The Soundtrack of Resistance

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Using music as a form of resistance and healing has been very much on my mind lately, in both my professional and “civilian” lives.

As previously mentioned, I work for a performing arts organization. We started our home season this year with “The War Requiem” by Benjamin Britten. A 20th-century composer, Britten was commissioned to write a piece for the re-opening of Coventry Cathedral in England, which had been destroyed by Nazi bombs during World War II.

Britten chose to write an anti-war requiem, using both the traditional Mass for the Dead and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, one of the World War I cadre of artistic souls who died during that conflict.

We produced another requiem a few years ago, the “Defiant” Requiem created by conductor Murry Sidlin, which uses the Verdi Requiem to tell a multi-media story about Raphael Schaecter, a Czechoslovakian Jew who was imprisoned at the Terezin concentration camp near Prague. Terezin was considered a “model” camp, and both Nazi bigwigs and Red Cross representatives visited regularly. The Jews from Prague’s artistic community were forced to entertain these visitors. One of the only pieces of music that they had was a score of the Verdi Requiem, and though they were Jews, they used the Catholic mass to sing their resistance to the Nazis. What they couldn’t say to the Nazis, said Schaecter, they would sing to them in the lyrics, especially the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), warning their tormentors of the judgment they would eventually face.

Schaecter, along with most of the inmates of Terezin, was himself eventually sent to Auschwitz and gassed.

These classical works seem a world away from genres such as the blues, soul music, gangsta rap, and South African rhythms of resistance, but the link is very clear: Music has long been a means for the powerless to air their grievances and also as a source of comfort. As Bob Marley sang, “One good thing about the music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” Or, perhaps, the pain is transmuted. Kept inside, it festers; let out, it can transform.

Whether it’s Otis Redding asking “Ol’ Man Trouble” to leave him alone, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee singing “We Shall Overcome,” or N.W.A. singing “Fuck the Police,” music has been “the cuts that we bleed through,” as Common raps in “Glory,” the theme song to the movie “Selma.”

In a recent New York Times Magazine interview, Ice Cube was interviewed about his movie “Straight Outta Compton.” The first question asked was, “In a trailer for ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ the N.W.A. biopic that you co-produced, you say a lot of people don’t realize that your music was a form of nonviolent protest. Is that because the nonviolent part wasn’t very clear?”

“I think it’s very clear,” he replied. “We put our frustrations on a record, and we were creative. We didn’t make a Molotov cocktail, we didn’t loot no buildings or burn ‘em down or none of that. All we did was make music.”

While rap and blues, to me, sound silly coming out of the mouths of white people (except, perhaps, for Janis Joplin), there are also examples of white musicians using music as a means of resistance. I’m thinking particularly of Johnny Clegg, who is going to be in concert near enough for me to see him next spring for the first time in 24 years.

I first saw him in Boston when he and his band, Savuka (“We Shall Rise”), toured with Nelson Mandela on Mandela’s victory lap after being released from prison, but I was very familiar with his music already.

English by birth, Clegg grew up in Zimbabwe and South Africa. An anthropologist by education, he embraced the cause of dismantling apartheid; artistic by nature, he chose music through which to do this.

I particularly think of Clegg in relation to Common’s rap about music being “the cuts that we [African-Americans] bleed through” when I hear Clegg’s song, “The Rolling Ocean.” For Clegg it is the South African’s smiles that they bleed through, that underline their amazing resilience to the forces that would keep them down:

“Women of salt and earth they tell the same story
They saw you walking wounded wearing rags of glory
And when you rejoiced they saw you smiling at your rejoicing
When you wept they saw you smiling at your weeping
When you smiled they saw you smiling at your smiling
And you said “That’s the way I’ve survived these years of dust and blood”

Bishop Rob Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta addresses this also in one of his weekly meditations: “God is: a song for the heart. A sound that bounces steps. A vibration that fans life. A consuming intoxication. A crowded dance floor. God is a melody to ride on.

“Paul told his friends, ‘Sing songs, psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, make melody in your heart to the Lord.’ He told them to do this so they could confirm their identity, confront evil, share wisdom and gorge themselves on Spirit.

“With the low-grade grief that seems to hang over us like a storm cloud, maybe what we need now is fewer words and more music. . . What do we know? . . . It might sound silly to some, but every time the followers of Jesus have changed the world there was always a soundtrack.”

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The Moral Universe – Changing What Should be Changed

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I’ve been reminded a few times recently of the Serenity Prayer.

While talking to #Black Lives Matter activists, Hillary Clinton told them emphatically, “You’re not going to change anyone’s hearts. You need to change the laws.”

While talking to a friend while I was fretting about a global problem, she said, “Don’t worry about it. You can’t change it.”

I am often told, “It is what it is.”

The Serenity Prayer was written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1934:

God, give us
Serenity to accept what cannot be changed,
Courage to change what should be changed,
And wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

In its original form, the prayer is different from that adopted by 12-Step groups, and there’s good reason for that. People newly straight, sober or learning to live with alcoholism shouldn’t be changing much of anything until they have good sobriety under their belts.

I think, however, that the prayer as practiced by 12-Steppers is the prayer that most people are familiar with and may be used as an excuse not to change, not to wade into the fray, to just say “It is what it is” and make no attempt to be part of the solution.

Ms. Clinton sounded very down-to-earth and practical when talking to the #Black Lives Matter people. She could; by chance or design, they did not get a chance to interrupt her public appearance as they did Bernie Sanders’ on two occasions. Arriving late, the activists settled for a “private” talk with her (it was being taped). It was when one of the activists talked about changing hearts that she made her statement.

I tried to envision her saying that to Martin Luther King. Or Nelson Mandela. Or even Reinhold Niebuhr.

Changing laws is, yes, in the short term the way to progress in the areas of equal justice. But it is not a long-term solution. As we have seen, those who do not want equal justice are pretty good at changing laws too. They can even get the Supreme Court to change laws that have been in place for almost 50 years.

But notice that Niebuhr’s prayer talks about changing what should be changed. And without changing hearts and minds, nothing much is really changed. Granted, someone who has had their right to vote revoked may be well-served, and should be well-served, by a change in law. But someone who feels uncomfortable walking down the street in a white neighborhood, or who cannot go into a store without being followed around by a white employee, or who can’t drive anywhere without being stopped by police and possibly murdered: those are situations that only changes of minds and hearts can solve.

Paradox is the keynote of both Niebuhr’s prayer and his life. The son of an Evangelical minister and German immigrant, he himself was a practicing minister even before he had attended Yale Divinity School. His first sermon before an interdenominational audience, in 1913, considered the paradox of the text from Matthew 10:39: “He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” He turned the paradox to a more personal level: “. . .self-preservation means self-destruction and self-destruction means self-preservation. . . As a mirage in the desert the happiness we seek will disappear when we seek it; we will lose our life when we attempt to find it.”

This problem of life, he said, can only be solved by love and self-sacrifice. “Selfishness, that is our sin. To overcome it, that is the problem of our lives.” He saw love as the answer to the paradox, and over the next decades of his life, he practiced what he preached. As a pastor in Detroit in the 1920s, he saw the exploitation of workers and threw himself into pro-labor issues. He preached against the consumer culture and against complacency and laziness. He crusaded against racial prejudice and tried to radicalize black students in the South through lectures sponsored by the African Missionary Society.

Niebuhr did sacrifice himself in his quest to change what he thought should be changed. He lost many friendships because of his unpopular views, and his physical and mental health suffered. He had periods of turning to thoughts of anarchism and communism and was persecuted by Joe McCarthy. His connection to the area in which I live began with admittance to the Austen Riggs Institution in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a mental health facility.

In the end, perhaps, we all have different notions of what should be changed. But for those of us, and Niebuhr was one, MLK was one, Nelson Mandela was one, who envision the Peaceable Kingdom, envision a society in which all creation has the right not only to exist, but to flourish. To be useful rather than to be used. To enjoy all the rights and privileges of society. And we shouldn’t have to change the law every damn time we turn around. Only by changing hearts and minds can that state exist.

The Moral Universe – We Remember You

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Not least of the things that bother me about Donald Trump, and Republican campaign buffoonery in general, is that it has pushed off the news streams information about the aftermath of the June 17 massacre in Charleston.

On this two-month anniversary, we should still be in deep conversation about this tragedy, along with the deaths of Sandra Bland, Samuel Dubose, and Christian Taylor.

Ferguson got only negative attention on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death.

The 70th anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also barely got any mentions.

What does this say about our moral universe?

Yes, I do believe that Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, et al should be called out when they are lying, making up figures, and spouting racist nonsense.

But if we lose touch with the grief and the outrage, we will not continue to fight to change the mindsets of those who hate so much.

For one thing, we have got to get the bill to restore the Voting Rights Act passed before the 2016 election. The wanton murder of African-Americans goes a long way to demonstrating why it needs to be restored. Not only do #Black Lives Matter, Black Votes Matter.

Let us not be distracted from the important work ahead of us. Let our motto be: We Remember You.

The Moral Universe – A ‘Spectacle’ Indeed

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I’ve been in a bubble of work and illness the last several weeks. I work for a performing arts organization, which becomes a world of its own during the season. Flu is no excuse for not showing up for work, so added to 10 and 12 hour days, I was looking only for light entertainment in my down time.

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Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo

To my surprise, it wasn’t the lightweight books that were able to hold my attention. Instead, it was the true story of a young Congolese man brought to the United States under questionable circumstances in the early part of the century.

Spectacle, Pamela Newkirk’s new book, details the tragic life and death of Ota Benga, a member of the Mbeti people of Congo. The short, slight-statured people were called pygmies by the African explorers who swarmed through Africa in the latter half of the 19th century, seeking to prove evolutionary theory by finding and displaying “sub-species” proving that the white man was the pinnacle of natural selection.

Samuel Phillips Verner, a member of the Southern aristocracy, was one of these explorers. A self-styled missionary, his true aim was to plunder the wealth and treasures of African tribes and exploit the natural resources of Congo as King Leopold of Belgium was also doing so notoriously. Verner either kidnapped Ota Benga or enticed him to come with him to the US with improbable promises. Verner’s own stories of meeting Ota vary, but he did manage to bring the young man (whom he described as a cannibal) to put on display at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.

The fair’s theme was the arc of human development, and organizers were keen to display African “savages” as counterpoint to white achievement. The Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society were both complicit in seeing that the theme was fulfilled. And indeed, the “pygmies” secured by Verner for the fair were a great success with fair-goers.

Two years later, Ota Benga ended up on display in the monkey house at the New York Zoological Gardens, now the Bronx Zoo. He was there for a month before the indignation of a group of New York’s African-American ministers and welfare workers got him released to the care of an orphanage for black children.

The wonder of Ms. Newkirk’s book is not only her painstaking research in finding out details about Ota Benga and his sojourn in the US, but the reminding history of Belgium’s depredations in Congo, which reverberate down to this very day. Ota Benga’s story has been known for years, and as recently as two years ago, items about him were posted to YouTube. However, they still contain legends handed down from the Verner family. Ms. Newkirk followed up every possible clue to put together a story about a real human being who suffered such indignities that he found his only way out to be suicide.

What happened to Ota Benga in the US had the full endorsement of the white elite of the time, including President Theodore Roosevelt. Mark Twain and Booker T. Washington were among those who protested the outrageous treatment Ota received.

Pamela NewkirkMs. Newkirk also introduces us to an influential African-American missionary in Congo, William Sheppard, who was one of the first to bring the tragedy of King Leopold’s rape of the Congo to public attention; she also writes about the African-American neighborhood of Weeksville in the Bronx, a once-thriving community that disproved the rule that blacks were any kind of sub-species.

Somehow, Ms. Newkirk managed to fit her research and her history into just 254 pages, a small book by today’s standards of weighty tomes that often provide much less than does Spectacle.