The Walking David and the racism of Elvis Presley Day

The Walking David and the racism of Elvis Presley Day

December 3rd, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Zombies - especially the ones shuffling through "The Walking Dead,'' the hit show inspiring this Tuesday online-only column - live by eating the flesh of others.

Elvis Presley lived by dining off the works of black musicians who had come before him.

That's why proclaiming January 8 as Elvis Presley Day - a resolution introduced by 10 U.S. congressmen (9 Democrats; 1 Republican) and awaiting vote - is an inherently racist act.

Not the hot racism of nooses and burning crosses.

But the cultural racism of memory and perspective. By crowning Elvis - but not the crowd of black musicians upon whose shoulders he stood - we reveal our white bias.

I hold no beef with Elvis. In fact, his biographers describe an enormously talented, big-hearted man who was socially and musically democratic. Consistently, he was a pioneer.

Breaking segregation laws. Dismissing white supremacy by ignoring social conventions. Respecting, and receiving respect, from hordes of black musical giants.

"When a reporter referred to him as the 'king of rock 'n' roll' at the press conference following his 1969 Las Vegas opening, he rejected the title, as he always did, calling attention to the presence in the room of his friend Fats Domino, 'one of my influences from way back','' wrote Peter Guralnick in the New York Times in 2007, on the 30th anniversary of Presley's death.

Guralnick quoted Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records: "The lack of prejudice on the part of Elvis Presley had to be one of the biggest things that ever happened.''

Elvis himself would vote down the haughty resolution. Better than anyone, he would understand its fundamental falseness: Elvis was no king.

His royalty? A construct of white culture, which did not allow a black Elvis equivalent.

And the continual crowning of Elvis reveals this racism. This preference. The ability of white America to proclaim and crown its own.

You spot it many places: the enduring belovedness of "To Kill a Mockingbird," which is a book by and for white Americans. The black character is crippled on multiple levels - literally and symbolically - thus leaving the role of hero to the white characters.

"The Help'' - the #1 best-seller and popular film about southern maids - does the same thing.

Historically, those narratives have an excuse. It's far easier for Atticus to take an anti-racist stand than Tom Robinson. Far easier for Skeeter than Aibileen. The white protagonist has far less to risk.

But as "The Help'' makes excruciatingly clear, they also have far more to gain. Skeeter, bound for New York after publishing the stories of other marginalized women, mirrors Elvis in a way.

Both gain and profit from the work of their black counterparts.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him at DavidCookTFP.