scorn of my siblings was not. I had shattered the unspoken family taboo and embarrassed them.

In the late '60's, probably in the winter of '68, maybe '69, I saw Odetta in performance in a basement coffee house in Cleveland, OH. It was an intimate venue. She burst upon me. Odetta was power personified in dress and appearance, close-cropped natural hair feeling revolutionary at the time, an alto voice welling up and out from some ancient beautiful place deep inside her. Odetta was an "I" not a "them." She was black. She was folk. She was woman; an individual, a presence so powerful so unlike any person I'd ever witnessed or heard, being music from a culture I'd never heard or seen. She was not the safe Nat King Cole my Mother might have condescended to, nor the effeminate Little Richard or the pomaded rocker Chuck Berry my sister danced to. Odetta was power and, forever more for me, black power. 

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