By Penny Smith
In geometry, a plane is a flat, two-dimensional surface. Parallel planes may extend forever, but they never intersect. So much of American history is made up of parallel planes.
For example, I just finished reading Preston Lauterbach’s The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock’N’Roll this past week. It describes the African-American entertainment circuit through much of the South, how it developed, who founded and maintained it, and who found employment on it. In the telling, Lauterbach makes a persuasive case for the Chitlin’ Circuit leading the way to rock and roll bands, as large swing orchestras associated with people like Cab Calloway and Count Basie gave way to smaller troupes touring in the B League and playing for primarily black audiences. Among the folks who started their careers on the circuit were Ike Turner, Little Richard and James Brown.
Until there was an entertainment cross-over in the mid to late 1950s, the entertainers of the Chitlin’ Circuit occupied a world unknown to most of white America. And when the cross-over happened, the entertainment tours and the venues they played began to die out.
I remember having a long conversation with one of my teachers at a middle school in High Point, whose father used to run the black hotel on Washington Drive. Washington Street was “the stroll,” the commercial and entertainment heart of the city’s black community. Almost all of the big names in black entertainment who came through the city stayed at that hotel.
When the circuit closed, Washington Drive began to close, as did that hotel. At the end of “the stroll” was the African-American high school, William Penn. Originally constructed in 1910, renovated in 1929, it was a magnificent two story twelve-classroom building. Come desegregation, it, too, closed, only to re-open much later as an alternative school. An old elementary building became Griffin Middle School, where I was once a principal. (It is currently the Penn-Griffin School of the Arts.) The original William Penn School, also once known as the High Point Normal and Industrial School, was effectively shuttered like most of the commercial buildings. My janitor took me on a tour through what remained of the original building, moldering and empty, in spite of being on the National Historic Register.
Most white Americans have no idea what the Green Book was. Almost all African-Americans of a certain age know it was a navigation guide to the south, letting travelers know where it was safe to stay and where one could find food. It came out annually from 1936 – 1966. Almost all African-Americans of a certain age know all the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” but most white Americans have no clue that there was a song once known as the Black American National Anthem.
Under segregation black and white lives lived primarily on different planes. Intersection involved necessary economics, mostly African-Americans working for white families, but the worlds in which hopes and joys existed were mostly separate and apart. We might have worshiped the same God, but did so in separate spaces.
That world ended, but primarily on white America’s terms. They are sometimes not at all aware what African-American communities gave up in the process.
We are re-segregating on different planes now, ideological ones that separate us as definitively as race once did and sometimes still does. Furthermore, we are doing it voluntarily. We seem to be closing down those institutions that once brought us into contact with people other than ourselves and forced us to make some sort of accommodation with them. Since accommodations involve discussions, that meant there were points of intersection.
However, today we live in gated communities or closed neighborhoods. We attend church with like-minded people. Our recreation choices (NASCAR or basketball, for instance) are sometimes made based on the company we know we will keep. Our common bond to civic institutions has frayed as ideological purists develop ideologically specific alternatives, like the Federalist Society, to interpret our founding documents. Vouchers guarantee that we attend schools with like-minded folks.
I’m reminded of William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” part of which reads:
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
A world of multiple planes full of passionate intensity is not a world of hope, but of fear; not a world of love, but of suspicion. Indeed, it’s a world whose center cannot hold.