As I get ready to head to the University of Bergen in August, I have started to think about ways to discuss issues of race in America’s history. Brianne Jaquette’s piece, “Fulbright Workshop: Black Lives Matter, Part One,” sparked these thoughts, and her discussions about how Europeans talk about race differently than we do here in America. This is important for me to consider, and I have been thinking about ways to highlight for students the ways that our constructions of race have impacted our history and even our present. In this post, I want to talk about some of the songs, documentaries, or small pieces that I plan to use to help with these discussions.
When thinking about music, I looked at songs that provide an historical perspective that could address multiple issues. As such, the first song that I thought about was Propaganda’s “It’s Not Working (The Truth).” The first verse addresses respectability politics and racial uplift and the ways that white supremacy has limited opportunities for Blacks in the US. One key line points, “Like you, we stood against that tyranny,” points to the role of Black Americans in the Revolutionary period in the fight for America’s independence. This singular line speaks volumes because it correlates later to verse two when Propaganda raps about Black soldiers in World War II fighting for freedom abroad yet experiencing segregation and oppression at home. Along with these issues, he speaks on the War on Drugs, Redlining, the Civil Rights movement, and other historical moments that can inform students about our nation’s history with race.
Along with Propaganda’s song, I also thought about Brother’s Ali’s “The Travelers,” a song I have written about before. The song chronicles the Middle Passage and also highlights the ways that the institution of slavery and the social construction of race affect both the oppressed and the oppressor. One key aspect here, at least in regard to Brother Ali’s discussion of the oppressor, is something that James Baldwin continually notes in his writings: that “the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.” This fear of losing control and power plays a large part in America’s history with race. The construction of race science, stereotypes, and unwarranted fears all play in to the manner in which whites sought to paint themselves as superior to Blacks in order to maintain power and control. This is something that Brother Ali and Baldwin both highlight.
The other song I have been thinking about is Sho Baraka’s “Foreword, 1619,” the opening song of his album The Narrative. The whole album could work for this discussion, but I find “Foreword, 1619” particularly useful for its historical breadth. For one, it contains, within the title, the year 1619, a reference to the first slave ship that arrived in the colonies. (This year is up for debate, as the link above notes.) The first lines of “Foreword, 1619,” “There goes the lion, to and fro/ looking for someone to devour/ resist him,” call to mind Biblical references, but they also make one think about about the grandfather’s advice in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and the Signifying Monkey. Following this, Sho Baraka and Adan Bean go through a litany of significant Black intellectuals and movements from the Harlem Renaissance to Kara Walker, August Wilson, and more. This list provides the opportunity to show both the history of oppression but also the Black creative and intellectual tradition in resistance to that history.
In conjunction with these songs, I have also thought about Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” or Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn,” both of which speak against injustice and racial violence. I think these songs would be useful with documentaries such as Yvette Johnson’s Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story, a documentary that chronicles the life and murder of Booker Wright. The film highlights the deep seated and overt racism in Mississippi during the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement. Another similar documentary would be ESPN’s The Ghosts of Ole Miss, a film that chronicles James Meredith integration of Ole Miss and the university’s football team during their 1962 undefeated season. The vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow appear in the film in the interviews with former Ole Miss football players, and this aspect, juxtaposed with Booker’s Place, would show that even though we are now in the 21st century America still suffers the lingering effects of our history of slavery, Jim Crow, and oppression.
In regard to short pieces, I am thinking about posts from the African American Intellectual History Society’s blog such as Ameer Hasan Loggins’ “The Historical Hatred of Haiti,” Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders “Black Charleston and the Battle Over Confederate Statutes,” and Keri Leigh Merritt’s “Private, Public, and Vigilante Violence in Slave Societies.” As well, I think James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” would be a good, brief text to use. In the short essay, Baldwin talks about visiting a village in Switzerland and the ways that the citizens view him. At one point, he writes,
For this [Swiss] village, even were it incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted. These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York’s Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory–but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.
As part of the West, the Swiss’ relationship to America its cultural and intellectual history is intertwined even if they did not have any specific connection to the acts of violence and subjugation that occurred in America. This, along with Baldwin’s comments later about the rise of America are important to understand, and when talking about race in America, I think it is also important to highlight how Baldwin shows us that he encounters the same ideas, in a slightly different manner, in Europe as a Black American.
What songs, documentaries, or short texts would you suggest? As usual, let me know in the comments below.