An excerpt from Johann Hari’s book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs reveals the racist roots of America’s drug war.
Jazz was the opposite of everything Harry Anslinger believed in. It is improvised, relaxed, free-form. It follows its own rhythm. Worst of all, it is a mongrel music made up of European, Caribbean and African echoes, all mating on American shores. To Anslinger, this was musical anarchy and evidence of a recurrence of the primitive impulses that lurk in black people, waiting to emerge. “It sounded,” his internal memos said, “like the jungles in the dead of night.” Another memo warned that “unbelievably ancient indecent rites of the East Indies are resurrected” in this black man’s music. The lives of the jazzmen, he said, “reek of filth.”
His agents reported back to him that “many among the jazzmen think they are playing magnificently when under the influence of marihuana but they are actually becoming hopelessly confused and playing horribly.”
Most of this excerpt, though, is about the persecution of Billie Holiday. I didn’t know anything about the history of Billie Holiday at all, I’m embarrassed to confess — she was just that talented woman who sang amazingly haunting songs — but now I learn what a hard life she had, how she was discriminated against all of her life, and died hard in the uncaring hands of a bigoted police. It was just her genius was so great that she managed to get a little bit of notice outside the shell of oppression.
I’ve got Hari’s book sitting on my table at home — I’ve been too bogged down in the semester to get to it. I think I’m going to have to read it for sure now.