Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Spotify List of Songs That Have A Lot to Teach Us About Social Issues in America: Part 1

 By T.M. Bonner

Every year in January, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday comes and goes – and each year I measure how committed we are to moving closer to his dream of an inclusive, just, and loving society by how we have dealt with the social issues plaguing our nation.
And each year, it remains clear that we continue to enter the promise of a new year with the problems of the previous one.
To ease the troubles of my mind on this disheartening pattern, I did what many of us do: I turned to my favorite tunes to soothe my weary spirit. But it became clear soon enough that many of the songs I have long enjoyed have been addressing (in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways) some of those social issues –even going so far as to give us the answers in some cases. What a different country it would be if only we had been heading that sage advice.

So here it is: My Top 10 Spotify list of songs that have been trying to teach us forward thinking on persistent social issues in America:

1.                    “The Greatest Love of All” (Originally performed by George Benson/Cover performed by Whitney Houston (1986); Written by Michael Masser and Linda Creed)
2.                    “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” (Performed by Joe South /Written by Joe South; Covered by Coldcut (2006)
3.                    “An Upbeat Black Girl’s Song” (Written and Performed by Thema Bryant-Davis)
4.                    “Baby Mama” (Performed by Fantasia/Written by Neely Dinkins, Neely, Vito Colapietro, Eugene Record, Barbara Acklin, and Harold Lilly)
5.                    “The N-Word”
6.                    “1863” (Performed by Dianne Reeves/Written by Dianne Reeves and Eduardo Del Barrio)
7.                    “America” (Performed by Neil Diamond/Written By Neil Diamond)
8.                    “Who’ll Pay Reparations for My Soul” (Performed by Gil Scott-Heron/Written by Gil Scott-Heron)
9.                    “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” (Performed by Tracy Chapman/Written by Tracy Chapman)
10.                “Love’s In Need of Love Today” (Performed by Stevie Wonder/Written by Stevie Wonder)

Today’s blog highlights the messages in the songs “The Greatest Love of All” and “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.” Then over the next few days, the consciousness-raising of the remaining songs will be discussed. 

“I believe that children are our future/
Teach them well and let them lead the way/
Show them all the beauty they possess inside/
Give them a sense of pride, to make it easier/
Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be.”
The Song:  “The Greatest Love of All” (Performed by George Benson (1977)/Covered by Whitney Houston (1986).
The Social Issue: Racial Attacks on the Self-esteem of Minority Children

            The original version of this song was performed by George Benson as part of the autobiographical movie “The Greatest” on the life of African-American Boxer Muhammad Ali. It was covered by Whitney Houston in the 1980s, and featured the iconic music video filmed at the historic Apollo Theatre in Harlem in New York City. The song deals with the importance of not only loving and staying true to one’s authentic self, but also the need to teach this lesson to children, as well as cherishing, honoring, and protecting them so they can grow into emotionally and psychologically healthy adults of the future.
          But instead, the year 2013 was the year of an all-out war on the self-esteem and healthy identity development of minority children. There was the story of 12-year-old Vanessa VanDyke, the daughter of an African-American mother and white father, who was told by her private Florida school to cut her “wild natural hair” or she would be expelled. A teacher in Fort Worth Texas was accused of separating the black and white fifth-grade students in his class, explaining to them that “blacks are stupid.”

Vanessa VanDyke

            If that wasn’t traumatizing enough, hateful people even brought Santa Claus into the mix. Yes, they took it there. Fox News Anchor Megyn Kelly decided she needed to announce to “kids”—who for some reason would be up watching her news program – that “and by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa is just white…” What a way to reinforce to young white children the idea of the validity of their identity while totally delegitimizing the identities of non-white children, Megyn!
          And, of course, where would dumb be without dumber? So others followed Kelly’s lead and began terrorizing minority children with this concept in classrooms across America. These included a New Mexico high school teacher who questioned why one of his African-American students would wear a Santa outfit to school because “Santa is White.”
         Sadly, grown people deliberating trying to chip away at the self-esteem of minority children is not a new phenomenon, and each new year promises a new set of news stories about adults deciding it is never too early to start teaching children in America that they are better than or less than another based solely on skin tone. The lesson from this social trend so deftly illustrated in 2013 is that we must look deeper than just physical and sexual abuse of children at the hands of relatives, family acquaintances, and babysitters. Every child has the right to protection not only from physical and sexual abuse and neglect, but also from the psychological abuse from hateful adults who seek to pass the mantle of self-hatred on to the new generation of African-American and other minority children.
            The guardians of children should sweep down on these idiots as severely and swiftly as they do for other offenses against children. A six-year-old should not be told that there is something wrong if the Santa of their dreams who brings goodwill, blessings, and love to them on December 25th each year looks like them. They shouldn’t be told that God somehow made a DNA mistake by giving them the hair that is growing out of their heads and to please put it away so that others will accept them. Girls who are taught this grow up to be women who believe that they must attempt to alter their DNA to be accepted by others. And white children who are taught this grow up believing they have the right to demand this of others not like them.  
Minority children living in an environment that encourages a healthy self-esteem and identity environment is crucial because these children will be as much a part of the future fate of this country as white children. But George Benson told us that almost four decades ago, and Whitney reminded us of it in the 80s. Maybe it’s time we listen to that song again and finally get the message.
“If I could be you, if you could be me for just one hour/
If we could find a way to get inside each other’s mind/
If you could see you through my eyes instead of your own ego/
I believe you’d be surprised to see that you’ve been blind/
Walk a mile in my shoes/
Walk a mile in my shoes/
Hey, before you abuse, criticize and accuse/
Walk a mile in my shoes.”
The Song: “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” (Performed by Joe South (1970)/Written by Joe South; Covered by Coldcut (2006))
The Social Issue: The Blaming and the Shaming of the Poor in America

            Way back in 1970, Joe South released a little song called “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” to try to teach us about the need for racial equality, insight and compassion. Coldcut did a pretty decent remake a few years ago. But this song could speak to any situation where people are tempted through fear, ego or ignorance to put up judgmental dividers between themselves and others who are different from them – including economically. This song urges us to step out of our own economic class bubble and seek to understand the experiences of those less fortunate.
            While top media news sources continue to disagree on whether the failed War in ‘My bad, there-were-no-weapons-of-mass-destruction’ Iraq cost the U.S. economy ‘only’ $800 Billion, or as much as over $2 Trillion, the fact is, this unnecessary war was a crucial springboard to the economic crisis, huge government deficit, and the Great Recession of a few years ago – from which we are still trying to recover.
            And Forbes Magazine reported last year that the world’s super rich hid at least $21 Trillion in secret, offshore accounts in places like the Cayman Islands. The report also stated that countries worldwide – including the United States – collectively lost as much as $188 Billion in potential tax revenue from those hidden assets. In 2010 and 2011, Mitt and Ann Romney famously paid only $6.2 Million on $42.5 Million in income (at a tax rate of only 15 percent) because this income was classified as “investment income” – or another way the rich have wielded their political power to win congressional approval of different income categories so that they pay less in taxes.
            But, in case you didn’t know, the real threat to America’s economy has been those ‘lazy’ workers making $7.25 an hour at McDonalds who had the audacity in 2013 to demand a higher and livable wage from a corporation that Huffington Post reported in October posted $1.5 Billion in profits in its third budget quarter. That same reported noted that taxpayers contributed almost the same ($1.2 Billion) to supplement those same workers’ paltry incomes with public assistance benefits.
Or, the people breaking America’s bank or ripping it off are those people receiving unemployment insurance after working and then losing their jobs through no fault of their own and those people needing to receive Food Stamps. Now, I can’t stop someone from believing fiction, but just because someone actually believes it won’t change the actual truth of the matter.
            As the Pontius Pilate of biblical fame, you may retort: “What is Truth?” Is it truth  -- as social welfare historians contend – that the trend of the blaming and the shaming of the poor has a lot more to do with who is currently being marketed as the primary beneficiaries (African-Americans/Hispanics instead of widowed white women of old) of social welfare programs such as Food Stamps, TANF, and Medicaid than the programs themselves?
            But one need not sit around being Ponderous Pilate while spewing hateful language at people he/she knows nothing about. Joe South gave us the answer in 1970: We can start on this road to discovery of truth by walking a mile in their shoes. Sure, you can take this idea literally, as former Newark, NJ Mayor (now U.S. Senator) Cory Booker did by living on an actual Food Stamp diet to better understand the dietary and economic challenges of trying to do so.  One could always question (including myself) how much famous folks who decide to take on such Food Stamp challenges are really learning about the suffering of the poor, who must endure such stresses as not having enough food to last until their next monthly Food Stamp disbursement for many years. Meanwhile, the famous folks only dip a baby toe into the experience for a few weeks. But such experiences are at least right in spirit of trying to understand someone’s situation by actually experiencing what they experience – instead of taking what Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh have to say about it like it was stamped in gold.
            We could clearly be better guided on this discovery of truth if there weren’t missing from the discussion of poverty actual poor people. By the sheer lack of economic power and, thus, political and media access, the ability of the poor to articulate their own situations has been severely disempowered. Thus, the only ‘truth’ we hear about the poor is from people who don’t know anything about neither poverty nor the people living in that situation.
            It’s time to finally stop carrying over this same issue to other new years, to get out of our ignorance bubble, and truly get to know our fellow man and understand why and how their situation may be different than our own economically.
            The way to that path for you may not be by literally eating an actual Food Stamp diet or sleeping over for 30 days in someone’s unheated, mold-infested apartment in public housing (though that experience may be enlightening). But you could start walking a mile in someone’s shoes by just looking into their eyes, acknowledging their humanity and finally hearing their story.

Next: "Baby Mama" and "An Upbeat Black Girl's Song"


T.M. Bonner is a writer, filmmaker, MBA, Social Justice Advocate, and is currently completing Graduate Studies in Social Policy/Social Service in New York City. 

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