Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Leroy Cooper's home - a place without race

The many hours interviewing and conversing with Leroy Cooper have built the foundation for Leroy 'Hog' Cooper, A Memoir. This was just the first step -- the easy one. Listening to Leroy talk was a pleasure. If I hadn't started with the intention of writing his memoir, as he had requested, I hope I would have taken the time to spend just as many hours in his 'prayer room' listening to his stories about musical history in parallel with racial history in America.

Not suprisingly, at 80 years old, he had experienced changes in both, intertwined throughout his life. I learned that there are black people in this country who lived in middle class neighborhoods back in 1928 and enjoyed positive experiences through childhood. Surprisingly (to me, at least) Leroy was encouraged to go to college and received a full music scholarship to The Pride of the South, Huston-Tillotson College (now University).

It's not that he was not affected by racial differences, it's just that he had access to the same benefits as white kids his age; they simply were separated. Growing up in the YMCA provided all the activities a child could want. Athletic teams, band, indoor swimming and motivational speakers.

Music is what caused the change in his perspective. Going to play alongside of the musicians at the University of Texas, who were white, and being invited to their homes gave him a peek into life outside of an all-black community. Not surprisingly, music continued to be the element that exposed him to differences and similarities around the country.

Leroy Cooper was never underprivileged. As his life progressed he experienced peaceful integration in some places and racist threats in others. He never used the word bitterness in relation to his own life and when he spoke about Ray Charles, he only used it in regard to Ray's blindness. It was generally known that Ray was bitter about not being sighted.

Cooper's life is a tribute to American musical history and a monument to a country that has overcome differences. Leroy felt blessed to witness the campaign of a black American running for President.

I was surprised when he asked me how I felt about Obama. We discussed campaign promises of both candidates that we liked and disliked. I asked him if he were more inclined to vote for Obama because he was black. Leroy was stunned! Although he felt pride that a black man was in the race, it never occurred to him to vote based on that single premise. Leroy Cooper was an educated man. He would vote for the person he thought was best qualified to deal with the issues at hand.

Leroy Cooper never focused on the differences between people. Instead he focused on the person.


Jai Joshi said...

This is a lot of fascinating information. Thanks.


Susan Cross said...

Jai, It was interesting to me that when I interviewed some of the musicians in Ray Charles' bands, most had been to college.

Jai Joshi said...

Isn't it funny how we seem to have a preconcieved notion of musicians or artists as being people who don't have much formal education or training. But why wouldn't they, indeed?

Thanks for the thought provoking post.


Susan Cross said...

Being black/Afro American back in the 1940s I was particularly surprised. And all those I interviewed went to college on music scholarships. When I went to college in the late '60s, girls were expected to become teachers or nurses. This country has seen magnificent change with a black President and a woman Secretary of State. Whatever your political leanings one has to acknowledge the cultural progress.