Why Did We Ever Stop Singing?

Dr. Vincent Harding
Dr. Vincent Harding

I’m watching Henry Louis Gates’ series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross and listening to the music of No Enemies, the music that makes America great. My mentor Dr. Vincent Harding gave encouragement and inspiration to No Enemies to sing the movement into being (see more about them below). Listen to No Enemies music at this SoundCloud link. Why did we ever stop singing?

No Enemies: Call and Response is a series of gatherings initiated by Jamie Laurie and Stephan Brackett of the Flobots. At No Enemies, the public gathers to compose, rehearse, and exchange songs that will later be deployed on the streets. A social experiment in political art-making, the monthly  meetings blend community organizing with choir practice in a celebratory atmosphere sometimes reminiscent of a Baptist church service. Someone might introduce a simple tune that the crowd practices and refines; alternately, small groups will break off to focus on building a song collaboratively, often to address specific issues ranging from transportation inequality and police brutality to gentrification and the oppression of Denver’s undocumented population.

As social activists and musicians, Laurie and Brackett found inspiration in the Southern Freedom Movement and one of its leaders, Dr. Vincent Harding, who mentored the pair before his passing last year. Those who knew Harding use words like “guide,” “sage” and “encourager” to describe him. An activist and scholar in his lifetime, he worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and drafted several of his speeches, including “A Time to Break Silence,” in which King officially declared his opposition to the Vietnam War. Harding also contributed to the sit-ins that helped dissolve official segregation. He eschewed the more popular term “civil-rights movement,” because for him the struggle encompassed but also transcended individual civil rights: At stake was the unequivocal and complete freedom of minorities in the South and everywhere — hence the Southern Freedom Movement.

Breaking silence and empowering people to speak out against injustice was Harding’s talent and calling. Laurie and Harding started meeting regularly in 2000, after Laurie sat in on a class that Harding was teaching at the Iliff School of Theology. Laurie describes how, “with a few questions, [Harding] could make you feel very important. Taking an interest in us, he compelled us to be fully the leaders we could be.” For his part, Harding had always stressed the role that music played in the Southern Freedom Movement — he called it a “primary tool” — and he was compelled by the Flobots’ mix of activism and art. Nonetheless, he called on the band’s members to “do more, think more seriously about what music could contribute,” Laurie recalls. At Harding’s memorial last spring at the Iliff School, Laurie, inspired by the memory of his ally and guide, conceived of No Enemies. The idea — to create a series of workshops where groups could cultivate music embedded in social movements themselves — “basically became fully formed” that day, he says.–Luke Leavitt, NO ENEMIES EXPLORES THE POWER OF PROTEST MUSIC

Henry Louis Gates Jr: #BLM and the End of the 2nd Reconstruction

imagesHenry Louis Gates Jr. is the founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He’s one of America’s leading thinkers and has a great ability to put current social and political situations in their historical American context.

Last week, the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research awarded its W.E.B. Du Bois Medal to seven leaders: Muhammad Ali, Marian Wright Edelman, Mellody Hobson, Eric Holder, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Nasir “Nas” Jones, and Carrie Mae Weems.

As part of that ceremony, Henry Louis Gates Jr. have a speech in which he looks at the Black Lives Matter movement through the lens of Du Bois and American history titled Is This the End of the 2nd Reconstruction?. I urge you to read the entire piece (it’s not very long), but below is an excerpt:

…My concern is that the end of the Second Reconstruction is upon us now, or that there are too many in power who are trying to achieve that pernicious end. W.E.B. Du Bois said of the beginning and end of the first Reconstruction, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery. The whole weight of America was thrown to color caste. The colored world went down. … A new slavery arose.”

Following the first Reconstruction—that decade after the Civil War in which the Union was to become whole again, the slave was to become free and property was to become citizen—the economic relation of slave to master was essentially reconstituted through sharecropping and disenfranchisement mounted mischievously in fits and starts, and then confirmed and maintained as the law of the land. As Du Bois again put it:

The most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history is the transportation of ten million human beings out of the dark beauty of their mother continent into the new-found Eldorado of the West. They descended into Hell; and in the third century they arose from the dead, in the finest effort to achieve democracy for the working millions which this world had ever seen. It was a tragedy that beggared the Greek; it was an upheaval of humanity like the Reformation and the French Revolution. … [But] we fell under the leadership of those who would compromise with truth in the past in order to make peace in the present and guide policy in the future.

The legacy of the ending of Reconstruction, the redemption of the Confederacy, was a debilitating blow to the status of the newly freed slaves and their descendants: sharecropping, convict lease (both actually forms of neo-slavery), Jim Crow and lynch laws, poll taxes and literacy tests, and the scandalous sanctioning of separate but equal as the law of the land by the U.S. Supreme Court. These are just some of the items in the catalog of horrors that kept the majority of black people systematically separate and decidedly unequal throughout the first half of the 20th century. Still, miraculously, many of our ancestors persistently rose, and stories of success were beacons of hope and a promise of better days to come. …–Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Read the whole article.
Find out more about the W. E. B. Du Bois Medal.