I was recently provided with the unique opportunity to embark on a 'Freedom Tour' through many historical sites from the Civil Rights Movement. Taking the journey at a time when our nation has seen a rise in racial tensions and issues of social justice, I felt it only necessary to bring my research, experiences, and pages of historical text to life. Having previously visited Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Greensboro, and Washington, D.C. — I was fully aware of what to expect; however, my willingness to visualize through a new perspective allowed me to see and appreciate the South.
Each day was full of education, sights and interactions that cannot and should not be compared to one another on any scale. Whether learning about voting barriers, restrictions and gerrymandering while at the Southern Poverty Law Center or hearing Joanne Bland, the youngest person arrested during the Selma to Montgomery marches, recount her experiences of ‘Bloody Sunday,’ the trip reignited a passionate flame within.
During our journey, I was exposed to the stories of countless individuals who endured pain and sacrifice for racial equality. As I traveled to new locations, the experiences continued to build upon each other bringing us from the past to the present. Though uncomfortable and sometimes saddening, the experiences were necessary to moving forward.
The week of experiences did prove one thing to be true — Yes, we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long road ahead of us. A luta continua, the struggle continues.
*All photos taken by Candice Crutchfield
Have you taken a "freedom tour" of your own? Let us know your experiences in the comments below.
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Now that Zoe Saldana has been thoroughly read, we can focus on another important element of Nina Simone's remembrance: Giving her a film that actually authentically depicts her life in its complexity, struggle and brilliance.
I saw the Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Nina Simone?, which I found demoralizing in its title and horrifying to watch. Once I learned that Simone's daughter actually had a lot to do with the production of that documentary, my horror grew. If you haven't seen it yet, I won't go into much detail. However, giving Ms. Simone's abusive husband a platform — which he used to mostly berate Nina — was an egregious error on the filmmaker's part. I left that documentary feeling like I knew her less than before I'd begun watching it. The Hollywood production can only be summed up as a circus, sensationalizing her life in ways that are just downright false.
But did any of you know that there is another documentary, and it's actually fantastic?! Jeff L. Lieberman's The Amazing Nina Simone was so thorough, thoughtful and precise that I reached out to Jeff after seeing it to gain more insight into his thoughts surrounding the film. I found him to be as thoughtful and honest as his film. Check out our chat below:
Blavity: Who is Nina Simone to you?
Jeff Lieberman: Nina Simone is an artist like none other. She is fierce and unapologetic. She is unique and unfiltered, giving listeners a true authenticity often unfound in our music universe. She is a freedom fighter, a woman of brave choices, bolds stands, a style icon, a serious risk-taker and uncompromising in her vision of black freedom and equality. She is also a brilliant musician who could take a song and totally make it her own, adding piano flourishes and unique vocal stylings that can induce utter joy or complete sadness. She is an overlooked musical genius, beloved around the world by devoted fans, and someone who has been saying Black Lives Matter since the 1940s, starting in her small Southern town at age 11, to Carnegie Hall when she proclaimed "Mississippi Goddam" at 31 years old and throughout the entire course of her life. As a fierce believer in social justice, she is truly my hero.
B: What has her music meant to you?
JL: Her music has had a special place in my heart. It's introduced me to a time and era that I find especially captivating, and given a counter-narrative to the Civil Rights Movement that is hard to find anywhere else. I've danced to her music, sang her music, been consoled, been uplifted, and listened in awe to some of the ways Nina brings life to a song. It's hard to describe exactly why her music touches me, whether it's her sound, tone, lyrics, piano interludes, the deep androgynous lusciousness of her voice or her choice of song, but it's been a big part of my life for the last 20 years.
B: What do you hope people take away from your documentary?
JL: My intention with this film was to help tell Nina Simone's phenomenal story, and help bring more context to her music, life and incredible accomplishments. When I discovered Nina's classical music background, her politicization among friends such as Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin, and her tremendous unrecognized musical role in the Civil Rights Movement, I felt that her fans would gain an even greater appreciation for Nina and her music. One could watch the film and then go home and listen to her music again with new context and knowledge to the meaning of her iconic songs. I also felt that many of her fans often wondered about Nina's behavior and that too often Nina was dismissed as crazy. I felt speaking about Nina's mental illness could perhaps bring compassion and a new understanding to Nina's life, and at the same time, I wanted the film to show that it wasn't just mental illness that drove Nina's bold and controversial choices. I wanted people to understand her bravery and brilliance, and what it takes to truly be an artist that fights for the causes near to one's heart. In 1963, people were not used to a black woman demanding equality and respect, and they certainly weren't used to hearing someone like Nina voice outrage at segregation, racial violence, and economic inequality. It's easy to dismiss Nina as "crazy" or "violent" as often people like to do when they don't know her story or when certain films choose to focus on the most sensational elements of her life. When you see The Amazing Nina Simone, I challenge anyone to not realize that her defining characteristics were brilliant and brave.
B: What was the most difficult part about creating the film? How did you overcome that challenge?
JL: Making a documentary is tough work, and even more difficult when producing it independently, without the strings of corporate or investor interests. Taking on a subject as complex as Nina Simone adds another level. I also wondered if not being from Nina's era or culture would affect my ability to truly understand the nuances of her experience. I also feared that others would have the same question. To add to this, once I began the project, another VERY well-funded production began a competing documentary on the same subject, which posed a whole new set of challenges. Carving a place for the film has been a challenge, but out of the 3 Nina Simone films, I am most proud that I overcame all these challenges, completed the film, and been on the right side of history. The film has been embraced by audiences in over 65 cities, and Nina's fans have heard the TRUE story of Nina's life, career, challenges, ups and downs, as told by over 50 of her friends, family, band members, lovers and fellow activists. That has been no easy task, but every audience member that sees the film and gasps, laughs or sheds a tear has given me a tremendous confidence that we are truly honoring Nina.
B: If you could have cast someone to play Nina Simone in the Hollywood depiction, who would it be and why?
JL: Impersonating Nina Simone is a job that I wish on nobody. Nina is a powerful figure, and more complex than any of us will ever understand. Even those who I've interviewed speak about all these different sides and personalities that I'm not sure anyone could ever capture completely. I think it would take an actress of tremendous experience and acting chops to even begin to take on that role. My best suggestion would be Alfre Woodard, who has proven herself throughout many decades as an extremely strong actor. I would also suggest Viola Davis or Lorraine Toussaint. No prosthetics or dark-skinned makeup would be needed for any of these actors — elements that are a distraction and make a caricature of Nina Simone. It goes without saying that Hollywood has a history of casting lighter-skin actors, and Nina even felt that her dark skin and wider nose were obstacles throughout much of her life, including the reason she was never featured on the cover of a magazine, like Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross, her lighter-skinned contemporaries.
There are also plenty of young women who I feel truly "get" Nina (like India Arie) and could potentially capture Nina's height of artistry in the 1960s. However, I think it's important to recognize that this biopic chose to portray Nina in the 1990s, the final decade of her life when Nina was in her 60s. In the controversy over the black-face makeup, prosthetics and casting choice, this is scarcely being mentioned in the press, and this is my larger issue with the film. While I believe Clifton Henderson (whose story "Nina" is loosely based upon) had good intentions when he first began caring for Nina, he ended up isolating her from friends and family, over-medicating her, and taking large percentages of her payments. This is not an uncommon ending for many celebrities of a certain era, and perhaps an interesting story if Nina had not had six other decades of phenomenal musical accomplishments, civil rights stands, and been a symbol for so many people of freedom, pride and artistry. To overlook these moments in favor of sensational drama like Nina brandishing a gun and throwing champagne bottles is not only an insult to her very rich and complex life, but is a blatant white-washing of her achievements as a black woman in 20th century America. It exposes the deep ignorance of the cast, director and production team. Having read the script for the film four years ago, I can say that anyone involved in the production was deeply aware of the choices they were making with this production and should be held responsible.
I love narrative films and have seen great films that portray real people. However, I think the only person who should be playing Nina is Nina. Her story is not fit for the condensing and sensationalizing that are part of the formulaic approach to conventional Hollywood biopics. Nina's story and genius lives on in her performance clips, and anyone who truly wants to know the real Nina should see the real person as told by over 50 of her friends, family, band members, lovers and fellow activists in The Amazing Nina Simone. I say this not as the director of the film, but as a fan.
For More Information About Jeff's Documentary Visit www.amazingnina.com
What are your thoughts about how Nina Simone is portrayed? How would you like to see her story told?
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Why are black people getting all upset now? They've become more sensitive over the years. I remember back before the Civil Rights Movement they used to be so happy
Although these are not the exact words of one person, these are sentiments that I have heard over the years regarding the simple request that America begins paying attention to the plight of Black Americans. There is a ton of research to prove that black America is struggling within the educational system, housing, job opportunity, wages, etc.; however, we've become more sensitive since the Civil Rights Movement.
Recently, Scholastic Corporation ATTEMPTED to release a children's book called, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, in which the slaves of George Washington were excited to make a cake for his birthday. Slaves smiling in private quarters while making food for a man that owned them like property. But it's a book for children, so we can cover the truth up a little, it means nothing – no harm, no foul right? In their high school geography textbooks, McGraw-Hill referred to slaves as workers. A mother in Texas had to make the story public before the company apologized and took action. A textbook meant to teach children about slavery, referred to slaves — a stolen, abused group of people — as workers.
Actions such as these sensationalize slavery and remove the inhumanity of the situation. It screams, "How dare we show children that slavery was a horrible time in history where human beings were beaten mentally and physically, starved, belittled and humiliated?" At a point in our life where we are absorbing the world around us the most, we minimize the effect of an actual historical atrocity. I'm not asking that we put the mangled bodies of slaves in children's books, but happy 'workers' is an outrageous understatement of the climate of slavery at the time. If we can't teach the truth in a space where the historical truth is meant to be taught; how do we expect to understand where we are in our current lived realities?
Once we’ve confronted the political and economic advantages that came with ending slavery, we shouldn't celebrate Abraham Lincoln as someone who ended slavery because of the inhumanity. We can't begin to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. without confronting why he became a prominent leader in the Civil Rights Movement. We can't celebrate Rosa Parks without confronting the dark history of Jim Crow, and we can't celebrate Thurgood Marshall, The Little Rock Nine or Ruby Bridges without assessing the current climate of inequality in the education system.
And this is what we've done. We celebrate the successes without understanding the depth of the climate that forced success in the first place. Most Americans can tell you that MLK was a black man that fought for black people's rights, but they can't tell you how terrifying it was to live in the South under Jim Crow as a black person. They can't tell you the dehumanization techniques utilized during and after slavery to belittle black Americans.
You have to recognize our pain, in order to truly celebrate our successes.
Since we've minimized these atrocities in our minds, as well as ignored the mental effects of slavery and Jim Crow, it's easier to attribute the current state of black America to a group of people rather than on the institutionalized systems of oppression — where it belongs. As a country, I don't expect us to understand microaggressions and systematic racism when we feel comfortable teaching black children that their ancestors enjoyed their pain, but we don't feel comfortable telling white children that their ancestors might have enslaved people, or that they sat quietly as human beings were hung from trees, spat on, hosed down in the streets and beaten. Don’t let us tell them that their ancestors might have been involved in the lynchings and beatings of human beings because that's just too much.
So no, we're not being more sensitive and no, black people were not happy living in fear of what might happen while walking down a sidewalk or boarding a bus. The only difference between now and then is that now we have the strength, numbers and platforms to say we're not going to deal with it anymore. #RecognizeOurPain
Celeste Russell is a recent graduate of the Mailman School of Public Health. She's currently spending most of her time trying to figure out this thing called "adulting". As an aspiring social epidemiologist, Celeste is interested in understanding how racism truly impacts mental health for both the minority and majority groups. She's an avid overuser of exclamation points and can often be spotted catching a theatre show in the big city. Follow her on Twitter at @defy_gravity96.
What more can be done to get to teach the complexities of institutional racism?
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Last month, teacher and activist Zellie Imani expressed via Twitter his thoughts on freedom — what the idea does and does not look like, its relationship to the state and capitalism, and its links to revolution.
Freedom is not absence of chains or representation in positions of power, its the absence of structures that deny access & power to all.
— zellie (@zellieimani) January 6, 2016
Hierarchal systems of domination & subordination deny our humanity, obstruct our agency & harm our bodies.
— zellie (@zellieimani) January 6, 2016
When I read his tweets, I knew I wanted to write about them, but I also realized that it would take me a while to formulate my thoughts. So I sat with the topic for a minute, let my ideas simmer, and came to the following conclusions:
#WokeTwitter conversations happen with frequency, but Zellie’s thoughts are notable because they highlight an important principle of liberation that is routinely overlooked. Zellie asserts that:
“Freedom is not absence of chains or representation in positions of power, it’s the absence of structures that deny access and power to all.”
It is that last clause, calling for equality of opportunity for everyone, that succinctly expresses how we should, but rarely do, conceptualize freedom. Oftentimes, individuals have passion for attacking disadvantage on one metric, yet are simultaneously complicit in the oppression of others.
We see this pattern of elevating self-liberation over universal freedom when white feminists convene meetings to make sure Jennifer Lawrence is paid as much as her male costars, but are silent about Daniel Holtzclaw, the police officer who was convicted of raping and sexually assaulting eight black women and accused by five more. We see this pattern when white R&B singer Arika Kane (who profits from black artistry but clearly doesn’t understand intersectionality) tweets that Beyoncé divides women because her “Formation” music video celebrates black culture and brings attention to our unique circumstances.
Sorry Bey! I won't be getting in "formation". A true feminist unites, not divides...& chooses to empower, not flaunt their power #arikakane
— Arika Kane™ (@arikakane) February 9, 2016
In these situations, it's clear how mainstream feminism, by placing black women and our needs on the back burner, falls short as a tool for liberation.
Importantly, this trend also exists within racial boundaries. During discussions about police brutality and sexual assault, black men (and even some black women) will vehemently denounce the former but excuse the latter, particularly if the accused perpetrator is a black man. Being a voice for Mike Brown or Tamir Rice while also defending Bill Cosby and R. Kelly is inherently anti-liberation, as evangelizing against one form of oppression but condoning another will never manifest freedom. Centering racism as the primary force of disadvantage that affects black lives while explaining away or ignoring sexual violence against black women is just one example of how selfish notions of liberation taint collective freedom. Real abolition means that the success and protection of black men is not prioritized over the safety and prosperity of black women.
Similarly, to be fully liberated, cis-hetero people cannot advocate for equality on one plane, be it criminal justice system reform or workplace racial and gender diversity, but hate and express discomfort with homosexuality, trans identies or any other identity that does not conform to standardized concepts of personhood.
There can be no exceptions when it comes to equality, because true freedom is without caveat.
To echo Zellie once again — simply moving up the hierarchy while leaving others at the bottom is not freedom.
I see this disconnect, the desire for identity-based and not universal freedom, as the result of a misguided, subconscious aspiration for privilege. By this, I mean that some marginalized people, when thinking about liberation, are really imagining a world in which they experience the benefits that advantage brings. This does not have to be intentionally malicious, but rather it's the likely result of America’s capitalist, prejudiced conditioning. Everyone wants the ability to see the results of their labor, whether that looks like access to wealth, higher education or awards and accolades, but we must remember that these achievements are often part of systems that function on the premise of inequity. Thus, having more, if others unfairly still have less, cannot be the goal or ideal for any marginalized group seeking liberation. Instead, we must strive for a reality without hierarchy, and not one for which our own identities are simply included into the privileged few. Nonexclusive freedom has to be the vision of any liberation-seeking movement, or else it is disingenuous in its mission and complicit in continuing oppression.
Manifesting this reality, however, means that we must all be critical of our woke-ness and vigilant about rejecting the kind of selfish freedom that advances one identity but constrains others. That does not mean being an active member of every social justice group, though it does require that we all ensure that the policies, behaviors and actions we champion open the doors wider for everyone, or at least don't close the door in someone else’s face.
This process is neither easy nor convenient, but I do believe that the end goal makes it worth it.
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Why We Wear Our Crowns is a series that highlights social justice advocates from the African American community and throughout the African Diaspora. We hope that by showcasing those who dedicated their lives for us to own ours, you’re inspired to wear your crowns proudly.
February 21, 1933- April 21, 2003
Singer, Songwriter, Arranger, Pianist, Activist
There is a text by Maya Angelou that says “The matter of art is inevitably the matter of life. That is to say, art reflects life, influences and creates life.” Masterpieces come in different forms, all of which, offer the influencer the opportunity to express their lived experience in their best medium. Just as a painter has a paintbrush or an orator has their words, Nina Simone’s tool was her music. Simone was a gifted storyteller and talented musician that utilized her medium of musicality to act as a message for the masses. In doing so she enticed her listeners to wake up and take a stance on the prevalent issues happening at the time. She didn't belt out a tune or play a note that didn't serve a purpose and throughout her career, her music acted as a weapon for justice by any means necessary.
Before she was Nina Simone, she was Eunice Kathleen Waymon, born in small-town Tryon, North Carolina in 1933. She took to the piano at the age of three and first began her music career at her local church. As she became more skilled on the keys and developed a repertoire of classical arrangements, she aspired to become a concert pianist. Growing up as a black girl in the harsh Jim Crow South and being subject to discrimination despite her unprecedented talent didn't deter Simone from her musical dreams. After being rejected from a musical program from the Curtis Institute of Music, for what Simone cited as racial discrimination, she moved to New York City and began her studies at the Juilliard School of Music. It was while in New York City that Simone began to venture out of the gospel background she grew up with and into other musical genres such as jazz, pop, and the blues, as she took to singing in nightclubs to make ends meet. In nightclubs she sang covers of popular songs of the day mixed with her arrangements on the keys and became well known for her dynamic and unique sound. Simone's beginnings of being known as the "High Priestess of Soul" began as her intense, sultry voice and powerhouse classical skills on the piano drew in crowds and gave her fans with names as famous as her own.
Simone would go on to sign her first record deal at the age of 24 with Bethlehem Records where she recorded the popular songs, "I Love You Porgy" and "My Baby Just Cares For Me," before leaving the company. It was after signing with Colpix Records in 1959, when Nina began being regarded as the performer we remember today. With a group of like-minded individuals surrounding her including Stokely Carmichael, Lorraine Hansberry, and James Baldwin that were invested and dedicated to speaking out against racial injustice, Simone began to tune her music to a much more political stance. Though Simone previously released songs that payed homage to her blackness, it was following the death of Civil Rights advocate Medgar Evers and the murder of four girls in the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, that Simone was triggered to move her career into a new direction. She began to make songs that directly addressed the racial tensions of the time which gives way to why she is so highly regarded for her artistry today. Her legacy is still so palpable because the music she made at the height of the Civil Rights Movement is relevant to the suppressed issues that followed and the ever present Black Lives Matter movement today.
Her controversial song "Mississippi Goddam" (1964) which was banned on most radio stations because of it's defiant lyrics, set Simone apart from other artists as she was unafraid of making music that made listeners uncomfortable. Simone's stance in regards to gaining and protecting the rights of African Americans was anything but, non-violent. Her approach took her to perform her songs in civil rights meetings and also advocate for violent revolutions. Her later songs "Why (The King of Love Is Dead)" written after Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, "Four Women," and "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black" acted as lyrical mirrors that reflected the painful but, real issues African Americans faced during some of the most tumultuous eras of American history. Simone was revered as an activist by civil rights leaders of the time because her music articulated resistance in a way that acted as protest. Not only was she loud and brazen in the words she wrote, sang, and performed but, she did it all while being unapologetically talented, black, and a woman in an industry that so easily would congratulate white mediocrity.
Despite her significance and visibility in the music industry and in the CRM, Simone didn't find the commercial success she was seeking and took time to reflect in Barbados in 1970. Little did she know that in an act of protest for the U.S.'s involvement in the Vietnam war, Simone opted out of paying her taxes and it was upon her return to the country from Barbados, that she was informed of a warrant for her arrest. To evade criminal charges, she sought refuge in Barbados and later traveled throughout Liberia and Europe before settling in France in 1992. Between the time she left the United States and found a home in France, Simone toured and performed in clubs throughout Europe and released records through various labels. Her song "My Baby Just Cares For Me" from her 1958 album "Little Girl Blue" found a resurgence in 1987 when it became a Britain Top 10 single after being used in a Chanel No.5 perfume commercial. She even made appearances in the United States where she never faced prosecution for the charges that were once imposed upon her.
However the work and music she produced in the latter part of her career didn't give her the financial or commercial success she desired either. Her personal reputation of being combative and prone to mood swings, which were later revealed to be a result of her mental illness, led her to feel misunderstood and she reflected that in her last works. She published her autobiography, "I Put A Spell On You" in 1992 and released her final album "A Single Woman" in 1993. Her last record reflected a demeanor of the solitude she lived in and pain she felt as an artist that was never truly understood. A decade after releasing her last album, Simone passed away in her sleep, at the age of 70 in her home in Carry-le-Rout, France.
Spanning a career with nearly over 40 albums and 40 years, Nina Simone is known as an icon of American music and one of the best griots to ever take the mic. Her music and character defied standards in a way that was just as powerful and prophetic of giving a speech or marching across cities. Her artistry led her to become an inspiration for many singers, writers, poets, and creative artists who would follow in her footsteps and as it relates to the current wave of #BlackGirlMagic, Simone may very well be the prototype. She was mystifying in the way she was able to entrance and command the attention of an entire audience and confidently tell her truth as she saw fit. Nina Simone set a standard of what it means to be not only young, gifted and black, but unapologetic and unrelenting in the spirit of all it encompasses to carry the blessing and burden of blackness and she is the reason why we wear our crowns.
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According to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the public may control the name and likeness of figures of the Civil Rights Movement. Applying Michigan common law, the federal court found that the privacy interests of Rosa Parks’s heirs must yield to the public interest in discussing the civil rights movement. In a ruling on January 4th, Judge Robin Rosenbaum, writing for the court stated:
“The use of Rosa Parks’s name and likeness in the books, movie, and plaque are necessary to chronicling and discussing the history of the Civil Rights Movement — matters quintessentially embraced and protected by Michigan’s qualified privilege. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a discussion of the Civil Rights Movement without reference to Parks and her role in it.”
The case arises out of an action filed by Parks’ heirs under the name “Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute For Self Development” against the Target Corporation. Parks’ heirs allege that the retail chain violated Mrs. Parks' privacy rights by selling six books, a movie, and a plaque without the estate’s permission. The court held that the merchandise found protection under Michigan’s qualified privilege protecting matters of public interest.
This decision may have implications for other civil rights icons, and may arguably yield a broad privilege to use other's likenesses. Should the public have a stake in the name and likeness of public...
“It's like you hungry. You reached your level. You don't want anymore. We asked 10 years ago. We was asking with the Panthers. We was asking with them, you know, in the Civil Rights Movement. We was asking. Now those people that was asking, they’re all dead or in jail. So now what do you think we’re gonna do?”-Tupac Shakur
There are many ways to engage with the world. For me, it’s through music. Life mused to a soundtrack as vast as my experiences.
Play SWV’s “Right Here (Human Nature) Remix” and I’ll pop back to a family trip to Niagara Falls, me 5 years old sitting in the passenger seat of my dad’s jeep as he cut off the ignition. I’ll remember cruising with him down North Carolina backroads to an oldies station that played Michael Jackson’s original on a Sunday evening. It’ll take me back to a boarding school dorm room in Durham when my best friend and I discovered we were kindred spirits. Or to dancing in the middle of a Cameroonian dance hall for my 24th birthday.
Music is a muscle memory, one I flex often. I know as much about myself from the ways I’ve adapted beats and melodies as I do from family stories overheard during Thanksgiving or watching my grandma make her version of the family’s homemade mac and cheese.
I am the product of lyrical legacies. Ones I build on and break off because I listen to them often as I learn to live.
But as much as this is about me, it isn’t. This sensibility is a black tradition, as old as being black in America and as necessary as ever. Music’s how we build. How we bridge. How we resist. How we do this with ancestors, comrades and kids. It’s how we experiment together across time and space to claim the right to have the space to be present at all times.
So why is this being denied today as one generation takes up the task for social justice from those before?
In a Washington Post op-ed, former Civil Rights Movement activist Barbara Reynolds discussed her reservations, like some of her contemporaries, for supporting today’s Black Lives Matter movement. The reasons are plentiful. We let profanity slip off our tongues and we come ready to dismantle white supremacy unencumbered by suits and ties. We don’t apologize for ourselves and we do not deny that we may not forgive or that forgiveness is not enough. We don’t organize ourselves on church pews.
And yet we still organize, even if the terms are not the same as those of our predecessors. Even if those terms echo in the songs that we sing. Even if that means we sing Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” over “We Shall Overcome.”
The latter has carried our people for centuries. While we associate much of its political power from the marches of the 1950s and 1960s, the roots of the melody are as deep as the Southern soil so many of our people were forcefully brought here to tend. In 1901, Charles Albert Tindley published “I’ll Overcome Someday” from which the lyrics derive. And yet before the turn of the century, the refrain we recognize today was sung over cotton buds under the sun as a work song , “I’ll be alright someday.”
While Reynolds finds it difficult to hear the resonance between the tunes of Baby Boomers and her generation’s babies, is this because the tunes are truly different or a problem of being open to listening? As the children her generation bore and raised, why isn’t there the benefit of the doubt that we heard them? That we still hear them?
“Alright” for us today does what “We Shall Overcome” did for Reynolds. “Alright” for us today does what “I’ll Be Alright Someday” did during slavery. It is an affirmation of us for us. It is a reminder that our work is not in vain, that our work is our future and that our future will be one of freedom, regardless of how treacherous the journey to get there.
The fact that we’ve changed the lyrics doesn’t deny our links; it’s an honoring of them. We have witnessed the patience of those passed and prided them for pressuring our country to pass laws that honor our dignity as human beings. And there was progress. But in 2015 we continue to fight for our lives and watch the same country dismantle those very laws by using our steps forward to hold us back.
The old strategies no longer suffice. And neither do the songs.
We are unapologetically ourselves in whatever way we choose to be because our predecessors sacrificed themselves for respectability and it was still not enough. We are claiming our right to be flawed — and for this we are, as we say, flawless. We do not wait and this is how we dare fear. How we hold each other. How we get over. How we gon’ get free.
Yes our tactics are unconventional, but only because new conventions are necessary. So while we sing “we gon’ be alright,” it is, quite frankly, only because we inherited it from those before us, like Reynolds, who said “we shall.”
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