As a seventeen-year-old high school senior, my everyday experiences and relationships were disproportionately with white people. All my friends were white. My co-workers were white. My teachers were white. The town I lived in was almost all white. Whiteness abounded – oozing through cracks in pavement, sprouting like weeds in empty fields, permeating the conscience of the community.
Whiteness was thought of – as much as it was thought about at all – as "normal"; it was the default. Whiteness was good and safe and comfortable. Whiteness was innocuous, innocent, virtuous. Non-whiteness, on the other hand, was unseemly (at best) and dangerous (at worst). Non-whiteness was lurking with evil intent threatening to destroy all the righteousness that whiteness had worked so hard to establish and maintain.
This was the environment in which I grew up. This was my reality. It heavily shaped my personal narrative.
Whiteness was thought of – as much as it was thought about at all – as "normal"; it was the default. Whiteness was good and safe and comfortable. Whiteness was innocuous, innocent, virtuous.
So when, during my senior high school, I discovered three blues albums in my mother's record collection – The Last Sessions by Mississippi John Hurt (an old black guy), Giant Step / De Ole Folks at Home by Taj Mahal (a young black guy at the time of recording, but an old black guy at the time of my discovery), and Hot Tuna's self-titled debut album (young white guys playing almost exclusively songs written and recorded by old black guys) – I discovered, literally, a whole new world.
A whole new world of music. I was drawn in by the accessibility and stripped-down nature of acoustic guitars, harmonicas, banjos, and upright basses. It was so much easier on the ear than rock and roll or new wave or punk or pop – or any other genres that I regularly listened to. It was simple, yet sophisticated. Musically, I was hooked.
But it wasn't the music alone that intrigued me. It was what they were singing about. That's what changed me. These guys were singing about topics and experiences and realities that I had had absolutely no exposure to. The stories they told about picking cotton on the Mississippi Delta, getting in barroom gambling fights, roaming and rambling around the country, playing on the train tracks, fishing in the afternoon and eating your catch for dinner that night – these stories mesmerized me.
And, as unfamiliar as I was with these experiences, I immediately recognized the core emotions and feelings they were singing about: loneliness, isolation, othering, poverty, wanting a better life, trying desperately to be seen and heard and understood. Trying to live your truth.
As unfamiliar as I was with these experiences, I immediately recognized the core emotions and feelings.
I related to these themes because they are universal themes.
These first three blues albums sent me on a quest that is still going today. I began to discover more and more blues artists from every decade of the twentieth century and from every region of the country – the Mississippi Delta, the Appalachian Mountains, Chicago, Kansas City, Texas, Tennessee. . . I collected CDs, read biographies, watched old documentaries, saw live blues shows of newer artists and some hangers-on from the old days. I DJ'd a blues show for my college radio station, and I began playing acoustic country blues guitar in the style of many of the artists I had stumbled upon.
Almost every single artist or group I discovered was black. That changed me too. Whereas previously, I was clueless to my homogenous environment, I was now becoming increasingly aware of it. I began to understand more clearly the inequities that were built into our political, educational, professional, and social systems.
By immersing myself in the music and stories and ethos of old black blues musicians, I, a young white kid, began to see who I was and who I could become. I began to be more intentional about expanding my social and professional networks to include people from diverse backgrounds. My previous apathy about the experiences of people and communities that were not like me transformed into genuine curiosity and interaction. I was no longer disinterested or dismissive; I now wanted to learn and connect and expand and understand.
I began to understand more clearly the inequities that were built into our political, educational, professional, and social systems.
By listening to old black guys play the blues, I became more empathetic and compassionate. I became more mature. I became more worldly, more self-actualized, a more authentic version of myself.
By listening to old black guys play the blues, this young white dude allowed himself to grow outside of his comfort zone. I gave myself the opportunity to embrace new realities and new experiences, and I seized those opportunities with both hands. I have been running with those opportunities for a few decades now, shouting to anyone who will listen about the new person that I've become.
This nearly thirty year journey of listening to old black guys play the blues has taught me a lot about people. About our differences, and about how we often put too much emphasis on those differences. About how we hide behind those differences, and how we use them as excuses to stay in our silos, to perpetuate stereotypes, to uphold our limited perspectives of the world.
Listening to old black guys play the blues has taught me that most of the issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion (or more precisely lack of diversity, inequity, and exclusion) comes down to fear. Fear of the other, yes. But just as much fear of ourselves. Fear of who we could become if we allowed ourselves the opportunity. Fear of the unknown that is inside us. Fear of change.
Imagine how things would be different at our places of work, in our cities, in our politics, in our social circles if we weren't afraid of the unknown. If we embraced difference, sought it out and held onto it for dear life. If we recognized that we're not talking about music or politics or religion or economics, that what we're really talking about is humanity.
We're talking about connecting our hearts and minds with the hearts and minds of other people. We're talking about seeing each other as individuals worthy of love and connection and validation. How cool would that be?
I'd expand more, but I'm gonna go listen to Robert Johnson sing the blues.
When we overcome our fear, we open the door to new opportunities. Stacy O. shares her personal adoption journey and how her family's choice to dive into the unknown was the best decision they ever made.
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