A New Day, Another Beginning

The closing of THE PROJECT is complete physically and virtually but not in spirit, and so comes its successor, Gate City Revue. It seemed like a good choice for several reasons.

First and foremost, Greensboro became known as the Gate City in the early 1890s when local business leaders and newspapers hailed it as a gateway to the South and West and, as it was reported, 60 trains rolled in and out of the city every day. Industry was also surpassing an earlier moniker, “The City of Flowers” because of Greensboro’s lovely flora and abundant nurseries and went on to become a major center of textile production (Cone Mills) and insurance (Jefferson-Pilot) in the South during the first half of the twentieth century. Today, it is still promoted by some PR gurus as a gateway intellectual center, the only city in North Carolina home to two large UNC campuses, three well-known private colleges, and a community college that boasts three campuses in the city.

My life here also has been a series of gateways in music, journalism, the studying and teaching of history, and now writing about things important to me. Still, Greensboro has been much more. This is where I arrived after a great tempest in young adulthood swept me from the North to the South, then to the West, and back North again before it brought me here. I married a second time and became the father of two children, now adults and aspiring to lofty goals the best way they can in these anxious times, and a precious grandson who turns 14 next month. And, of course, there is Sharon, who I met here a quarter-century ago and who has been central to everything I have done, or tried to do, since then.

As I often said to students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University where I taught world history, I came of age in Greensboro due mainly to many friendships, acquaintances, and experiences, most of them with black people. I cannot recall names nor connect them to faces unless someone jars my memory, which does occur periodically and leaves me feeling grateful for it having happened.

One encounter I will never forget came not long after I arrived here in 1980, about a year after the murders of the CWP5 by Klan, Nazis, and agents of state-sponsored terrorism, because it  epitomizes so much of what I have learned about history, people, and myself since then. I recall walking down East Market Street toward the old train trestle long considered a sharply symbolic dividing line between white and black Greensboro, and entering the Uhuru Bookstore. The shop closed decades ago but the sign remained until last year when I noticed it was finally removed.

Anyway, a black teenager sat behind the counter and greeted me in a very friendly way. We engaged in intermittent talk as I browsed shelves full of books about black history, art, writers, musicians and so many other titles I never saw on the shelves of bookstores in Harvard Square and downtown Boston. I bought John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution by Frank Kofsky (Pathfinder Press: 1970). For those of you who don’t know, Coltrane grew up in neighboring High Point where an annual jazz festival is held in September but not this year because of COVID-19. That copy is long gone but I recently purchased a later edition (1998) and actually started rereading it at bedtime along with a novel, something rare for me.

Anyway, this bright and highly articulate young man in the bookstore who was a student at Dudley High School suddenly asked me, “You’re not white are you?” I was stunned by the question and remember looking down at my hands and then at him and responded quite dumbly, “What do you mean I’m not white?” What followed has always blown me away.

As a graduate student ABD (all but the dissertation) in European history from Boston College, I thought I knew a whole lot about the past and my own so-called identity. Well, the future Dr. Roberto and associate professor of contemporary world history at A&T got a history lesson from a smart-as-hell Dudley High School student. “You must be Italian or Greek or Jewish or of some other Mediterranean background,” he said, “which means you’re not white.” He then explained just as effectively as some of my professors that most Mediterranean people regardless of their nationalities had some African blood running through them because of the long history of human interaction in that part of the world, in fact, ever since homo sapiens literally walked out of Africa, the cradle of humanity itself, a couple hundred thousand years ago.

In all my classes at BC, in all the excitement and vigor to be intellectually alive in a city like Boston in the early and mid-1970s, in all of the deep political conversations I had with other grad students and junior faculty who became mentors and friends, I had never heard anything like this. To boot, I had been playing congas for only a few years at that point and was already moving decisively toward black music. Holy shit! I not only wanted to play with black musicians and held up their playing as sounds I wanted to emulate because they brought pure joy, I actually had some of them in me, even if only a drop! Sure enough years later, Charles Greene, a great guitarist and vocalist whose band I played in until we fell out, always joked that all you had to do was to look at my nose and you knew what that kid had said a decade earlier was right. The Sicilian Nose, as Al Brilliant called it a few weeks ago in his guest column.

Ah, to finish the story! That night, I was so excited I called my father back in New York who I was sure would love to hear this, too. Needless to say, Dad had not been happy with my life choices. I had left grad school to become a full-time musician in Hollywood, Florida, where I played with the funkiest 10-piece black band in an all-night club six nights a week from 11pm to 5am. Even worse, I refused to consider the possibility of corporate entry into the beer business given my father’s considerable connections in the industry. “Dad,” I remember telling him excitedly, “we’re not white” and proceeded to share the history lesson I had gotten earlier that day. “What have you gotten yourself into,” he said angrily, sharing other thoughts I cannot remember now for whatever reason. I do recall pleading with him rather innocently and even childlike to think about what I had just learned about Italians. This was a vital lesson for people like us, wasn’t it? “Dad, don’t you see? We’re not white! We’re Mediterranean people! We’ve got all kinds of blood in us!” Then I heard the click of the phone.

Later at A&T when I told this story to students, who often howled in delight, I would add the fact that my father’s father was Sicilian and thus even more representative of the history the young black student from Dudley High knew well. Sicily was always the “melting pot” of the Mediterranean and beyond. Even the Norwegians conquered the place and established an enduring kingdom until it was conquered by other foreigners, or worse, mainland Italians. Honestly, I can’t remember and don’t feel like looking it up right now. Mea culpa if I’m wrong.

I suppose it is in this spirit of openness and maybe even innocence that I intend Gate City Revue to be a place where writers, musicians, artists and others in Greensboro and beyond choose to present their ideas, their music, their art, their poetry, or some other creative endeavor. I see this as a work in progress, and so the development of the website will come gradually but steadily over the next few weeks and months. I also hope some kind of editorial board will develop eventually.

As for me, “This Week in Black and White” will continue to come out every Friday on this website. There will also soon be a place for me to post other pieces I have written, published or not, as I begin work on my second book, American fascism in the here and now. The same will go for the music I have done, what I am working on now, and what I hope to create for myself and others, especially BAZOOKA!, which was set to debut March 20 but nixed by COVID-19.  

Gate City Revue will develop over time and much will be determined by the course of a deepening crisis caused by the pandemic and systemic collapse of social, political, economic and cultural life as most of us have known it. Stark and frightening realities are upon us in this Second Great Depression. Hopefully, more good people will learn that we only have the power to change the world if we change our thinking and ourselves. That’s dialectics.

Posted in The Week in Black and White.