August 2, 2013
My dad, 1928-2010; A Man of Parts; The Paper Bag Test; Mysteries of the Seminal Seminary; A Blog Rebooted.
It’s been more than three years now since my father died of cancer in the spring of 2010. I remember the hearse drivers waiting patiently as I helped dress him in his favorite suit and sent him off. Despite objections from his wife and others he’d decided to donate his body to the University of California Medical Center so young doctors could confront the mysteries of life and death, using his body as their textbook. For him, it was nothing more than another teaching gig.
To me, this seemed both a generous decision and a fitting one. Marvin Lancelot Chachere’s life had been devoted to education in all forms. Socrates was his constant touchstone: a man who would rather die than suffer foolishness, lies and ignorance. Marvin taught American students in Moscow and Thailand, garnered degrees in Math and Philosophy. Teaching was not actually his first choice for a career. He’d narrowly avoided joining the priesthood. I’m glad he didn’t, considering the fact that if he’d fulfilled that ambition, I’d never have been born.
He was the titan of my childhood in more ways than one: strong enough to lift sacks of cement all day in the summer sun, able to build or fix anything, seemingly capable in everything he turned his will to. Sometimes he stumbled. He’d lost a court case once, he told me, but the judge had given him a compliment that made the monetary loss seem insignificant: “I have no compunctions about imposing this fine on you,” the judge had said. “I suspect it will be no more than a minor hardship, for you, sir, are a man of parts.”
A man of parts, was what my father always aspired to be. A man of many talents: incisive, responsible, prudent, tenacious, a man who would land squarely on his feet no matter what happened.
That judge’s words were more accurate than he knew. My father faced plenty of adversity. He often reflected on two of the greatest setbacks in his early life.
The first involved what was known as the ‘paper bag test’. Southerners, creoles in particular, used a convenient rule of thumb to determine whether one of their number was likely to pass in the world of whites. You can try this test yourself. Stand in front of a mirror. Hold a brown paper bag up to your face. If your skin is lighter than the bag, congratulations! You can probably pass as Spanish or Italian, which, if you’d lived in the Southern United States in the the days of Jim Crow, meant that the promise of the American Dream might still be attainable if you were willing to live a life of imposture. Darker than the bag? No problem, let me show you to the back of the bus.
As I’d mentioned, the wise patriarchs of the Catholic Church refused to let my father take his final vows and become a priest. In his terminal interview, they offered my father three reasons. First, he was too attached to his earthly family. Second, he loved beauty, in the form of art and music, presumably to the detriment of his love of god. Standing there in the office of the monsignor, reeling from the shock and disappointment, with blood rushing to his face and pounding in his ears, my father never actually heard the third reason. To the day he died he never knew what his third “shortcoming” was.
In a daze, he packed his things and boarded the bus for the long journey from Vermont back to his home in New Orleans. It was a crushing blow. The priesthood was one of a very few routes out of Southern poverty, and that door was now closed to him. I imagine that darker paths may have presented themselves to him in the face of this defeat, but he did not choose them. He turned instead to another light which shone just as bright as religion had, a light which would guide him for the rest of his life. He sought truth in philosophy, humanism, and rational positivism. In short, he replaced god with man as the center of the universe.
What does any of this have to do with music, jazz or reggae, Groundation or Rasta? I don’t know the answer to that, other than to say that this is who my father was, and he, in part, made me who I am, and I, in part, make Groundation what it is. When my father died in May of 2010 my perspective on life underwent a number of changes. One result was to suspend the writing of this blog for more than three years, but also to reflect on my fathers life, and the lives and deaths of our parents, and how they affect us and our music. So it’s in his honor that I endeavor again to share with my family, friends and the fans of Groundation some of the thoughts and experiences I’ve accumulated during my life on the road.