Facebook, you may have missed that the week before last, I posted a link to a piece I'd written originally for The Frisky about the experience of often being the only black person at rockabilly events here in New York. I didn't think anyone would ultimately care, really, but I felt I had a story to tell so I did. I was completely shocked by the outcome. My essay was picked up by xo Jane, a friend of a friend passed it on, several friends on Facebook shared it, and there it was.
I got a lot of really positive feedback, from friends, friends of friends on Facebook and in the comments. Generally, I do my best not to read the comments on things that I write outside this blog, but I broke my own rule. It was so nice to hear from others who shared a similar experience, like the commenter who she knew what I meant because she's almost always the only Asian woman in the mosh pit. People tweeted me about it; it all felt good. But, as with nearly everything on the Internet, some people found a way to be outraged.
My intention wasn't to play martyr, nor to bash the scene. I thought I went out of my way to make it clear that wasn't what I was doing:
Rockabilly is thought of as being a white thing. With Elvis as its biggest star, it’s already ripe with issues for some black people. I know I and other people of color I’ve talked to, were raised with the myth that Elvis publicly said black people were only good for buying his records and shining his shoes. Research showed me he never actually said that but in a way it doesn’t really matter. The damage is done. He’s a reminder of the way whites have long appropriated black culture. Add to that the fact that many fans of the music and the scene use the Confederate flag in their outfits and it’s easy to come away with the message “you don’t belong here.” By no means is rockabilly music or the scene inherently racist, and from what I’ve seen, on the West Coast the scene is heavily Latino. Still, it bears noting a white person once asked me, “But why do you like rockabilly? It’s not really a black thing.” (You can read the whole thing here)
More than anything, I wanted to challenge the idea that rockabilly is for some people and not for others because of the color of their skin, to point out that the question I was asked is problematic. I've met so many wonderful people through the rockabilly scene here in New York in the two years I've been participating. I had the time of my life at Viva, I love going to shows. Still, there exists a strange chicken-or-the egg dynamic: black people may think they're not wanted (or, in my case, have their presence questioned outright) so they don't go to shows or events, and then the lack of black faces confirms that it's not someplace they should be. That's where the "it's not really a black thing" question comes from, and I don't think that's okay. Nor do I think it's good for a person of any race, sexuality, etc. to succumb to implicit or explicit pressure to stay away from a space they enjoy but where he doesn't feel welcome, though I understand the impulse. And, as I said in my piece, it's deeply ironic when DJs dust off 45s of lesser-known black artists. I don't think I would ever have discovered Bunker Hill if I hadn't started listening to rockabilly.
Lastly, I want to say that by no means am I an expert on rockabilly music or the scene, nor have I ever proposed to be one. I have so much to learn, and that's what I love about all of this. I'm constantly discovering new music, whether it was first performed 50 years ago or is a new release. The music is fun, and besides, it's situated in a culture where there's a partner dance. I've always said partner dancing is something sorely missing in the last two generations. I'm having fun and I'm learning. All I want is to have fun, to learn, to just be without silly questions. I thought, and still think, this is a discussion worth having.
I'm opening the floor to you guys. Have you had a similar feeling at events? Did I miss something in my essay?