Back in the ’50s, before Youtube and even Rolling Stone magazine, radio listeners didn’t know what singers looked like so they pictured the performer’s appearance based on the vocal mannerisms.
Elvis Presley sounded black so he had to be African American. Caucasians crooned like Perry Como and Bing Crosby. Well, we’re talking the ’50s so they either said he sang like a “coloured” person or used the “N” word.
Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” was a reworking of a country song called “Ida Red” and, when club owners booked Berry, they greeted him at the door with, “Who are you? We booked a (white) country singer named Chuck Berry.”
I host a show called The Rock and Roll Riot and the riots in Baltimore prompted me to scratch my head and, to steal a line from Berry’s tune “Little Queenie…”
Meanwhile, I’m thinkin’.
We’re only on this earth for a relatively short time. Why does it really matter what colour skin a person has, where they came from, why they came here or why they insist on dressing differently?
When I was a teenager I found Jimi Hendrix’s “Smash Hits” album at a used record store that had popped up around the corner.
It was only open for a year or so. In any case, I didn’t look at the cover and say “Hey, a black guy.” It just seemed very cool so I bought it and, once I put it on Dad’s multi-disc record player, it became so much cooler.
The only colour that mattered was purple (haze).
Our racial views are shaped by parents and peers so up to a certain point, we are afraid to express an opinion that differs from the “Canada is white and Christian and anyone who comes here had better adapt” mentality.
From time to time I flip the pages of my high school yearbooks, from 1976 to 1980. I went to Cardinal Newman High School in Scarborough (then a Toronto suburb, later a city in its own right before it became part of the GTA). We had a number of Chinese students and when I check out the photos today I think, “She was pretty, why didn’t I notice back then?”
Because I wasn’t allowed to. She came from Hong Kong. I had been conditioned to desire blonde, blue-eyed cheerleader types with last names of British or Irish origin…though I am still curious about whatever became of Pam Ryan and Cindy Kerrigan.
I’m nearly 53. I don’t see colour, I see human beings. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back or suggest that I’m any kind of a civil rights crusader. I’ve spent decades trying to be a more tolerant citizen of the world and I’ve said and done things I wish I could take back or erase.
But I make the effort. To improve. To learn. To understand instead of getting angry and demanding that they leave their old world ways behind and become like us.
Nothing worthwhile is easy but, to quote a great civil rights anthem by Sam Cooke, “A change is gonna come.”