By Denise Clay
During my freshman year of college at Ohio State in the early 80s, I was riding a bus downtown to pay a bill and meet some friends for lunch.
I noticed a woman on the bus, sleeping. She looked like it had been a long time since she had seen a shower, a meal, or any of the comforts of home. It was one of those things that I noticed at the time, but didn’t really pay any attention to…until I got back on the bus after running my errands and saw that she was still there.
So I asked the bus driver what the deal was. Did she miss her stop? Was she okay?
No, the bus driver said. She was homeless. And since you could ride the bus for free from noon to 3p.m.in Columbus during that time she chose to use the free riding time to sleep in a place where she was relatively safe for a few hours.
This woman was homeless and sleeping on a bus…just another extra in the “B Movie” that was life in America for those of us not filthy rich during the early 1980s.
And thankfully, we had folks like Gil Scott-Heron to explain it to us in a way that illustrated just how silly and selfish it all was.
Scott-Heron died on Friday, leaving us a catalogue of music and poetry that seems to have had a connection in the lives of just about everyone. On my Facebook page Friday night, videos of pieces including “Winter in America” (my personal favorite), “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” “Whitey on the Moon” , “It’s Your World” and “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” were posted for everyone to check out.
It was also a reminder, at least to me, of how the burden of genius can be a hard one to carry and that the ways that some of us choose to find help to lift those burdens can hurt us even more in the end. I say this because in just about every obituary I saw on Gil Scot-Heron, the fact that he died addicted to crack and battling HIV was mentioned.
But no one should be defined by the best and worst things they’ve ever done. That’s too simplistic and in the case of Gil Scott-Heron, a disservice.
As someone who eventually grew up to cover politics, I owe a tremendous debt to my older brother for introducing me to Scott-Heron and his music. I used to sneak into the recreation room downstairs when he and his friends would gather and listen to music. Because they fancied themselves as intellectuals and funkateers, the group would listen to everything from Parliament-Funkadelic to Scott-Heron to the Rolling Stones.
But while I first heard this music in the 70s, it wasn’t until I went off to college that I started to understand what Scott-Heron was talking about.
The homeless woman on the bus in a land of plenty made “Whitey on the Moon” make more sense to me. You can’t help me get the healthcare I need or even a simple place to live, but you can send someone into space to collect rocks and spend billions doing it? Really?
I was part of a group of folks that was fighting with some frat boys at OSU about why Ronald Reagan (or Raygun if you prefer) should be smacked upside his head for cutting taxes for the rich while ensuring a steep increase in my tuition due to cuts in financial aid. And don’t even get me into the whole “Maybe if I ignore HIV it’ll go away” thing he seemed to have going…
The first time that I visited Atlanta and found that the so-called “Black Mecca” wasn’t nearly as peaches and cream for everyone helped me understand “Winter in America.”
And the last time that I visited my family…definitely “Home is Where the Hatred Is.”…
But what breaks my heart is the fact that Gil Scott-Heron couldn’t seem to do for himself what his music did for others. I understand the ravages of crack and its impact on families more that I’ll get into here. But what I will say is that it’s one drug that no one should mess with because no one wins when it’s in play.
My hope is that when this genius is remembered, it will be with a focus on what he managed to accomplish, not how the last years of his life were conducted.