Trending Topics:

Louisiana had apartheid

on 6 Comments

It is important work to harp on Richard Cohen’s angry defense in the Washington Post of Israel against the "apartheid" label because Cohen is a reflection of how out of touch American liberal discourse is with the reality in Israel/Palestine. In Israeli discourse, even the Petraeuses and Bushes use the word apartheid (Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak have done so) to describe the situation. And anyone who has visited the West Bank is shocked by the walls, the checkpoints, the pass system, the separate roadways, and the lavish Jewish settlements on the best land. But Americans must not hear the word apartheid, Cohen says!

The reason for Cohen’s ban is important.

Zionism created two structures, as Avraham Burg has stated so eloquently: over there, the state of Israel, and over here in the U.S., the "semi-autonomous" Jewish community of influence. Shadowed by the horrors of the Holocaust, when the west failed the Jews, the Israel lobby feels a tremendous and solemn responsibility to safeguard Israel. They feel like they are holding the breathing tube on a nation of Jews; and if they allow any strong criticism of Israel to penetrate the corridors of power– in the nation that props Israel up and immunizes it from any consequences for its behavior– that could mean extinction of the Jewish state, and of a lot of Jews. That’s how the lobby thinks. They feel great political responsibility–Richard Cohen, too.

What this means is that Israel is always held to a lower standard than even the U.S. We have safeguards for minorities; Israel doesn’t. We have investigations of atrocities in Afghanistan (some of them anyway); Gaza must never be criticized. And our society experienced a generation-long civil-rights struggle? Israel is a perfect democracy.

This lecture is prompted by a wonderful review by David Schiff in the Nation of a new Louis Armstrong book by Terry Teachout. Notice how Schiff uses the word apartheid, in describing Louis Armstrong’s rise (emphasis mine):

Armstrong’s early life in New Orleans [is] illuminated by Thomas Brothers in Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans (2006). That book begins with… Armstrong’s appearance with the Tuxedo Brass Band in 1921. Armstrong recalled the event fondly later in his life: "I felt just as proud as though I had been hired by John Philip Sousa." According to Brothers, the band–founded by two uptown (non-Creole) musicians, William Ridgley and Oscar Celestin–played "almost everywhere in the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana that a colored band could go," and its success allowed it to hire old-school Creole musicians, producing a band that was "integrated" in terms of New Orleans cultural racism but not Louisiana apartheid. Creole musicians often dismissed "uptown" players as "routine" (illiterate) or "ratty," so their collaboration marked an unusual show of respect. …Brothers… asks an important historical question: why would the 20-year-old Armstrong have held a parade band in such high regard?

Brothers explains that by marching with the Tuxedo Brass Band, "Armstrong believed that he had solved, through his musical ability, the problem of trouble-free movement through a dangerous city." Movement around New Orleans, either by foot or streetcar, was determined by the precise hue of one’s complexion, delimited by laws that segregated seating in public transportation and by eruptions of racial violence, such as when Jim Jeffries ("The Great White Hope") was defeated by the African-American boxer Jack Johnson in a bout in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910. Race riots broke out across the nation. During the melee in New Orleans, Brothers writes, "Armstrong remembered hiding in his house while gangs wandered through the neighborhood in search of random targets on whom to release their rage." Parades by black bands simultaneously asserted a freedom of movement and confirmed the map of racial oppression, as band members encountered hecklers and worse while crossing an exclusively white area known as the Irish Channel. With the Tuxedo Brass Band Armstrong could travel with relative safety through parts of New Orleans that would have been too dangerous for him to traverse alone. …

If we have to play the party game of summing up a personality with a song title, a much better fit for Armstrong than "Ac-cen-tu-ate the Positive" might be "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues," which he recorded as a heroic anthem in 1933. The Arlen/Koehler title resonated with Armstrong, who grew up in poverty, but it also captured the way he made every performance, whether trumpeted or sung, a proclamation of the rights of the blues, of the uniquely African-American sound of his music, to stand proudly next to any other musical style, even that of the European concert hall. When Armstrong lifted his trumpet to his lips or began to sing, the demeaning comic persona, that shield against indignity, gave way to a wide, vibrant river of sound that lent a voice to millions of people, in America and beyond, who had been consigned to silence…

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of

Other posts by .

Posted In:

    Leave a Reply