‘Don’t know much about geography’: Sam Cooke in a Seattle postdoc

‘Don’t know much about geography’: Sam Cooke in a Seattle postdoc February 11, 2019

photo by me

My wife and I were on the lower story of Seattle’s Pike Place Market, the part with the antique magazines and the magic store you descend to after walking past the singing bookstore guy, when we heard it. Don’t know much about geography, a voice crooned overhead, don’t know much about trigonometry. We didn’t talk about it then, but it got stuck in our heads that afternoon, so much so that at home that evening, she asked me what that song was. I replied that I did not know, though I had heard it before.

So I looked it up. I should have known that these were the words that gave inspiration to the textbook for the course on the Civil War that I took in my sophomore year in high school, Don’t Know Much About the Civil War. That was an interesting class, very different from eighth grade American history at the Christian school when we learned about every battle of the Civil War in great detail from someone who on hindsight was an apologist for the Confederacy who taught us that the war was fought over tariffs, not slavery. I learned a lot more about the brutality of slavery in that course, although the real thing that happened was that my geographical sensibilities were shaped by a final project I did on the Trent Affair, which was a strange case of espionage and geopolitical wrangling over the Navy that happened during the war.

I did not know who Sam Cooke was, and so was surprised to learn that he was black. Actually, that should not have been a surprise, since my parents grew up listening both to Paul Anka and the Platters, the latter of which was actually an African American group, so I should have clued in that just because it was the music of the fifties, it did not mean that traditional pop was necessarily white. Still, knowing nothing about Sam Cooke, I assumed that he was more of the order of Nat King Cole, a black conservative who sang white music and is therefore universally adored among Asian Americans colonized by the model minority myth of upward assimilation and thus the promise of America in its show tunes. ‘Wonderful World’ fit the bill, of course, as it is a song about education and love: Now I don’t claim to be an A student, but I’m trying to be, but maybe by being an A student, baby, I can win your love for me. It was, however, a very cute song, so I made a point of memorizing it for my wife. She loved it. I liked it too. Maybe, thought I, Cooke was being sly with the slippage between study and love, that the ‘A student’ here where studying is done to impress a girl is actually the act of studying love. I was, after all, teaching Baldwin’s Fire Next Time in an American Religions course that quarter, and there were definitely some parallels.

My ignorance can perhaps be explained by the long hiatus that I took from American racial politics by moving to Canada for university. The truth is that coming back to America for a postdoc in Seattle was a shock to my system. I had studied Chinese Christians in San Francisco during my doctorate, and I was trained in Asian American studies, so I had a theoretical knowledge of what was going on in the geographies of racial formations in the United States, but nothing could have prepared for me for the direct assault on my personhood when I moved here. It would be unwise to divulge the entirety of my experience — indeed, I am still processing it — but from the immigration system to the realization that being perceived as model minority relegates ones to perpetual student status in the academy even when one is trying to become faculty, it was like having to learn an entirely new way of being in the world, of having to keep my sense of self intact when everyone else reduced me to my identity. I learned quickly, for example, that being Chinese and having an evangelical background can be quickly commodified. I am helpful for what I can bring to the (white) table from those communities and discarded when I cannot deliver. The subtle difference that my being a person of color made for me, I reflected recently to a colleague, is that if I were white and someone saw my curriculum vitae, I’d be offered a job. But because of who I am, my credentials are often transformed into how I might be helpful as an accessory, every action of mine interpreted as an eager beaver student fantasizing about a meritocracy and therefore not sociable enough to truly be part of an intellectual community.

I read a lot of Baldwin that year, and the funk that comes with erotic encounters with the sterility of American liberalism cut me to the heart, and I made a lot of people-of-color friends. I hung out a lot with the Catholic Newman Center too, because it was there that I was seen as a person and not an accessory, and in one memorable moment of spiritual direction, one of the Dominicans there discerned that the problems that I was facing was that I was trying way too hard to fit into academia as an institutional infrastructure, proverbially selling my soul because that is what was demanded of me. The act of repentance, he continued, was not to call it quits on the academy, but to pray for each person as a person whom I knew who was making that demand and even doing it to themselves. I needed, in other words, to save my soul and to become a person again, broken down as I became by the racial politics that turned me into a thing and demanded my utility instead of my personhood. You are Chinese, and you write about Chinese Christians, and you can bring us your connections with them: this is the logic of the zoo, not of communities with actual people with complex lives in them.

There is a certain irony that it was during this postdoc that the Umbrella Movement happened, in which Hong Kong people demanded their rights to political agency. But what is perhaps even more formative for me is that the Umbrella Movement began the same week as the protests in Ferguson, the next episode after the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman at which Black Lives Matter became the rallying cry for social justice across America. I had followed the Martin case even on this blog — indeed, even while based in Canada and doing research in Hong Kong — which means that I really have very little excuse for being so personally ignorant of American racial politics, but what I am trying to say is that in the moment of the Umbrella Movement merging with Ferguson, I became acutely aware of my own experience as racialized even though it had been drummed into me by well-meaning liberals on both sides of the forty-ninth parallel that I should avoid flipping the race card. I could not deny that there was something problematic in my experience and that it had something to do with white normativity.

And so it was that on one lonely evening in Seattle when my wife was with family in Vancouver that I decided to put on some Sam Cooke, now that I knew who he was. I found an omnibus set of albums on Spotify titled The Man Who Invented Soul, and I set it to shuffle. I was of the impression that I’d listen to Cooke’s honey-kissed voice crooning fifties traditional pop. And then suddenly, I heard him, as if shouting in a microphone to a loud audience, Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. Here’s the thing — right now, ladies and gentlemen, we sang so many of those fast songs, we’ve been twistin’ a little while, so now I think it’s time to settle down and get a little romantic for a little while, huh? I remember responding yes, as I was also that uncool kid at junior prom and senior ball who really didn’t like all those fast hip-hop songs and only really knew how to dance the slow dances with women who are both no longer on speaking terms with me. Is everyone in favor of getting romantic?

Then Cooke turns it into a sermon on manhood. Right now we’d like to give the fellas, we’d like to tell the fellas something, you know. Fellas, I wanna tell you, when somebody come and tell you about what your girlfriend has done, or what your wife has done, I want you to remember one thing. Don’t go home and hittin’ on her and all that stuff. Whenever they tell you anything about your lady, go home and if she’s sleeping, shake her and wake her up, and wait till she’s wiped all the sleep from her eyes, you understand? And when she wipe all the sleep from her eyes, look at her dead in the eye and say, It’s all right!

I started physically shaking, and I may even have cried, but not because of anything related to my wife. Seattle had been, in a previous evangelical life, the place where I had learned about manhood from a preacher named Mark Driscoll, who had pastored a church called Mars Hill Church that fell apart when I was a postdoc. In fact, the location of the site of his ascendancy, the Paradox Theater, was a block away from where I lived, from where I had Cooke on. Like many young evangelical men at the time, I had been as taken in by Driscoll on the practices of manhood, as I’m sure a number of young men are taken in by the pop psychology of Jordan Peterson now, and one of the things that Driscoll, much like Peterson, emphasized was shows of strength as a sign of masculinity. You had to demonstrate your sense of responsibility to give your family domestic security. Determination was what motivated activity, proving yourself to be a man. I have no doubt that this was the sense of manhood that I even tried to live out in the academy, long after I had left New Calvinism behind to become an Anglican, that part of what it means to be part of an intellectual community is to show my enthusiasm, to be willing to take up responsibility, to organize and get things done and do good things for the collectivity. It was also why I was so useful, which made for my being perceived as an asexual accessory.

And here was Sam Cooke, a black man about whom I was woefully ignorant, breaking the perception that he was just a crooner of pop tunes and offering a deeply funky, gentle, and sexual form of masculinity, one where the pain of existence and the reality of betrayal becomes manifest in radical acts of love. I did not know that he was connected to the Baldwin that I had been so desperately reading, or that he had taken part in a discussion of black liberation with Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Cassius Clay in 1964 which impacted them so much that the next day Clay renamed himself Muhammad Ali. I did not know that the recording that I had heard was Sam Cooke live at the Harlem Square Club, where he let his blackness show to the black audience that continued to adore him while he went mainstream much more so than when he played at the Copa. I did not know that within a year, he’d be shot dead in suspicious circumstances in a seedy Los Angeles motel in circumstances that have led to conspiracy theories linking the feds to the mob. I most certainly was unfamiliar with the genre of soul and did not know that Sam Cooke was its widely recognized father.

All I knew in that moment is that even Cooke’s introduction to the song was almost irrelevant, that while Cooke might have been singing it to his metaphorical lady, he really was singing it to me. It’s all right, he declared, it’s all right, it’s all right, believe me when I say it’s all right, long as I know, long as I know that you love me, it’s all right. It is not too much for me to recognize this moment as a conversionary one, which was on my path to finding myself as a person in an Eastern Catholic Church and therefore as an icon in my own right, and it is no exaggeration for me to say that this encounter with Cooke set the stage for my tardy discovery of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill later that year, with similar reflections on my academic career. But I suppose what I am saying is that if my postdoc was about a visceral bodily encounter with American racial politics that shattered any illusions that I had left over about the model minority, the soul of Sam Cooke began re-arranging that funk into a new moral meaning that has given new shape to my scholarship, my ecclesial life, and my sense of personhood. Looking back on my time in Seattle, I realize that the postdoc truly was a continuation of my education, that I really didn’t know much about geography because I had yet to experience the racializing funk from which love that is painfully true is generated, and maybe the rude awakening that I had there about the continuing power of the global color line in the twenty-first century was the precursor to a catechumenate and mystagogy rooted in womanist phenomenology and the personal love from which social justice is enacted.

I write these reflections on the occasion of Netflix’s release of the documentary Remastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke.

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