Opinion | Tom Morello: Shadows of the Klan, the Ghost of Hendrix, and Fans Who Think I’m White - The New York Times
By Tom Morello
Mr. Morello has spent over three decades melding music and political activism as a power guitarist with Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, with the acoustic chords of the Nightwatchman and in protests around the country.
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In 1965, I literally integrated the town of Libertyville, Ill., at least according to the real estate agent who helped my mom and me find our first apartment.
My Irish-Italian mom had excellent teaching credentials, but the school boards in Northern Illinois made clear that while as a single mother she was welcome to teach in their town, we would have to live elsewhere because we were an interracial family.
I was the interracial part, as my dad is from Kenya. Libertyville, however, was willing to give my mom a shot, with the caveat that the residents of the apartment complex across the street from the school approved. Our helpful real estate agent assured the neighbors that this was no ordinary 1-year-old “Negro” child entering their building, but rather an exotic East African princeling. This false tale haunted me throughout my youth, but it gave my mom and me a toehold among the locals.
The ruse worked until I was old enough to date their daughters, and then every Midwestern dad in sight could have cared less if I was the King of Zambia, there was no way he was going to let me cross the welcome mat on Homecoming Night.
The issue of race was omnipresent throughout my youth. My grounding in activism began not from reading Chomsky or Zinn but from mixing it up on the playground at age 5. In day care there was this much older kid who every day would attack me and call me all the names you might imagine one might call the only Black kid in town. So I’d go home looking sad, and one day, my mom asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Well, there’s this kid at day care N-wording me. Hits me a lot.”
“Well,” she said, “I’ll tell you what we are going to do. There’s this guy named Malcolm X, and he says whenever racism rears its head, you are the one who has to stop it.”
I said, “Mom … I’m 5!” And she said, “Well, this is what you are going to do tomorrow.”
She took my little brown hand and curled it into a little brown fist and kind of swung it through the air like a punch. And repeated, “This is what you are going to do tomorrow.”
She then made me memorize some salty epithet as my battle cry. I didn’t know what any of the words meant. It was something like “deadbeat honkie.”
So the next day I went into day care and this huge kid is on me and is triple N-wording me and attacking me. But that day, for the first time, I started to fight back to the best of my ability, shouting, “Take that, you … heat bat donkey!”
I got pummeled. But it caused a big scrum in the day care and resulted in me standing by the side of the sink with smug satisfaction, watching the racist bully get his mouth washed out with soap.
At the end of the day, I thought, perhaps there is something to be said for having the courage to stand up to racism.
When I was 13, we found a noose in our garage. Apparently the K.K.K. was active in Libertyville in the ’70s and ’80s. The occasional cross was burned on a lawn. Racist slogans were scrawled on my mom’s blackboard. (I sang about some of this in my song “One Man Revolution”.)
“One Man Revolution” by Tom Morello: the Nightwatchman
At 15, I faced an especially menacing confrontation in the parking lot of Brown’s Chicken on Milwaukee Avenue, when two dudes swung a noose at me, opened the trunk of their car and invited me to get inside.
At the time I was very much swayed by the nonviolent philosophy of Gandhi and Dr. King. After relating these incidents a few years later to a friend, he asked, “If the Klan were coming up your driveway with another noose tonight, would you rather turn the other cheek, or would you rather me and my friends were in the bushes with baseball bats?”
Much of my career has been spent wrestling with and writing about that question, and questions of race in general.
When I began performing, I was plagued by what I call the ghost of Jimi Hendrix. Jimi was the only African American rock guitar touchstone at the time, and so as much as I wanted to rip Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads riffs, at every single gig I ever played, some jackass would yell, “Play ‘Foxy Lady’! Play ‘Purple Haze,’ bro!” I mean, why can’t I shred “Eruption” or even “Hotel California,” for goodness sake!
It’s crazy, though, that while my skin tone has always been the same, I’ve miraculously changed colors over the years. Growing up, everyone in Libertyville was crystal clear that I was Black. Kids touched my curly hair, marveled over the color of my gums and palms, openly questioned whether I was their intellectual equal. Cops occasionally cuffed me for walking down the sidewalk, and we’ve already discussed my rocky relationship with the local K.K.K.
So, you see, I was Black.
Then, later on, I played in a famous band whose music had many of the markers typically associated with white hard rock music. We appeared in magazines and on radio stations generally reserved for white artists. My speech and vocabulary in interviews were not stereotypically “urban.”
So, behold, there is a segment of my audience that freaks out whenever I refer to being Black. To them, I must be white. Music that sounds like that must be made by people who look like them. This cognitive dissonance has haunted me throughout my career. There’s this mental discomfort triggered when their belief (“I’m a fan of Tom! Tom is white!”) clashes with the evidence (“Tom says he’s Black!”). These people don’t sleep well at night. And while I sincerely appreciate the good-hearted fans who chime in with, “I don’t see you as any color, Tom. I’m colorblind. I just enjoy the music” — thank you, but this is America, and you’re missing the whole damn point. And so over the course of 20 albums and three decades I’ve walked the tightrope of rock and race.
And Libertyville? It’s still there. A few years ago I was asked to be the grand marshal of the Libertyville Days Parade, the highest honor afforded a past or current resident. I agreed as kind of a lark. There I was, sitting in the convertible with my family, rolling down Milwaukee Avenue, laughing. Flags waving. Kids chasing candy in the street. Fun.
Then we drove past the Brown’s Chicken parking lot. And it all came flooding back. No dudes swinging a noose at me with an open trunk this time, though. Just residents in lawn chairs … cheering. “We’re proud of ya, Tommy! Rock on, Tommy! Don’t always agree with ya, but I loved ya in Guitar Hero, Tommy!”
One fella had the candor to snicker, “Hey, Tommy, just shut up and play guitar!”
Shut up and play guitar? Oh, I’m gonna play my guitar, all right. But when I pick up that guitar, now you’re going to hear what I have to say. As Damian Marley and I sing in “The Achilles List,” “ghost stories of social injustice shall be heard.”