“Accidental Racist” and the Uses of History

Paisley, WheelhouseSo, Brad Paisley’s new album includes a duet with LL Cool J entitled “Accidental Racist.” Perhaps you hadn’t heard…

For (to paraphrase Sideshow Cecil) you spent yesterday on Mars, in a cave, with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears. (And your iPhone off, to update a 16-year old pop culture reference a tad.)

Anyway, the “Accidental Racist” affair doesn’t seem like it would be in my wheelhouse, but for about an hour last night I halfway convinced myself that there was a post to be written. Namely:

I’m in the middle of developing a new course that would serve as an “Intro to History” for first- and second-year undergraduates just starting a major in the field. But while we would talk about history as an academic discipline, I’d also plan to have students contemplate the uses of history beyond academe. For example, I like the idea of assigning students to keep a week-long journal recording instances of history being employed in various media. I mostly had in mind historical analogies in political rhetoric, or real vs. imagined/mythic history in film, TV, and video games, but popular music isn’t without possibilities.

For example, couldn’t a group of budding historians and I have some fun using the following Paisley/LL lyrics to spark discussion of a selection of historical themes?

“I try to put myself in your shoes and that’s a good place to begin / But it ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin” Can historians actually achieve “imaginative understanding” of the people they study?
“Our generation didn’t start this nation / We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday” How does the past shape the present?
“If you don’t judge my do-rag / I won’t judge your red flag / If you don’t judge my gold chains / I’ll forget the iron chains” What is “false equivalence”?
“RIP Robert E. Lee / But I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean?” Why do myths like the “Lost Cause” and the “Marble Man” have such power?
“The past is the past, you feel me? / Let bygones be bygones” Is collective forgetting ever an appropriate alternative to collective memory?

But it didn’t take long to think of four excellent reasons why this is a post best left for others (or no one) to write:

1. The song is called “Accidental Racist.”

Smart academic bloggers know that no good can possibly come of investing any time in listening to a song so titled. Let alone thinking about it. To say nothing of writing about it. But if you’ve got to make that mistake, you should at least bring some expertise to bear. Alas…

2. I don’t really know much about either Brad Paisley or LL Cool J.

We’ll start here, since some especially aggrieved bloggers and Tweeters unleashed their outrage without any sense of who these artists are or how such a collaboration would fit in the context of their careers.

Paisley in 2009
Brad Paisley performing at the White House in 2009 – Official White House Photo Stream

Here’s what I know about Brad Paisley, in no particular order:

  • He’s married to the actress now busy wrecking Connie Britton’s home on Nashville, though I still mentally categorize her as “Steve Martin’s daughter in the Father of the Bride remakes”
  • He’s an awesome guitarist
  • He seems to host at least one country music awards per year — and do it better than any recent Oscar host has done with that gig
  • He recorded a duet with Alison Krauss that was more depressing, less creepy, and vastly less interesting than any of her duets with Robert Plant on Raising Sand
  • He shares a name with my least favorite pattern in the history of design

And the same list for LL Cool J:

  • His name is actually James, and ladies love him (confirmed by Wikipedia)
  • He’s not nearly as good a Grammys host as his pal Brad is an ACM ACA CMA host
  • I’ve seen a thirty-second clip of his video for “Mama Said Knock You Out” on some VH1 compilation
  • I’ve seen a thirty-second ad or two for the NCIS spinoff that 16-17 million Americans — but not me — watch every week

3. I’m not a specialist in any field of history touched on directly by the song

Even if we could change/ignore numbers 1 and 2, you’d probably want to have a scholar with expertise in the history of the United States, the American South, African Americans, slavery, and/or music write a post reflecting on this song. Not someone trained in diplomatic/international history who now researches Pietism and education and took only one U.S. history course in college (on U.S. foreign relations before 1900 — likewise, mentioning my minor graduate field in the history of U.S. foreign policy would be a lame excuse for credential-burnishing here).

4. I’m already guilty of using blogging to put off grading

So forget I was ever thinking about writing about “Accidental Racist” and instead click over to…

  • Rembert Browne at Grantland if you suspect that the only way the song will “have its intended purpose, bringing people together” is if and “only if people of all races band together to make fun of Brad Paisley and LL Cool J”
  • Eric Weisbard’s piece at NPR if you want “the history of how white Southern musicians — heatedly, implicitly, at times self-servingly and not always successfully — try to talk about who they are in answer to what others dismissively assume they are”
  • David A. Graham’s tribute to Brian Henneman if you (like me) enjoy The Bottle Rockets and want to see how a white Southern musician talks about who he is without being self-serving, dismissive, or (accidentally or intentionally) racist
  • Alan Scherstuhl’s post for The Village Voice, if you (like me) wouldn’t normally pay any attention to the release of a new Brad Paisley album and want to know who Brad Paisley is, and why the song — bad as it is — is also “much thornier and more complex than the simpleminded reactions it has stirred.” (Likewise, see the reflection by music critic Kelefa Sanneh and Jon Caramanica’s review of the Paisley album on which “Accidental Racist” is track 14)
  • And/or Aisha Tyler’s response at Slate, if you’re pretty sure that all the context in the world isn’t going to redeem a song with the lyrics quoted above.

And finally, read Questlove’s tweet about the song if you want further confirmation that The Roots’ drummer is as funny as his TV boss.

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