The Influence Of African-American Culture On A Non African-American: Four Examples

Posted by Gomez Comes Alive!, February 19, 2012 11:31pm | Post a Comment
I grew up on black culture. For most Mexican-Americans like myself growing up in the seventies and eighties, we didn’t feel a part of dominant society nor of our Mexican heritage. Schools were devoid of Latin American studies and English as a second language courses were frowned upon. As a kid I was lost; I didn’t know anything about my own culture but felt distant from American or European culture. For many of us, African-American culture was our alternative. I believed our struggles were the same. We were occupied people. We were once a part of progressive society and then we were conquered and made slaves. Although we received some basic human rights over the years we were always looked as second-class citizens here in the U.S. We were looked as something to fear and exclude. As years went on, some blacks and Latinos started to feel that they were part of mainstream society. Perhaps wanting to forget the past, some blacks and Latinos forgot the oppression they once shared. We separated, made our own history and often competed against each other to get out of the racial cellar.  

Even after becoming aware of my own cultural heritage, I never forgot the influence that African-American culture had on me. I find it strange to meet Mexican-Americans that have many European influences but no black cultural influences. I find it even stranger that many of them have the same fears of blacks as other members of dominant society. 

I cannot shake the influence of the many African-American musicians, activists, athletes and artists had on me, even after discovering the many great Chicano/Latin American icons that influence me today. For that reason, I would like to pay tribute to some African American icons that have influenced my life in some way or another.

Malcolm X

Reading The Autobiography Of Malcolm X was like having a light turned on in a dark room. I could identify with almost ever aspect of the book. In the beginning, Malcolm's father is murdered and leads his family in poverty. After being displaced from his family, he is robbed of his culture and self-worth, which led to his self-destructive lifestyle. Take any child’s family, security and culture away and most likely the child will live a self-destructive lifestyle much like young Malcolm.

His days in prison showed that many of us end up there because we are in prison in our minds. We start to believe every horrible thing people say about us and feel that there is no other path than death or jail. Malcolm convergence was due to his Muslim faith but it was his need to educate himself that helped in his self-determination. His time with The Nation Of Islam led to examining every facet of dominant society and challenging it, even if it meant going against the very people who supported him. Once he left the Nation Of Islam and goes out on his own, he sees the struggle of the African-American as a world struggle. That people across the world share the same oppression and that need for basic human rights is a global struggle rather than a national struggle. This message ultimately leads to his murder, but not before he got his message to many like myself, who view his example as a way to fight for human rights for all people, everywhere.

Magic Johnson

 The NBA was dead before Magic Johnson. When The Lakers won the championship in 1980, the game was delayed and played after the eleven o’clock news so that CBS would not have to preempt their mighty Friday TV line-up of The Incredible Hulk, Dukes of Hazard, and Dallas. Along with the emergence of Magic Johnson came his rivalry with Larry Bird of the Celtics, which led to a faster and more physical style of basketball. It was L.A. "flash" versus working-class Celtics and everyone was into it. Basketball ratings went up and every kid playing at the local park was throwing behind the back passes just like Magic. By the time Michael Jordan came into the NBA, the league was a different level, ready for someone like MJ to take it to new heights.

However, in 1991, Magic announced his retirement from the NBA after he found out he had the HIV virus. At the time, it seemed like a death sentence. The only thing people like myself knew about AIDS were pure misconception. The thought was that AIDS was strictly a disease that only gays and drug addicts contracted. By Magic coming out and telling the world he had HIV, it forced a homophobic society to look at the severity of AIDS and that everyone, gay straight, man, women, black or white, could get it. One could have understood if Magic kept his disease in the dark but he used the opportunity to become an activist for HIV prevention, both in the U.S. and abroad. Most recently, he has started a campaign to stop the spread of homophobia, saying, “you realize that homophobia is still an issue everywhere, but especially in the black community. When people are scared to talk about it, that's how the disease spreads.” You can easily use that same quote for all persons of color.

Magic Johnson’s Foundation has given many college scholarships to inner city youths as well as funding for various AIDS organizations. On top of that, Magic’s net worth is listed close to a billion dollars. His investments include businesses that cater to the betterment of inner cities. By putting a movie theater or a Starbucks in lower income neighborhoods, it kept money and jobs within the community. For someone like myself who grew up far from any entertainment, I would travel far outside my community to get it. I see Magic Johnson as an example for people that have grown up in lower-income communities who feel the need to leave once have made money. Most people who leave never put any of their fortune back into the communities. Magic did and made money doing it.

Wanda Coleman

You will not see Wanda Coleman name on many top lists of African-American writers, nor would you find her on lists of top female African American writers. Truth is told; I’ve read better writers since. However, there was nothing like the feeling of reading Wanda Coleman’s A War Of Eyes And Other Stories in high school. To me, Wanda’s strength wasn’t just that she was a female African-American writer, but that she was from South Los Angeles. Every story was from a neighborhood that I knew. The voices she gave to her characters were voices I heard all my life. The streets that she walked were the same that I’ve walked. The fast food joints she worked at reminded me of all the greasy spoons I ate at. Her feelings of isolation and rejection were far more real to me than anything my literary high school friends were reading. I couldn’t get down with Holden Caulfield, but I certainly could get down with Wanda Coleman.

Recently, I listened to a track off a poetry record she did with Exene Cervenka of X. It’s called “Silly Bitches Institute," which was a story about being locked up in the Sybil Brand Institute For Women. That particular piece holds its own against some of the best African-American spoken word artists.

Miles Davis

 There are three albums that I listened to as a teenager that I felt I had to hide from my parents. The first being Black Sabbath’s Paranoid album, because my family was Catholic and I didn’t want my parents to think I was worshiping the devil. The second was Black Flag’s Damaged, because Black Flag was in the news for starting riots. I didn’t want my parents to think I was a self-destructing punk. The third was Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew; because I didn’t want my parents to think I was devil worshiping, self-destructing punk who took drugs.

That album hurt to listen to at first. I couldn’t believe it was the same guy who did Round About Midnight, a record I jacked from my father’s record collection. It was intense to say the least, but after repeated listings, it all made sense. Once I got into it, I loved it and I began to examine everything Miles did before and after Bitches Brew. He was always on point it seemed. The more I listened to Jazz, the more I noticed that when he changed styles, everyone would follow.

In his autobiography, entitled, Miles, The Autobiography, Miles broke it down like a wise uncle. His story is as he saw it, with no apologizes or excuses. If he thought you were a terrible musician, he let you know. Likewise, if he thought you were great, he gave much praise. His choice of musicians did not fall under color lines. He played with many non-black musicians if he thought they were a better fit for him. When black musicians questioned him about choosing a white musician over a black, he felt that they were weak and only making excuses for their own inabilities. He never relented. He loved being black. He didn’t like Free Jazz. He thought he should be paid top dollar and flaunted his wealth. He didn’t like musicians that did a lot of grinning. He hated cops. He liked the French. He liked all kinds of women. He was a terrible husband and a deadbeat dad. He had drug problems and many faults, but he was an excellent composer and musician.

His example is not one of integrity. His example is that in art, there is only art. If you stay loyal to friends, family and loved ones, your art will be compromised. The best artists are just that. They are not good friends, husbands, wives, father and mothers. Somewhere along the line, we started associating great art with good people. In some cases, perhaps, but most cases, never. To be a legend, one has to practice, create and not be afraid to get rid of dead weight, even if they show talent or dedication. What I got from Miles, as an artist is that it’s better to be honest with oneself and be a bad guy then to be liked and have mediocre art. Miles career lasted almost fifty years, with many milestones and his influence is still felt to this day.

Relevant Tags

Black History Month 2012 (11), Miles Davis (38), Malcolm X (7), Magic Johnson (1), Wanda Coleman (1)