By T.M. Bonner
As Black History Month concludes, this series highlighting a Spotify list of songs that have encouraged forward thinking on persistent social issues in America turns its spotlight today on two songs that deal with the righting of wrongs done to oppressed people.
Award-winning African-American Poet and Author Maya Angelou once summed up this concept of righting of wrongs brilliantly at a performance at the Boston Symphony Orchestra several years ago: “If you take something from someone, give it back.” This could apply to everything from dollars to dignity.
Angelou’s statement was poignant in its message that how to correct mistakes done to our fellow man should be this simple and obvious. But, unfortunately, in America, there has only been avoidance at best. While other countries from Australia to South Africa have held reconciliation conferences and enacted legislation to deal with historic and continued wrongs of native and oppressed people, America has noticeably avoided such healing measures. This has been particularly the case with wrongs committed against Native Americans and African-Americans.
“What about the red man/Who met you at the coast?/You never dig sharing/Always had to have the most/And what about Mississippi/The boundary of old?/Tell me,/Who’ll pay reparations on my soul?”
Song: “Who’ll Pay Reparations on My Soul” (1970) (Written and Performed by Gil Scott-Heron)
Social Issue: Righting of Wrongs against the Oppressed
Gil Scott-Heron, who famously penned the 1974 piece “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” also wrote this thought-provoking one about the economic and psychological damage suffered by African-Americans as a result of racism, slavery and oppression in America.
He asked the same question that many juries have to ask during civil trials when someone has been harmed or wronged: what should be the price for suffering and harm – even though any penalty exacted can never compensate for what was lost in reality. In fact, Scott-Heron acknowledges that nothing could ever compensate for all that his people have lost. Which is why he asks: “who’ll pay reparations on my soul?”
This acknowledgement is significant because it recognizes that the wounds go deep. Thus, the methods of healing will have to be as enlightened and comprehensive. As Angelou brilliantly pointed out, you can only truly make things right by replacing what was taken. And you can’t replace what was taken if you don’t learn what that was, understand it, and then acknowledge it.
|Lynchings of African-Americans as sport|
Conyers compares H.R. 40, which currently has approximately 40 sponsors, to the world acknowledging the Holocaust, to America acknowledging the wrongful internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and dealing, to some extent, with the harm done by the colonists to Native Americans.
I’m not seeing the problem with Conyers' Congressional Bill here. How can wrongs be righted if America refuses to hear the exact nature and extent of the harm done? How can one “give it back” if one won’t delineate what was taken in the first place?
It’s amazing how America understood the human suffering as a result of events like 9/11 or the Boston Marathon Bombings -- and readily and rightfully sought for a price to be paid for the suffering of the victims -- but refuses to acknowledge the long-term suffering caused by slavery.
America’s reluctance to deal with slavery and its harm to an entire race of people has a lot to do with the fact that this was an inside job. There are no scary foreign terrorists or immigrants to latch our anger and blame onto. The “evildoers" (a label former President George W. Bush was fond of using in reference to terrorists) was America. And as Ricky Ricardo of “I Love Lucy” would say, America has some “splainin’ to do.”
So, why can’t we move forward and see the urgency of starting the healing process from the evils of slavery and racism in America? I’ll provide some insight into the obstacles by quoting things that were actually stated to me and to others that I know.
Complaint: “I wasn’t a slave owner and you weren’t a slave. Who cares?”
Answer: Correct. I wasn’t a slave. But the limited financial and social capital that was passed down to me was most definitely impacted by my family being descendents of slaves and a disenfranchised minority group. My grandfather fled the atrocities of the South with a 6th-grade education. He escaped to the lesser of two evils in the North, where he was still met with discrimination that limited his opportunities. He worked his entire life – as a cook on trains and, later, as a custodian – and raised several children and grandchildren (including me), and supported and cared for his wife for 55 years until her death. He died with only $1,000 in the bank.
And, yes, you weren’t a slave owner. But I can guarantee that by nature of skin color and being a member of a privileged racial class, your family was able to pass down a great deal more financial and social capital to you. If not, that same skin color and privilege will guarantee more opportunities to gain such assets for yourself than the as-qualified minorities right next to you.
Complaint: “Why should I pay for something that I didn’t do in the past and have nothing to do with now?
Answer: Americans have to pay for things that they don’t agree with, don’t care about, and abide by laws that they would prefer not to have all the time. It’s the American way -- and it’s the price we pay to be able to have funding for things we do care about, do agree with, and is necessary to support the interests of the whole instead of just its parts. African-Americans paid taxes to the same country that first sanctioned their disenfranchisement under slavery for 500 years, and then sanctioned the continued denial of their basic human rights for decades during Jim Crow after slavery ended. African-Americans still pay taxes to police departments that abuse them, to fire departments that won't hire them, to school systems that don’t educate their children, to governments that pass legislation and laws that discriminate against them and throw obstacles along their path to upward mobility. They even paid taxes to bail out the financial industry, but then suffered the most economically as a result of the Great Recession that resulted from the financial meltdown of that same industry.
And in regard to not being a party to the historic and present discrimination, I would ask someone this: what actions do you personally take when you witness or have knowledge of discrimination? If the answer is nothing, then you are benefitting from the same system that you feel you shouldn’t have to be a partner in correcting.
Fact: a former white co-worker of mine told me that a landlord in a gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn offered him a lower rent than he offered the African-Americans who were vying for the apartment. The landlord literally told him that he was hoping the deal would entice the co-worker to take the place because he didn’t want African-Americans in the building. What did the co-worker do? He took the deal and enjoyed the steal. The co-worker said he “felt bad” that he benefited from the discrimination, but he couldn’t pass up the lower rent. This is just one of many wild stories I am told regularly by people about the discrimination they have seen, heard, or, “sadly,” from which they have benefitted. For most, what they did to address it is never part of the narrative. They just took what they were given and accepted what others were wrongfully denied – and they kept it moving. I’m merely the confessional for moral/conscious cleansing.
Complaint: Didn’t Affirmative Action Make Everything Equal?
Answer: Affirmative Action is just a necessary tool to provide African-Americans and other minorities legal protection from discrimination. It is only as effective as the institutions and governments that are supposed to utilize it, but that are also steeped in systemic racism. It has long been documented that white women – having been classified somehow as a minority – are the largest beneficiaries of Affirmative Action initiatives. The number of government contracts awarded to African-American and racial minority businesses still significantly lag behind those awarded to whites. Additionally, The New York Times reported on an Urban Institute study last year which found that consistently over the last 30 years, white families have earned, on average, $2 for every $1 that black and Hispanic families earned. Recent data also shows that white family wealth was about $632,000 compared to only $98,000 for black families and $110,000 for Hispanic families, according to that same study. Additionally, there is a persistent movement in America to eliminate Affirmative Action. The latest trend is for states to bypass court decisions and legislation by bringing Affirmative Action abolishment referendum questions to the states and their mostly white voting population to avoid the diversity that Affirmative Action encourages. This is how the state of Michigan – which was 80 percent white in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau – was able to abolish Affirmative Action in education and hiring a few years ago.
Complaint: Why don’t you just get over it?
Answer: On the Holocaust Memorial is the phrase: “Lest We Forget.” There’s a very good reason for that phrase. The same evil in people that caused them to participate in such atrocities doesn’t just disappear, or become 'post-hateful' (i.e., the laughable "post-racial"). Instead, it is taught to the succeeding generations and continues lurking in society. Like a vampire, hate needs to continue feeding to survive. That scary Arizona legislation that would have made it lawful for businesses to refuse service to someone based on sexual orientation actually made it to Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk for a signature before she vetoed it this week. For African-Americans, this was nothing new. Parts of the country legalized similar discrimination against them (think: Jim Crow separate but equal laws) for decades after slavery ended. Watching the U.S. Supreme Court weaken the Voting Rights Act last year was like waking those who died fighting for voting rights and killing them all over again. So, you must remain vigilant and aware – lest we find ourselves victimized by the same forces all over again. So, no, we won’t – and should never – ever get over it.
The Social Issue: Economic Inequality
“While they’re standing in the welfare lines/ Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation/ Wasting time, in the unemployment lines/ Sitting around, waiting for a promotion/Don't you know, they're talkin’ 'bout a revolution/ It sounds like a whisper/ Poor people gonna rise up and get their share/ Poor people gonna rise up and take what’s theirs”
|Occupy Wall Street Protester|
in New York City, 2011
Long before the "99 percent" protest movement that became known world-wide as Occupy Wall Street launched on September 17, 2011 in New York City, Tracy Chapman sang about such uprisings.
Chapman wasn’t the first song about uprisings or the first protest song. In fact, the 1960s was like one long protest song. But what is significant is that in each succeeding generation, Americans are still singing this same, sad tune about economic inequality.
One of the lessons of these economic protest movements that continues to be lost is this: When there is economic inequality, no one wins. While the wealthiest among us can remain insulated from the impact of economic inequality because of their already accumulated financial resources, the country as a whole suffers. The financial meltdown of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed should have shown us that business owners need customers who can actually buy their goods or utilize their services. That Real Estate Developers and Agents need people who can afford to buy their homes or rent their apartments. Citizens in communities need to be self-sustaining in order for those communities to remain healthy. What’s the point if when you build it, they just can’t afford to come?
Another lesson that keeps being forgotten is that oppressed people will see the light and fight back. Except, today they have better weapons.
What the oppressed have now that they didn’t have in the time when Chapman released her song in 1988 was major arsenal in the way of the Internet and social media to even the playing field of message dissemination and support for their cause. This is how the Occupy Wall Street movement focusing on the plight of the “99 percent” and based out of little park near Wall Street became known and duplicated across the country and the world.
Back in the 60s, television was such a weapon – allowing the rest of the country and the world to see the injustices that were taking place. But the oppressed were dependent on mainstream news media to tell their stories for them and share their plight. Social media today ensures that inequality will continue to have nowhere to hide, allows the oppressed to control their own message, and allows them to reach their audience without the mainstream news media as intermediary. As the Occupy Wall Street movement illustrated: people will listen.
Chapman celebrates the power of that voice of the oppressed, and warns that the fortitude and capabilities of the oppressed should never be underestimated or ignored.
Read Part I of this blog series here
Next and last in this series: "Love's In Need of Love Today"
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.
Great article. Really enjoyed reading it.
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