Thursday, August 27, 2009

Two Poets Walk Into a ... Mess

So Bob Dylan and Ravi Shankar are both picked up by the police. Sounds like the set up to a “guy walks into a bar” joke, but it turns out to be true. Oh, to be sure, it was not that Ravi Shankar, the Indian sitar player made famous by his music with the Beatles, but it was that Bob Dylan, made famous by, well, Like a Rolling Stone, Blowing in the Wind, Tangled Up in Blue and hundreds of other seminal songs.
His recent encounter with the police in New Jersey is late-night comic gold. Stopped in a neighborhood where he was walking around in the hours before a show with Willie Nelson, the local cops asked him who he was and what he was doing there. He answered with his name and the explanation that he was on tour.
And the punch line? The cops did not know who he was. If I’ve ever heard an indictment of American education that is it. It’s hard to fathom not having a clue about the identity of the guy whose song gave Rolling Stone magazine its name and claimed the top spot on that magazine’s ranking of the best songs of all time, the guy whose name turns up 21 million hits on a Google search, most of which are for the Bob Dylan, the guy named to “most influential Americans of the 20th century” lists ranging from Time Magazine to National Public Radio. After all, the guy’s birth name, Robert Allen Zimmerman, turns up more than 40,000 hits on a search, and nobody has called him that in 50 years.
Ravi Shankar, on the other hand, is an English professor, so it’s not surprising that the New York City police who pulled him over did not know who he is. Since it was a Friday night in Manhattan, it’s probably not even too surprising that they made him undergo field sobriety tests. Despite being in town to celebrate the 10th anniversary of, the online journal he helped to found, he passed the sobriety test. But that’s when his story turns strange and ugly.
In Dylan’s case, the police took him to the hotel he told them he was staying in and tour officials vouched for him. Everyone was polite and that was that except for all the jokes at the expense of the young officers.
But the New York cops found an outstanding warrant for a Ravi Shankar, and, noting that “it’s always a good day when you bag a sand-nigger,” they rousted the English prof off to jail apparently too dense to see that the warrant was for a 5’10” 140-pound Caucasian while they had in their custody a 6’2” 200- pound Indian-American. When Shankar finally saw a copy of the warrant, some 90 minutes into his nightmare, and pointed out the differences, the officer said simply, “take it up with the judge.”
Shankar spent 30 hours in jail before getting to see that judge, and getting to go home and see his wife and child. You can read his account of the ordeal in the Hartford Courant and listen to him describe it on NPR’s Tell Me More. You will not read or hear the anger of a man picked up for “driving while brown,” but rather a kind of bemused disappointment of an American come face to face with the reality of racism.
Despite his brown skin, Shankar is in the privileged position to tell his story to a national audience. Countless less privileged men and women suffer such degradations and are silenced by circumstance.
I’d like to hope that these cases are but the death throes of white privilege, as the nation slogs slowly but inevitably toward that date when there will be no racial majority population in the land. Frederick Douglas swore that power would never concede anything without a fight. With privilege comes power, and white privilege will not concede without a fight either. Ravi Shankar endured one battle in that long twilight struggle.
But, as Mr. Dylan put it almost 50 years ago, the times, they are a changing.