Monday, February 25, 2013

The Forrest For The Trees

Health Sciences Park
There was a Ku Klux Klan rally in Overton Park during the mid-sixties, I can't remember the specific date, where they did the night-time cross burning and the whole deal. It was quite the white-robed spectacle and my teenage friends and I attended in order to heckle the rubes. The Klan no longer appeared frightening in their customary outfits, merely ridiculous. Because, we understood that beneath the hood was just another cracker-ass redneck with a chaw between his teeth and gums and a tin of Red Man in his back pocket. A speech was delivered by Robert Shelton, the Klan Grand Wazoo, who shortly before had granted an extensive interview to Playboy magazine, which I read between the centerfold and naked girly pictures.  Even as a teen, I was convinced he was a damned fool. So the clown show that is coming to Memphis in March is way past the day when they intimidated anyone and an embarrassment even to an organization like the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The Klan, however, is riding in defense of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, only the General would not approve.
O Lord, please don't force me to write about Nathan Bedford Forrest at the end of Black History Month. Let this cup pass from me. You see, I was born in Memphis, where the very mention of the name Forrest brought either a visceral loathing or a wistful admiration, depending on the individual. There is nothing defensible about an illiterate, bad-tempered, racist slave trader who made a fortune dealing in human bondage, but the Forrest name was such a lightening rod for controversy, I decided to read a couple of books about him. The most informative was "That Devil Forrest" by John Allan Wyeth. Although Wyeth was a Confederate soldier and Southern sympathizer, his biography contains first-hand, eyewitness testimony from the combatants. The book tends to gloss over some of the most glaring accusations of evil towards Forrest. After all, slavery is a crime against humanity second only to genocide, and for that there can be no recompense. The single thing that historians all agree upon, however, is that Forrest was a born soldier. General William T. Sherman, no friend of the South, said that Forrest was, "the most remarkable man the civil war produced on either side. He was the only soldier who entered the war as a private and emerged as a general and his fearlessness in battle was legendary. In close combat, Forrest killed thirty foes, had twenty-nine horses shot from beneath him, and was wounded four times. What the civil war historians admire about Forrest was his unflinching courage.
I don't have a personal stake in this racial strife since my ancestors didn't own slaves; they were slaves. The family story passed down from my father's side was that my great-grandfather immigrated from Bavaria to avoid the occasional pogrom. He landed in New York in the unfortunate year of 1861, and before he could join relatives in Memphis, he was conscripted into the Union army. So after all those years of Tennessee history classes, it seems the only dog I had in this fight did his soldiering for the North. Even as a schoolboy, I was also a Southerner, so I was perplexed and had to wonder, "You mean our side lost?" That's an adjustment for a child who knows nothing of the war's particulars but only the region in which he lives. Consequently, I was thrilled by  stories of Forrest's raid on Union occupied Memphis, when he chased General Washburn from the Gayosa Hotel in his nightshirt. There's still a street called Escape Alley in honor of the event, yet no one has suggested changing that name. I look as an objective observer at the current controversy over the Memphis City Council's decision to rename the parks memorializing the Confederacy. I can understand the wounded Southern soul descended from gray uniformed soldiers, as well as the constant irritant Forrest Park is to the citizens of a city that is over sixty percent African-American. Bedford, as he was called, was an unrepentant white supremest, and to have his glorified tomb in the center of the city is galling to most. But, it is history, regardless of how ugly that history may be, and renaming monuments or parks does not change that.
The upcoming Klan rally will eulogise their founder and first Grand Wizard, although the Klan in which Forrest belonged was born in 1867 and officially disbanded in 1869. Testifying before a Congressional hearing, Forrest said the KKK was formed as "a protective political military organization," primarily to fill a lawless void and oppose the war profiteering of Reconstruction. When its members became night-riders and terrorists against black citizens, Forrest resigned and lobbied for the organization's dissolution. It's no wonder that the state senator that tried to freeze Confederate monument names in place is from Parker's Crossroads. That's the location halfway between Memphis and Nashville where Forrest's cavalry was surrounded by Union troops and he did the unthinkable by dividing his forces in half and charging in two directions at once. I used to stop at the general store there on my frequent trips to Nashville to restock on Confederate memorabilia. They have a huge portrait of the General hanging in the store, but once I had read about what transpired there, I was no longer offended. This is the stuff of legend, where Forrest's abilities as an unschooled military tactician were unmatched. Still, they don't erect statues of General Erwin Rommel in Berlin.
Personally, I don't care if they disinter Bedford and the Missus and move them back to Elmwood Cemetery where they were first buried. There's already a Forrest State Park near Camden that offers boating, fishing, and hiking. It just all seems so unnecessary. Why call a city park Health Sciences Park with a dead man there? The Memphis location could be used for reflection, especially upon the end of Forrest's life when, in 1875, he was invited to speak before a group of black Southerners advocating racial reconsiliation and the General espoused an agenda of equality and harmony between the races. Oh, you say you didn't know that? Most folks don't. Perhaps Forrest's transformation from a conciousless slave trader to an advocate of inter-racial peace is a story of redemption, like Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road. Both men were knocked off their horses. There is no way to temper the sins of N.B. Forrest. He said, "War means fighting, and fighting means killing," and he was a ruthless killer. When he saw that the Confederate cause was lost, he told his troops, "humanity demands that no more blood be shed." In a farewell address, the "unlettered General" said, "Civil War, such as you have just passed through naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred, and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings..Whatever your responsibilities may be to Government, society, or to individuals, meet them like men. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the government to which we have surrendered can afford to be, and will be, magnanimous." Were the Memphis City Council only so generous. If it's wrong to kick a man when he's down, what does it say to kick him when he's dead?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Strike Up the Band

In past years, Grammy night has traditionally been among my wife's least favorite evenings. It's because I tend to grow cynical and bitter about certain contemporary performers and shout epithets filled with jealousy and rage at the television, except only Melody can hear them. This year, however, the annual Grammy Awards show was downright entertaining and bordered on the spectacular. There was no Lady Gaga emerging from an egg and everyone's favorite egomaniac, Kanye West, skipped the proceedings entirely. What there was in abundance though, was great singing and dynamic performances, except for Taylor Swift's bizarre opening number, which appeared like a Fellini stage version of Alice In Wonderland if all the actors were insane. Her song, "We Are Never Getting Back Together Again," was yet another in a long line of hate-screeds about her latest former lover. It even included Swift kicking a hapless man around the stage, but I'm certain he was guilty of something. I'm just about over Swift's male-bashing song list and her repertoire of exes. If she ever had a successful romantic relationship, Taylor would have nothing to write about. What's the opposite of misogyny?
CBS, still smarting from Janet Jackson's Superbowl "wardrobe malfunction" a decade ago, wanted to take no chances this time around. The network sent an unintentionally hilarious memo around to the program's guest list saying, "Buttocks and female breasts must be adequately covered," leaving the exposure of the male buttocks as optional, I suppose. "Avoid exposing bare fleshy under curves of the buttocks and the buttocks crack." I guess the show wasn't planning on having any plumbers in attendance. "Bare sides or under curvature of the breasts is also problematic. Be sure the genital region is covered so that there is no visible 'puffy' bare skin exposure." Although the CBS memo read like the Ken Starr report on the sins of Bill Clinton, it was the equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet to a bunch of rock stars that thrive on outrage. It's just a good thing that Flea, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers wasn't there. As it was, Rihanna showed forbidden nipple exposure and under-bosom tattoos, J-Lo showed an endless leg, and Alicia Keys showed pretty much everything. The undisputed champion of ignoring the network memo was Katy Perry, who single-handedly won for best performance by a duo. On the red carpet pre-show, when asked who she was wearing, Perry replied, "Hugh Hefner."
Justin Timberlake once again did the home folks proud. His new, soul-tinged songs bring back memories of the glorious days before auto-tune when singers had to actually sing, and there is still a little bit of Memphis in his compositions. Justin's big band may have been called the Tennessee Kids, but he is a mature artist in his prime. Even Beyonce said, "We all love you Justin," and it seemed to be true. Only, Justin better watch his ass, or buttocks in this case, because Bruno Mars is hot on his tail, so to speak. Mars is simply the most dynamic performer going, with a spectacular voice. Justin may be smoother, but Mars has got the whole James Brown thing down. I don't leave the house much, but I might just pay to see Bruno Mars in concert, depending on the seats. When Rihanna, Ziggy Marley, and Sting joined Mars in a tribute to Bob Marley, singing "Could You Be Loved," the ordinarily jaded music industry crowd were on their feet. I'll bet it smelled something like teen spirit in the room as giant images of the dreadlocked Rastaman were projected overhead.
A Memphis influence was a continual presence throughout the broadcast. A regeneration of Soul music influenced by Stax Records is in vogue, as is a roots-based, Sun Sound, as represented by Mumford and Sons. The names and images of Duck Dunn and Andrew Love were featured in a tribute to artists we have lost this year, though not prominently enough for my taste, and the musical tribute to beloved Arkansan Levon Helm featuring the incomparable Mavis Staples again had the Hollywood audience dancing in the aisles. Kelly Clarkson sang a masterful version of "The Tennessee Waltz," in memory of Patti Page, and emcee LL Cool J mentioned Memphis in reference to Timberlake's hometown. We've got the heart. If we only had a brain.
If Ike Turner lost everything after his violent abuse of Tina was made public, why does Chris Brown still have a career? The horrifying photos of what he did to Rihanna were sufficient evidence that he should disappear from public life. Yet, there he was, on the front row, nominated for best something-or-other, in the same category as his rival, Frank Ocean. Brown, proving that he also punches men, was in a fistfight with Ocean last month over a parking space at a recording studio. According to police reports, Brown threatened to shoot Ocean. When Ocean won the award for "Best Urban Contemporary Album," the cameras captured Brown remaining in his seat while the audience stood. The capper came later when Brown and Rihanna were photographed reunited and smiling, abuser and enabler. Meanwhile, Frank Ocean's meandering version of "Forrest Gump," was bewildering, despite the nifty camera effects. A flock of monarch butterflies also flew off of Carrie Underwood's dress and a concluding rap summit, featuring LL Cool J and Chuck D, was interrupted for CBS' rap which, after all, is the name of the game. Oh, I forgot. They also gave out a bunch of awards- but who cares?