I heard a striking quote from the Trinidadian/American civil rights activist and thinker Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) – “If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem.” There’s tragic music in those words, as in so much of the African American experience.
I was reminded of that quote when I heard a woman in a radio interview on the streets of Minneapolis, probably black. She agreed that the looting and violence were awful but, she said, “They won’t listen.” Being listened to, being heard, is the way that people hope to apply reason, convey a sense of justice, and stoke feelings of common humanity that lead to concession. Not being heard leads to frustration, anger, and the public spectacle of riot.
Carmichael recognised that the dynamic of his formulation was not a ‘black thing.’ It applied equally well to all systemic oppression, that seemingly constant human urge to dominate others in pursuit of gain, or as an expression of fear, or as a matter of thoughtless habit. Sexism, racism, caste-ism, pecun-ism ("don’t dominate me with your money"), and all the other -isms that induce eye-rolling unless we apply thought to each.
"In order for non-violence to work, your opponent has to have a conscience" Stokely Carmichael.
Words written for Trump?
As a kid, I was mesmerised by the African American experience, gratefully guided there by a heavenly voice from my blue-rinse Australian suburban miasma (later I met a childhood icon, Harry Belafonte, and saw Eartha Kitt play the Carlton Club). It wasn’t House, or rock, or jazz, or blues, or gospel, or ragtime, or any one of the explosive 20th century roiling cubist-upon-expressionist forms of pure musical reinvention that Black Americans brewed endlessly in the kitchens of their slums, but the pure spirituals, born of the 19th century cotton field, that I sang for my school music exams.
Oddly, black Americans figured highest in my pantheon of heroic figures; the intellectually and socially formidable and irascible Nina Simone, so dripping with talent and determination; the courageous and intelligent boxer Jack Johnson who broke so many unwritten social laws and punched his way to world dominance here in Sydney; the poetic, gay, and scintillating James Baldwin who prose captivated me as a 15 year-old; and who couldn't love Muhammad Ali for everything he was?
Upon the proclamation of Emancipation, African Americans tried to distance themselves from their slave music. Yet when the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák visited the US in 1892, and heard the revival choirs of ‘Jubilee’ singers (student singers who supported themselves by singing), he observed, “ the so-called plantation songs are indeed the most striking and appealing melodies that have yet been found on this side of the water… recognized, though often unconsciously, by most Americans.”
The Negro experience of capture, imprisonment, enslavement, separation from family, rape, bestial degradation, beastly punishment, castration and disfigurement, exhaustion, longing, yearning, indignation, and redemption through impossible suffering, was all there in song. Streams of tears as long and deep and slow and sure as a reach of the Mississippi.
Renaissance man, and perhaps the greatest singer of black spirituals? Paul Robeson on the set of Showboat, 1928.
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen;
Nobody knows my sorrow.
Sometimes I'm up, sometimes I'm down;
Oh, yes, Lord.
Sometimes I'm almost to the groun',
What sensations must those heavenly choirs have touched in the Antebellum souls of slave-owners as they fanned their damp breasts, sucked ice, slowly strutted their porches on their big White Houses, and ticked off their bales of cotton? It must have been an act of revolt within the soul to admit, as a white person, that people reduced by their tyranny to the status of farmyard animals could make music as beautiful as any created by human instinct.
But they listened, because they would not, and could not shut that sound out. They listened despite themselves, arousing the keen feelings of contradiction and cultivating the smallest seeds of internal self-loathing that are the provenance of those who are not psychopaths but rather who, like most people, are social creatures with intrinsic senses of moral order. They harboured those contradictions without listening to themselves, or to the imploring of black people for commonplace justice and dignity.
Vivien Leigh and another actor (actually, Hattie McDaniel), Gone With the Wind, 1939.
Would Scarlett have chucked an Amy Cooper?
Officer Derek Chauvin wasn’t listening to George Floyd as he choked him to death, nor to the imploring of bystanders who begged for mercy for the prone captive. “When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture,” said Frantz Fanon, the West Indian psychoanalyst, agitator, and revolutionary. “We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” There is righteous reason in the revolt spreading through America’s cities, but it is a revolt against culture.
This culture cultivated the disproportionate lethal impact of the pandemic on African American males; cultivated a system of corporatized imprisonment that rewards the locking up of grotesque numbers of black men and women; and cultivated the system by which America’s police forces have become more dangerously militarized by surplus armaments, the proliferation of S.W.A.T. teams, and the recruitment of returned servicemen and women from the battlefield.
This culture instructed Officer Chauvin and his brothers-in-arms that it was OK to apply the body weight of a grown man to the small of another man’s neck (which is why it is unlikely that even a third degree murder charge will stick), in what was effectively a public murder. And this culture elected to office a monstrous man-child who, like Boss Man on the porch of his White House, instructs his overseers to apply more violence, more whip and chain, instead of more reason, more justice, more equanimity.
Officer Derek Chauvin, pictured some time after after throttling George Floyd.
But that’s Trump, and if he weren’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, we suspect he might have done equally well running a chain gang.
Less noticed, far more insidious, and more pertinent to the case of lynching is the case of Amy Cooper. Lynching has a special place in the corpus of American Gothic horror that strikes the foreign observer with a terrible force. Lynching is a universal phenomenon (I once saw the aftermath of one in Port-au-Prince), but in its Post-Bellum form in the U.S., it was not about punishment, but about a culture of violent public control through terror, and of one dispossessed people (southern whites), against another.
Amy, a Liberal, an Upper West Sider and dog lover (tick, tick, tick, we love her already) whose story of catastrophic public self-immolation was doused by the even greater outrage of the murder of George Floyd, is the tragic heroine of her own drama. For Amy, with all her wannabe liberal instincts, her glowing CV, and her lithe and run-refreshed, abstinent body, was perfectly willing (albeit in a blind rage) to sic the police, and unleash terror, on to the preternaturally calm African-American bird-watcher Christian Cooper.
Amy Cooper: Banker, insurance executive, Democrat, dog lover, Upper West Sider, and sacrificial lamb
It’s incredible that people have even questioned the latter Cooper’s ‘right’ to film the encounter, and then allow his sister to post it online. Amy’s life, which might have meandered along in a gathering cornucopia of cash, virtue, children, happy snaps, and simmering self-blindness, has been forced to listen, whilst Christian (and by extension many African-Americans for whom this kind of experience is, meh, everyday) has been heard. This encounter, even more that poor George Floyd’s, is a symbol for the epoch, the inculcated cultural version of Covid-19, a malignance exposed for all of us.
All over the US tonight, on Day 6 of this week of social creationism, people are being heard and unheard. Many mayors are showing admirable restraint, police gangs are arresting news crews or firing on the homes of citizens filming events ("after all, isn’t that how this shit started bro'?"), whilst the Commander-in-Chief adds gasoline to his customary incitement. Who knows what Day 7 will bring? May it be rest, and peace. But people are being heard, whether through riot, or through a quietly filmed exchange in Central Park.
Great police culture.