Sunday, September 7, 2008

From Cruel to Cool, Singer Recalls Roots of Hate

This article was originally published in the New York Times on January 22, 1992, but I thought it's well worth sharing again with G's fans today.
Assistant to Garland Jeffreys

"From Cruel to Cool, Singer Recalls Roots of Hate"
by Douglas Martin, New York Times, 01-22-92

There is a snapshot of the singer Garland Jeffreys that grabs you like a summer afternoon and won't let go. He is 4 or 5 years old and going to his first baseball game. Behind him is the late, great Ebbets Field. He wears a Dodgers uniform, high black shoes, a Jackie Robinson button.

His open face holds no secrets. "This kid's ready," said the man the boy became. "He's not afraid."

Mr. Jeffreys, who calls himself timeless but must be nearing 50, continued: "The point, though, is that the kid doesn't know anything about the outside world. He doesn't know the civil rights movement is beginning, that there are 'colored only' water fountains in America, or even what Jackie Robinson represents."

Soon, he would know this and more. Mr. Jeffreys is a mixture of black, white and Puerto Rican. Early on, he would learn all about racism.

When he was growing up in Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay section, mothers of white girls would ask the principal to keep Garland away from their daughters. Some blacks would distance themselves because his complexion was so light.

And he was not above using racism to his own advantage. He recalls a Jewish friend telling a black classmate at Public School 254 that he couldn't come to his party because he was black. "But Garland's black," the spurned youth sputtered.

"I'm Spanish," the young man replied. "My family comes from Madrid."

Not surprisingly, the color line, what W. E. B. Du Bois called this century's biggest problem, came to weigh heavily on Mr. Jeffreys -- even as he became a popular rhythm-and-blues artist, churning out six albums from 1976 to 1983. One of his best-known albums was "Ghostwriter," which came out in 1977.

These albums included songs about interracial love and school busing in Boston, but Mr. Jeffreys viewed most of this work as "not substantial." So he stopped making records, and lived on the royalties. He read and thought, talked and traveled.

In March, he will release his first album in more than eight years. It is titled "Don't Call Me Buckwheat," referring to a racial epithet hurled at Mr. Jeffreys at a Mets game. The title track speaks of "a big city with a very small mind."

The album is a very personal voyage through racial madness -- a madness that has come to include hideous bias crimes in America's biggest city. There are songs about baseball's color line, bias in the world of rock music, the Ku Klux Klan, Mr. Jeffreys's initial fears of Malcolm X as "a monster in monster proportion."

The beat is sometimes rock, sometimes reggae, sometimes rap. Literary allusions include Ralph Ellison and James Weldon Johnson. The only song not about race is the last one, the one not written by Mr. Jeffreys.

It is his rendition of a hit by Frankie Lymon, the singer's lifelong hero. Lymon's eerily high-pitched voice caressed the edges of heaven until he died of an overdose on a rooftop at age 25. "I'm Not a Know-It-All" is the title.

So it came to pass that Mr. Jeffreys returned to Brooklyn yesterday. He went to Mark Twain Junior High School in Coney Island. The school for gifted and talented children is just a few blocks from where he once worked as a sideshow barker, specializing in guessing ages.

Mr. Jeffreys came as part of a program of the New York City Host Committee for the Grammy Awards that sends music personalities to schools in each borough. Other scheduled participants are the producer Jellybean Benitez, the composer Michael Kamen and the performers Queen Latifah, Vanessa Williams and Judy Collins.

Not much has changed in Brooklyn schools. The floors were the same dull marble. The drearily institutional smells hadn't changed. He suspected that the minds of some educators hadn't broadened.

He got things going by showing a video from his new album, one called "The Answer." It shows Mr. Jeffreys singing as surgeons slice off the top of his head. They then proceed to pull out all manner of ugly things -- from bottles of liquor to a smoking gun to syringes to a time bomb to a K.K.K. robe to a newspaper headline telling of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

They then replace a dirty brain with a glimmering new one, and drench it with cleansing liquid.

The students applauded. Discussion followed, as they happily passed around the rubber brain used in the video. One said he especially relished "the part where they cut off your head."

Mr. Jeffreys said his point was that people, white and black, need to find "a brand new way of thinking," one where race consciousness doesn't exist. A girl toward the back of the room understood. "We're not meant to be separate," she said. "We're meant to be together."

The girl said she aspired to someday putting her fine sentiment into beautiful music. Stay tuned.

"Don't Call Me Buckwheat" by Garland Jeffreys

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