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An Oreo and Mozart
This book is written in the grammatical third person to maintain some analytical distance between the author and the subject. But all along 1 have thought that some personal perspective might be useful to round out the point. That’s what I provide here in the form of a postscript. One afternoon in summer 1998, my then 13-year-old daughter, Boma, and I went to a movie rental store in Birmingham (USA) to rent the film “Amadeus.” 1 had always wanted to watch it since it was released in 1984, with critical acclaim and box office success. That I didn’t probably had something to do with the fact that it was the same year that 1 completed my doctoral studies and made the transition to a career in academia. For reasons I don’t readily recall—probably something from a conversation with my daughter about her class discussions—1 decided to rent and watch “Amadeus” that summer, 14 years after its release.
To prevent theft by customers, the store stacked disks behind the desk, leaving only empty casings in the browsing area. So, to rent a DVD, customers had to take the empty case to the desk, where the disk is retrieved and inserted before checkout. Behind the checkout counter—a little farther back—were two black teenagers, one male and one female, both busy sorting and restacking returned DVDs. When my daughter and I got to the desk, the young man immediately approached us to take our order. 1 placed the empty case in front of him and said, “May we have this, please?”
“Amadeus,” he called out to his colleague, who was still farther away.
“What?” she asked, apparently not comprehending the order.
He stepped back a little from the desk and repeated a little more emphatically, “Amadeus.” She got it that time and mumbled something 1 couldn’t discern. In response, he muttered “Oreos” and they both chuckled.
He seemed like a very polite young man, and when he said “Oreo” he did so matter-of-factly and with an affable demeanor. There was no appearance of judgment or offense whatsoever. Yet, though he muttered the word, it was in such proximity that he had to know that 1 heard him. That apparently didn’t matter, for, to him, an Oreo couldn’t possibly know the meaning of Oreo.
Were it necessary to respond to him, I would have conceded that if liking classical music makes a black person an Oreo, then I was one. I especially savor Mozart’s piano and horn concertos. Indeed, I never get tired of listening to his Piano Concerto No. 27, as well as Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5.
But 1 would also have informed the teenagers that while my vinyl and cassette collection had a smattering of classical music, it was (and still is) dominated by reggae, R & B, funk, and soul. Along with Mozart, Beethoven, and the like, I have no less a passion for the music of Junior Walker, Otis Redding, Clarence Carter, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, the Commodores, Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Toots and the Maytals, Rex Lawson, Osita Osadebe, and so on.
For that matter, my heart still revs at the sound of the traditional music of the Ijaw people of the eastern Niger Delta, where 1 grew up. I am talking of the Eremina Ogbo and masquerade songs and drum rhythms. I actually still manage to dance to and drum away some of the basic steps and rhythms. That is with due concession to talent deficiency and rust from decades of not being regularly immersed in the traditions.
As to movies, I would have added that I had watched, rented, or owned black-themed movies such as “A Soldier’s Story,” “Sparkle,” “Malcolm X,” “The Greatest,” “Jungle Fever,” “Do the Right Thing,” “School Daze,” among many others. Quite a few Caucasians most probably watched those movies as well. But then they may well have been Wannabes, the reverse of Oreos. Given the youth of the checkout clerks, most of the names and titles I have mentioned probably wouldn’t have rung a bell. Still, they might have been persuaded to append an asterisk to their Oreo label.
They definitely would have been surprised to find out—as I was— that watching “Amadeus” made me realize how proximate the culture it depicts was to the one I grew up in. 1 was especially struck by the similarity in the masquerade traditions and supernatural beliefs. The masquerade festivities were the same unbridled affair as the ones I grew up cherishing. And the mysticism and superstition that permeated the film were just as familiar. Sure, what was depicted in “Amadeus” was
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the cultural practices of late 18th-century Vienna. But it was Europe nonetheless, and I couldn’t but feel the cultural commonality.
In retrospect, I had reason to outright reject the Oreo label. Were it not for the narrative of racial superiority, the counter-narrative that gave rise to the notion of Oreo might never have arisen. It all ties in with Kwame Anthony Appiah’s point that “much of our contemporary thinking about identity is shaped by pictures that are in various ways unhelpful or just plain wrong.”1
1 Appiah, Lies That Bind, xiii.