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2011 in Review


by Tony Fitzpatrick
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The Prophets? . . . Nostradamus? . . . The Horoscope? . . . . They don't know dick about the End of the World . . . . Let me tell you something, home-slice . . . . Somebody's world ends . . . every fucking day . . . . Believe that . . .

-- Overheard at the wake of Kerry “Dooms” Emery
New Orleans, October 2008

This late in the year, one sometimes thinks of the scorecard, the tally of what has been lost, what has been gained and what has been forever altered. This year has been cruel. It has divided our country along lines of class, 600-pound “gorilla in the room,” which is now entirely visible.

We've found out that our most cruel inequities and most visceral divides lie not among races, creeds or colors, but along the lines of the distribution of wealth and resources -- and how unjustly this bounty is distributed.

This crisis has Americans staring each other down across an economic chasm, and as the days go by we painfully discover that the collateral resentments and pain are every bit as personal and wounding as conflicts of race and gender are. What one cannot have, it seems, is every bit as entombing as what one cannot be -- especially when that thing is a job, or an adequate place to live.

2011 made visible the bruised soul of America.

This was the year that Egyptians threw off their shackles, and brought down a dictator via Twitter and Facebook. It was also the year that Occupy Wall Street and its hundreds (maybe thousands) of sister organizations entreated Americans to find the courage and the stomach for justified dissent and civil disobedience.

In many cities, the cops kept their cool and peacefully observed -- and sometimes participated in -- the dialogue. In New York and Oakland, though, they demonstrated their fealty and obsequiousness to the wealthy classes by brutalizing protesters.

This was also the year I genuinely felt like I had some common ground with the Occupy movement. As a small business owner with eight employees, I feel like I did what our President asked of us, which was to create jobs. Between my studio and my gallery, we created four.

The President also told the banks to take the TARP money and loan money to businesses such as mine, in order that we might create more jobs. It makes sense: stimulate the economy by putting more people to work and thus, you have more money moving around. Because we have a Constitution, the President could only strongly suggest the banks do this with their hand-outs; he could not order it.

But, a great many of the bankers sat on the cash, and continued to pay themselves bonuses while the rest of our nation took it in the ass. These are the same tools who are intimidated when they now look out the window of their bank and see legions of dissatisfied and pissed off Americans of every race, creed and social strata staring back at them. It is like the Nietzsche quote that warns us of looking into the abyss -- that the abyss looks also into us.

This year the banks and financial gatekeepers began to fear us -- and this is a good thing. Every once in a while it's good to let the powers that be know that we can take this place any time we want to.

This is the year we lost Smokin' Joe Frazier, one of boxing's faithful, the bruising heavyweight forever throwing the punishing left-hook that put Muhammad Ali on his ass and shut him up -- briefly. Joe was from Beaufort, S.C., the heart of tobacco country, and he hailed from the working-poor upon whose backs the wealth of this nation was built. Joe Frazier actually walked behind a mule, pushed a plow, and with his own two fists, extricated himself from poverty.

Ali's characterizations of Joe were thoughtlessly cruel, and a real betrayal. Frazier had campaigned actively so that Ali's boxing license might be reinstated after he had refused induction to the army. Frazier even lent Ali money when things were tough.

Ali's subsequent taunting of Joe as a “Tom” and his likening him to a gorilla was ugly and undignified. Ali's defenders will tell you this was just show-biz, a provocation, something Ali did to goose the box office and stir up excitement -- but they know better.

What Ali did was culturally cruel. He separated Joe Frazier from the admiration of other people of color -- and Joe Frazier, of Beaufort S.C., had earned that, at the very least. Frazier never forgave this, and I don't blame him. Sadly, it is only now that Frazier is gone that we are able to discern his history as his own, as opposed to one that is merely tangential to Ali's. What is fascinating is how much more complex the portrait of Joe Frazier becomes once we view him fully, apart from Ali and the zeitgeist of the 1960s.

In Chicago, we buried the great Hubert Sumlin a few days ago. Whenever you hear that snarling guitar in Howlin' Wolf's Wang-Dang Doodle or those wrenching passages behind Muddy Waters, you're hearing the incomparable Sumlin -- and this man earned his dough. He and Wolf often quarreled, and on occasion knocked each other's teeth out. Howlin’ Wolf was a huge guy with a nasty temper who took no shit from anybody. Hubert often said, "I couldn't let Wolf know I was afraid of him; he'd a killed me . . . . So every time he hit me, I hit him back -- harder."

To hear Hubert Sumlin play was to hear one of the last echoes of Robert Johnson, Hubert and Honeyboy Edwards being the last living conduits to the man at the Crossroads. My pal Todd Park Mohr, of Big Head Todd and the Monsters, played a tribute at Sumlin's graveside on Tuesday. It was lovely in its acknowledgement of just what we, who grew up with Rock and Roll, owe those generations of black men with box-guitars, those who took what was sad and mundane and made it transcendent.

Godspeed, Mr. Frazier.

Godspeed, Mr. Sumlin.

TONY FITZPATRICK is an artist from Chicago. For his blog, click here.