Chips on the shoulder are sometimes justified. Circumstances are tough; life is tougher. You can’t change the hand you were dealt; rather, the test of one’s character is how one copes with and works around the cards in one’s hand. One can give up, not fight, give in to bitterness, anger, resentment and negativity, or one can stand up to the challenges and adversities and sally forth, using the negatives to one’s advantage. Easier said than done, of course; such platitudes can ring hollow if you don’t take them to heart.
Sumdumhonky, the second autobiographical work from legendary R&B singer Lloyd Price, might initially come across as a very bitter book by an Angry Black Man. For sure, the title does draw a line in the sand, especially if the reader is white. Truth be told, my venture into the book was definitely shadowed by the title; would this book be of value, or would it simply be a collection of embittered rambling? I feared the worst; it could easily have gone both ways; the only reassurance I found came from the photo of Price on the back cover; smiling, genuinely happy, he certainly didn’t look embittered.
The first chapter doesn’t help, either; a more painful description of Southern racism eight decades ago, you won’t find elsewhere. If Price comes off as having negative feelings towards whites, one can’t be surprised; having to deal with a character like Ol’ Jake—an ignorant, mentally challenged police officer who was gutter-level even among whites, he was still miles higher in respect than the black children he terrorized. Price’s writing is vivid; the tension and the terror he felt around Ol’ Jake is palpable. Rumored to have shot and killed blacks for sport, Ol’ Jake is the type of scary figure who haunts his victims for decades after—a sad legacy for those who dealt with the man and his ignorant, hateful, evil ways. The title stems from him and his ilk–poor, ignorant whites whose station in life is at the bottom of society, and yet they cling to a racial superiority that most certainly isn’t justified.
That mistrust bore itself deep, though. It bore itself deep because, well, that’s what racism does—it creates this vacuum of expectations that people are often unknowingly and self-consciously living up to, on the part of both the oppressor and the oppressed. One sees this throughout Sumdumhonky’s essays and remembrances; Price expresses amazement of how clearly the roles were defined. He’s amazed that his fellow blacks would be so passive in dealing with the white man, while being saddened to find that white racism and prejudice was something he could not escape—even after he was a millionaire and successful businessman. If anything, Price seems to think that fame made things somewhat worse—it changed him; it took him away from his racial heritage, even though his success couldn’t buy him respect—either self-respect or the respect of others.
Not that Price ever feels bad for his success—he was always a hard, dedicated worker, and every success came through his personal dedication and self-belief. He stresses that his success didn’t negate the prejudice he faced. There’s a sad tale of dealing with a white label head, whom was willing to offer him a half a million dollars to keep him from working with a close friend of his. He had respected this man, but the man’s greed revealed his true colors; aside from the anger one senses in Price over this incident, one can’t help but detect a sense of sadness about it, and the realization that prejudice wasn’t exclusive to the South. Racism is an everywhere occurrence; the South just happens to be the most vocal and extreme about it.
A trip to Africa, however, would change his perspective. Like many, the Africa he envisioned in his head was most certainly not the promised land he had come to believe. He experiences a major culture shock, casting his struggles and his life into a new light. Meeting a man named Bola, his taxi driver, he realized that though their skin color was the same, they had absolutely nothing in common. Price was a stranger in a strange—and often repulsive—land. He also came to realize that struggles with life in America for blacks was not limited to just Americans, that struggle is a part of all people’s lives. Yes, making a spiritual and ancestral connection with the continent was important, but he cautions people to not create unrealistic expectations of what they think life could be like, or that their connection with the continent is real based solely on their ancestral roots.
While Sumdumhonky is a powerful yet uncomfortable book for the white reader, it also serves a greater lesson to the younger black community, for whom this book was largely written. While things have most assuredly gotten better since his childhood, we still have a ways to go. His trip to Africa left him with a greater sense of pride, and he urges young blacks to not take offense when derogatory terms derived from the tribes of Niger and Sambu are used against them. He seeks a black unity that doesn’t descend into racial hatred or violence, but comes from self-reliance, and the wisdom and his insight of his eight decades of life certainly back up his beliefs, and provide a generous fountain of knowledge for younger people to consider.
Straight up, it ain’t easy going into a book titled “sumdumhonky” without feeling the antagonism of the title, especially if you are a honky. But the slaps to the face are worth the experience they bring; bruised you may be, but enriched from the experience you are. We can’t remove a tumor without pain and blood; we can’t heal until after that cut. An important, insightful, and compelling read for people of all colors, creeds, and nationalities.