The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend is always a good time to think back and look forward. Here are thoughts and music to help you do both.
During this time when many feel overwhelmed with grief for where our country stands at the end of four difficult years, I find some strength in recalling an incident that happened just after the 2016 election. I was in a meeting and several white participants were close to apoplectic in their concern over what the country had just done in electing Donald Trump. But two older African American friends had a less emotional reaction. Yes, they were concerned about what was to come but they were not surprised at the white community’s backlash against the nation’s first African American president. They reminded us that their families, and their mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers had always dealt with adversity in this land of opportunity. It went along with being black in America. They persevered and they never gave up hope. Their message to us was if they did it in the midst of the oppression they faced, then persevering was the least we could do from our positions of privilege.
Their ancestors had been on the move, part of migrations both involuntary and voluntary. And after involuntary migrations into the cotton plantations of the deep South, some brave ones took a dangerous move north via the Underground Railroad, looking for freedom. I’ve always loved Richie Havens’ version of the 1920s song Follow the Drinking Gourd, the story of the slaves who looked at the Big Dipper and used the North Star to guide them out of captivity to freedom.
The songs of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s — like the Golden Gospel Singers‘ version of Oh Freedom and the incomparable Mavis Staples singing Freedom Highway — are good reminders of how this land of the free has worked to keep one race of people down for more than four centuries. Yet still they have moved forward; moving forward toward freedom.
Now there are new generations, still singing the old songs, as with Rhiannon Giddens version of Freedom Highway…
…but they are also showing us that they are not only looking back to honor the heroes, but they are moving forward in this place and time. Shortly after the election this fall, I wrote, “People of color saved democracy, so the least white people can do is work to end white supremacy.” That’s even clearer after the special elections in Georgia on January 5th.
President-elect Biden has said that even in those moments when his campaign was at its lowest, the African American community stood up for him. He’s right, of course. But I’d like to respectfully suggest that Black Americans in particular, all people of color in general, and a large younger, multicultural generation of citizens, many casting a ballot for the first time, stepped up to save our democracy. In the process, they helped elect the first woman of color as our nation’s Vice President. They did so by voting overwhelmingly against the racism, misogyny, incompetence, and voter suppression that defines today’s Trump-led Republicans.
If we want to keep moving in the direction of democracy, it is time for white Americans to join with all people of good intentions and fully commit to the hard, antiracist work to repudiate white supremacy and the corresponding minority rule that is a feature of that vile belief system. As Rhiannon Giddens sings in the powerful I’m On My Way, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I know what to do.”
“This single is straightforward in some respects, like its classic blues chord structure, its verse-verse-chorus-verse flow, and its minimally adorned production approach. But don’t mistake that preference for compositional fundamentals as Giddens or Turrisi presenting disinterest in letting expression flourish. In fact, one could argue that the choice to exercise some restraint around the writing element makes it that much easier for listeners to not have to think about where the song is taking them and to allow for better attention on the two performers at hand – enjoying the journey more than the destination, if you will. And though Giddens says “Don’t know where I’m going,” it’s a statement made with nothing but confidence that shakes any shred of doubt when she leaves off with the declaration, “But I know what to do.”
“I don’t know the hour that finds me in this room
Dust around my feet and still no sugar in my spoon
But I’ve only got the taste for something sweet as time
Not bottled on the table but still hanging on the vine
I don’t know where I’m going But I’m on my way
Lord if you love me Keep me I pray
A little bird is stretching out to the shimmering, shaking blue
Don’t know where I’m going But I know what to do
Don’t know where I’m going But I know what to do“
After a sledgehammer has been taken to our democracy over the past four years, there is much work to be done. Even if we don’t know where we’re going or what we’ll encounter, I think in our hearts we know what to do.
With gratefulness for the life and legacy of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who we honor this weekend.
More to come…