Brother Ali’s “The Travelers,” from his 2009 album US, serves as a way to bridge the gap, for students, between Early American literature and their current existence. Typically, I share this song with students to give them a contemporary perspective on the Middle Passage as we read Olaudah Equiano’s Narrative. The first verse provides a graphic picture of the Middle Passage then the life of enslaved Africans once they reached the shores of the United States. Reversing the point of view, the second verse comes from the perspective of the oppressors. This verse relates, in many ways, to other texts we have been looking at so far in my Early American literature survey course. Today, I want to take a moment and discuss how we can use this song in the classroom to help students draw connections between literature from over two hundred years ago and our present cultural milieu that sees the continuation of racism and oppression.
When discussing the song, and its genesis, Brother Ali does not mention Equiano or other Early American texts. Instead, he cites James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) as the jumping off point for the song. In a survey course on American literature before 1865, having students read Baldwin’s book would be hard to do; however, students could read his “My Dungeon Shook: A Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” which originally appeared in The Progressive in December 1962 and opens up The Fire Next Time. Baldwin’s letter addresses the history of slavery and racism in “[t]his innocent country [that] set [his nephew] down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that [he] should perish.” Baldwin confronts, as he does in all of his writing, a country that places blacks and other below whites through the mechanism of religion and other institutions.
In regards to “The Travelers,” the first verse encapsulates the trauma caused by slavery in this country and the way it affected enslaved individuals. Brother Ali begins the joinery with the Middle Passage, and in many ways, his descriptions call to mind Equiano’s Narrative and Thomas Clarkson’s images from his Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1786). Brother Ali raps,
Shackles are heavy on the wrist
Stacked like sardines, in the belly of a ship
Live in your own piss and shit and being seasick
Cracked across your back with a thick leather whip
Salt water burns through your wounds
Like Equiano, Brother Ali vividly paints a picture of the passage across the Atlantic that numerous individuals suffered through. Equiano, describing the hold of the slave ship, writes, “I was soon put under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything” (54). When Equiano refuses to eat, two men take him, tie him to the windlass, and flog him. These corollary images of the Middle Passage highlight for students the trauma that slaves endured at the hands of Europeans and Americans.
Along with portraying the Middle Passage, the rest of the first verse relates to slave narratives such as Harriett Jacobs and Frederick Douglass. Specifically, Brother Ali comments on the sexual and psychological effects of slavery on women. I have discussed this some with Harriett Jacobs on this blog. He intones
And your eyes bear the sight of your wife
Being pulled out your shack and brutalized at night
You only taste joy when babies are born
Which becomes and occasion to mourn
In these four lines, Brother Ali sums up the scenes where Douglass sees his aunt being whipped and Jacobs’s entire narrative as she tries to evade the advances of Dr. Norcom. When having students listen to “The Travelers,” have them think about how Brother Ali presents what they have read in slave narratives and other texts. Through this, they will see clear relationships between the historical texts that they read in class and the contemporary song. However, this is only half of the exercise.
At the end of the first verse, Brother Ali flips the script. After narrating the slave’s experience, he turns towards the psychological effects of slavery on the oppressor.
Now stop and imagine that’s you
Now stop imagining unravel the truth and ask
Just who is it happen ending to?
Everything the passenger do
The driver experience too
Through this turn, Brother Ali brings an historical fact to the present milieu. He accomplishes this by pointing out race as a concept that has survived throughout history and how that construct comes to us today in ways that we do not clearly understand unless we are cognizant of them: “Trapped in a history we don’t understand.” Echoing Baldwin, who tells his nephew that “[whites] are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand,” Brother Ali seeks to instruct his listeners on the absurdity of maintaining a system based on fallacious constructs.
Continuing his examination, Brother Ali calls to mind David Walker’s appeals for his audience to read Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia so they could see the ideas being perpetuated across the country in regards to race. What Walker points out in his appeal, is that Jefferson’s ideas perpetuate in writing and disseminate throughout the white psyche, thus containing, and constructing, oppression. Hosea Easton makes the same point. (For more information on Easton, read my post here.). Brother Ali, through the perspective of the oppressor, notes this continuation by continually pointing out the ideas that carry over from one generation to the next: “Our identity is hinged upon the miserable/ myth we’ve been taught since we’re born.”
Baldwin links the history of racism to white identity as well. He tells his nephew, “[T]he danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity” if they act and oppose the structures that benefit them. With all of the recent events that have occurred in our nation, Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott being only the most recent, how can we use a song like “The Travelers” to open up conversations with students in class that go beyond Early American literature? This song provides an opportunity to teach students about the past and the lingering effects of that past on our present society.
What are your thoughts? What songs would you use? As usual, let me know in the comments below.