Tonight on PBS there was an American Experience called “Soundtrack for a Revolution.” It was about the Civil Rights movement and the role that songs, most of them adaptations of black spirituals, played in the movement. One of the commentators made a very important point. Black America has had to depend on an oral tradition for our culture.
Unlike some more recent, voluntary immigrants we could not choose to keep our native tongue, native religion or native customs. We were stripped of them in the process called “curing”, which was wiping out the culture of black slaves so that they would not be able to talk to each other in a language the owner did not understand, and so that they would not have hostilities with fellow slaves from other countries or cultures.
That helps explain the dependence on music and spoken word that is so much a part of black culture. It also explains why so many non-blacks find us boisterous, loud, bombastic. My assistant has a laugh that you can hear all down the hall. From time to time I have had some people, some white, some black–well physically black anyway, tell me ” she is really loud, you all are having too much fun.”
I wonder how it is possible to have too much fun? Both she and I play music, not loud, just music, she also plays the harp and has a great singing voice, so sometimes at lunchtime she practices her harp and sometimes she sings. I cannot sing, but I have my light jazz playing. One day about three years ago I realized that I never hear music coming out of anybody else’s office. I began to wonder if I should maybe not play my music. I turned it off. That same day one of the facilities workers, a black man, stuck his head in my assistant’s door and asked her if I was there.
She said yes, he asked “where is the music? I always love to come over here to work because she plays such good music.” I went back to having Boney James, Michael Franks, Bob James, and all the other light jazz icons play their sweet songs anytime I am in the office and do not have someone visiting me.
Music is important to my culture. It is not as important to me as it is to my husband, kids and grandkids. They are all music fanatics. They listen to a wide and eclectic variety of music, my oldest granddaughter likes Drake and Elvis in equal measure and my youngest granddaughter had us on the floor singing and dancing to Dynamite at Christmas time.
The songs in the special brought the importance of song to my people back to me. The iconic “We shall overcome”, although moving was not my favorite. My favorite is “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around” and “And before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”
The songs of protest remind me that some of my black ancestors did not have choices. They had to do what they were told or risk death. I have choices. I might have to suffer if I take an unpopular stand, but I will not suffer any fate close to what they did. If I do not stand up for what is right I am betraying all the people, black and white and other colors who got beaten and raped and maimed and killed so that I have that right.
People, sometimes well intentioned people, sometimes people who are not my friends, wonder aloud and ask me why I cannot just be quiet in the face of injustice, especially if it is not directed at me. They seem genuinely puzzled as to why I am “being difficult.” I truly cannot answer them why. I remember as a small child having a sense of outrage when people did things I thought were unfair. I think it is how you are wired from birth. My mother must have eaten something odd when she was pregnant with me.
I protested in high school and college. My family and I went down to the jail and claimed Antioch students who were arrested for protesting first at the barber shop in Yellow Springs where the barber would not cut black folks’ hair, and then at Geyer’s Restaurant for not serving black folks. We occupied the administration building at CSU to protest the Vietnam War, I marched for voting rights and I sang with my friends and my classmates. Perhaps growing up in the Civil Rights Era made its mark on me. It taught me better than anything else that just because what you are doing is unpopular does not mean it is wrong and that people in authority are not always right. It also made me believe that it is not okay to grumble and let things slide as long as the target is not you. I am not sure what caused me to be the way I am.
All I know is that as long as I can I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.