A friend of mine whose musical tastes I respect and usually share wrote a Facebook post in which she urged people to see the new biopic about Elvis Presley. I responded that if she were familiar with the late Elvis’ reputed attitude about Black folks, she’d understand why I didn’t want to see this film. My friend knew I was referring to Elvis’ much published response to a reporter’s question about the singer’s popularity with Black Americans.
According to the reporter, Elvis said, “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.”
When I first heard about Elvis’ remark, the term “Negroes” was replaced with “N******”. Those were fighting words, words that forever remained etched in my memory.
My Facebook friend gently suggested that I do some research about Presley. She said I’d discover his declaration was only rumored, that he hadn’t uttered those words. Moreover, Presley admired Black musicians and singers and had befriended B.B. King, James Brown, Little Richard as well as a few prominent gospel singers.
I did the research and learned that the quote was first printed in Sepia Magazine, a periodical begun by a Black man, marketed to Black people, and bought by a white businessman following the first owner’s death. Years after the Presley article appeared, a young Black writer researched the veracity of the story and discovered the facts. Elvis’ statement was a fabrication fed to the magazine, but obviously not vetted. I still had unanswered questions. What was the motivation for starting the falsehood, and why were so many of us quick to believe it and pass it on?
Every article I read mentioned Elvis’ having mastered the tones and nuances of the Black singers he listened to. His days and nights of hanging around blues clubs, going to gospel music-infused church services, and learning to modulate his voice to fit the popular R&B chords he learned to play on his guitar were gifts that stood him well when he made his recordings and performed for his Elvis-obsessed fans.
Meanwhile, many of my peers and I steadfastly refused to support his career. I denied Elvis a spot on my Top Ten singers list. During trips to the record store, I never gave him access to any part of my weekly allowance as I joined thousands of others in an economic boycott of his career. More than that, I participated in an emotional boycott of his celebrity. It’s only now that I realize this secondary boycott ran far deeper than the first. It shaped my gut reaction to his songs, his films, and the Elvis-centric articles printed in the Hollywood/teen magazines that I regularly devoured, much to my mother’s dismay.
I felt Elvis had robbed us of something precious that belonged to us, something that was carved with our particular pain and colored with our moments of joy. I resented hearing him perform a style of music that was born in our Black communities. I felt it unfair that he’d intruded into a unique space in African American culture. Had I been a wage earner then, I would have chaffed knowing he was earning a ton of money from his recordings and performances while Black musicians who produced the same style of music remained under paid. Elvis threatened to replace us. The resentment toward Elvis Presley that I harbored all of these years explained my stubborn resistance to recognizing and valuing his talent. That same resentment facilitated my consumption of the rumors of racism telegraphed by the article in Sepia Magazine and broadcast by thousands of its readers.
Fast forward to my own private light bulb moment…
If I believe there’s a connection between feelings of resentment /disenfranchisement and the acceptance of a lie/rumor along with the rejection of truth, do I understand what might be going on in the heads of people who steadfastly believe the 2020 election was “stolen?” I believe I can.
Can I understand that there’s no vote re-count or investigation of voter fraud that will change minds irreversibly locked against the truth of Biden’s having been elected? I believe I can. The facts regarding Elvis as well as the facts of the last presidential election have been trumped by fear, anger, resentment, and a perception of being replaced by others. If the battle is logic vs. emotions, logic has little chance of prevailing.
Was I as deaf to Elvis Presley’s music as the “always-trumpers” are blind to the former president’s seditious deeds? It’s taken me time to think and sort through my emotions regarding the singer. Are there any “always-trumpers” who are willing to take that same amount of time to separate their emotions from their consideration of the facts? If such people are out there, let’s talk and listen to each other. Let’s try to understand the “whys” of our feelings. Otherwise, how do we get beyond this crevasse that’s separating us?
Renée Bess writes fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction. Her last book, Between a Rock and a Soft Place, as well as six others can be purchased at http://www.bellabooks.com, http://www.amazon.com, http://www.barnesandnoble.com, wwwkobobooks.com. For more information, visit http://www.reneebess.com