Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the jazz singer Billie Holiday. Most people know who she was, by name, and many have heard some of her singing. But for me, hearing again about Billie Holiday made me think again of my good high school friend, Joe Featherstone.
This story may, by the time you finish reading it, show you why I believe we lived in a "post-racial" (the new hot phrase) America as early as 1969, and in fact, since 1786 and before. And you may also agree that when we understand that fact, we can start to change our throw-away society and make things better.
Joe died of AIDS at some year and date that is unknown to me, but certainly by the age of 35. I had lost touch with Joe after high school, and by the time I tried to re-connect with him sometime in the 1980s, he could not be found, and some years later, the school learned that he had died.
Back in the late 1960s, I was in high school at Horace Mann School for Boys. In addition to my new love for classical music that filled my time with listening to recordings as well as piano practice started at age 15, I also had a select few recordings of the non-classical type that I listened to now and then. Some of these were albums from Cream, The Doors, and Billie Holiday.
Joe Featherstone was my classmate at Horace Mann. He was black, or African-American, but more important for our friendship, he had a mind that was curious to learn, and to do so in a light-hearted way. We both studied handwriting analysis together and used to, on occasion, analyze the personalities of classmates at their requests (or by our accepted invitation).
On several occasions Joe traveled from Harlem to eastern Queens to visit my home, and we had fun with bike riding, handwriting analysis discussion, and listening to music. Which brings us back to the Billie Holiday connection. During one visit, I wanted to show Joe who Billie Holiday was, and played one or both sides of her album. I don't recall the name of that album, but I do remember well part of the conversation that took place. After hearing "Strange Fruit", which is a strong song portraying the cruelty of lynching, I asked Joe whether he thought that was a great song and performance. Without hesitating, he said it was OK but that he really preferred the song "Yesterdays" (lyrics here, soundtrack and images here), which meant a lot more to him and which we had heard earlier in the album.
"Yesterdays" is a poignant song embodying the feeling for an earlier time in one's life, when life was carefree and full of enjoyment. It is a song about the optimism and love of life that characterizes youth. And strangely, both Joe and I really took that song, "Yesterdays", to heart, even at the age of 16. Although "Strange Fruit" was full of meaning for me, I also took "Yesterdays" to be the more profound song about the nature of life. I think that moment also captured some of what made the friendship more than a casual association of people keeping each other entertained.
Joe was a kind, gentle friend. He may have been gay. Probably due to both our focus on other things, such as music and handwriting, and due to the way many people were raised in those times, we never talked about girls or anything to do with sexuality. When the school learned that Joe had died from AIDS, no one in our class could explain more than that about the details. I had tried to contact his parents, but was not able to find them – I believe they had moved long before. It really does not matter what his later inclinations were, other than the fact that they may have led him to be caught in the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when it was a death sentence. It may also have been caused by a blood transfusion or other types of transmission, so I really don't know.
What I will remember, in addition to that friendship, is that moment of recognition that the personal, the appreciation of life and its transiency in all aspects, goes beyond even the strongest political and social reality. Thinking that "Strange Fruit" might mean a lot for Joe, he confirmed to me that a thoughtful person may still prefer to focus on what is meaningful in her or his own experience of life, without reference to social realities. Not to say that working on civil rights and human rights and trying to change society, is wrong – not at all. But when we think of others as needing help, and ourselves as the helpers, or when we think of others as evil, and ourselves as doing good, we can forget that we are all in the human condition, together. Forgetting that is a mistake.
We live in a world that, as always, could use more kindness, more deep friendships. If that was the focus of daily living, couldn't society forget about greed? Couldn't we reduce runaway consumption? Couldn't we choose intelligent leaders and see through the "spin" of those desiring to lead but only for their own personal gain?
Simplifying life, and being green can not mean just removing things from one's life. I think it means filling life with more meaningful experiences of personal insight and sharing with family, friends, and community. It means giving something to the world. WIth those positive values, we can easily let go of the materialism.
The world has always been post-racial. We live and breathe at the personal level of experience. That mind will naturally want to help those in need, and those who have been treated unfairly, so social justice will always have its place in the context of our human nature.
Today I remember again my friend Joe Featherstone, and wish he was still here with us today.