Friday, February 12, 2010

Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing

Last night, as I watched the telecast of a gala White House concert on PBS, my disappointment with Barack Obama and the party that he leads—my party, I’m embarrassed to say—really hit home. Not that I’ve been expecting much from this administration. I voted for President Obama in the primaries because I perceived an arrogance in Hillary Clinton that I considered dangerous. I voted for Obama again in the general election because I perceived a lack of integrity in the Republican party that I considered even more dangerous. Nevertheless, I must admit that on election night, I cried.

The reason I cried is that I have deep feelings about the civil rights movement. I remember it from my childhood (I was six years old when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed), and I’ve studied it carefully ever since. In 2005, I published a history of the movement entitled The Coming Free.

As an author, I’m still drawn to the civil rights movement because it’s the best kind of history to write about. More than just teaching us the ways of the world, the stories of the civil rights movement inspire us with their idealism and emotionality. They encourage us to identify with people who acted courageously and pursued commendable ideals, even if they suffered painful consequences. Speaking for myself, I know that recalling and retelling the stories always makes me feel ennobled.

When Barack Obama appeared on stage in Grant Park last November to accept John McCain’s concession, I felt as though the half-brothers who had murdered Emmett Till, the driver who had kicked Rosa Parks off the Cleveland Avenue bus, the Klansmen who had beaten the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, and the firemen who had turned their high-pressure water hoses on schoolchildren in Birmingham had finally been exorcised from the collective unconscious. And so I cried.

Which brings me to this week’s White House concert of “Songs from the Civil Rights Movement.” As you might expect, I tuned in with great eagerness. But I could tell from the president’s pedestrian opening remarks that neither he nor anyone else in the audience felt much of an emotional connection to the history of the movement.

What followed was, to my mind, a sadly inappropriate revue. The evening opened with gospel singer Yolanda Adams offering a virtuosic rendition of  Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” followed by Smokey Robinson and Jennifer Hudson singing Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.” I love both these songs, and I’m always happy to hear them performed well. But they are pop songs, not  movement songs. No one sang these songs in churches or at rallies—in fact, no one sang them at all, unless you count singing along with the radio.

It wasn’t until John Mellencamp, of all people, sang “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” that I finally heard a movement song; and it wasn’t until Joan Baez launched into “We Shall Overcome” that a few people in the audience began joining in, if only by mouthing the words quietly. Didn’t anyone recall that joining in and singing along was the point and purpose of movement songs? Raising one’s voice not only showed solidarity but also boosted morale and released emotions through the catharsis of physical exhortation. If you haven’t experienced this yourself, try listening to Pete Seeger’s We Shall Overcome, the recording of his June 1963 Carnegie Hall concert, and you’ll hear what I mean.

The highlight of the White House concert for me came when Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of the original SNCC Freedom Singers, interrupted her performance of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round” to admonish the audience, “I know this is a show, but you have to actually sing this song. You can never tell when you might need it.”

What a shame that the president had to be told this. What a shame that the history of the civil rights movement rests so lightly, like dandruff, on the shoulders of those in power. I often wonder, despite my cynicism, how the Washington elite can be so oblivious to the struggles of the people whom they ostensibly serve. Surely, after spending their days seeking partisan advantage, they can spare some time for the people’s most pressing business? Surely, after fattening themselves at the public trough, they can show a degree of shame and some measure of respect and compassion for those less privileged than themselves? Unfortunately, the truth is that the people in power have trained themselves to ignore such feelings, even as the weight of history presses down upon them.

Here was Joan Baez—no longer the beautiful folk princess of 1963, now grey and a little hoarse—reprising her performance at the March on Washington, singing “We are not afray-ay-aid/We are not afray-ay-aid/We are not afraid today-ay-ay-ay-ay.” I could see in her eyes that she was fighting back the tears. Not being on stage, I didn’t have to. But the audience of Washington dignitaries seemed not to notice. They just sat there placidly in the East Room of the White House, greeting the end of the song with smiles and polite applause. Didn’t they realize what was happening?

I’m sure they all consider the civil rights movement a highly laudable period in American history, but I don’t think they understand that its recollection presents a rare opportunity for humility. It isn’t every day that one gets the chance to feel genuine empathy with people who felt the lash of injustice, nor awe at the heroics of those who righted the wrongs. Such opportunities should be seized, because they are the wellspring of the emotions that inspire us to lead better lives. All else is temporizing or the pursuit of personal advantage, which is why—after a year of emotionless talk from the White House and Congress—there is still no health care reform and prisoners are still being held without trial at Guantánamo Bay.

I couldn’t help but feel that this concert, intended to celebrate the civil rights movement, cheapened its memory because its organizers and especially its audience failed to connect with what remains vital about the movement: the example that it set of ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary change.

Is it still possible to believe that the party of this milquetoast president can make a similar difference in the world? I think not, and I can no longer suspend my disbelief.

You can watch excerpts from the concert yourself on YouTube. Joan Baez’s performance can be found here,  and Bernice Johnson Reagon’s performance here.

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