Until We’re Free
Pat Thomas’ book and CD brings Black Power music to light
By Vince Ynzunza ’12
Is there a valid chapter of the 1960s civil rights movement that hasn't already been written? That hasn't already been documented, analyzed, anthologized and meticulously dissected? For members of the Evergreen community, the images and ideas from that American era have become so familiar that one couldn’t be blamed for resisting any deeper historical investigation in favor of reflective contemplation. But Pat Thomas ’12 has authored a book that shows us that there's more to the story than we even imagined.
Listen, Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 is a music aficionado's love letter to an oft-forgotten and overlooked aural history in which black activists traded the revolution on the streets for 331/3 revolutions per minute. In the purest of Evergreen traditions, the book, along with its companion CD, is an interdisciplinary project, tying together testimonials from veteran members of the Black Panther Party; analyses of popular and rare recordings from the likes of Aretha Franklin, Elaine Brown and The Watts Prophets; and cultural anecdotes from celebrities as diverse as John Lennon and The Partridge Family. The CD features a variety of music and poetry, including pieces by Amiri Baraka, Stokely Carmichael, Marlena Shaw and Bob Dylan, among others.
Thomas reflected on how his time at Evergreen helped him complete this project. "Because of the diversity and flexibility of the courses at Evergreen, I was able to continue writing and refining my manuscript while taking a program called Popular Music and Literature of the 1960s,” Thomas says. “My professor for that class, Chico Herbison, allowed me to write a portion of my book as the ‘term paper’ for that class. That was great, as I was able to satisfy the program assignments and work on the book at the same time! A more ‘traditional’ university would not have agreed to that."
Since publishing Listen Whitey! in March 2012, Thomas has achieved numerous accolades, including glowing reviews from The Los Angeles Times, The London Sunday Times, and SPIN magazine. He has also been invited to lecture at The Annenberg School for Communications Graduate School at the University of Southern California and The University of East London, appeared at various times on NPR and the BBC, and even received a personal email from music legend Bob Dylan stating that he “dug” his book.
Not bad for a Greener less than one year past graduation.
In light of his achievement, it’s also compelling to note the disparity between the popularity of Listen Whitey! and that of the culturally maligned recordings that it celebrates. This issue is partially addressed by the very existence of the book itself, in that its intrinsic purpose is to shed light on these forgotten albums and songs. Thomas goes further in analyzing that disparity, though, by placing both his book and its subject matter in a cultural context. He states that the revolutionary musicians depicted were not merely ignored by the record buying public, but that “people didn’t even get a chance to hear them.” He specifically documents examples of such cultural whitewashing, most memorably in the book’s section about “Black Forum”, the nearly forgotten black power subsidiary label of Motown Records, which was commercially segregated from Motown’s more popular roster of artists.
“What was once considered volatile is now historical,” Pat concludes on the success of Listen Whitey!, adding “it’s not the best book of its kind—it’s the only book.”