Jewish World Review August 3, 2001 /14 Menachem-Av, 5761

Stanley Crouch

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A writer misuses the great Louis Armstrong -- LOUIS ARMSTRONG was perhaps the greatest single innovator in the history of original American music, but he was often dismissed as an exploited Uncle Tom because of his equal emphasis on art and entertainment.

But Armstrong was never exploited in such a brazen manner as he was by Terry Teachout in Sunday's New York Times Arts & Leisure section. By stressing Armstrong's belief in "self-discipline, self-improvement, self-reliance," and through the selective use of quotes, Teachout sets Armstrong in conflict with his own people. He makes him appear to be a Negro-hating Negro.

Bitter Armstrong letters are quoted from 1969, when black power had subverted the civil rights movement and people of his generation were being dismissed or insulted.

Teachout ignores this context and gives the impression that Armstrong hated his own ethnic group. But Teachout is after more than name-calling. His point is that the problems experienced by black people were not attributable to racism, institutional and otherwise. No, their unwillingness to work hard or take responsibility for their fates or to help the ambitious among them is why those destined to succeed must count on the kindness of white people.

Teachout quotes from a selection of letters called "Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words," using just part of a passage in which Armstrong was comparing Jews and black people. This wasn't new. Surely unknown to Teachout, this is a cliched argument Negroes have long made when angry - "If our people were like Jews, we would stick together, help each other out and stop trying to get somebody else to do our jobs for us."

But Teachout doesn't make clear that Armstrong was drawing a comparison with Jews, because things would have become more complicated in ethnic and class terms. He ignores Armstrong's numerous references elsewhere in the collection to the Negroes, from workaday to nightlife to artistic types, who helped him along. Armstrong talks of teamsters who helped him as a kid, of black people from all walks of life who "did everything within power for me."

When Armstrong blew his stack in 1957 and said, "The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell," he also said, "My people ... are not looking for anything ... we just want a square shake." Those quotes are also in the book. So the troubles of black people were not all their own fault.

Were Teachout to have cited such passages, he would have had to admit that Armstrong, like most people, had a love-hate attitude toward his group, a shifting set of emotions dependent on context and circumstances.

I called Teachout to discuss this with him, but he still doesn't get it. If he had given him his true complexity, Louis Armstrong would have come off as human, not a mask for dehumanizing ideology.

JWR contributor and cultural icon Stanley Crouch is a columnist for The New York Daily News. He is the author of, among others, The All-American Skin Game, Or, the Decoy of Race: The Long and the Short of It, 1990-1994,       Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives, and Don't the Moon Look Lonesome: A Novel in Blues and Swing. Send your comments by clicking here.


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