I grew up, and still live, in the rural South. We never had much money, but my parents were accumulators of things, and we had a TV and a radio and an old record player. I remember the house always being full of music - wonderful, classic music that predated my arrival by decades. I remember flipping through my mom's record cabinet, running my fingers over the thick cardboard jackets and memorizing the faces on the most colorful ones. I would see those faces again and again throughout my life, repeating like a familiar rhythm as I grew in my knowledge of pop culture and recent history.
It didn't occur to me, back then, that they all looked like me. I suppose it didn't occur to me that anyone should look different. Almost nobody did, where we lived, and the ones who did lived in separate neighborhoods, pushed back almost behind the town, where people passing through wouldn't know they were there. Certainly everyone in my neighborhood looked like me, and everyone in my church, and all of my parents' friends. Even in the movies we watched, all of the characters looked like me - with the notable exception of Gone with the Wind. Every place we went was a hall of mirrors, reflecting larger and smaller versions of myself. I never felt racist, never had any ill feeling towards people Not Like Me. I just didn't pay much attention. Since I saw myself everywhere I went, I had no reason to expect to see anything else.
No matter what I saw on the covers of those records, I knew they each held a piece of magic within. Music was my life, my inspiration, my consistent source of joy through an inconsistent childhood. The radio expanded my choices, playing more from those artists and many others who I'd never heard before. Even without moving the dial from our favorite oldies station, I was exposed to a dizzying array of sounds: the doo-wop and rhythm and blues of the '50s, the classic soul and British pop-rock of the '60s, the passionate folk music and stirring protest songs of the early '70s. This mixture of sounds lit up my soul and filled me with an energy that could brighten almost any bad day.
But radio is radio, and though I knew the songs by heart, I had no idea who any of the artists were. I could pick out The Beatles, sure, and Elvis. Those were my mom's favorites, and sometimes I'd help her tape their songs onto scratchy cassettes. Everyone else was anonymous.
By the time I was ten or eleven, I'd outgrown my mother's music, wanting to move on to something cooler, more now. I turned to contemporary pop radio, and when that wasn't cool enough, to MTV and VH1. I would spend hours each day simply soaking in music and images, resisting my teachers' attempts to stretch my list of tasks beyond school hours. To any outside observer, it was surely "unproductive" and a "waste of time".
But it was here that I first saw the black faces of the people who wrote, performed, and danced to many of my Most Favorite Songs, both from the MTV world and the sunny oldies radio of my earlier years. As my love for their music grew, I realized that these were real people with real stories. They weren't just Others living in trailers behind the grocery store, but people. People who did real things in the world and had fans of all colors and creeds. People I even thought I could be friends with, if they weren't so famous and far away.
And I remember my change of heart clearly enough to say this with certainty: It is no coincidence that when people who didn't look like me began showing up on my TV and in my CD player, it wasn't long before they began showing up in my life as well. My circle of friends today contains multitudes; we're a veritable Rainbow Coalition of assorted geeks, hippies and other misfits, each with a unique background and perspective on life. But I don't think it would be that way if, all those years ago, my ears hadn't opened my eyes.