Reckoning With 2020 Vision: Is it Over Yet?

So how has your year gone?

And do we have anything more to worry about?

As I write this, I do not know whether today, as you’re reading, we have a conclusive view of the current state of our democracy. But let’s hope and work for the best, and perhaps count our proverbial turkeys in this usually thankful, resoundingly transformed, season.

In recent months, against the backdrop of isolation and noise, I managed to fill my time with work, sustenance and cultural reflection.

Opportunities increased to experience music as it’s being made, both online and in safely distanced physical settings. Symphony players in the Nelson-Atkins sculpture park. Latin American string music warming the chilled night air from the alley stage at The Ship. Joyce DiDonato streaming live in a gorgeous recital from Germany. An African drum troupe celebrating the 100th birthday of Charlie Parker.

My current major writing project has been gathering steam as the manuscript takes shape and fills out, and as new material arrives via archives, books and human sources almost daily.

Another research project, involving art and jazz, led me to discover a 60-year-old movie, “Paris Blues” (1961). I couldn’t believe I’d never watched it before, and I was astounded by how relevant it could feel. Like the recent Netflix series “The Eddy,” the film is centered around a small Paris jazz club, and its major concern has to do with race.

Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier play American ex-pat musicians in the City of Light for their own different reasons. One day, the inter-racial musical friends encounter two free-spirited American women — Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll, one white, one Black, of course — on a vacation lark together. Well, as these things happen, relationships ensue. In the case of Newman-Woodward, the affair steamed up in ways you never saw in, say, “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,” which was made three decades later (in Paris and Kansas City) from the Evan Connell novels.

A trumpeter played by Louis Armstrong makes a vibrant cameo appearance in the club. But beyond the music, the interpersonal drama reaches its peak tension in dialogue between the two Black lovebirds. Carroll’s character wants Poitier to go home with her to America. He explains why that’s not possible, why he remains more comfortable in his Blackness away from the states.

Just this year, as we all know, we have entered a new era of racial reckoning.

For historical perspective, I can’t recommend highly enough Isabel Wilkerson’s new book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Wilkerson threads together the global history of brutal social systems under which torture and lynching were matters of widely accepted practice, and American segregation and anti-miscegenation laws inspired the German Nazi regime’s march to genocide in the 1930s and ’40s. Such gut-wrenching, violent experience gives the lie to the whining bros who think that, in the midst of the troubling pandemic, their mask-free liberty has been at stake. They know nothing of suppression and indignity.

Books on African American history and race issues quickly became abundant and reached bestseller status this year. Another one that I found enlightening was The Sword and the Shield, a dual biography of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, by Peniel E. Joseph, which presents a more nuanced account of the triumphs, tragedies and mutual aims of these two leaders than the typical gloss has it. The background of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s will spark frequent reminders, alas, that we have been here too many times before.

One new thing: The KC Art on the Block project made a large and important impression on the city’s streetscape. Six “Black Lives Matter” pavement murals, each designed by a different artist, stretched for a collective 2,000 feet. The project successfully reflected community collaboration and a sense of the Zeitgeist.

On the day the painting began, an opportunity occurred to me, and I posted about it briefly on social media. Standing in the middle of Troost Avenue as the outlines of the words “Black Lives Matter” were being filled in with paint struck me as a momentous step beyond the city’s regretful past. This street had long symbolized the stark segregation built into the infrastructure of Kansas City as elsewhere. Perhaps we have found a new road forward. I shudder to think of the alternative.

Above: Looking north toward 63rd Street at the creation of the 63rd and Troost “Black Lives Matter” mural designed by Warren ‘Stylez’ Harvey for the KC Art on the Block project (photo by Steve Paul).

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a forthcoming biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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