Why (Less Than) Six Degrees Separate Jeremy Lin from the Carolina Chocolate Drops

“Racism for me has always appeared to me to be first and foremost a system, largely supported by material and economic conditions at work in a field of social traditions. Thus, though racism is always made manifest through individuals’ decisions, actions, words, and feelings, when we have the luxury of looking at it with the longer view (and we don’t, always), usually I don’t see much point in blaming people personally, black or white, for their feelings or even for their specific actions – as long as they remain this side of the criminal. These are not what stabilize the system. These are not what promote and reproduce the system. These are not the points where the most lasting changes can be introduced to alter the system.”                                                                       Samuel F. Delany, “Racism and Science Fiction (1999)                                                                 

Most of said points, of course, are scored by hitting, bouncing, throwing, catching, or just lugging around a ball. Delany doesn’t mention such things in his typically brilliant essay. (He’s got slipperier fish to fry.) And why should he when there have been generations of historians, journalists, pundits and preachers to re-emphasize the importance of sports in transfiguring parochial attitudes about race?  Indeed, sport seems to be the only arena where race gets thrashed out and openly examined in ways barely imaginable in other public or even private contexts.

Much as I love sports, I wish it weren’t so. Not every person-of-color is a multi-purpose athlete as Jackie Robinson was. Nor can they all guide tennis balls where they want to with as much fury or precision as Arthur Ashe and the Williams sisters. And only Jim Brown was, or could ever be, Jim Brown. Yet the American people, whatever their ethnicity, religion or status, feel the most comfortable (or, worse, are only comfortable) freely talking about or identifying with other cultures when those others – or, if you prefer, “Others” – are playing games in front of spectators. In such relatively relaxed environs, people are encouraged, even empowered to think differently than they usually do – and, sometimes, say things they shouldn’t. Perceptions can be altered. People are a different matter.

This brings us – as does everything else in life lately – to Jeremy Lin. Everybody’s so tied up in knots about the Lin phenomenon that they’re torn between wishing the whole thing was winding down and hoping it never does. When the Knicks lose, the furor subsides a bit. But whatever happens for the team from here on, the incredulity of a Taiwanese-American Ivy Leaguer emerging from the NBA’s Negative Zone as a fearless, effervescent point guard will resound far beyond what’s left of this truncated pro basketball season. Sports journalists insist on looking in their own bailiwick for precedents. They’re left babbling Tim Tebow’s name and shrugging at how unwieldy the alignment looks. They should look instead to Elvis Presley in 1956 or the Beatles in late 1963 to early 1964. Forget content or context. This is a cultural phenomenon so overpowering that busybodies and spoilsports far outside the arena are compelled to stare, gush and poke at its surfaces to get at Some Larger Truth. Thus you get otherwise intelligent observers saying stuff they shouldn’t while others flail and thrash for whatever aligns with their politics.

At least the sportswriters (as opposed to the “news analysts”)  understand that Lin’s game hasn’t yet arrived at the exalted place that would totally justify the hype —  though they also know that when he does get less careless with the basketball, it’s likely you aint seen nothing yet!

But let that be. Let’s get back to Elvis. I am in no way suggesting that Lin represents anything as transformative as Presley’s impact on global culture. (At least, not yet.) But I do think that the excitement generated by both Presley’s breakout and Lin’s share the same wellspring and the name for that source is spelled C-R-O-S-S-O-V-E-R. Any time someone busts loose from constraints collectively, intrinsically and artificially imposed upon their cultural origins, the onlookers are susceptible to rapture, or at least giddiness. Suddenly, all such constraints seem little more than shaggy-dog jokes that haven’t been told yet. Possibilities are expanded. Imaginations are aroused. And the resulting blowback can change far more than pop culture. Or so you’d like to think. As I implied earlier, the more things change, etc etc.

Put another way, as Bill Rhoden’s column in Monday’s New York Times attests, the stereotypes against Asian Americans contradicted by Lin’s success can only make one more aware than usual of those that persist against African Americans. Implicit in Rhoden’s column is a yearning to somehow share in whatever pride Asians are feeling towards Lin e.g. “Where’s our Jeremy Lin?” or “Why doesn’t Victor Cruz arouse the same fervor? After all, he, too, came out of nowhere…” And so on, so forth.

Let’s be clear: It may no longer do African Americans any good to look in sports for equivalents to Jeremy Lin’s impact; at least, not until a brother comes along in hockey who’s got Bobby Orr’s demon speed and Wayne Gretsky’s cobra stroke. If you really want to look for black equivalents – and for that matter, comparable excitement over renewed possibilities – go elsewhere in the culture. I have a candidate, four in fact, for African American Jeremy Lin surrogates bearing a somewhat similar amalgam of dynamism and nerdiness. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…the Carolina Chocolate Drops!


“The what?” I asked my North Carolina-born wife a year ago when she first mentioned this confab of African American string players who’ve been around and about since 2005. In that time, they’ve appeared on festival stages with the likes of Taj Mahal, made a cameo appearance in Denzel Washington’s period drama, The Great Debaters (2007), played the Grand Ole Opry and even won a Grammy a couple years back. Most listeners casually apply the Bluegrass label to the Carolina Chocolate Drops, But it’s hard to place any cozy marketing niche to a group whose repertoire ranges all over the classic blues-and-folk repertoire; from square dance calls to field hollers; from Ethel Waters to Blu Cantrell, whose “Hit ‘Em Up Style” has been re-energized by the Chocolate Drops’ “acoustic, hip-hop version.”

Last Saturday afternoon, the group, which started as a trio but has morphed into a quartet, gave a free concert at the Library of Congress. They were genuinely jazzed to be playing at the home of the American Folklife Centerand the feeling from the standing-room-only house was altogether mutual. Original members Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens are now aligned with by Leyla McCalla on cello and Hubby Jenkins on everything, including banjo, guitar and fiddle. Flemons and Giddens likewise can play different instruments, but the charismatic Giddens is clearly the top fiddler and vocalist while Flemons gets to handle most of the percussive (“bones,” anyone?) and other rogue elements, including the “quill”, a traditional panpipe though whose tubes he does everything except recite the Gettysburg Address (and only because he hasn’t yet tried to.)

The musical numbers were bridged by historic vignettes; references to legendary music archivist Alan Lomax and novelist-folklorist-troublemaker Zora Neale Hurston came under discussion as did origins of some of the more obscure music. The setting was intimate, but the sounds were grand and all-encompassing. And as with the very best folk musicians, they made the old sound brand new; the context, to those who don’t expect young black folks (especially those, like Jenkins, who wear dreads) to play banjo – which, as the Chocolate Drops will be happy to inform you, is roughly as African in origin as they are. The audience’s racial composition appeared on causal glance slightly more Caucasian than not. But the excitement generated by the Chocolate Drops’ two-hour recital was palpable and, every once in a while, exploded, especially when Giddens assumed belting duties on “I’m Nobody’s Mama Now” and the aforementioned “Hit ‘Em Up Style.”

These guys may not get prime-time Grammy duties – and it’s a mystery as to when, if ever, a Saturday Night Live guest shot will be tossed in their general direction. That’s so not who they are anyway (I suppose). But if they ever did get in the mainstream’s sight line, I feel certain that for every person bewildered or turned off by what they do, there will be at least ten or twenty others who will feel a charge similar to what’s been happening at Madison Square Garden since Super Bowl week. In a way, I hope it doesn’t happen if only because it will spare these smart, sexy people from dumb, pompous palaver, along with the attendant nervousness over what to call them or their music. New language or at least different versions of the same language always emerge from discovering that cultures can do things you never imagined they could. Some dumb, presumptuous things have already been said about Jeremy Lin – and one can think of similarly uninformed or misguided assumptions emerging about the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

On the other hand, why go through all this trouble to end up watching what one says?  I’d rather just watch. Wouldn’t you?