Jimmy Guterman's blog

media, technology, management, and the rest of it

Remembering Johnny Otis today

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Johnny Otis and band

I think about Johnny Otis a lot, mostly because I love his music (no Otis, no hand jive, people) and the ways in which he fought for racial equality. I’m thinking about him today in particular because of the unfolding Rachel Dolezal story today.

Consider these long-ago quotes from Otis:

Mr. Otis was also a political activist, a preacher, an artist, an author and even, late in life, an organic farmer. But it was in music that he left his most lasting mark.

Despite being a mover and shaker in the world of black music, Mr. Otis was not black, which as far as he was concerned was simply an accident of birth. He was immersed in African-American culture from an early age and said he considered himself “black by persuasion.”

“Genetically, I’m pure Greek,” he told The San Jose Mercury News in 1994. “Psychologically, environmentally, culturally, by choice, I’m a member of the black community.” (source)

Or …

Otis, who was white, was born John Veliotes to Greek immigrants in Vallejo, according to the Los Angeles Times. He grew up in a black section of Berkeley, where he said he identified far more with black culture than his own. As a teenager, he changed his name because he thought Johnny Otis sounded more black.

“As a kid, I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black,” he once explained.
His musical tastes clearly reflected that adopted culture and even after he became famous, his dark skin and hair often led audiences and club promoters to assume he was black like his band mates. (source)

What is real? What is performance? What is wishful thinking? What is passing? What is lying? What is helpful? What is hurtful? What is truth? We’re just starting to unpack these and many, many other questions.

Written by guterman

June 12, 2015 at 12:45 pm

Posted in music, passing

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