Friday, February 07, 2014

A Spotify List of Songs That Have A Lot to Teach Us About Social Issues in America: Part 3

By T.M. Bonner

I decided to compile a Spotify social issues song list after reflecting on the continuing reality that year after year – and after some 46 years of the requisite replaying of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a Dream” speech on his birthday since his assassination – that we are still far from the ‘dream.' We are just not solving most of the major social issues plaguing African-Americans and other minorities in America.
            As these songs speak to us through their words and harmonies, it is clear that the reason for the stagnation is not because we don’t have the knowledge, the tools, or the solutions at hand. So, while these songs have been encouraging forward-thinking on these issues, we continue to maintain the status quo. 

            This blog series has already analyzed five of the songs on the 10-song Spotify list. (Read Part 1 and See the Complete Song List Here!)
             Today’s blog highlights two more songs from that Spotify list that are quite appropriate for Black History Month, as they both deal with the crucial linkage between one’s ancestral past, the present, and the future – no matter how many generations, circumstances, or geographical shores separate them.
One song deals with African people who were brought to America involuntarily as slaves, and emphasizes the importance of them knowing and valuing their ancestral history in order to truly prosper in the present and future. The other turns xenophobia on its head and reminds us of, at least, the theoretical idea of an America that welcomes those who want to voluntarily come to its shores and contribute to its society.
“And then I wonder how will you know me/
If I should pass you on the street/
look in my eyes and you will see that/
the remembering makes us free/
let the circle be unbroken/
each one/
reach one/
each one/
teach one

The Song: “1863” (Performed by Dianne Reeves/Written by Dianne Reeves and Eduardo Del Barrio)
The Social Issue: Attempts to minimize or erase the ancestral histories of minorities

Jazz Singer/Songwriter Dianne Reeves’ song was appropriately titled after the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, in which President Abraham Lincoln declared most American slaves free and an intended end to slavery in the U.S. Confederate states. The message of the song, released in 1999 on Reeves’ album (also appropriately titled) “Bridges,” is that your ancestral history is a significant part of your identity. Knowledge of that history serves as an inspirational foundation and roadmap for the present and future.
The persistent desire in the human race to want to know “where I came from” is not a need born out of dysfunction, but an innate spiritual one. It is the reason museums are such important parts of our culture and why sites like and ancestral DNA tests are popular today. “Roots” Author Alex Haley’s desire to know his own ancestral history resulted in mainstream America for the first time being introduced to the concept that African slaves in America (only mentioned in history books in American schools as nameless cargo) were mothers, fathers, sons, daughters with an actual name (i.e., Kunta Kente), and humanity, dreams, and a family history – just like everyone else.
            However, the problem in America has been the desire to minimize, or even erase, the ancestral histories of minorities while, at the same time, allowing European histories and ancestries to be claimed and valued. I’ve known many people who casually rattle off their family heritage, saying “I’m part Italian, part Welsh, part Irish,” etc, in one breath while questioning why I refer to myself as “African-American” since I’m “not from Africa” in the next breath. Of course, I could respond that they are not directly from Ireland, or Italy either. Yet they proudly wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, or march in the Columbus Day parade honoring Italian-Americans. Why do they recognize the importance of honoring their family ancestry while trying to plant a seed in the souls of black folks that their ancestry doesn’t reach back before slavery?
            The answer is because there is a deeper force at work - both conscious and unconscious. And it is rooted in exactly the reason that they honor their own family ancestries: They understand that healthy Identity development is important for one to be a healthy adult functioning at maximum capacity and potential. But one can’t begin to solve the identity puzzle if he/she doesn’t have all the pieces. And some of those pieces are the family ancestries and histories that bring insight, a value-base, inspiration, and self-esteem.
            Therefore, minimizing or erasing opportunities for such a healthy identity development in minority/oppressed racial groups is essential in stunting minority progress. People who don’t know their rich ancestral history tend to have lower expectations in life.
The song “1863” recognizes the impact of knowing one’s history in the present and future in the following:
“Let the circle be unbroken/we are never alone/pay close attention/
the answers lie within/step in the footsteps of those who come before/keep on moving forward/stronger wiser smarter harder/keep on moving forward” 
Psychologists have recognized that adolescence and young adulthood is the height of identity development in human beings. Thus, it is no surprise that efforts to erase and minimize their ancestral histories are particularly focused in the educational system.  Just last March, a federal judge upheld a law in Arizona banning ethnic-studies programs in Arizona schools under state claims that such programs were racially divisive.
However, I fall on the side of those who contend that Arizona’s stance against ethnic studies has very little to do with so-called racial ‘inclusiveness’ and very much to do with a desire to minimize minority understanding of their ethnic and racial histories in order to maintain the status quo. As Author Frank Herbert once said: “Those who would repeat the past must control the teaching of history.”
As a person who was ‘educated’ in the American public school system, I can attest to that fact that the pages on Africa before the American slave trade are blank in American history textbooks. And as any Alfred Hitchcock movie will teach you, there is nothing more unsettling than what is left to the imagination. Being educated in America means not being taught about the rich history of African empires and the major contributions of African-Americans to virtually every academic, scientific, technical, and artistic arena in America.
 This pattern doesn’t stop in elementary and high schools either. Unless someone is taking an ethnic- or race-specific course in college, there is virtually no mention of African-Americans or other racial and ethnic groups in college texts and in classroom discussions. When I was an undergraduate, I and other African-American students once had to save the employment of an African-American professor of psychology after white students complained because she dared teach about the work of African-American psychologists along with the usual focus on the Freuds and Eriksons of the psychology world. Before taking this professor’s course, I had no knowledge about the contributions of African-Americans to the field. This was my first introduction to the hostility toward and limited exposure to non-European-focused curriculum in academia.
One result has been minorities who internalize a negative view of their own culture. 
Carter G. Woodson wasted no time in his book “The Mis-Education of the Negro” (1933) in defining the problem in education - in the most unapologetic and stinging manner as possible: 'The “educated Negroes” have the attitude of contempt toward their own people because in their own as well as in their mixed schools Negroes are taught to admire the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin and the Teuton and to despise the African,” Woodson wrote. “The thought of the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every class he enters and in almost every book he studies.”
The archaic “negro” terminology aside, Woodson is accurate in his assessment still in 2014. This is not saying much for ‘progress.’
Part of the reason some kids today don’t value themselves is because they fail to know the richness of their history. There are many people walking around out there who believe that Egypt isn’t in Africa, that ancient Egyptians were some “unique race of people” (someone actually told me this) and not dark-skinned Africans, and who actually believe that Cleopatra looked like Elizabeth Taylor.
Sure, parents need to ensure they are taking a lead in educating their own children about their ancestral history. But these same parents are taxpayers who have every right to expect the schools to faithfully use their tax money to properly educate their children and teach an accurate and comprehensive history.
As for those who, unfortunately, did not receive the proper deprogramming during their critical adolescent/young adult years and now have a negative view of their ancestral history and, thus, themselves, embedded in their psyche, the way to a healthy identity will not be easy.
But Dianne Reeves in “1863” encourages us to extend a hand, never let "the circle be unbroken. Each one. Reach one. Each one. Teach one."

The Song: “America” (Performed by Neil Diamond/Written By Neil Diamond)
The Social Issue: Immigration and Xenophobia
“Got a dream to take them there/They're coming to America/Got a dream they've come to share/They're coming to America” 
We’ve been here before – many times.
People from foreign lands seek entry to America in attempts to better their lives. Those people are seen as a threat to the so-called homogeny of America. So people hate those people.
Then those people assimilate and hate the new people who seek opportunity in America.
But there is one thing historian have continued to note: there is an extra dose of hatred and resistance to the immigration of people who are most physically and culturally different from themselves. BuzzFeed reported this week that one GOP lawmaker admitted that racism is a main reason for the lack of progress on national immigration reform legislation. The latest national face of the immigration debate, you see, is Hispanic.
But Diamond didn’t differentiate between the 'worthy' and the 'unworthy' immigrant in his song “America.” In the song, Diamond was boldly patriotic, painting a picture of an America that is welcoming for all the right reasons and emphasizing the shared motivations behind all immigrants to America.
If only everything in regard to immigration could be so seamless. It is not.
Having just one face of the immigration debate is both problematic and misleading. Immigrants to America encompass all nationalities of people. And their concerns, issues, cultures, and needs are not all the same. So if we are going to discuss comprehensive immigration reform, we have to make sure everyone is included in the policy discussion and consideration – or any such reform is doomed for inadequacy.
For example, The Root contended in an article last month that immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean are being ignored in the current immigration debate, while politicians put the Latino population front and center in a battle for future votes. Ironically, many of the African and Caribbean immigrant groups are some of the most highly-educated and skilled in the country.
So if America is really serious about strengthening the competitiveness of the nation by finding ways to support the efforts of the best and the brightest in their efforts to naturalize, then it will need to ensure that the voices of these groups - and all others who bring much-needed assets to the country - are also heard in the policy debate.

Next: "Who'll Pay Reparations For My Soul" and "Talkin' Bout a Revolution"


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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