Friday, July 1, 2022

Louis Armstrong, Myths, and the Rescue Narrative

There’s an article making the rounds on social media and carried by some news outlets that tells a story of how a Jewish family, the Karnofskys, adopted a young Louis Armstrong and started him on the path toward becoming the world-famous musician he later became.  Different versions of the story have the family housing young Louis in their home where the mother sang him to sleep with Jewish lullabies.  Other versions have them purchasing his first instrument for him because they saw his potential.  Yet others discuss how he was affectionately given a Yiddish nickname.  It all sounds very Disneyesque as the young child is helped by a struggling immigrant family who brings him into their home and treats him like an adopted child.  It’s a poignant story for the times (early 1900s) when both Jewish and Black people were so mistreated – especially in New Orleans where Mr. Armstrong spent his childhood.  The story has some truth, but it’s not true.  And it’s an example of why those touching stories your friends pass along may not be the best sources to cite.  It’s an even more significant example of how a false narrative that feeds misinformation can contribute to harmful generalities.


First some details about why it’s not a true story.  Louis Armstrong was a documentarian.  He kept extensive handwritten notes about his life.  The notes are in the rough language of someone with limited formal education, and they reflect his times.  But they are extensive and allow us to see, in his own words and from his perspective, what his life was like.  His handwritten notes are available at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, NY.  And there are transcribed versions of some of that material at the University of Chicago online archives.  He wrote an extensive comment about his experiences with the Karnofsky family.  You can read an excerpt at:


It’s tough to read some of what’s there because of the times it reflects.  His attitudes toward race, though common in his generation, sound strikingly painful today.  But the account is worth reading because it provides a more honest telling than the stories circulating online.  The relationship he describes with the Karnofskys is one of employee and employer.  He worked for them beginning at the age of seven (yes, seven – not uncommon in that era) working alongside the adults or older Karnofsky children.  Mrs. Karnofsky would provide him with a meal at the end of the day, after he’d been working from sunup; but then he went home to his mother and sister.  The Karnofskys treated him benevolently, and he learned the importance of working hard from them.  But when he decided to purchase a used, blackened cornet he saw in a store, they didn’t purchase it for him.  Mr. Karnofsky advanced him two dollars of the five he needed to purchase the horn.  It was a loan against his salary.  He paid back the loan and paid the other three dollars from money he had saved from his salary.  He admired the Karnofskys’ ability to work as a family and to work toward common goals – traits that he believed were lacking in the people in his own community.  But, no, he didn’t become an adopted member of the family.  They were his kindly employers, and no more than that.  They didn’t nickname him with a Yiddish moniker of “Satchmo” (a name he got later from a fellow musician who shortened it from “satchel mouth” – because he talked so much).  The Karnofskys were models to seven-year-old Louis Armstrong that he didn’t see anywhere else in the world he experienced to that point.  As a result, he had a fondness for them that he later extended to all Jewish people.  This is all documented in his own handwriting. 


So why do we so readily want to believe the story of a family rescuing young Louis Armstrong, and why does it continue to make the rounds, even after Snopes and other sources have debunked it?  We like stories where there is, at the heart of troubles, a happy twist of rescue.  The lost puppy finds home, the abandoned child finds a family, Little Orphan Annie finds a Daddy Warbucks benefactor.  Those stories make us feel okay about a world that can often seem otherwise cruel.  But there’s more to a story that involves a seven-year-old Black child who goes to work to help his family survive, especially if that child becomes wealthy and famous as an adult.  That real story is contrary to the more common myths about Black people.  After all, the common story society tells of Black children has been one of generational poverty in generational dysfunction.  Mr. Armstrong himself falls into that trap in his telling of the Black experience in his writing.  It’s painful to read his views of Black families in the link noted above. 


The dominant societal narrative is one of failure and distress for Black children.  And that narrative isn’t dependent on political perspectives.  Liberals believe it as strongly as conservatives do.  It is rooted in the perception that Black children grow up in poverty and they later live, as adults, in deprivation.  That was such a dominant theme that it drove much of social service policy and social science research from the Moynihan Report of the mid-1960s to the current day.  It stems from the belief that Black families and their children are flawed and deficient.  For them to do better, as the myth emphasizes, someone must rescue them.


So a mythical narrative gets created to explain Louis Armstrong.  It suggests that a generous immigrant family helped and nurtured him.  They taught him love and lullabies, and that gave him the start he needed to succeed.  Except that never happened.  While he talks about learning the importance of work and focus from the Karnofsky family, and while he admired them, it wasn’t their love that he took from his encounter.  At a very young age, he watched, learned, and adapted.  As he later played in a band with his idol, the bandleader King Oliver, or as he fronted his own bands, he understood what it meant to hone his skills through work and determination.  He learned how to work from the Karnofsky family, and he took that lesson with him for the rest of his life.  While he was clearly an originator on the trumpet whom players still imitate today, and while he was exceptionally talented, it was his work ethic that propelled him beyond being just a brilliant trumpet player.  His words tell us that was the value of his experiences with the Karnofskys.  His success didn’t come from some mythical nurturing and rescue.


Why is that an important distinction to make?  It’s important because seeing the truth of it leads you to a different understanding of the Black experience.  Louis Armstrong wasn’t rescued.  He found a model and then he adapted the model to his own needs.  He used the lessons he learned while working for the Karnofsky family to rise from the reform school where he was later sent to playing for queens and presidents as an adult.  That’s pretty amazing for a child who grew in the poverty that Mr. Armstrong describes in his writing.  And maybe that’s the story we should be passing around on social media.  It’s certainly more accurate.


And while we’re at it, maybe we should look at others who succeeded and see what really propelled them to success.  I think about this because of my great-grandfather who migrated to Texas after the Civil War.  By 1871, when he was 72, he owned his own ranch.  By the early 1900s, his sons owned extensive ranch and farm lands in two counties and had amassed significant wealth.  When my grandfather visited Galveston in the early 1900s, his arrival was often noted in the Black newspaper.  One article in Galveston’s The City Times (February 20, 1915, page 1) noted that he was the brother of another wealthy stockman while saying of him, “His wealth, it is thought, will reach the $100,000 mark” (just under $3 million today).  That was a remarkable change of fortunes for a family that a generation before would have been considered as property in many states.  Although that fortune was systematically stolen by the time the next generation arrived, their success, and that of many other Black families during that era and beyond, rarely gets told.  Those stories are not unique to my family.  There were many Black families who have a similar story in that era and all the way to today. 

It’s time to look at those stories and stop passing along myths that affirm a rescue narrative that isn’t truthful.  We’ve started to be aware of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” because of recent reporting; however, even that’s told as an anomaly.  It’s not.  When I’ve examined the many stories of Black success, whether then or now, I can see a pattern of striving toward achievement that is often thwarted by more powerful forces.  Rather than seeing familial dysfunction, I see attainment that fights against the odds because I know these other stories.  That’s why I’m always suspicious of narratives that promote the rescue storyline.  The truth, whether it’s about Mr. Armstrong, my family, or Black Wall Street, is much more powerful.