“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” ~ Desmond Tutu.
I grew up hearing African freedom songs. In my early years as a child in Jamaica, there was no television. My parents had brought their eclectic record collection and a record player, and in the evening my father would choose a selection. I would fall asleep to the blues with their haunting melodies, or be startled awake by a rousing orchestral march. But the harmonizing of a South African choir singing of their beloved land and a dream of freedom would bring chills to my spine. My parents were life-long activists: pacifists, defenders of the poor and oppressed, and they lived their beliefs.
This month is Black History month in the US, and one of the outcomes of the more recent atrocities against Black people has been a greater availability on the TV of movies and documentaries by and about Black people. One that I watched recently was about Billie Holiday, another voice I knew from my parents’ collection. Her voice has a unique quality, unmistakable. I hadn’t heard of the actress who played her, so I had to use the Google to see if she was lip synching. A Grammy award winning singer, Andra Day made her acting debut in this movie, and yes she did sing all of the songs. She even smoked cigarettes and did other unhealthy things to help to get the smoky quality of Billie’s voice. But apart from her incredible singing and acting, the movie is worth watching (United States vs Billie Holiday) for it exposes the cruelty of the era, and the power of the authorities to destroy someone’s career and life. The act of singing that most disturbing song, Strange Fruit, had her pulled off the stage. It had the power to rile people up, and they couldn’t have that.
It is very uncomfortable to watch many of the films that document injustice and criminality that have been used to dominate people of color. But as angry/guilty/ashamed as it may make those watching feel, how more dangerous is it to act as if it never happened? How can people heal if the source of the disease is not uncovered, lanced, drained and addressed?
There is a wonderful group of young, mostly African American, divers who have an organization known as Diving with a Purpose. Their special focus is to locate, protect and document sunken artifacts and shipwrecks along the Middle Passage, tracing the journeys taken by those who trafficked in Africans for over three hundred years. It is incredible to imagine how painful this work must be, to dwell in the memory that is haunted by death and tragedy, of lives stolen and sold, or lost at sea. There is a database that documents over 36,000 voyages which transported the Africans, and in the 19th century when slavery was abolished, they counted over 90,000 people captured by anti-slave trade patrols. The numbers are staggering.
We must acknowledge the atrocities of the past, and the way these atrocities are still being perpetuated today if we are to begin to move forward. There are so many authors who can help us all to grow in our humanity. Recently I saw an interview of Toni Morrison. Her books are so well-written you can read them once for the story, once again for the beauty of the writing, and then once more with an informed eye, recognizing the layers of complexity behind each character. A younger author that I have just discovered, Jabari Asim, has written a novel ‘Yonder’ which is told from the viewpoint of several enslaved Africans (or as he calls them the ‘Stolen’) and their risky escape from the ‘Thieves’ who owned them. I am thankful for the talent of these creative people who are able to inhabit a painful world and help us all to be more informed.
If we are to honor of the lives and legacy of the generations who preceded us, it is incumbent upon us to try to learn their stories and share as much as we can. I hope this Black History Month you will make an effort to be as informed as possible, and to share whenever you can.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!