by Anika Imajo
Legendary bass player and composer Charles Mingus, as artists are wont to do, offered his own interpretation of racial intolerance decades ago.
In a melodic indictment of organized bigotry, he distilled senseless hate down to its essential foolishness.
“The Fables of Faubus,” was an instrumental piece he released on his 1959 album Mingus Ah Um. The rather whimsical tune’s genesis was the turbulent Civil Rights Era, and its simple lyrics — which wouldn’t be included in a recording until 1960 — highlight the very basic message that enmity rooted in racial prejudice is simply inane.
“Two, four, six, eight: They brainwash and teach you hate. H-E-L-L-O, Hello.”
The song’s title refers to what Mingus characterized as the delusions of Orval Faubus, the former Arkansas governor best known for deploying the Arkansas National Guard to block entry of African-American students into Little Rock Central High School in 1957. While Faubus was wielding his power to resist desegregation of schools, Mingus was securing his place in the canon of great American artists who met social ills with creative force through a career, spanning decades, that produced an extensive catalogue of acclaimed music.
Of Faubus, other establishment leaders of the time, and members of hate groups, the song’s lyrics ask,
“Why are they so sick and ridiculous?”
In his stream-of-consciousness autobiography, Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus, the musician depicted his own childhood as fraught with crises over his racial identity. Plagued by bullying and confounded by the significance people attached to superficial distinctions, he struggled to find his own place in the world. Mingus, who grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles—surrounded by cultural and ethnic diversity—was exposed to racial prejudices in his community and in his own home. As a young man, he reasoned:
Somebody—the God of love or someone—seems to believe the world can make it with all these races here or things wouldn’t have gone this far.
Societally-imposed boundaries and racially-determined expectations influenced Mingus’ early artistic evolution.
The Jazz great, whose first instrument was cello, was discouraged from pursuing a career in Classical music because the prevailing notion of the day was that African-Americans couldn’t make it in the world of Classical music. But the disadvantage of being poorly educated in formal skills such as reading sheet music, he would later argue, prepared him well for the largely improvisational demands of the Jazz genre.
Mingus succumbed to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) just a few years after Black History Month was first officially acknowledged by a US president.
Upon his death, he bequeathed to the world a celebrated body of work, and he left behind the legacy of an American luminary who forged artistic greatness out of personal strife and exposed the fundamental absurdity of racial and cultural discrimination.