Church and Society / Politics / Random Thoughts from an Uppity Negro / The Color Line

A ‘Premature Autopsy’

Today, I had a little change in my pocket so I finally drove up and down the main drag here in Gaithersburg looking for a barber.  I saw something that had “platinum” and “barber” in the same name and I figured that it was a black one.  So, I got my haircut, experienced my first white barber, not one who cut my hair, but there was a white barber with a pony tail down his back cutting another white dudes hair.  I went to the mall,  dropped $34 on some clearance items, and swung by Taco Hell, I mean Taco Bell, and there was a storm stirring up in the atmosphere.

I looked up and almost swore I saw a funnel cloud in the swirling abyss of grayness as the squall line was cutting a dismal gray swath across the landscape.  So, naturally, I turned away from WPGC 95.5 and started scrolling downwards in the radio dial in hopes of maybe finding out just how bad this storm may be, or at least trying to find NPR which I’ve been unsucessful at so far and my dial landed on Washington’s 89.3.  I heard the smooth dulcet tones of probably a middle aged black woman and I said, “Well at least she sounds educated” (which was in stark reality to these Itchy and Scratchy negroes I saw at Macy’s who wanted to open the Macy’s card account just to get the 20% off their purchase). 

After the public service announcement, I heard jazz being played so I definitely started listening and usually when I hear jazz, my minds gets reminiscent of the jazz play my old concert choir at Dillard University participated in called “Strange Fruit” written by Irvin Mayfield and dedicated to all of the people who were killed by a lynching in the South.  I wasn’t that far off.

My ears were further perked by the voice I heard speaking, and I was quite sure that it was Jeremiah Wright and I was trying to figure it out because it didn’t sound like the older man who had recently died a death only worthy of what I do consider a lynching by public opinion.  So, I sat in the car and I heard him read over the sounds of a jazz band play “Precious Memories” and some other somber yet spirited jazz riffs and I heard him work this idea of nobility and “premature autopsies” of what I figured to be jazz music, or even Black music itself.  He spoke about Duke Ellington at length and the metaphors and the rich imagery that the words spoken were spine-tingling as I sat and ate my Taco Hell, I mean Taco Bell in the car as it was storming rain.

I prayed that after it was done that the host would say who it was and what it was.  And he did.  I guess, this is one of my posts dedicated to my father because the host, who I later found out was none other than the Zydeco Country Boy Texas Fred Carter who said that that clip he only played on special occassions and that Father’s Day was certainly one.

It’s long, so take this time to go get a drink, or a cushion for the chair you’re sitting in, or your pack of smokes because it’s a 16 minute sermonette when read aloud, but I felt the dire need to share it with you all

What is below is the full text of the sermon “Premature Autopsies” which was written by Stanley Crouch and delivered by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. on the album The Majesty of the Blues recorded by Wynton Marsalis in 1989. The sermon, told over the backdrop of a “New Orleans Funeral” is in three parts–”The Death of Jazz,” “Premature Autopsies,” and “Oh, But on the Third Day (Happy Feet Blues).”

I guess this is still one of those things you’ve got to hear to believe it because the mountains and valley’s of Wright’s voice lend so keenly to the ear that you couldn’t imagine anyone else but Wright delivering the speech. 

Though we are told to mourn it, we must know that it was a noble sound. It had majesty. Yes, it was majestic. Deep down in the soul of it all, where the notes themselves provide the levels of revelation we can only expect of great art, it formed a bridge. That’s right, a bridge. A bridge that stretched from the realm of dreams to the highways and byways and thoroughfares and back roads of action. To be even more precise, let me say that this sound was itself an action. Like a knight wrapped in the glistening armor of invention, of creativity of integrity of grace, of sophistication, of SOUL, this sound took the field. It arrived when the heart was like a percussively throbbing community suffering the despair imposed by dragons. Now if a dragon thinks it is grand enough, that dragon will try to make you believe that what you need to carry you through the inevitable turmoil that visits human life is beyond your grasp. If that dragon thinks it is grand enough, it will try to convince you that there is no escape, no release, no salvation from its wicked dominion. It will tell you that you are destined to live your life in the dark. But when a majestic sound takes the field, when it parts the waters of silence and noise with the power of song, when this majestic concantenation of rhythm, harmony, and melody assembles itself in the invisible world of music, ears begin to change and lives begin to change and those who were musically lame begin to walk with a charismatic sophistication to their steps. You see, when something is pure, when it has the noblest reasons as its fundamental purpose, then it will become a candle of sound in the dark cave of silence. Yes, it was a noble sound,

 

I say it was a noble sound because we are told today that this great sound is dead. We are told that because it did not cosign the ignoble proclivities of the marketplace, because it did not lie back and relax in the dungeon with riff raff, because it had an attitude of gutbucket grandeur, and because it sought to elevate through elegance, for all of these things, it has died, for some a most welcome death. But we must understand that the money lenders of the marketplace have never EVER known the difference between an office or an auction block and a temple, they have never known that there was any identity to anything other than that of a hustle, a shuck, a scam, a game. If you listen to them, they’ll tell you that everything is always up for sale. They recognize no difference or distance between the sacred and the profane. For them, everything is fair game to be used in THEIR game. Oh, they chuckle when they hear that the coffin for this noble sound has been built; they offer to donate more nails. They send bouquets instead of wreaths. They feel this sound began to outlive its usefulness the moment it could no longer be abused in the world of prostitution, that world where the beautiful, wondrous act of intimate romance and procreation is reduced to one fact: a sham ritual in which the customer’s appetite for lies is equaled by the prostitute’s willingness to tell those lies in whatever detail he is ready to pay for. The tones of lies are vulgar facts but they are not noble sounds.

But there is another truth and that truth passes through time in the very same way an irresistible force passes through an immovable object. That’s what I said: this truth is so irresistible that it passes through immoveable objects. It is the truth of a desire for a refined and impassioned portrait of the presence and the power and the possibilities of the human spirit. Can you imagine that? I said: a desire for the refined and impassioned depiction in music of the presence and the power and the possibilities of the human spirit. That is the desire that lights the candle in the darkness. That is the desire that confounds dragons who think themselves so grand. We have heard the striking of the match and have felt ourselves made whole in the glow of the candle for a long time.

It is possible that we who listened heard something timeless from those who are the descendents of the many who were literally up for sale, those whose presence on the auction blocks and in the slave quarters formed the cross upon which the Constitution of this nation was crucified. Yet, even after that crucifixion, there were those who rose in the third century of American slavery with a vision of freedom; there were those who lit the mighty wick that extended from the candle and carried it; there were those who spoke through music of the meaning of light; those who were not content to accept the darkness in the heart that comes of surrender to dragons who think themselves grand; those who said- LISTEN CLOSELY NOW-who said, “If you give me a fair chance I will help you better understand the meaning of democracy” Yes, that is precisely what they said: “If you give me a fair chance I will help you better understand the meaning of democracy” These are they who were truly the makers of a noble sound.

 

But as we mourn the passing of this noble sound, we are told to accept the idea that no longer are those blessed who are endowed with majestic inclinations; we are told that no longer are those blessed who have the intention of refining those majestic inclinations into rhythm and tune. If we accept that, however we might find ourselves ignoring the democratic imperatives of our birthright. We might fail to understand what was meant way back in the day when the sun of liberty had been cloaked by the ignoble practice of slavery. We might fail to understand that those living in the dragon’s shadow of bondage fashioned a luminous and mighty chariot that could swing low and carry us back to the home of human hope, which is heroism. I say heroism because it is ever the quality of bravery, of devotion, of the will to nobility that underscores the marvelous phrases of this music. It swung low and it swung upward and it wore wings. It knew that its shining armor would fit it well because it tried that armor on at the gate of slavery’s hell. It was the ethereal aerodynamics of musical art in America. It was democratic because it proved over and over that the sound of human glory knows no social limitations, that the sound of human glory has no concern with pigmentation, that the sound of human glory transcends all definitions except those of the human soul itself. Without a doubt, it was a noble sound.

 

Some people might ask, “What is this man doing talking about nobility? Doesn’t he know that this is a dragon-spawned and blood-encrusted century? Doesn’t he know that the dragon breath of our time is breathing down the neck of the year 2000? Doesn’t he know that this is the era of flash and cash?” I will say to them that the interwoven labyrinths of greed and manipulation are as old as the FIRST lie, When you lie you are trying to manipulate; and when you try to manipulate for false profit, you reveal your greed; and when you swallow that dragon dust cooperatively you reveal yourself as a chump, a sucker, one of those folks Barnum said was born every minute. But I will answer them also by saying that nobility is always born somewhere out there in the world, and when you live in a democratic nation you have to face the mysterious fact that nobility has no permanent address, you hove to face the fact that nobody has nobility’s private phone number. Nobility is not listed in the phone book. Nobility is not listed in the society column, nobility shows up where it feels like showing up, and where it feels like showing up might be just about anywhere. If it could rise like a mighty light from among the human livestock of the plantation, you know it can come from anywhere it wants to. You see, nobility is listed though. Yes, it is listed. Nobility lists itself in the human spirit, and its purpose is to enlist the ears of the listeners in the bittersweet song of spiritual concerns.

 

As we gather here to mourn the passing of this noble sound, we should take the pains to remember something. There are some of us who don’t accept the dreams of dragons as their own, no matter how grand those dragons might say they are. Yes, there are some who will refuse to drop the candle even when pushed into a dark cave and locked there behind a stone. Don’t forget the people like Duke Ellington, who will not leave the field once it becomes obvious that the sound of a cymbal swinging in celebration is more beautiful than the ringing of a cash register. Remember that there are those who, like Duke Ellington, are willing to face the majesty of their heritage and endure the slow, painful development demanded of serious study There is, you must recall, a kind of serious study that will give you the confidence to strike your match to the mighty wick that will illuminate yet another portion of the darkness. Out there somewhere are the kind of people who do not accept the premature autopsy of a noble art form. These are the ones who follow in the footsteps of the gifted and the disciplined who have been deeply hurt but not discouraged, who have been frightened but have not forgotten how to be brave, who revel in the company of their friends and sweethearts but are willing to face the loneliness that is demanded of mastery.

 

In order to carry the candle, you have to accept the fact that when the wax on that candle begins to melt it will slide down and burn your hand. You must be willing to accept the fact that pain is a part of the process of revelation. You have to be willing to take the field and stay on the field the way Duke stayed on the road, traveling in raggedy cars, traveling in private Pullman cars, traveling by bus, traveling by boat, traveling against his will sometimes in airplanes. Duke Ellington accepted all the pain and the agony and the self-doubt and the disappointment he was faced with because he had been inspired! Duke Ellington was inspired by the majesty he heard coming from the musicians of all hues and from all levels of training. Duke heard the Constitutional orchestra of American life and transformed it into musical form. Whenever they said this music was dead, Duke was out there, writing music and performing the meaning of his democratic birthright in an artistic language that uttered its first words way back on that first day that a slave sang a new sang in a new land.

 

I am here to tell you that there are some who do not accept the premature autopsy of a noble art form. There are some of us out here who are on a quest, and in the process of that quest who find themselves having to perform conquests. There are some of us out here who believe that the majesty of human life demands an accurate rendition in rhythm and tune. Duke Ellington performed with Sidney Bechet, with Louis Armstrong, with Coleman Hawkins, with Charlie Parker, with John Coltrane, and wrote music for almost all of them. His own orchestra was described by Mahalia Jackson as a sacred institution. The Duke Ellington Orchestra was the manifestation of the elaborately fabricated drum he called this music. He was dedicated without reservation. He knew that you have to listen to a noble sound. You see, you have to watch out for a tradition built on the intention of putting noble inclinations into rhythm and tune. You have to beware of premature autopsies. A noble sound might not lie still in the dark cave where the dragons have taken it. A noble sound might just rise up and push away the stones that were placed in its path. A noble sound might just rise up on the high side of the sky, it might just ring the silver bells of musical light that tear through the cloak of the dragon’s shadow that blacks the sun. You got to watch those early autopsies. A noble sound is a mighty thing. It can mess around and end up swinging low and swinging high and flapping its wings in a rhythm that might swoop up over the limitations imposed by the dreams of dragons. I said: You better check those autopsies. A noble sound, the birthright understood so clearly by Duke Ellington, it might swing low and it might tell you to get on board. It might move with so much grace and so much confidence that you will have to remember what I have been telling you: You had better not pay much attention to those premature autopsies. This noble sound, this thing of majesty this art, so battered but so ready for battle, it just might lift you high enough in the understanding of human life to let you know in no uncertain terms why that marvelous Washingtonian, Edward Kennedy Ellington, NEVER came off the road.

Although this “noble sound” that Crouch was writing about was Jazz Music, I think the same can be applied to that of the Black Preacher.  Despite Jeremiah Wright being the posterboy for bad black preaching, I am here to clearly state that black preaching is also in fact a “noble sound.” Despite Obama sweeping his former pastor and now former church under the rug, or throwing it under a bus, or doing a drive-by on Wright, I said it once and I’ll say it again, that Barack Obama threw the baby out with the bath water, because along with Wright’s dismissal, he also missed an opportunity to have a real conversation with this country about race.  As you see now, he hasn’t mentioned race since then, even after the Fr. Pfleger flare up.

So perhaps we have performed a “premature autopsy” on that which is the black preacher and the black church, which is inclusive of the entire life’s work of Jeremiah Wright, but also, a “premature autopsy” on that which is race relations in this country.  Just because we have a black presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party does NOT mean that we have suddenly moved to a post racial society.

I may be Uppity Negro on here and operate as such, but don’t be mistaken, I can very easily ask Uppity Negro’s cousins to come join the party who’s names are Militant and Angry Negro…and we all know some white folk can’t handle that.

Speak on Rev. Wright!

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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4 thoughts on “A ‘Premature Autopsy’

  1. Itchy and Scratchy negroes.. That’s classic!!! I hear alot of black “middle class-upper middle class” folks, (yes until the real estate crunch comes to a head at the end of this year/and it goes from working poor-rich people/ we still have titles), say Obama is just playing the game doing what he has to do to get in. He can’t run a “black” man’s race in a country where blacks make up 12% – 13%. I’m always curious about this question and your opinion would be welcomed… Do you think black folks expect too much from Obama?

  2. Obama is what Michael Eric Dyson calls “incidentally black” in his book “Is Bill Cosby Right? Or has the Black Middle Class Lost It’s Mind.” (i haven’t figured out how to work italics on here). He goes on to say that these people are “proud to be black, but it is only one strand of our identity. The message this strategy presents to the white world is: ‘Our blackness is important, but we donot spend our days thinking about i, nor do we believe that race is nearl as important a factor in the nation as it used to be.'”

    I think the fact that he CAN’T run a “black” man’s race is evidence that we’ve still got far to go. A black man’s race in my mind is one that is pro-black, but not anti-anyone else. We certainly haven’t called the last 43 presidents race a “white” man’s race.

    Man, this country is all effed up!

  3. Speaking of Wright i have created a site that satirizes the right wing smear machine that is attackiong Barack Obama. I invite you to stop by and scream at the ignorance. I hope to include as much of the smears as i possibly can so that anyone who stops by can quickly see how many and how absurd they are. For instance did you know there is an email floating around claiming the KKK has endorsed Obama?

    Bigots United for McCain (B.U.M.S.)

  4. Yeah, it was a satire website that had said that the KKK endorsed him and folks was actually worried that the KKK had done so and I was like folks are DUMB!!!

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