In February, when the 107th Congress designated 2003 the Year of the Blues, it was mainly to commemorate composer and musician W. C. Handy’s notation of the music he heard one day while resting near a levee in Memphis, Tenn. But, unintentionally, the blues designation is appropriate when you consider the more than 130,000 men and women in olive drab mired in the war in Iraq that began on March 20.
Since President Bush declared, back in May, the end of the Saddam Hussein regime and that Iraqi forces had been neutralized, it has not stopped the daily deaths, which, to date, total over 420 U.S. service people; more than a thousand have been wounded.
The highlights of this year include the massive demonstrations in reaction to a war that has lost popularity with the American people. There have been several major rallies against the invasion, including a recent one in October in which thousands of Black, white, Asian and Hispanic Americans voiced their opposition to what they feel is an unjust war. “Bring the troops home!” is a chant that is reverberating across the country.
Protesters were also upset about the possibility of the erosion of civil liberties with the passing of the Patriot Act and the stepped-up measures related to national security as part of the war against terrorism. It was a case of chilled blues for those who rallied in February near the United Nations to stop what became inevitable a month later.
Closer to home, particularly in New York City, the blues came in the blue uniforms worn by overzealous officers of the New York City Police Department. In the spring and summer the city was rocked by the senseless death of Alberta Spruill, who died after the police wrongfully battered down her door, exercising a “no-knock search warrant” that had concluded this innocent woman’s home harbored drugs and weapons. Two weeks later, African immigrant Ousmane Zongo, a merchant from Burkina Faso, was killed at the Chelsea Mini-Storage when an officer thought an unarmed man endangered his life. Calvin Washington, a home owner in Brooklyn, suffered a heart attack and later died when the police kicked in his door, allegedly in pursuit of a felon. No criminal was ever found. A pacemaker was extending Washington’s life.
Many Americans moaned the blues when they heard that artist Tom Feelings had died in August after a long fight against prostate cancer; that dancer-actor Gregory Hines, 57, met a similar fate in Los Angeles on August 9; that tennis immortal Althea Gibson, 76, was no longer with us, succumbing on September 28 after a long illness at her home in New Jersey. Residents in Brooklyn mourned the loss of Sonny Carson, the brash, outspoken Black nationalist leader who played such a pivotal role in the African Burial Ground controversy. He would have been pleased to know that the ancestors for whom he struggled to give a decent burial were reinterred with dignity in October at the very site from which they had been excavated 12 years ago. After a six-city tour, the human remains, sealed in beautiful mahogany coffins, were lowered into crypts at the African Burial Ground not too far from City Hall.
City Hall had its moment of terrible news and the blues when Councilman James Davis was gunned down in July. The 41-year-old political leader from Brooklyn was assassinated from the balcony overlooking the council chambers by a man with questionable motives who was subsequently killed by a security guard. Davis’s brother, Geoffrey, sought to replace him in the Council but lost his election bid to Letitia James.
The blues turned dark in August when New York and several other cities endured a daylong blackout due to a power grid failure. Unlike past blackouts, this one began in the daylight hours and thus the looting and vandalism were minimized.
Spike Lee and Jayson Blair were bluesmen of sorts. Lee brought a lawsuit against Viacom, which sought to use his name for a new network it wanted to call “Spike TV.” The talented film director felt his name was being impugned and took the station to court. A settlement was reached before trial and Lee’s blues were ended. Blair, the erstwhile star reporter at the New York Times, is still knee-deep in the blues after he fabricated stories and was terminated by the paper. His funk increased when he was informed that no major publisher was interested in cutting a book deal with him. In the wake of his misdeed, Howell Raines, the paper's executive editor, and Gerald Boyd, the managing editor, resigned from their positions.
On the happy blues front, the Rev. Al Sharpton and former U.S. Senator and Ambassador Carol Moseley-Braun are seeking the nomination for president. Both are contending against seasoned politicians to get the Democratic nod in the primaries. Sharpton had to overcome a disastrous fire that practically destroyed his office and the auditorium where he held his weekly National Action Network forums. A recent poll among registered Black voters showed Sharpton with a decisive lead over the other contenders.
The blues took on a hue of green in parts of Harlem as a Marshall’s and an H&M joined the other retail giants along the community’s main thoroughfare. Now there is talk of a Marriott Hotel anchoring the strip near the Metro North overpass on 125th Street. Some of these new developments have left Black residents short of the lean green and mean with the blues, believing the money flowing into Harlem can be better used to create affordable housing.
A few of the year’s top stories are still awaiting resolution. Kobe Bryant and John Muhammad, the accused sniper, will be in the courtroom or tried by the time this column is published, and they appear to be headed for a real bad case of the blues. Meanwhile, Carmelo Anthony and Lebron James face trials of a different sort as they take their God-given gifts to the NBA. And if these young phenomenons live up to their potential, they will spread the blues almost as far as W.C. Handy did. Good news for some, bad news and the blues for others.
When PBS launched its seven-part series on the blues under the aegis of executive producer Martin Scorsese, there was a certain apprehension among viewers, particularly African-Americans, that the segments would fail to do justice to this singularly unique expression of world culture. While the series had its riveting moments, too much of it leaned on the role of whites in perpetuating the music. In other words, Scorsese and several of his selected directors gave the blues the blues!