“I’m tired of posting social media – I got a black husband, a black son. I’m tired of them killing us. This is the civil rights movement and it’s 2020.” Fatima, from Brooklyn
Layla McCalla posted a new version of her Song for a Dark Girl, Langston Hughes’s poem set to music and said,
“When you hear of another innocent black person getting killed by the police, you never get the full picture of them. The narrative always follows along the lines of – They were black, things escalated and they were killed by well-meaning white people. You don’t see or hear about the people that they loved or who loved them.
I’ve been singing this song for years and the words were first published in 1927. It’s interesting how song meanings change and apply to different situations over time. This song breaks my heart but I have to keep singing it.”
Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.
America is reeling from the death at the hands of the police of George Floyd. Mr Floyd’s death comes hot on the heels of the incident where Ahmaud Arbery, a black man in southeast Georgia, was pursued by three white men and killed, and the fatal shooting by the police in Kentucky of Breonna Taylor a black woman. Layla McCalla’s song traces America’s long history of racism back to the lynchings of the early 20th century. But if course it goes back much further than that.
As far as the blues is concerned, they grew up in the iniquity of the Jim Crow era in the United States and were a visceral response to the suffering and afflictions of the black community. Skip James’s Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues captures the grim reality of the time for his community:
“Hard times is here
An’ everywhere you go,
Times are harder than ever been before.”
Leadbelly’s 1930 Jim Crow bemoaned the social situation he was in and pleaded, “Please get together, break up this old Jim Crow.” A few years later, in Bourgeois Blues, he takes issue with the idea of America being the “land of the free” and “home of the brave” – for Leadbelly, it was somewhere he was “mistreated” by the “bourgeoisie.” Shortly after that, Josh White gave us Southern Exposure, where he complains he “ain’t treated no better than a mountain goat.”
And Josh White’s Trouble in 1940 says bluntly, “Well, I always been in trouble, ‘cause I’m a black-skinned man.” All he could expect from life was “Trouble, trouble, ever since I was born.”
Clearly there has been change, but racism remains entrenched. Systemic racism is still a problem facing the black community. In a Guardian newspaper article from a while back, Gary Younge defined racism as “a system of discrimination planted by history, nourished by politics and nurtured by economics, in which some groups face endemic disadvantage” and went on to say that, “The reality of modern racism is…the institutional marginalisation of groups performed with the utmost discretion and minimum of fuss by well-mannered and often well-intentioned people working in deeply flawed systems.”
Blavity, a website geared toward black millennials argued that the fires in Minneapolis reflected “the rage of Black protesters fed up seeing the lives of our brothers and sisters robbed by racism…We are fed up because we are forced to fight a pandemic amid a pandemic…We are being disproportionately killed by systemic and overt racism at the same time — and are expected to accept these deadly conditions.”
Despite the evidence that just goes on building up, incredibly you have the national security adviser Robert O’Brien denying in an interview on CNN that systemic racism exists in the US: “No, I don’t think there’s systemic racism…there are some bad cops that are racist and there are cops that maybe don’t have the right training.” The long record of police brutality and the fact that black families need to coach their children in how to appear subservient to law enforcement in order to stay safe tells a different story.
As does the statistic that in Minneapolis more than 2,600 misconduct complaints have been filed by members of the public since 2012 but only 12 have resulted in an officer being disciplined.
A basic starting point for those of us who are white, said New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof, is “to wake from our ongoing mass delusions, to recognize that in practice black lives have not mattered as much as white lives, and that this is an affront to values that we all profess to believe in.”
It’s certainly an affront to Christian faith. The God of the Bible is one who “loves justice” and cares for the poor and oppressed. Just read the Psalms and the Hebrew prophets if you’ve any doubt about that. Here are the prophet Amos’s hard-hitting words:
“I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making…
Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”
Jesus declared those blessed who sought after justice and peace. The apostle Paul said that the kingdom of God consisted of “justice, peace and joy.” He also said that equality in Christ trumped all human divisions.
The challenge for us all, and particularly for people of faith, is to understand how black America is feeling right now. The challenge is to share in the anger about systemic racism that has gone on for far too long.
This blog is about the blues – but the blues were forged at a time of deep distress and racial oppression, and they continue to be a howl of protest about the evil of racism.
Josh White speaks the truth in Free and Equal Blues: “Every man, everywhere is the same, when he’s got his skin off…That’s the free and equal blues!”
Here’s Gary Clark Jr.’s This Land.