Sunday, February 03, 2008

Black History Month

The ground hog oracle, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow and predicts another six weeks of winter. No surprise, February is a cold month in these northern latitudes. A not so foolish American February tradition is Black History Month. Like everything else that touches race in America the tradition is controversial. The controversy cuts in a number of ways. Perhaps most controversial is that people's history is history at all. For some history means, and will always mean, stories of great men and their battles. Some simply cannot imagine that ordinary people living their lives made history. I like Black History Month because it demonstrates annually that Yes We Can!

Watching the events unfold in Kenya has filled me with sorrow. It's been a help that bloggers have been writing about the events, and that adds to the feeling. When I read a couple of bloggers who I admire and hold in high esteem, fret that they feel like they are "fiddling as Rome burns" sent a twinge of pain up my side. Some of that pain is not for Kenya, but a recognition of my own feelings of impotence to rise to the challenges of the cruelty carried out under my flag.

In my own queer mind "fiddling" reminded me of freedom songs and the confidence that far from being something trivial, these songs of freedom are essential for creating a world we want. So my thought turned to Fanny Lou Hamer a brave and great hero in American history.

There's a very good telling about Hamer's struggle here and the context is worthwhile going there to read. Here I'll copy a snippet from her testimony at a Hearing of the Select Panel on Mississippi and Civil Rights entered into the Congressional Record in 1964. Through the early 1960's Hamer sought to register to vote and to encourage other black people in Mississippi to register as well. For those efforts she and her family suffered vicious reprisals. Here's some of what happened with her arrest for breaking no law:
“A white officer said to me, ‘You are under arrest. Get in the car.’ As I went to get in, he kicked me. In the car, they would ask me questions. When I started to answer, they would curse and tell me to hush, and call me awful names.

“They carried me to the (Montgomery) County jail. Later I heard Miss Ponder’s voice and the sound of kicks. She was screaming awfully. “Then three white men came to my room. A state highway policeman (he had the marking on his sleeve) asked me where I was from. I said, ‘Ruleville.’ He said, ‘We’re goin’ to check that.’ They left out. They came back and he said, ‘You’re damn rightl!’

“They said they were going to make me wish I was dead. They had me lay down on my face, and they ordered two Negro prisoners to beat me with a blackjack. That was unbearable. It was leather, loaded with something.

“The first prisoner beat me until he was exhausted. Then the second Negro began to beat. I have a limp. I had polio when I was about six years old. I was holding my hands behind me to protect my weak side. I began to work (move) my feet. The state highway patrolman ordered the other Negro to sit on my feet.

“My dress pulled up and I tried to smooth it down. One of the policemen walked over and raised my dress as high as he could. They beat me until my body was hard, ‘til I couldn’t bend my fingers or get up when they told me to. That’s how I got this blood clot in my left eye — the sight’s nearly gone, now. And my kidney was injured from the blows they gave me in the back.”

She was left in the cell, bleeding and battered, listening to the screams of Ann Ponder, who was being beaten in another cell, and hearing the white men talk of “plotting to kill us, maybe to throw our bodies in the Big Black River, where nobody would ever find us.”
Her injuries were permanent and disabling, leading to her famous remark: "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired" which became her epitaph. Fanny Lou Hamer was unbowed and continued her registration efforts.

Such courage is hard for me to imagine in myself. I wonder how she managed? Not finding links to prove it, but I'm sure I've read how Fanny Lou Hamer on the buses she organized for taking people to courthouses to demand their right to register to vote, she was always the first to initiate singing of freedom songs.

As a white American, so much of what I love about our culture is steeped in Africans in America, and music I love so much. After that severe beating Hamer persisted. At the time in the news "militant" was the word used in the press for people like her, but in fact she was dedicated to non-violence, "uppiddy Negroes" rolled off the lips of white people in the street. The songs she sang encouraged her. Imagine after such a beating that she went on with even more determination! Many of the songs acknowledge suffering, and don't ignore the fear we all feel, but the songs connect people to something larger, to a vision of community and a good world in which to live.

The Black Eyed Peas Obama video draws on freedom songs. The song was inspired by a speech which Barak Obama made after the New Hampshire primary election, and Obama's speech was in turn inspired by the songs which also inspired so many ordinary Americans, and extraordinary Americans like Fanny Lou Hamer. American politics has many nuances and complications, it's easy to get thick into the weeds. That Barak Obama is a politician from Illinois for example is rich with particular historical associations and meanings not quickly explained. Politics are never really pure. But there are ideas in politics which are wholesome and pure, and songs communicate that essential goodness.

No doubt a fiddle can sing, but songs sung with voices are easily shared. For my Kenyan friends inside and outside Kenya feeling they are fiddling while Kenya burns, lifting up your voice to sing is not trivial. Let us hear your songs, allow those of us who may, join with you in song. Pete Seeger remarked that songs are sneaky; they can cross borders. Together people of good will all over the world can claim history and make a better beginning. We care about Kenyans who are suffering now, because the struggle a good world is for all of us. Freedom songs encouraged Fanny Lou Hamer and they can inspire us with courage too.


The 27th Comrade said...

What angers me is how America, with all this in its past, present and future, keeps lording a Phariseeist self-righteousness over the rest of us.

I mean, America has Gunatanamo Bay, the Nigger Lynchings, Jena Six, all this stuff. There is still angering injustice across races, there is Hurricane Katrina (as in, what it showed when it lifted the covers), et cetera. Yet read the next thing an American writes: how to spread the Democracy that is rich to bursting back home, how to kill Arabs until they learn Democracy, how to starve Africans until they learn Democracy ...

Sorry if I'm frothing at the beak, but this stuff just pisses me. America. Grr. Y'all ain't even sorry for nothin' yet. The Natives are still caged. And the American pre-pubescents are here to watch our elections. I'm just sick and tired of being so fuckin' sick and tired of Americans. I might as well give in to the brain-wash and have some peace of mind.

John Powers said...

Darn it 27th Comrade, I did write a response soon after you left your comment, but I must have hit preview instead of submit. I apologize for directing you here and there being no comment to see.

Your being sick of Americans isn't surprising. As an American I imagine I have some slight influence over policies.But what's frustrating is the distance between stated policies and what we actually do.

Thank you for leaving a post. Perhaps as more Americans are engaged in dialog we might become less sickening. Maybe not. In any case very happy to see you blogging again and I appreciate your comments here and on blogs elsewhere.

Ntwiga said...


The place in history that your words point us is a profound one. Man is such a fickle animal, easily stripped of memory of the terrible terrible cost someone somewhere is paying for what we enjoy and take for granted.

Sadly, Kenyans are long way from being sick and tired of being sick and tired.