Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen and Race in Religion and Rock and Roll

In mourning the recent death of saxophonist Clarence Clemons, Timothy Egan has a column in the New York Times about the significance for rock fans of the interracial friendship of Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen. He revises Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous observation about Sunday morning being the most segregated hour in the U.S.: "The most segregated place in America on a given night," Egan writes, "can be a stadium rock concert -- on stage, and in the audience." The death of Clemons spells the end of a particularly inspiring hope for what the band Earl Greyhound calls the imperative to "Rock your faces [and] mix the races." Theologically, I consider the matter at stake here to be the question of whether and how popular musical experience and culture can be a witness to and training for a transcendent horizon -- by going through the particularities of specific identities (religious, racial, ethnic, gendered, classed, dis/abled, sexual, and more) telling how they (we) have learned to live with and beyond themselves/ourselves. A white-privileged rock scene is, from this perspective, deficient in a way that a theological consciousness can help to unearth. Coming out of a Catholic background, as I do, the imperative is only heightened, given how deeply the religion and theology I have learned has been covertly co-identified with whiteness. Egan's article shows a little of its own whiteness when he writes that "There weren't a lot of blacks in my high school graduation class -- two, to be exact -- which meant that race was somewhat of an abstraction, happening elsewhere, mostly on a screen or from the grooves of a record." I know what he means, because I went to mostly-white schools, from kindergarten through seven years of graduate school, and have taught in mostly-white universities for ten years. A good number of these years have been in Catholic-sponsored educational settings. But while it is true that in hindsight "race was somewhat of an abstraction," that is only the surface meaning that white culture wants to give to what it counts as race. On the contrary, in our culture, and with our history, white places are already racialized places, in a deeply non-abstract way. Interracial friendships in popular consciousness can be inspirational, but each white adult, at least (including adult white Catholics), has to come to their own individual and social way of making a response to this participation in the legacy and reality of white supremacy. For me, one of those ways is by looking at how the "secular" music scene is and can be a place of problematizing Christian/American/theological whiteness, and trying to make what I learn there reflexive for the theology that I write, and for my own art of living.  Most of rock and roll and many churches have a lot of work to do not only to come to terms with their history but to become "arenas" in which the claiming powers they present may be accessed without the unthematized fear that keeps them pegged to racialized visions. Tom Beaudoin Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, USA

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