Thinking Last Night About Elvis

I overheard a conversation by some young Nashville music people–white–about how Elvis was racist. And it’s been bugging me.

I’ve been thinking how in Elvis’s time, white society looked at black culture and said “That’s trash. Don’t touch it.” and how Elvis was like, “Holy shit. I found some awesome stuff here in the trash. I’m going to wear it. I’m going to shake it. I’m going to sing it. Look, look, guys. Look what I found here! It’s fucking awesome.” And how a bunch of white kids were like “Wow, yep, that is awesome. Show us more, Elvis.”

When black people say, “Hey, that’s not trash, you racist fucks; that’s our culture,” they have an absolutely legitimate complaint. Elvis wasn’t rooting through trash and it is structural racism that made it seem so.

But the complicated thing about American culture is that Elvis could have been doing something racist at one level that was also anti-racist at another level. Because saying to white kids, “No, you’re wrong. This stuff has value. This stuff is awesome. The people who made it have some cool shit it’s worth it for you to check out.” was and, sadly, still remains revolutionary.

Okay, so I think that’s clear. The same act can be both racist and anti-racist because this is America.

But here’s what I’ve been thinking about, why it really bugs me when white progressives dismiss Elvis as racist: because white racists in Elvis’s time did not want kids listening to Elvis, because they didn’t want white kids finding value in black culture and they didn’t want black kids to see their culture being valued by white culture. Elvis was an intersection–an imperfect intersection, yes, god, yes, so imperfect–that white racists did not want kids to meet at.

So whose work is being done when white progressives discourage white kids from listening to Elvis?

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