Assumption, Culture, and Resources

When I talk about language in my classes, and I usually do (after all, I’m an English professor), I generally manage to include a comment or two about the use of different language in different situations, sometimes called ‘code switching’ (though that’s an inaccurate, or loose, use of the term).  One generally does not speak to one’s parents, for example, in the same way one speaks to one’s friends.  One does not write a paper using the same style as one does when texting a friend.

The discussion often moves into questions of dialect and culture, especially at City Tech, where my students have a great deal of experience with different sorts of English and with cultures other than their own.  After all, as the college website says, City Tech has faculty and students coming “from more than 120 countries and speaking more than 85 languages.”  About half of our students have at least some African ancestry, many of those identifying as African-American or as Caribbean-American.  Not surprisingly, we end up talking about just what makes for a different culture… is it language, is it religion, is it skin color?

To illustrate that there’s no easy answer to questions of cultural (and even racial) definition, I tell my students about Johnny Otis.  I had first become aware of him through his son Shuggie, who played on a couple of albums I had in college, particularly Al Kooper’s Kooper Session and Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats, one of my particular favorites.  The senior Otis, I discovered, had led his own bands and had been instrumental in helping the careers of a number of my favorite musicians from the fifties, including The Robins, the band that led to The Coasters.  His biggest hit had been “Willie and the Hand Jive,” which would be covered successfully a couple of years after my college time by Eric Clapton.

What surprised me most about Otis was discovery that he was not African-American.  Or, at least, that he did not look black.  That his son could be the product of an interracial marriage didn’t seem noteworthy, but that a band-leader so closely associated with black rhythm-and-blues had no African ancestry certainly did.

Somehow, I did learn something about Otis’s background, that his parents were immigrants from Greece, his father a grocer, who had moved to a black neighborhood.  Growing up among African-Americans, Otis identified with them and their culture, and chose to stay within it once he had left home.

At least once a semester, over the past five years, I have told his story to my students as a prelude to the question: Is Otis black or white?  The discussions about assumptions concerning race, culture, and even dialect have been most satisfying and, I hope, eye-opening for my students.

Last week, on TCM, a movie called Juke Box Rhythm was shown.  I watched with a bit of trepidation for, according to the credits, it included a performance by Johnny Otis.

I realized, as I watched, that I had never really checked the story I had been telling my students about Otis, that I was making assumptions instead of checking my facts–something I should not be doing, certainly not these days, when the internet makes it so easy to establish the veracity of many of the stories we tell.  I was doing exactly what I warned my students away from, semester after semester.

It turned out that Otis is exactly what I had thought him to be, much to my relief as I watched him perform “Willie and the Hand Jive” in the movie.  I later looked him up on Wikipedia, where there is even a mention (with references–something I ask my students to check) of his deliberate choice to identify with the black community.

Yes, I was lucky.  Memory is untrustworthy and, though I know that, I hadn’t bothered to act on that knowledge and check that what I thought I’d learned was accurate.  I had acted as a poor scholar and researcher in this digital age, when information is available so easily.  Had it proven that I was wrong about Otis, I would have been embarrassed, though I don’t think I would have hurt my students’ education (the point is still worth discussing).

What was it Ronald Reagan said?  “Trust, but verify?”  A quick check on Wikipedia just to make sure shows that it is older and Russian, and that even Lenin had liked the phrase.  Though I am a fan of neither Reagan nor Lenin, I am a fan of the aphorism.

And I had flattered myself that, in my research, at least, I lived by it.

Guess I have to try a little harder.

If not, the next time, I probably won’t prove so lucky as I was concerning Johnny Otis.

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