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Why Clarence Clemons Matters to Race Relations

Posted: 06/21/11 11:36 AM ET

2011-06-20-ClarenceBruce

Iconic is a wildly overused word, but the cover photo of Born to Run -- Bruce Springsteen grinning and leaning on Clarence Clemons' broad shoulder -- is a powerful and memorable picture, one that meets the standard for iconic rock n' roll images. And its status is rooted in the beautiful story that picture tells.

You've got this enormously talented, giant black man -- literally "The Big Man" -- saxophone between pursed lips, essentially supporting Springsteen. The look on Bruce's face is honest and authentic, a genuine moment captured in a photo shoot. There's a giddiness in Bruce's smile: "I'm working with my friend," he seems to be saying, "and our music has never been better."

The photo made an instant impact on me, long before their music did.

I was eight when Born to Run was released and that image meant a hell of a lot more to me than anything my teachers could tell me about race. It sealed a point my brother Josh, now a Dateline correspondent, made a few years earlier.

This is an embarrassing story, one I'm hesitant to tell, but remember, I was five years old. We were playing Nerf basketball with Josh -- who is 12 years older -- on his knees so we'd be close to the same height. He blocked my shot or stole the ball or otherwise foiled one of my vintage mid-70s Elvin Hayes Washington Bullets moves. And then I called him an N-word. I'd clearly heard it at school and recognized it as an insult. I had no earthly idea what it meant, but boy was I about to find out.

Within milliseconds Josh was up off his knees, hands grasping my shoulders, picking me up and placing me on the bed. "You never, ever say that to anyone," he said. "That's something very bad white people say to black people when they want to be mean on purpose. It's about the worst thing you can say." I remember crying hysterically at this point because my brother never yelled at me, which could only mean I had done something seriously wrong.

When I had calmed down, I remember asking him about the equivalent, what does a bad black person say to a white person? "There really isn't one," he said, refusing to simplify a complicated issue. "They might say 'honky,' but it's really not the same thing."

Since I still remember the conversation roughly 35 years later, I'd say my brother's "teaching moment" was successful.

And three years later -- on the cover of one of the greatest albums ever released, one of the first records I owned -- was the next step in my education about race relations in America, a shot of a black guy and a white guy, clearly good friends, working together to make something great.

Critically, it delivered a subtle lesson to impressionable young rock n' roll fans. Nobody was beating us over the head with a mallet of racial unity. It's not that those messages shouldn't have been delivered, but kids have a tendency to tune out words of wisdom from overly earnest After School Specials. Instead, you had Clarence playing his sax and Bruce somewhere between a knowing smile and laughing, conveying a sense that this friendship between black and white, this artistic collaboration, wasn't such big a deal.

Being told that black people and white people were equal was one thing. Being shown it was something else.

When Born to Run solidified Bruce as one of the great artists of his generation, the photo took on even more symbolism. The second single from album is "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" (Number 4 on my list of the Top 25 Springsteen songs, compiled last fall), which Bruce regularly calls "the story of the E Street Band." It's a joyful song, brimming with optimism, and it has one of the lines that matters most in the Springsteen catalog, words that regularly draw thunderous cheers in concert, "When the Change Was Made Uptown and the Big Man Joined the Band."

Obviously, Clarence's impact on the band will last forever. And his impact on how I -- and others, I'm sure -- view race in America will last a lifetime.

 

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