There is no single answer to explain such reactions to our first black president, but the history of rock ‘n’ roll offers some insight.
Arguably, the first rock ‘n’ roll record was "Sh-Boom" by the Chords, a black group, released in 1954. I was 7 at the time, and the only version I remember was the cover by the Crew Cuts, a white group, which outsold the original.
Why? Because, in the early ‘50s, radio stations were basically divided into white pop stations and black rhythm and blues stations, which played what was originally called "race records." This was a clear case of not-so-subtle racism. White pop stations at that time did not play rhythm and blues, which soon evolved into "rock ‘n’ roll," a sexual euphemism in R&B songs.
After World War II, popular music was divided into three distinct markets: pop, country and R&B. The dominant white market had such consistent hit-makers as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole (an acceptable black artist for air play), Perry Como, Patti Page, Jo Stafford, etc. The music consisted of sweet ballads with novelty records sprinkled in. American teenagers were hardly excited by such music.
R&B was the most dynamic field, and grew in popularity through such small labels as Atlantic, Chess and Specialty, which catered to the black record buyers ignored by the major companies such as RCA, Columbia, Decca, Capitol and Mercury. Rhythm and blues was beat-heavy, sexy, irreverent and down to earth.
The message at this time to black recording artists by the major record labels and the white radio stations was "stay in your place, you are not welcome here."
What changed things was the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll, which happened due to the discovery and acceptance of R&B by young white record buyers like me.
Here, once again, money talked. We wanted Little Richard singing "Long Tall Sally," not Pat Boone, who covered many of Little Richard's songs.
In the 1950s, more and more radio stations played black music, including WJW in Cleveland, where in 1952 a white DJ named Alan Freed promoted R&B, along with white artists, and began to promote integrated concerts. In fact, I attended one of these in 1957 in Grand Rapids at the Civic Auditorium, called "The Big Beat," where I saw together Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, The Chantels (the best black girl group of this era), Larry Williams and many more —all for the price of $2.
My father took me and people kept on asking him where the bathrooms were, because he was the only older person there and they thought he was an employee.
The racism of white radio stations and the major record companies cost black artists much money. The Spaniels' "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight" and the Moonglows' "Sincerely" never made the pop charts, no doubt because of the cover versions put out by the McGuire Sisters. Yet today, the originals are considered classics — not the white covers, which are thankfully forgotten.
This tide of prejudice turned in 1955 when Alan Freed announced he would no longer play cover versions of black recordings. Early in the year, both the Penguins' "Earth Angel" and Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love" outsold their white covers by the Crew Cuts and Teresa Brewer. The way was opened for Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and many others to be heard on what had been exclusively sedate white pop stations.
Elvis Presley then blew the lid off of white pop music in 1955 and especially 1956 by combining R&B, country, white pop (he loved Dean Martin) and gospel. Presley and Ray Charles both brought into popular music their gospel roots. In fact, the only Grammy that Elvis ever won was for his gospel records — which are wonderful.
By the way, Elvis always acknowledged his debt to black artists and the black gospel tradition. To my knowledge, he never said a racist word about black people.
Now, how does this bit of history illuminate our politics? I am convinced that part of the anger — and yes, even hatred — toward our president comes from pushback at a black man treading on territory which has traditionally been a white man's preserve: the White House. If we nominate a woman to run for president in 2016, there will be similar pushback, although I think race stirs up more anger and hatred than gender.
White privilege is difficult to give up for many people. Part of the comments made about the brown children coming into our country in order to escape drug lords, murder and poverty is that "Obama simply wants more voters for the Democrats." In other words, these brown children should not be here!
The threat of white people becoming the minority in America and far less dominant in our politics makes many of these people foam at the mouth. Yet, under Obama, the stock market has almost tripled. Mitt, are you better off today than in 2008?
The God of the Bible is a liberating God, who through history severs the chains of oppression and prejudice. Now that a black man has occupied the White House, there is no turning back, no return to the presidency being a white man's privilege only.
And, ironically, just as it was the youth of America who changed the face of music in the 1950s, so too it was the youth of America who literally changed the face of our politics when Barack Obama was elected president.
— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist