Porgy and Bess - 7 July 1995
Summertime and the living is easy says the song. And it may be a sure sign that this is a song of long ago when you recall that it was sung by a black woman and it comes of course from George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess, which opened in 1936 – and it's worth saying now that it opened to everything from indifferent to very hostile reviews.
That's a long time ago and recently, I riffled through pieces written about it today by enlightened young critics who weren't there. If they had been they'd pretty certainly have been against it too. The original critics were uncomfortable with a play written by a white author, a white composer, that seemed almost alarmingly at home with lowly blacks, but had given them the heroic status of opera, a sign perhaps of galloping liberalism.
But now, in pieces looking at Porgy and Bess 40, 60 years after it was first performed, they tend to find in it, astonishingly liberal attitudes, and I can only say I don't see it. What was new and admirable was a total lack of condescension – and condescension was an absolutely dependable attitude at the time from all whites of whatever political or social stripe – but now Porgy and Bess lies in that kind of socially neutral limbo to which classic operas are usually confined. We don't go to Aida to learn about the troubles of President Mubarak and anybody wanting to guess how Japan is going to retort to President Clinton's vague trade agreement – which is really a threat of a delayed tariff – had better enjoy Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado and then forget it.
What got me onto this? A piece written in the Washington Post – which is a good reporting paper with a pronounced liberal not to say gloom and doom editorial bias – a piece that's the only cheerful piece I've read on America for a very long time. But what was impressive about it, was that it did not speculate or write about our new friend, rosy scenario, it was in simple fact, the most recent gallop poll. And I ought to say that I'm always relieved by national polls. They most often show the mass of the people to be more perceptive, more sensible about their society and the life around them, than what politicians whip them into believing – and we've had quite a whipping season.
But during the summer break, Washington is the hot summer town of old – not I'm afraid, the slumbering easy treading Southern small town I knew, with a sort of small town ease and friendliness, and only a couple of famous restaurants serving grits and corn fritters for breakfast, and snapper turtle soup and Maryland fried chicken and Kentucky chess pie for dinner. All that's gone now and the population has tripled, the government, that is to say the bureaucratic population, has about quint or sextupled since Roosevelt's time and just as in Moscow or London or Dallas or Dewsbury, the dishes immediately on hand are pizzas and plastic hamburgers.
In this blessed pause from threats and jeremiads and bloodcurdling warnings from both parties, and the personal, stimulating but rowdy one man band of Newt Gingrich, it seems a happy time to be handed a survey of national feeling. And as Detective Webb used to say, one that stays with the facts, "just the facts ma'am." Well you must be champing by now for the neutral good news of the gallop poll, but I wanted to colour in the social emotional background against which this cool report stands out like St. George posed against an expiring dragon.
Well the first question: earlier in American history, many people thought US, the United States, was the very best place in the world to live, do you still think it is or not? Eighty percent said it still was, 82 per cent whites and incredible to me 74 percent blacks. I think this is thoroughly bad question loaded towards a favourable answer - many people thought ‘very best place in the world’. It would have been interesting to know what the answer would have been if, say, in 1910 – by which time 11 million southern and eastern Europeans had poured into the country – if the question had been put in this form: many new Americans thought the United States was a hellish place to live, they thought the rosy promises had turned into slave labour and a third of them wanted to go back to Europe or actually made it, what do you think? So I'm inclined to forget that first question and the massive favourable response as a collective act of wishful thinking.
However, what's most revealing about this recent survey comes out when you compare it with the same surveyor's results 30, 40 years ago, and of all the questions, the most heartening is the one that goes directly to the touchy question of race, of old and new attitudes to where the blacks are going and where they ought to go. In 1944 towards the end of the Second War, the survey asked whether blacks should have as good a chance as white people to get any kind of job, only 45 per cent said yes. Just over 25 years later in 1972, the same question was put again, this time 97 per cent said yes. I'd love to believe this figure if it came out of a survey taken today, and I'm astonished that this Washington Post writer didn't himself initiate a poll to see what had happened to national feeling about race and jobs in 23 long years. I'm positive it would have been a more revealing and depressing answer.
After all in 1972, Nixon was still in power and Watergate was a local caper, a joke on the horizon. We'd come through the turbulent ghastly '60s, the assassination of President Kennedy, the assassination of his assassin, the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King and the literal inflaming of a dozen or more cities by enraged blacks. The dreadful presidential campaign rallies at which students and other radical anti-Vietnam groups made it impossible for the politicians to speak. The Republican convention in Miami, which had about as much happy-go-lucky feeling as an armed camp, and the disgusting Democratic convention in Chicago where not only the student radicals and other fringe rebels sponsored violent marching protests, but the police themselves went as berserk as a gang of frightened SS men in Hitler's Munich. The assassination of Bobby Kennedy and so on and on. It was a dreadful time, as an era of social upheaval, threatening a breakdown as bad as any I'd known in 30 years, but we recovered.
Nixon was exposed as a liar to the Congress and the people and abdicated. The Vietnam War, the first Americans had been called on to admit they lost, wound down in general disbelief and bitterness, the only healthy Mark Twain sort of mood with which to face this tragedy, was that of a dry wry senator from Vermont: "Stop talking about agonised reappraisal," he said. "Say we won and fetch the boys home." Which is what happened.
But in the healing time, people didn't want to contemplate any more national headaches, and the condition of the blacks remained one. Besides, Lyndon's Johnson's Great Society had produced a civil rights bill that passed a law called, affirmative action, which said out loud what blacks very much wanted to have said on the very question of equality of jobs. It said that all things being equal, there were social situations in which preference for a going job, a piece of handiwork, a big contract whatever, the preference should be given to a black if there were two applicants with more or less equal qualifications. And this at the time seemed fair enough and a decent attempt to pay a proper price, conscience money if you like, for 300 years or more or slavery and backwardness.
But remember that poll, 97 per cent said yes should blacks have as good a chance as whites to have any kind of job? I swear that must have been 1972 the high mark of popular acceptance of the theory, in practice six years later the Supreme Court had to act on the discovery, which was seen everywhere, that blacks and black employers were understandably expecting or assuming something very like a quota system.
Anyway, they began to expect preference when the equality of credentials was debatable, and the system has been perverted and exploited ever since. So much so that in the last year or two, the Republicans have come up with a plan to abolish affirmative action, quoting cases, and of course they're there, though not as overwhelming as the Republicans say, or hope, where a white firm, white man or woman of plainly superior talent has been turned down in favour of a black. It's a tricky, mean, perhaps insoluble issue, for it calls, for in every case, coolness, fair mindedness and a due regard still to the historic disabilities of blacks – a combination requiring in every case an exercise of magnanimity, which perhaps cannot be written into law.
Anyway, my main point is that since 1972, the country has been turning more and more conservative through the Reagan '80s and with the Supreme Court losing three or four of its most dependable liberals and there now being a majority of conservatives. Only a week ago, the court decided that from now on, affirmative action cases should be given, quote: "The strictest scrutiny before a decision is made in favour of a black." They didn't spell it out quite as coarsely as that, but that's what they meant and the blacks knew it and the wave of disillusion has swept over them. Bring on the pollsters! A black man of great distinction, not a demagogue but a sociologist, warned a congressional committee a line has been drawn in the sand and I fear for the peaceable future of American society. I'm afraid that cheerful piece based on an old poll and one a little older still, was just a whistling solo in summer's empty Washington when we're supposed to cheer up anyway and play games and take a snooze.
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