Review: Listen, Whitey! by Pat Thomas
April 21, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Though records are still released in limited fashion, the girth that created such a pastime as record collecting has been gone for a long, long time.
While the surface implications of what is lost might not be huge to the many people who point out the huge amount of music available on demand these days, those who participated in the pursuit can tell you it was never just about hearing things. Record collecting was an activity, a hunt, it was a game you played with reality in order to unearth pieces of information that, when they joined the other pieces of information you had procured, told a wider story.
Record collecting was an engagement with mystery.
Thomas understands this and his book, “Listen Up, Whitey,” which documents the pieces — both lauded and obscure — of the recording element within the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ‘70s.
The book itself isn’t literally about record collecting and doesn’t often say much about the pursuit of the titles discussed within, but the air of discovery permeates the work and functions as the guiding principle of the knowledge passed along, as well as the origin of some of the investigation.
Relating the history of the Black Power movement — easily obscure knowledge to most 21st-century white people — Thomas winds through the back catalogs and record store bins that include not only music releases by the likes of Gil Scott-Heron, Charles Min gus, Pharoah Sanders and a host of more obscure artists, but also poetry titles by collectives like The Last Poets and speech recordings by Stokely Carmichael, Bill Cosby, H. Rap Brown, Angela Davis, and others, documentary recordings like “Guess Who’s Com ing Home,” which featured interviews with black soldiers serving in Vietnam, religious records by the Rev, C.L. Frank lin, and much more.
In one of the most fascinating chapters, Thomas reveals all the existing recordings of the actual Black Panthers leadership like Bobby Seale, Elaine Brown, Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. Another equally mesmerizing section dissects the output of the Black Forum label, Motown’s politically themed subsidiary.
Nowadays, revolutions are easy to track — you just Google them. But back in the 1970s, LPs became dispatches from the front that people could play in their homes, or on local radio stations, to gauge how the rest of the world was approaching the political that was so personal to them.
These small discs were part of the overall effort that allowed African Americans to get real information about the Black Power Movement, to let them know they weren’t alone, to show them ways to be involved, to stoke ideas and energy, and to provide catharsis. Thomas mines this territory to construct a richly illustrated history of a time when revolution was damn hard, and it left reminders that it once existed.