Commusings: If You Cover It in Sugar Then It Only Tastes Sweet by Jeff Krasno

Mar 13, 2021

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Hello Commune Community, 

I am deeply grateful for my children, who constantly inspire me to reexamine myself and to see matters through cloudless eyes. In their innocence, they remind me that too often the world shapes the self when the self should shape the world. 

Of course, I worry about them and the conditions they’ll inherit. But, listening to them assess the world’s mess gives me hope that they can clean it up. 

Always here at [email protected].

In love, include me,

P.S. The following essay includes the n-word inside a direct quote. We wrestled with the use, but ultimately decided writing it out was the most honest approach.

• • •

If You Cover It in Sugar Then It Only Tastes Sweet

I am sitting at the dinner table with my three daughters (ages 11, 13 and 16) comparing harrowing stories of personal embarrassment. And now it’s my turn. 

In college, I deejayed a Sunday morning radio program called Moonshine. Hosting this show was a double-edged saber. I enjoyed a certain campus prominence for having my sonorous radio voice resonate through the dormitories. But waking up early on the Christian Sabbath after long Saturday nights trawling Upper West Side watering holes and trudging to the station proved arduous more than once. Still, I cherished the gig.

WKCR was predominantly known and respected as a jazz station. Its airwaves, transmitted from atop the World Trade Center, had considerable reach, permeating the boroughs and suburbs of New York City. The musical director, Phil Schaap, was a beatnik bebop maven famous for authoring the liner notes of Miles Davis albums. He was gangly tall, had bushy red hair, wore bell bottoms and was a walking jazz encyclopedia. Phil always stayed close to the work, excavating the vinyl catacombs, searching for that diamond-in-the-rough alternate take. Phil didn’t speak to you as much as he scatted at you, turning phrases like Wes Montgomery turned guitar licks. Needless to say, all of the pimply budding deejays, including myself, considered him an oracle. 

Moonshine was a 2-hour romp in traditional American music. The show typically began with old-timey fiddle tunes strumming its way into Bill Monroe-era bluegrass and crescendoing in the “newgrass” stylings of Bela Fleck and Sam Bush. I was a bluegrass fanatic in my university days and picked my 5-string banjo at every available moment (much to the chagrin of long-suffering Schuyler). I led a bluegrass outfit cheekily dubbed the Morningside Mountain Boys. The station gave me gas stipend to drive down the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountain ranges to play festivals in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Backstage, armed with my bulky old tape recorder, I did my best Alan Lomax, interviewing folks named J.D. Crowe, Earl Scruggs, and Lester Flatt. As a prep-schooled, Jewish kid from the Northeast, these explorations through the South were not just ethnomusicological. They were anthropological. It felt like I was time traveling into a very different era and a very different culture.

During the week, I would sculpt the show. There were vast lockers stacked with LPs, which I would spread out on the carpet like playing cards. From this heap, I would order the set, interspersing excerpts of the interviews I had done on the road.

The broadcast booth was old-school. There were two turntables, a simple mixing board, a couple of microphones, some outboard gear, and rotary telephones for call-ins. When you were live on the air, you were mixing the show in real-time.

Here’s a play-by-play:

You dropped the record onto the platter of the player. The various tracks on a vinyl record are separated by bands of smooth space between the more serrated grooves of the song. You identified the chosen cut, and, to the best of your ability, you then raised the arm of the player and set the cartridge down such that the needle would drop right onto the smooth area just before the selection. This maneuver required a steady hand, which could be hard to find on an overly caffeinated Sunday morning.  Once the needle was in place, you hit the speed button. The record would turn. As soon as you heard the first threads of music in your headphones, you depressed the speed button again stopping the player. And then lightly with your fingers pulled the record back counter-clockwise. This created a bass-y wah-wah sound effect akin to the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher. Once the warble ceased, you knew the record was precisely cued. When you were ready to play it, you sped up the player again and the song started perfectly.

This pattern was repeated throughout the entire show. And, of course, there was expert banter to be delivered between cuts.

This process was not particularly onerous if you were a jazz DJ playing lengthy, improvised Chick Corea odysseys. The tunes of old-timey music, however, are short in duration. Much of this music has its roots in Ireland as fiddle tunes and jigs. As the Irish settled in Appalachia, the music migrated with them and syncretized with instruments like the banjo, which originally hails from West Africa. Often these melodies flew by in under a minute. Because of their brevity, you might find 30 cuts on one side of a 33 LP. Hence, my setlists were populated by dozens and dozens of tracks. This transformed the cueing process into a game of Operation. And this challenge came into stark and nightmarish relief one hazy Sunday.

• • •

The show began in its typical fashion, high and lonesome, with Peter Rowan singing the eponymous theme song. About fifteen minutes in, I cued up a record while Ralph Stanley crooned Little Maggie. The folklore of this music is populated with all types of heroes and villains: John Henry, the steel-driving man; not to be confused with John Hardy, who shot down a man on the West Virginia line.

The cut I intended to play next featured Casey Jones, the locomotive engineer, who met an untimely death in a train wreck in 1900. After a short preamble, I unleashed the track. However, the song that played did not involve the railroad. I had cued the wrong track. The tune that started playing had but one set of lyrics, “Run, nigger, run.”

This refrain reprised over and over.

Initially, I didn’t actually trust my ears and I frantically fumbled about for the record jacket. All eight station phone lines lit up instantaneously like a discotheque. With mounting horror, I began jabbing at buttons, trying to stop the record and frenetically answering irate calls. Listeners were furious. They called me racist and threatened to boycott the station.

Finally, I collected myself. I got on the air and, as best I could, apologized, explained the gaffe and tried to salvage the station’s reputation. I cued up an instrumental. But, before I could even take a breath, the phone lines lit up again. This time, people excoriated me for my contrition – claiming that the music was simply a product of its time.

The balance of the broadcast was a blur. Afterward, I skulked toward the station exit, thinking it might be my last shot of Moonshine when Phil walked in the out door. I tried to flatten myself into the wall and disappear. But, as he breezed by me, he caroled, “Music is history. If you cover it in sugar then it only tastes sweet.” And he cavorted away mouth-trumpeting a Dizzy Gillespie solo.

• •  •

Phoebe, my eldest blurts, “Oh my God, dad, if you did that today, you’d be so canceled!” 

Lolli, my cheese in the sandwich, wryly adds, “We’re going to start calling you Dr. Seuss.”

Micah, my peapod, is confused and queries, “What’s wrong with Green Eggs and Ham?”

In case you missed it, two weeks ago, the estate of Dr. Seuss decided to stop selling six of his lesser-known books after concluding that there were egregious racial and ethnic stereotypes in the works. This decision made unexpected headlines and prompted cries of “cancel culture” from prominent conservatives.

Like many others, I hadn’t given a thought to Dr. Seuss in some years. But, now, of course, I was reminiscing fondly about all those nights I put my girls to sleep with…

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and Mr. Brown Can Moo.
And I would drift off, too,
And wake up with Thing One and Thing Two
Draped across my chest
And I’d do my best
To let them rest
And off to my bed I would quest,
Thinking my life was so blessed.

I (literally) taught Phoebe to read with Hop on Pop. And in The Lorax the seeds of understanding were planted as the nefarious transnational conglomerates ravaged the environment in the name of ceaseless biggering.

And, what now? Am I supposed to discontinue the publishing of these memories that inform my relationship with my children and their upbringing? I don’t think so. But is the fact that I’m questioning the character of Theodor Seuss Geisel a sign of our collective moral maturation or the cynical manufacturing of a ‘Cancel Culture’ crisis?

The decision by the Seuss estate to cease publication of these books was not made in response to the petitions of a liberal mob. It’s been vaulted into news feeds by conservatives sniffing around for anything redolent of identity politics. Over and again, folks on the right try to sell the country a form of restorative nostalgia that paints a safe, picket-fenced, 1950’s-esque, Christian, white portrait of American life. Make America Great Again was originally Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan. Trump merely dusted it off. While this depiction of America whitewashes reality, the leveraging of Seuss-gate and similar ordeals is potent and insidious for here I am woolgathering in the melancholy of my children’s Seussian upbringing and feeling mildly assailed for having to question it. 

Of course, sorting through the mess of our internal worlds requires discomfort for the same mess is projected far and wide in our shared reality. It is imperative that we shine a light on our past – as represented in art and culture – to see where it is infused with both overt and more subtle forms of racism (and sexism and all the other isms).

I can treasure the nights spent reading to my daughters while also acknowledging that Seuss, on occasion, resorted to racial stereotypes that are hurtful and have no home in the moral universe.

Of course, to spend any time on Horton the Elephant trivializes the real issues. The average net worth of the white American family is $170,000. The average net worth of the Black American family is $17,000.

I have no squabble with the Seuss estate discontinuing a small set of books, but I would take issue with the rewriting of them even if it reflected evolving social attitudes. James Baldwin famously wrote, “'Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” If we hope to instantiate a society that is more equitable and just, then we must face our cultural record. In doing so, we must strive to eradicate bad ideas, not erase history.

Baldwin, again, “To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.” And Churchill, “A nation that forgets its past has no future.” I might say a nation that does not face its history will be imprisoned by that inability. 

Of course, the necessity of facing our history begs the question of which history. Our dinner conversation pivots to the debate over removing the monuments of our country’s framers. Listening to my children grapple with whether or not they should honor Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin is both perplexing and amazing. I am stunned by their Socratic sophistication.

But more distressful is the diminishing ability they feel to discuss the messiness publicly without fear of rebuke. Social media seems to have upended the capacity for complicated and nuanced public discourse.

Yes, I told my girls, Benjamin Franklin owned two slaves. Thomas Jefferson owned significantly more. Yet both these men signed a parchment on July 4, 1776 that enshrined the guiding axiom of our nation: all men are created equal. This utter disconnect between their ideals and their behavior is so confounding that it led Baldwin to compose The White Problem in 1964, which posits the following:

The people who settled the country had a fatal flaw. They could recognize a man when they saw one. They knew he wasn’t anything else but a man, but since they were Christian and since they had already decided that they came here to establish a free country, the only way to justify the role this chattel was playing in one’s life was to say that he was not a man. But if he wasn’t, then no crime had been committed.

 Slavery, our nation’s original sin, did not so much emerge from racism, but rather, racism emerged as a justification for what should have been the irreconcilable horror of slavery.

Of course, the lives of Franklin and Jefferson are as muddled as our country’s history, one that continually seeks to be more aligned with its highest spiritual principles, falls short, and tries yet again.

Despite owning slaves, by the mid-1770’s, Franklin recognized the error of his ways and became a leading abolitionist. He freed his slaves and strongly advocated for the availability of education to all freed slaves. 

And while Jefferson never freed his slaves, he did more than almost any other politician in his generation to stem the expansion and continuation of slavery in America. Two years after the Declaration was ratified, he wrote the Virginia law banning Virginia from importing slaves and, as President, in 1807, he completed the job of abolishing the slave trade from America.

As innocently as Lolli posed the question, she suggests a remedy, “Instead of tearing down the statues, maybe on the plaques underneath them, they should simply add ‘and he owned slaves’ to all the nice things that are written.”

“Or put up a statue of their slaves next to them,” pipes in little Micah.

In their guilelessness, they intuit that in order to see our past clearly, we must look at it through a variety of perspectives, not just through the lens of the white narrative. Children seem to have an innate yearning for making things fair. However, it is clear that neither my children, nor candidly I, have been instilled with a deep enough understanding of the parallel narratives of our country — and our world. They don’t have at their fingertips the names of the hundreds of men and women whose statues could well be erected next to Franklin and Jefferson — and Lee and Calhoun and other Confederates.

But sitting behind our ready agreement that one of the most important projects of their generation is grappling with our historical wrongs – an acceptance that an American Truth and Reconciliation Commission is long past due – is a disturbing intellectual and social insecurity. The intensely animated discussion between my girls is a reflection of their profound thirst to have it. And, upon further inquiry, it is clear that they feel virtually no freedom to publicly prod at liberal orthodoxy and to ask clumsy questions. They even hush their voices around our very private table.

Should bad actors be held accountable for inexcusable behavior? Yes. The rioters at the Capitol should go to prison, as should Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Keith Raniere, Dylan Roof, Adam Lanza and scores of other criminals. There should be no tolerance for violence or abuse or language that incites it. And the scourge of weaponized misinformation that tribalizes society requires constant attending and, sometimes, de-platforming. 

But does “canceling” people merely for their ideas or policy stances or a tweet that doesn’t age well lead to progress?

Should we not be expiring terminology instead of people? Should we not be debating ideas instead of debasing fellow humans?

 Can we refrain from calling people out and, as Justin Michael Williams offers, call them forward? Respectful confrontation is a reflection of maturity.

I reckon that the road to a more equitable society will not be paved with shame. Certainly, there is a profound moral inventory that white people must undertake in recognizing the benefits they have accrued over the course of our nation’s history. However, the notion that one group of people has a complete monopoly on privilege is itself reflective of privilege.

Those who espouse that concept seem unfamiliar with the white, single mother working two minimum wage jobs in a boarded-up, opioid-ridden town. From my personal relationships with a number of these women, I can relay that they have very little sense of privilege, nor are they remotely guilty for anything their great-grandfather might have or have not done. They are simply scrambling to make ends meet. And if there is one thing they resent, it’s being dubbed an ignorant racist not for any reprehensible act but merely for their politics.

At times, I wonder what I would write in a letter to my 18-year old DJ self, sitting in the booth that day. And then I realize that I don’t have to write to myself because there I am sitting across the dinner table from myself in the form of my daughters.

I might write: If you’re going to host a radio show, don’t show up so bloody hung over. But if you accidentally cue up a flaming lump of historical excrement, step up and say, ‘I love this genre of music. It elicits myriad emotions – joy, sorrow, melancholy. It’s pregnant with American stories. And listening to it is also agonizing because some of those stories reflect our profoundly racist history. Art is invaluable because it allows us to feel into our collective heartbreak and pain with our gut as well as our head, and to help us forge our way toward a more righteous future.’

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