06 Jan What I learned at Columbia University during my College Years
In response to a request to supply alumnus information for the Class Notes Column (Columbia College, ’72) appearing in Columbia College Today,
What I learned at Columbia University during my College Years
I thought I might just share this
In 1968, when it was time for me to choose which college I was going to attend (I had been accepted to the University of Chicago, Oberlin & Columbia) my father said: “You’re not going at all. You’re staying in Europe. Reverend King is dead. Vietnam has turned into a permanent war zone & there’s the draft. You’re not going. I’m sending you to England, to Essex University, where you had that nice interview with Professor Alasdair MacIntyre. Virtue is his subject. I like that.” My father was a Jamaican American, which somewhat explains his reticence & his preference as well. He had never really felt “comfortable” in the US: race issues, poverty, his time in the army during WW II had left scars. James Baldwin, who was often in Paris during the sixties visiting his friend Mary Painter, a colleague of my father’s, kept saying to my father when they would meet, “Keep the kids in Europe.” But I was determined. I wanted to “go home”. I’d left the States when I was six. I had been raised in Puerto Rico & Paris. I needed to get back to where it had all started, even if the inner cities were in flames, even if there was a lot of student unrest, even if the African American & Hispanic communities were over represented in the American military effort in Vietnam. I argued my point stridently, but wasn’t making much headway.
My father received a letter from the President’s office of Columbia University explaining that the student protest on the campus would not interfere with the incoming students’ studies or their long-term academic objectives. The trouble, the “crisis”, on campus would be contained & was not significant. These were certainly not the exact words. But this was the general gist of the letter. At least this was how it was interpreted at home. If I remember correctly, my father’s response was a brief but forceful, polemical letter to the president & to the provost supporting the protesting students & stating that their active, explosive implication in the world’s woes was one of the reasons why he had advised his son to go to Columbia rather than to any other school. Well, well, I muttered to myself at the time. This didn’t mean that he thought young people were always right. As his son, I can vouch for his skeptical approach to all things, perhaps especially when faced with the idealism of the young revolutionary. But he felt strongly that the young person’s search for understanding & sometimes aggressive attitude towards the preceding generation was a tonic to elder statesmen. My father’s entire life was dedicated to trying to make the world a better & more harmonious place to live in, especially for children. He didn’t think this could be achieved without some form of struggle, an intergenerational struggle to boot, albeit pacifistic in nature. So the letter from the president had done the trick: it triggered my father’s social & political militancy. Today I’m not quite sure of the precise chronology of events: acceptance, letter from the president’s office & final decision-making. But, I do remember making my definitive choice after those stormy family discussions: I was off to Columbia.
In his later years my father liked to evoke the wonderful times we had spent together in NY when I was at Columbia: eating asopao de pollo, tostones, arroz y habichuelas & amarillosin the Cuban/Puerto Rican restaurant on 103rd, listening to jazz in different clubs, just roaming the streets & talking together in that great city. They were good years for us both, replete with optimism, & I realized that my return to the US had actually contributed to his inner peace. He felt the world was changing. He felt the American intellectual & artistic community was stimulating & innovative & searching for far reaching solutions to problems in education, democratic participation & cultural expression. He visited with his friends there: especially his old Chicago days friends, Essie & Leonard Neff, &, if he could, his colleagues, Charles Frankel, Edwin Reischauer (when he was down from Boston), Daniel Bell, (Daniel Bell’s wife, Pearl, was one of my teachers) & especially those he knew at Teachers College, such as Harold Noah.
My father died six months ago, fourteen days after the Bataclan massacre. My daughter, Gaby, & her husband, Cédric, lost a friend at the Bataclan: a young woman musician who had been joined at the concert hall by her sister from out of town. They both died. (Their deaths were followed by a rather dismaying media stampede on their family & boyfriends. But that’s another story.) My wife lost a colleague: a schoolteacher who had devoted all of his energies, after quitting his original job in business, to the most deprived children in a very deprived area outside of Paris. His wife & two children have survived him. His ticket to the concert had been a last minute gift from a colleague of his; his family had remained at home. Their panic & despair when they heard the news of the murderous attack in the theater spread like wildfire amongst friends & colleagues & burned all weekend until the authorities finally identified his body officially & the family could begin to mourn him. The ceremony in the school on the following Monday morning was heartbreaking: the teacher’s family did not attend because they needed privacy, peace & quiet; everyone was bereft; the Muslim families were in a state of shock, sidérées; their world was falling apart; their teacher had been particularly beloved. We had lived across the street from the Bataclan for twenty-two years & near the Place León Blum (place Voltaire, two metro stops away from the Bataclan) for fifteen years, which means almost forty years in the 11tharrondissement: the members of the birthday party held at the Café la Belle Équipe who perished on the 13thof November were all childhood friends of close neighbors. My father seemed to understand all of this through the haze of his very confused Alzheimer’s brain: he expressed discouragement at the world as it is; he said he was tired & the misery tried him to the utmost. He seemed to be telling me that this was the last straw. He was looking for an out. But at the same time he expressed great hope in & for his grandchildren. He was very enthusiastic about my son’s settling in the US. He knew that we returned often to see him. He knew he couldn’t travel with us. He regretted this. He said he had a more important place to go to anyway.
My father died after singing what must have been the Japanese national anthem, which he had actually learned before the Second World War & remained a quirky mainstay in his repertory throughout his life, & La donna è mobile to the beautiful blue-eyed Kabyle anesthesiologist in the Hôpital Avicenne, The Muslim Hospital of Paris, which happened to be the nearest hospital to his nursing home in Bobigny. He had fallen out of bed & broken his hip. He exclaimed with characteristic humor, “Well, at last, I can call myself a hipster.” The anesthesiologist was taken completely off balance when she realized he had suddenly passed away after administering the initial dose of anesthesia. For a ninety-four year old man he was plein de vie, remarkably healthy & strong physically. His heart never skipped a beat & his grip was still powerful. Before dozing off, my father stared straight into her eyes & thanked her warmly for what she was doing. I know he was thinking, “My dear, you are a splendid looking young woman.” This would have satisfied, without a shadow of a doubt, his deepest wish: a final idealized vision of the world as he would have wanted it to be as he left it behind him: un legs de beauté et de féminité bienveillante.The anesthesiologist didn’t understand right away, but I believe, however superstitious this may sound, that my father knew what he was doing: il s’est engouffré dans la brèche. Comme d’habitude.He seems to have seized the opportunity to go without pain: identifying the advantageous loophole was a well-oiled “survivor’s” habit of his. The medical team in the salle de réanimationwas inconsolable. In the noisy recovery room filled with the deep breathing & groans of unconscious patients sleeping off their drugs following surgery, the anesthesiologist’s sobbing & the loud manic bebop chatter of interns in a rush, my father looked very peaceful, delicately tucked in for a good night’s sleep, under his immaculate, creaseless, white sheet. So, rest at last, I thought. Small comfort. Nevertheless, there it was, the end, there he was, at the end of a good life, in spite of all of the tsuris. Yes, his body was lifeless, dead, but he remained so much alive to me, & to others, no doubt. His stark immobility did not make him seem remote: on the contrary, he seemed to be breathing quietly, in profound, peaceful slumber, with maybe one eye open, the mind’s eye. No, I know: wishful thinking, denial. Il faut savoir tourner la page, which, in a way, as a phrase, shockingly short circuits the situation’s undeniable gravity. Time & loss are not like leafing through a book. This isn’t fiction, after all. It’s not just words. It’s the real thing. It’s tough. But there you have it: you do close that book in the end, however trivial the image may be.
The funeral ceremony at the Père Lachaise was very moving. Many friends attended. We played as a family—accordion, kaval, recorder, clarinet, trombone—the Yiddishland piece, Kandel’s Hora, in Brandwein Naftule’s version. My father, when he was young, after the war, in spite of his Anglican Church background, had been a summer camp monitor at a Camp Maccabee, had sung several times in local synagogues in Chicago (I believe during the High Holidays) & my mother was Jewish. I played a medieval polyphonic estampie from the Robbertsbridge Abbey Codex with my brother, Chris, & my brother-in-law, David Bellugi: my father loved this ancient repertory on ancient instruments. Serenity. Understanding. Cultural heritage. The trio of brothers. The past. All wrapped into a nice esthetic family package. My father would have said: Who could ask for more?
I had to explain to our friends assembled there on that day of mourning why my father was being buried under another name: at his birth, in 1921, my grandfather had “spanishified” his name from Hayward to Hayverde & had declared himself & his son as white, as dark skinned Cubans, not as dark skinned black Jamaicans. The French authorities said to me, “No, you can’t use the real, “quotidian”, name: the name on the birth certificate is Hayverde & that’s how he’s going to go out. Of course, c’est problématique: no one knows who he really is, or was, now. That’s going to be an issue, croyez-moi. ” It was, believe me! Fortunately, with my wife’s help, I discovered in his apartment, stashed away in a completely improbable place, an affidavit pronounced under oath in 1962 in Puerto Rico: he had sworn before Public Authority that Hayverde & Hayward were the same man. The French administrator at the Préfecture said, Monsieur, vous êtes miraculé. Sans ce document précieux, découvert par hasard, votre père serait resté longtemps, peut-être, des années, à la morgue de Bobigny. I know my father would have laughed. It was funny. It was painful too. So, the race thing followed my father right into the grave. The birth certificate evoked the fears, no the terror, underlying my grand father’s sense of his & his family’s future in the US. At the ceremony my daughters, Antonia & Gabrielle, sang in unison a blues, No more, my Lord. I’ll never turn back, no more, from the Lomax anthology. Their grandfather would have liked that. He would have enjoyed the ironical truth of the matter: “You’re right, girls, no return journey here.” He would have blessed the expression of their soulful, heartfelt sense of loss. But, above all, he loved to hear them sing. He had taught me in my childhood the Mighty Sparrow’s biggest Calypso hits. He was in favor of roots, deep roots, even though he himself seemed to be sometimes oblivious to all of this. He felt you should first be yourself, you belong to yourself & to the world at large, but he also felt you can’t attain that self-possession & that wide-ranging generosity without knowing where you come from. He didn’t like to talk about it though: a lot of trauma & sadness there & also a kind of built-in, religiously based, modesty: you don’t brag about hardship making you strong. He didn’t really believe, at least, not in terms of social, ethical principle, that deprivation tests moral fiber. Survival was based on sharing aesthetic experience & the concrete, material, protectiveness of others. He preferred sharing personal & warm memories of his past such as those precious moments when he swapped Elizabethan songs for blues tunes with Big Bill Broonzy at Circle Pines in the fifties. He rarely talked about the rest, especially his childhood, even though he had been at times quite poor, the brunt of racial mistreatment & had been active as a young adult in the civil rights movement. I’ll never forget meeting Dr. Martin Luther King after school in our living room in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Dr. King was waiting for my father who was going to drive him to a seminar on civil rights & the Caribbean scene that was being hosted by the Puerto Rican branch of the Unitarian Church. My father never mentioned this meeting again; at least, I can’t recall his ever talking about it: this was his life; it was private; it hurt.
My job here in Paris has been teaching music & performing (almost simultaneously!). Under the present political & historical circumstances the social aspects of my work seem to have become particularly urgent, pressing. For the last fourteen years, my wife & I have been running a multicultural project at the Maison des métallos in the 11tharrondissement here in Paris: we’ve mounted programs devoted to Turkish, Arabic, Jewish, American, African, Medieval, Renaissance & Contemporary music which have brought together Mah Damba from Mali, Abdellatif Yacoub from Yemen, The Spirit of Life Ensemble from the US & the Timothy Hayward Quartet, the composers Carlos Graetzer from Argentina with the Muse en circuit & Jacopo Baboni-Schilingi from Italy, Turab from Palestine….& many more….with the ensembles based at the Maison des métallos (an instrumental group, two children’s choirs & an adult women’s choir.) We have also devoted much time to the relationship between music & poetry by exploring musically, in the form of specific compositions, the works of poets such as Orhan Veli, Erri de Luca, William Carlos Williams, César Vallejo, Mahmud Darwish, Yves Bonnefoy, Nelly Sachs, Paul Celan & Adonis. The jazz saxophonist, Steve Potts, has collaborated on almost all of our music/poetry projects. Our most recent work has been with an amateur yet very authentic Algerian-French group (“authentic” meaning musical skills & expression learned within the family & handed down from generation to generation): les Airs Andalous concentrates on la musique arabo-andalouse in the Gharnati (Tlemcen) style. We sang a forty-minute sequence in Arabic & I put two texts by the Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish (extracts from his sequence on Andalusia in Elias Sanbar’s French translation) to two Cantigas de Santa Maria from the 13thcentury (Spain) & arranged them so that there would be room for improvisation. We played Wedding Freilach, a well–known Jewish Eastern European instrumental piece. A French group singing Arabic music in traditional manner & a traditional Arabic group (in traditional garb) playing Klezmer had, beyond the intrinsic qualities of the musical scores, an incredible impact on the audience in the light of the tremendous cultural tensions we are experiencing today in France between the different religious & national communities. There were tears of joy & relief. We were performing at the theater L’ÉCHANGEUR run by Régis Hébette in Bagnolet, on the eastern outskirts of Paris, a district that is considered particularly explosive as local & national politicians & décideurs haggle over (failed) intercultural exchange, (uncomfortable) cohabitation & mutual (mis-) understanding.
France is not well today. Elle est malade de son histoire et malade de son absence de perspectives culturelles et sociales de long terme. France suffers from its still unresolved Vichy & colonial past, as the historian & professor at the Collège de France, Patrick Boucheron, has pointed out again in recent writings. France needs to develop a deeper relationship to its own cultural heritage, to come to terms with its strengths & its successes & its weaknesses & errors & at the same time open its doors to the many cultures present on its soil, cultures with deep roots & traditions which cannot be put to one side as the newcomers (or rather “old” three generations removed so-called newcomers) to this country “become” French. & all of this in a world where many social & political problems are confronted first & foremost through violent action. It’s a difficult task & there are no straight paths leading to definitive peaceful solutions. But the patience this requires & the faith you have to keep while struggling with it all, you learn from experience. I feel that that patience began to develop for me during my Columbia years in a period equally fraught with violence & a sense that no one was quite sure where to go next. One thing was certain: you had to learn to be thoughtful. You had to worry about those who were suffering. You had to listen to them & try to understand where the pain was & its source. Everyone had to find the words & the music that went with it so that it could be faced without causing further injury. You had to look at the historical & cultural heritage of your own culture & other cultures that could offer tools for expressing ideas & emotions & help to design practical solutions through deepened mutual sharing & exchange. This was impressed upon me by my intellectual & artistic experiences during my formative college years in the late sixties & early seventies. It has never left me. I had also come to realize that this process of intellectual & esthetic & historical integration, (buttressed by the gradual “introjection” of certain psychic values gleaned during my Junior Year Abroad, what became, in the end, a prolonged tutorial & active work in translation with the French & British psychoanalytical communities for twenty years), represented my only protective rampart against a certain kind of despair, that anguish that also naturally accompanies the coming of age, of entering l’âge d’homme, existential & psychological worries greatly reinforced by what seemed (& still seems) to be an incomprehensible world unable to come to terms with racial violence, war, poverty & greed. The mind’s vitality in the secret realm of its most profound & perhaps sacred intimacy could resist the negative pressures of life if & only if it was engaged in this dynamic effort to try to get a grip on the world & the self through poetry, music & thought, if & only if it engaged its relationship to others in a poétique de la relation as the poet Édouard Glissant has beckoned his readers to do in his essays. Glissant’s renewed humanism crystallized in his notion of the tout monde, I discovered, of course, many years later, after college. It has remained a constant source of inspiration for me ever since.
I have lived in different countries & cultures: my parents were what is still called in France a “mixed couple”. All of these cultures, all of these languages, the crossed ethnic origins, were in some ways, particularly in childhood, a burden to bear. But there was beauty too & it was “natural”. As a child, I was struck by the different color of light in each place I lived: San Juan, Ponce, Paris, New York, Chicago. This light seemed to find its way into the language, the local idioms, artistic expression, the painting, the dancing, the music & the poetry specific to each culture, each local culture. It was always exciting. It was always soothing. At least that’s what I felt & still feel. It bore within it the same expansive mystery I encountered when in 2003, in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, I awoke suddenly to the sound of dozens of muezzins singing & chanting for fifteen minutes during the 3 am prayer: a kind of free form chorus welling up in the dark (the city was at the time completely unlit at night) & then disappearing gradually into the obscurity like a Luigi Nono musical abstraction. The poetic theme of “Ya watani” (“Oh! My Country!”), a song composed by my Yemenite musician friend, Abdellatif Yacoub, singer, composer & lute player extraordinaire, (cf. my You Tube playlist), seemed through this unexpectedly moving & intense experience of esthetic discovery surfacing in the middle of the night to illustrate that, beyond cultural differences & sometimes fundamental disagreements of interpretation in philosophical or religious discussion, the homeland that represents internal harmony & shared emotional understanding is first & foremost in the mind & in the heart & can be renewed everywhere, wherever you happen to be, through artistic expression, through voices searching each other out & singing together in the dark. The sole source of light in the city of Sana’a at night was then the starlit cloudless sky. The voices enhanced the magic of that star-studded sky. Maybe this sky remains intact today in spite of the fighting going on there.
In researching our recent Arab-Andalusian concert I came across a rabbinical commentary in Le Chandelier d’or on the symbolical & ritual connotations of bread, oil & light. In all three cultures, the Jewish, the Christian & the Muslim, these ingredients (& I would add that fourth ingredient, wine) are often at the center of intellectual & mystical thought & contemplation. This rabbi focuses his attention particularly on light, the ultimate objective in understanding the world, the other & the self &, if lucky, the Godhead itself. The rabbi says in this text that light not only enhances our vision, enlightens us, but more fundamentally, it transforms us as well. I think it was Jamie Katz, my first informant & musicological source on jazz, who told me (was it outside my door in Furnald Hall, or was it in the garden of Reid Hall?) that there was a jazz tune whose refrain is (after shadowboxing in the dark): “I’m beginning to see the light….”
Well, somewhat, just a little bit of light, enough to push on: il reste un sacré terrain à parcourir.Obviously. But we keep working at it & trudge along. As I learned with Donald Frame in his unforgettable Montaigne seminar:c’est, de toute façon, le voyage, exclusivement, qui compte.The destination is always deferred &, as Maurice Blanchot has put it in another context, it’s all about l’entretien infini, the infinite dialogue between teacher & student, father & son, husband & wife, young & old, brother & sister, pragmatists & idealists, Jews & Muslims, scientists & theologians, etc.: you don’t want answers that seal off or shut down the process of inquiry, or as professor Arthur Danto might have phrased it, the process of endless query: le malheur de la question est dans sa réponse. (Et je salue ici la mémoire du professeur Léon Roudiez qui dans son séminaire sur la Nouvelle Critique française nous a initié à la lecture de Blanchot en ’68-’69 !) You learn to follow paths that seem to be leading you nowhere & yet your steady progress or, rather, your growing ignorance, as you continue to explore the unknown, even if it frightens you, is what makes the effort meaningful, necessary, as if you are being impelled by a kind of moral imperative to learn & understand. You become acutely aware that the search for truth & mental & physical strain go hand in hand. That’s the patience I have been trying to describe as we try to reconcile through our music the many cultural elements that seem to have entered into irresolvable conflict today in France. Isn’t this one of the purposes of university education: creating & stabilizing this patient investigative quest for peace through understanding as a permanent état d’esprit, a permanent state of mind? It seems to me that this is what college was about in the late sixties & early seventies, a period of urgent searching & productive turmoil. This is how we were taught to face the present & the future, however bleak, however complex they may seem to be or, in fact, are. This is what Albert Ayler, that inspired shaman of free jazz, claimed haut et fort as he explored, during those same years, the open ended collective/explosive/ disruptive/constructive improvisation/dialogue form uniting musicians & audience through the expression of a lyrical life spirit captured in a burst of solar energy in sound: in spite of Albert Ayler’s troubled & tragic life he deeply believed & continued to expound that Music is the Healing Force in the Universe. Many of us listened, & still listen, to this chant in rapture.