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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven.

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Sunday, September 13, 2020

Grace, Love, and Living

The paragraphs below are from a post I started writing in February.  It was my last effort on the blog for months.  It still represents a big part of what has gone on in my life since that time.  There were other things going on in my life that I wanted to write about in February.  A few days after this, a series of events began to snowball that changed the path that I thought I had been on.  I was working slowly and steadily on getting my house in order, as described below. And then the world became aware of the pandemic.  Within a month of writing the words below, universities were closing, businesses were closing, and well...you know.  I'll put a few more words from today at the end.

February 7, 2020

I want to take a break from heartache, drive away from all the tears I’ve cried.
I’m a wasteland down inside.
In the crawlspace under heaven,
in the landscape of a wounded heart, I don’t know where to start.
But the wild geese of Mary pierce the darkness with a song
and a light that I’ve been running from and running for so long.
As their feathers spin their stories, I can still cling to my fears,
or I can run, but they come along and we both disappear
just like all…
All these broken angels, all these tattered wings, all these things
come alive in me....
All these broken angels, all these scary things, all these dreams
are alive in me. ("Broken Angels," Over the Rhine)

I'm basking in the joy of a visit from David, my son of 33 years.  He has watched me struggle to deal with my boxed up life that goes back for a decade. Some of it got packed up at the end of our children's public school years, at the time we moved to Texas.  Other parts of it come from those years in Texas, which were interrupted by the time of Everly's illness and death.  Some of it is what I packed up there to move back to North Carolina in 2014.  When I moved to NC, I had an initial burst of energy to sort and organize all the gathered fragments of a life that had drifted away.  But it didn't last, and I eventually found myself walking the maze of boxes, bins, and bags that I could not face.  It has been my hidden shame as I closed myself behind the doors and walls of my house.

God's grace of children comes in many ways, and in this time, it is David looking on his dad and realizing that the parent sometimes can't cope without a loving, helping hand.  So at Christmas break, he cleaned the house, rearranged the living room, got rid of empty boxes stacked in the dining room, and began to scheme what it would take to get Dad on his feet in a home, not just a storage building.  Then he planned a trip to spend a week with me going through boxes, getting things sorted for giving away, throwing away, recycling, and as a last resort, for keeping.  We've been working on that for a few days now. 

As I started writing last summer (2019), I had arrived at a moment when it seemed it was time for something new to happen.  I could see glimpses of living a life that I had put on hold for almost ten years.  There was a book project that had stalled when Everly's cancer took center stage for all of us.  I had not seen a path forward, but took a big step in 2018 by working on the missing parts to give as a lecture series at Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary.  A friend helped me get the book project moving by giving me access to a time share for a week last summer, and I produced a fully organized book proposal.  I took other opportunities to work on the project, and will soon be able to send a proposal with several sample chapters for consideration by publishers.

Another part of David's visit has been several very helpful conversations.  I had already begun talking with a therapist about my mental and emotional block when it came to the boxes in my house.  I had made tiny steps of progress, three or four boxes now and then.  But David's wisdom and love is blessing me in ways I could not have anticipated.  He commented about the things I was saying, "That sounds like a lot of negative self-talk going on."  Dang!  That's kind of what a Dad might say to his kid.  Of course, it was right on.

The next day I remembered an experience with my own dad.  In 1985, W.D. had landed his dream job.  Always a good fund-raising pastor, he was hired to work for his alma mater, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in the development office.  His duties were to work the Houston area, with special attention to the SWBTS satellite campus there.  He was loving the work, but his health was not responding well.  Finally, his doctor told him that the pollution in Houston was making him sick, and he was on the verge of a serious respiratory condition.  The doctor advised him to quit the job if it required him to be in Houston.  It broke his heart.  I went to visit, only to have him pour out his heart about the sadness he felt about both the health danger and about giving up the job he had wanted for so long.  He was 55 when that happened.  Now David is helping me through my challenges at age 62.  The leveling that comes with maturity has allowed a kind of give and take that I would not have imagined a few years ago.  The gratitude in my heart runs deep.

As my regular readers know, I often call on the poetry of song lyrics in these blog posts.  I'm not alone in being a person who often finds a soundtrack for my life in the songs of my favorite artists.  Anyone who has read my blog knows that Bruce Cockburn, Kate Campbell, Michael Card, Kyle Matthews, Darrell Adams, and Carrie Newcomer have been favorite poets of mine.  But in the past few months, the music of Over the Rhine has been on repeat.

A couple of years ago, I think I arrived at the conclusion that Bruce Cockburn's song, "Pacing the Cage" had become the best interpretation of my life.

Sometimes you feel like you've lived too long--
Days drip slowly on the page.
You catch yourself
Pacing the cage. 

I didn't see much left for me in life.  There were many things I had not accomplished, and I doubted I would ever have the energy to change that.  I still hoped there was more life ahead, but I just couldn't see it. I could still get energy in bursts and feel the old drive to work on issues and tasks that I had cared about for many years. I could be happy to be with my family and friends, so don't take this to mean that I hoped to die. But where my life was headed and what it might take to get started on a visionary path were seeming to be out of my reach.

At that point in the blog post, I was trying to find words to describe something new in my life.  I thought I had stumbled onto some changes that were revealing a sense of what could be unfolding. One voice had planted a seed in my mind and heart, "Mike, you are good enough." My next step in writing this piece was going to be to explain that I was thinking about how another song from Over the Rhine, "Days Like This," might speak to who I am beginning to imagine myself to be: "Days like this, you think about the ones that love you. All I want to do is live my life honestly....Every regret I have, I will go set it free, and it will be good for me." Six months later, I think it still speaks to my hopes, dreams, and possibilities.

But I was not seeing clearly how things would go and would have soon had to change my assessment of what was coming next. At least I wasn't alone in that. No one was seeing ahead clearly in the budding Ronaworld. Within a few days, my world had turned upside down in so many ways. 

As March progressed, I began planning to uproot and go to Texas to care for my Dad, who turned 90 years old in July, so that I could help keep him safe during the pandemic.  I thought I would stay two months--so many of us fooled ourselves to think it would be over by summer.  I ended up staying three months.  I never came back to this blog post until today. I did quite a bit of writing, filling up a blank book with handwritten nearly daily reflections for several months.  I had a lot of magical thinking to talk myself out of.  Then I stopped that.  I spent about a month back at my house in Durham in July, making much more progress on cleaning out old boxes and making the house livable.  I didn't finish, but the changes are already dramatic. One person asked me the obvious question during that time, "When do you think you will get back to your writing?" I'm sure I mumbled out some uncertain answer.

Now I'm in Texas in the middle of a planned two month stay.  And I'm like lots of people dealing with COVID-19: wondering how this transformative crisis should change the way I expect to live the rest of my life.  I know that when and if Rona ever winds down, it's not going to be the same world I was imagining before. It's about time I started writing again.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Something on Tragedy

Early in his career as a theologian, Stanley Hauerwas challenged the pattern of public Christian rhetoric by claiming that much of the thinking and living of the church in the U.S.A. had lost its understanding of the tragic nature of human existence.  Some kinds of scientific rhetoric seek to provide a theodicy of necessity; in pop culture, the harshness of nature becomes "the circle of life."  Thus the horrors of the world can be put aside as somehow inherent in the system.  I'm not trying to claim that any of my scientist friends participate in this kind of reductionist philosophy, but I'm characterizing a kind of rhetorical repositioning of the aspects of life that one might call tragic.

It happens in other ways, too.  Self-help gurus try to convince us that we can avoid the tragic by simply aligning our lives the right way, taking the right steps, making the right friends, using the right techniques, and focusing on the right goals.  Positive thinkers try to make sure they have the right thoughts and say the right words so that they do not become the cause of their own pain and problems.

All of these kinds of philosophical convolutions help to hide from consciousness that the world does not happen strictly according to human choice and plan.  Part of the truth of tragedy is that an element of existence in this created world still can be called fortune.  Good fortune and bad fortune are not to be confused with a supernatural power of fate or determinism, nor to be confused with a quality attached to a person making him or her lucky or unlucky.  Fortune is a term naming what we acknowledge as factors beyond our control.

A hurricane hits land on the coast of one state and not another.  A tornado strikes one neighborhood and not the next one.  One person develops cancer, and another person with a very similar set of life circumstances does not.  One child grows tall and athletic, another excels at taking standardized tests, and another has physical features deemed beautiful by the culture.  I am not making an argument that these are utterly random occurrences, but they also are not matters strictly under human control.  When there is an understanding of fortune as an element of our existence, then it is also possible to conceive of the tragic.

We do not choose to be born.  When we are born, we do not choose our parents and their ancestral heritages.  We don't choose the neighborhoods in which our parents live when we come into the world.  We don't choose their religious and cultural background, nor the language that they speak and will teach us to speak.  All of these are elements of fortune.  Sometimes fortune allows a person to avoid many life difficulties.  Other times, it opens one up to the tragic.

One major example of how the absence of fortune and tragedy have hindered biblical interpretation is the well-known conversation Jesus has about wealth and poverty with his fellow diners and disciples.  The people having dinner are not very sympathetic toward a woman who comes to the dinner and anoints Jesus' feet with an expensive jar of perfumed oil.  One complains she could have been more practical and sold the perfume for a high price, using the money to help the poor.  Jesus is not very patient with that statement, and suggests that the speaker has surprised him with a sudden concern about poor people that was missing on the other days they had been together.  This is the story in the foreground when Jesus says, "The poor will always be with you."

Another biblical text is in the background, as Jesus' perspective on how to live is rooted in his study of the scriptures.  His statement is a quotation from one of the most important economic passages of the Bible: Deuteronomy 15.  This text provides the divine mandate for economic justice, for the safety net and economic security for all.  It says, "There will be no need among you," explaining that God will bless the community with what they need.  But it also says, "there will never cease to be some need," because things happen.  Bad fortune comes along.  Sometimes people make bad decisions, but more often, they find themselves in untenable situations.  Maybe the person in the home who contributed the most to their economic well being becomes sick or dies.  Maybe another family member requires close care, making it hard for workers to get the necessary work done to keep the house supplied with food and other goods.  Maybe a storm or flood or fire harms some households.  Maybe criminal behavior or war affects the viability of some people's economic situation.

Deuteronomy instructs the people to keep their hands open to the poor.  Don't be tightfisted.  Give what is needed to fulfill that mandate: there will be no need among you.  When the community finds people in need, they share the bounty of God.  Some will experience tragedy.  We cannot eliminate all tragedy.  But we can be present to make sure that tragedy does not leave people hungry or homeless.

Deuteronomy is reminding us that tragedy is part of life.  Our responsibility is to care for those who face tragedy.  Moreover, if there are ways to prevent some kinds of tragedies, if they are caused by systemic injustice, then we ought to be doing work to prevent the continued influence of those unjust systems.  Thinking good thoughts will not keep tragedy from happening nor make it go away.  No amount of self-help practices can allow persons to control their lives to the point that tragedy cannot strike.  The tragic is part of human life, part of creation's finitude.  It is in the commitment to one another, to walk together, to share the goods of creation among us all, to bear one another's burdens, to live as beloved community for which we were created and which is our purpose for living--there we find our defiance against the power of tragedy to control us.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Seven Years Between Haircuts

On May 20 I wrote about a hermeneutical flight of imagination.  I had realized that it was 70 months since Everly's death.  I had realized it had been seven years since Everly's first harsh and nearly deadly dose of chemotherapy, when her hair fell out from the poisonous effects.  Those numbers recollect biblical images of fullness, completion, and specifically the number of years associated with the exile of Israel after Jerusalem was destroyed.  I don't need to repeat everything I said there--you can go back to it.  But in summary, I said that I'm not claiming the verses of ancient texts are directly about me; rather, they interact with my life through imaginative comparisons and reflections.

I've continued to think about whether I should see this period of my life as marked by new beginnings.  Is there something I might learn about my own time and place by thinking about the end of Israel's exile?  "I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?"

One thing that occurred to me back on that day was that maybe the time had come to cut my hair.  Some people know that I started growing it out to its full length when Everly's hair fell out from chemotherapy.  Since 2012, seven years ago, I have had only a few trims when my mom or kids urged me to get the ends cleaned up.  I've not been much of a hair stylist.  I just let it grow as it will, and tried to keep it clean and combed.

I've told that story to many people who might have wondered why the Baptist preacher had such long hair.  I've explained when people inquired about the old man's unusual non-fashionable hair style choice.  I would say, "I started growing it when my wife's hair fell out from chemotherapy.  After she died, I kept it.  So far I haven't thought of a good reason to cut it."  I'm not sure what I thought a good reason would be.  But on that day, I thought maybe a reason with symbolic sense had come to me.

A few days later, I was talking with a friend who told me she had a discipline of "harvesting" her hair.  She grew it out to a full length, then periodically cut it off to send to an organization which used it to provide wigs for cancer patients.  She had done this cycle many times.

I also had sent my hair to a cancer support group once before when I experimented with growing out my hair for few years.  It seemed to be one more reason to add to my hermeneutical reflection about possibly cutting my hair.  I started planning to get a haircut. I even leaked this plan in conversation with a few people.  One person, knowing my mischievous side, suggested that I wait to cut it until I made my out-of-state trip to visit my dad in Texas.  That way, when I returned to North Carolina, I could anticipate getting the "maximum shock value."  I settled on that plan.  Dad was extremely happy to be a partner in getting my long hair cut off, as he was never fond of it.  We took care of it right away after I arrived.

The shock value plan worked.  I've had a great time showing up to my usual activities and encountering people's amazement.  A few have felt the need to tell me I look younger, which is not my goal.  I'm proud of my years achieved.  I'm not surprised that many emphasize that I "look great."  I know that having that long, shaggy mop of hair was in part a way to make myself distasteful to people's expectations, of thumbing my nose at conventionality.  I didn't expect people to like it.  One fellow minister said that if I could get a haircut, it was another sign that "with God all things are possible."  The locally owned pharmacy staff, with whom I've been doing business every month for a decade or more, had to ask my name when I came in to get my refills.  It's been fun to reappear in Durham as a new person.

Aside from the shock value and the fun, getting my hair cut is also for me a symbolic change.  Growing my hair was a sign of solidarity with Everly when her hair fell out, and it continued to be that for the remaining months of her life over the next year.  After she died, keeping the long hair involved shifting from solidarity with her in her living to a symbol of grieving her loss.  From year to year, I did not see a reason to cut it.  Perhaps at some deep level I was wearing my hair like a veil of mourning.  I sometimes entertained that idea, but never formally adopted it as my rationale.  I simply could not bring myself to the point of wanting a change.

In May of this year, as we were approaching what I had come to call my "sad season" between May 24, my wedding anniversary, and July 18, the anniversary of Everly's death, once more the weight of grief pressed upon me.  But under that weight, I found myself in the midst of a complexity of emotional and intellectual ferment.

Intellectually, I had arrived at a moment in my research and writing that had been very slow coming.  About ten years earlier, Willie Jennings and Dan Rhodes had coached me toward developing a book idea based on thematically similar essays I had written.  Dan even helped me create a possible outline and suggested a title I might use.  Yet as he and I talked through the structure of the project, I realized that there were severe gaps that I would have to fill before an outline of the book would make sense to me.

So I started working on those particular tasks.  I wrote and presented papers in the next few years that took important steps toward filling those gaps.  In each case, when I reached the temporary end of an assignment, I realized that I still had more work to do.  My pattern of scholarship over the years would have meant that I would pick up these topics again and complete the research as I prepared to present at an academic conference.  That process was interrupted in 2012 when Everly was diagnosed with cancer.  All of my energy and focus shifted toward supporting her "in sickness or in health."  I stopped writing new essays for a number of years afterward.

Eventually I started to get back on track, but the great breakthrough came about because of the invitation to give lectures at Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary last October.  They agreed to my topic for Baptist Heritage Lectures as "Baptist Ecclesiology After Whiteness."  The three lecture topics corresponded to three unfinished gaps in my research and writing.  The gift of a place to stay and focus on writing allowed me to bring all three topics to a satisfying point of development.

Building on that progress, I wrote an essay for a conference in May which further built upon the critical work necessary to write the book I was envisioning.  A month later, on a week-long writing retreat, I put together a full outline of the book, with chapter summaries, a new prologue, and a fleshed out proposal so that colleagues could help me refine it before sending it to a publisher.

Yes, something new is happening in this year of my life.  I am emerging from a season of intense grief toward what my buddy Willie has been pointing me for a couple of years.  He has told me a few times that he is seeing signs that "I'm still living."  In similar tone, Curtis Freeman keeps reminding me that I have important work to do and things to say that he and many more people need to hear. He told me that my presentation in May had him and the entire room "spellbound."  I'll take the complement even if it may be an exaggeration.  And my colleague in organizing, Tim Conder, keeps reminding me that there are things that I need to write that no one else he knows is able to say the way I can say them.  I'm not inclined, at least in my saner moments, to believe with Elijah that I am the only one left to do God's work, but I appreciate Tim's reminder that the distinctive person I am and the life that I have lived entail a message and calling from God that I need to faithfully carry out in my scholarly work.

Part of what is new in my life is also the rising up of joy after a long valley of sorrows.  If any of you followed my blog over the years, you know about the grief I have waded through.  It has not been only grief, but I have sometimes wondered if I would forevermore be known to many of my friends as the sad widowed man.  I wondered for myself whether I would have strength to be more like the visionary and committed servant of God that Everly once chose to share her life with.  Or would I be confined as the broken man who struggles to find the energy to finish out an academic career.  It's an exaggerated contrast, but it isn't lacking in truth.

In May, and June I started writing in this blog about the emotional transformations I was recognizing and working through.  I wrote about friendships, and about taking to heart my responsibility to enrich and expand those relationships with people who care about me.  I wrote about friends who were influencing me, encouraging me, and inspiring me to fulfill what they could see in me, even if I did not always see it for myself.  I'm not going to repeat what I wrote in those posts, but I will reiterate that I'm striving to live not only in the shadow of a great loss, but in the light of a community of friends and the hope of joy in sharing life with them. 

My deepest theological convictions tell me that we are put into this world to play our parts as builders of loving, just community wherever we find ourselves living and working.  We receive the blessing of those who come our way.  We recognize the failures of justice and love and commit ourselves to repair and restore the goodness that ought to be. 

I can't do that if I'm shrunken into myself and pulling away from the liveliness of caring for one another.

A few days ago I was looking through my Facebook account and noticed that it said I am married to Everly.  I guess I never felt the need to change it.  But now it seems as if the symbolic meaning of keeping my hair long aligns with the symbolic meaning of continuing to list myself as married.  My marriage with Everly brought fulfillment, gave us three children, and I believe blessed many other people.  It is okay to acknowledge that our anniversaries ended at 33 years, and the household we built did not continue as long as we had hoped.  I've been saying it for many years--I am widowed.  So I quietly changed it on the worldwide software platform, too.

Recently I was looking at some photographs in a blank greeting card display.  One of the photographs showed a trail through a plush woodland, thick with green undergrowth.  The picture showed the trail bending as it appeared more narrow, extending farther into the distance.  Around the bend, no one can yet see.  I can't be sure what is ahead, but I do believe this is a season of new things.  I've cut my hair after seven years (for now).  I'm opening my daily routines and my heart to build loving friendships here and now.  I'm in the midst of compiling many years of work into a book.  I'm looking ahead to see what might be next.  "From this time forward I will make you hear new things, hidden things that you have not known."  I hope y'all will walk with me.

Wondering If We're Ever Gonna Get Home Tonight...

Some days just call for listening to the blues, and my go-to blues singer is Ruthie Foster.  For those who don't know her music, here's a little bio blurb from her website.
   In the tight-knit musical community of Austin, Texas, it’s tough to get away with posturing. You either bring it, or you don’t.
   If you do, word gets around. And one day, you find yourself duetting with Bonnie Raitt, or standing onstage with the Allman Brothers at New York’s Beacon Theater and trading verses with Susan Tedeschi. You might even wind up getting nominated for a Best Blues Album Grammy — three times in a row. And those nominations would be in addition to your seven Blues Music Awards, three Austin Music Awards, the Grand Prix du Disque award from the Académie Charles-Cros in France, a Living Blues Critics’ Award for Female Blues Artist of the Year, and the title of an “inspiring American Artist” as a United States Artists 2018 Fellow.
   There’s only one Austinite with that résumé: Ruthie Foster. And with the release of her latest album, Joy Comes Back, the Recording Academy might want to put its engraver on notice. Because every note on it confirms this truth: It’s Ruthie’s time.  The small rural town of Gause, TX, had no chance of keeping the vocal powerhouse known as Ruthie Foster to itself. Described by Rolling Stone as “pure magic to watch and hear,” her vocal talent was elevated in worship services at her community church. Drawing influence from legendary acts like Mavis Staples and Aretha Franklin, Foster developed a unique sound unable to be contained within a single genre. That uniqueness echoes a common theme in Ruthie’s life and career--marching to the beat of her own drum.
Having introduced Ruthie to any novices, let me get back to thinking about some of her songs.

Lots of times, when I've got some emotions to sort out, I will turn to some of my favorite singers to search for a lyrical line and a musical phrase that will help me dig deeper into what I am feeling.  In this case, the song just kept popping into my consciousness, so I knew I would have to dig into my Ruthie Foster collection and play "When It Don't Come Easy."  It's a song written by Patty Griffin, sung and recorded by Ruthie Foster on The Truth According to Ruthie Foster.  I linked the album version, and here below is a live version that lets you see her onstage performance.  (And here is  another live version with Patty Griffin and Melissa Etheridge, including a very touching story about music and healing when going through chemotherapy.)

It seems like I'm doing a lot more driving on the highway lately.  More meetings at work mean I'm driving back and forth to Raleigh more often.  Working on building better friendships means getting out on the road to go around the Triangle or around NC to meet up with folks.  I'm also spending more time with a specific friend who, as we have gotten to know one another better, has shown me how we've been able to bring goodness into one another's lives.  Living a couple of counties apart gives me another reason for driving.

The other side of those trips is that I have to drive back home.  And it is that moment the other night when this song kept pressing itself on my mind.  "Red lights flashing down the highway...wondering if we're ever gonna get home tonight."  There is a kind of feeling that comes when I have to leave, kind of like the feeling that comes at the end of visits with my kids or my dad.  All the joy of the shared presence seems like it starts draining out, opening up a little space of emptiness, a kind of heavy emptiness. 

I don't mean to be overly dramatic, and I don't think I'm describing something unique.  It's something that many people feel when they have to leave what has been a time of blessing with loved ones.  A version of it can come after a moving time of worship, a great discussion in class that has to end, and a deep conversation with a friend over dinner.  But I felt it as I got in my car to drive home that night, and this song kept asking for my attention.  I put it off and listened to the baseball game on the drive home; then, at home I fell asleep early.  But the next morning, it was waiting for me when I woke up, so I got out the Ruthie Foster music to listen.

There's a part in the middle of the song that seems to articulate images of what is stirring my own thoughts and feelings these days.

I don't know nothing 'cept change will come.
Year after year what we do is undone.
Time gets moving from a crawl to a run.
Wondering if we're ever gonna get home...
You're out here walking down the highway,
And all of the signs got blown away.
Sometimes you wonder if you're
Walking in the wrong direction.
I remember being twenty years old and not knowing what the future would bring.  But it seems like the not knowing at twenty years old is pretty different from the not knowing at sixty-one years old.  As a young adult, growing up middle class, single-family/nuclear family living, white, college-educated, church-going, called to ministry--there was a script written for me that I had largely accepted and agreed to act out.  I would marry after college, go to seminary, learn about adult life and decisions, find a job, consider further graduate school, have some kids, and follow a ministry or academic career trajectory that looked like the lives of people I had been watching for many years.

The script is never quite as complete as we imagined it would be.  Your companions often have a different version of the script.  You find that there are missing pages, rewrites, conflicting plot lines, and eventually that it fragments more and more into various possible directions without providing an ending.  But at the beginning, those things are not so obvious.  Thus, an uncertain future at twenty seems way more like a clear plan than an uncertain future at sixty-one.  Now one's life may have the look of either mid-career or of the final stage of a career, but which one is not certain.  Many of my students in graduate school come in their late fifties or sixties, starting a new phase in their lives after retiring from another career.  Am I at a point like they have found themselves?  Or am I just getting my stride in the place where I am already?
Being this age, according to demographic trends, is far from the end of one's life, even though I've been called a senior citizen for a decade already.  My dad is eighty-nine and thriving.  That's almost three more decades of living if I keep his pace.  On the other hand, Everly and Mom didn't match the years of their husbands.  And the fact that my dad and I live so far apart during this time of his life is another one of those nagging thoughts asking whether I need to make a change.  So life is ahead, and behind, at the same time.  The signs all "got blown away" is an image that makes lots of sense to someone who has lived through at least a dozen hurricanes in his lifetime.  When things get most uncertain, it really can seem that I might be walking in the wrong direction.  "Don't know nothing 'cept change will come."

Ruthie's version of the blues can stare straight ahead into the despair, as in "Ocean of Tears," "Harder than the Fall," or "I Don't Know What to Do with My Heart."  As the bio says, she isn't confined to one genre, and she sings plenty of soul songs that share the wisdom of her community heritage, such as "Mama Said," "Heal Yourself," and "People Grinnin' in Your Face."  Her gospel formation also appears in "Up Above My Head," "Woke Up This Morning," and "Lord, Remember Me."  Actually you can't quite separate these songs into a single or discrete genre, as blues, gospel, soul, jazz, and more intermingle into a mass of healing-struggling-hoping-sad-defiant songs.

However, many of her blues songs intermingle the pain with hope, as is not uncommon in blues tradition.  Foster returns again and again to a kind of hope that has been learned over time because of friendship, family, and community.  She has known and places confidence in friends and loved ones who show virtues of faithfulness in hard times and readiness to reach out, listen, and lift up when one feels lost and alone.

"When It Don't Come Easy" is one of those kinds of blues songs.  It delves into the confusion and pain that arises in our lives.  It expresses the lostness of feeling like one has nowhere to turn, or one who is questioning whether the hard times are ever going to end: "wondering if we're ever gonna get home."  But the self-focused sense of loss gets turned around in the refrain and becomes a message of empathy.  The singer looks away from her own struggle to realize that those she loves also are wondering about getting home.  Sticking with the image of driving down a highway, the song imagines a loved one's car breaking down on some lonesome road.
But if you break down,
I'd drive out and find you.
And if you forget my love,
I'd try to remind you,
Oh, and stay by you
When it don't come easy.
This refrain stands out as the song's hook, the powerful message of connection and care that will not be broken even by the power of disappointment and uncertainty.   The song doesn't depart from the blues genre and get simplistic and goosebumpy.  It doesn't tie up all the loose ends with a closing about living happily ever after.  The final stanza is back to the beginning, driving down a dark road and wondering if home will ever be there.  It keeps things real about life's struggles and our emotional ups and downs.  But sewn into the lining of the blues is a reminder that we can get through things together if we will stand by one another, if we will show mercy to ourselves and those we love, to get through the hard times.
A moment of critical self-assessment requires that I not simply hear and believe these words through the normative gaze.  The refrain could easily play into the cultural formation of white men (which I know personally from my own psyche) to imagine ourselves as the heroes of every story.  Conrad framed it through imperialistic and colonialistic eyes as the "white man's burden" to uplift the lesser races (and gender) toward the fullness of humanity.  Hollywood retells the story again and again through white messianic figures who enter into complex issues of socially structured racial and gender politics to fix the problems out of their inherent goodness (and superiority).  
I have had to learn through marriage and parenting the hard lesson of interrupting this narrative in my own imagination, to stop trying to fix the problems of my wife or children, and to learn to listen and "stand by" them as they make their way toward using their own strengths, their own power.  I'm not the guy in every story who has a monopoly on power.  I'm not the hero of every struggle that touches the people I care for.  Caring for someone and needing to be the fixer of all problems are not the same things.  But the steady caring, the readiness to give of myself for others, the walking alongside in the struggle--those are the real things toward which the song can encourage my aspirations to be human and to be good.

Ruthie doesn't write all of the songs she sings and records, although she has written some great ones.  But she fills each of them with a soulfulness and power that doesn't leave me asking whether this is "her song" or someone else's.  Thanks, Ruthie, for trying "to remind" me that even when by myself and feeling a little empty, the music can fill up that space with memories and commitments made to "stay by" one another "when it don't come easy."

Monday, August 05, 2019

A Prayer in the Midst of a Horrifying Night

I've been trying to get through some academic writing, so telling myself I don't have time for blogging.  But tonight I need to write this piece.

On the way to church this morning, I wanted to hear some meditative music, so I started a series of songs from Fernando Ortega.  The first one was a piano instrumental hymn interpretation.  The second one was one I had not heard.  When the lyrics started, they sounded somehow familiar.  Eventually I realized they were the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he spoke with his closest friends about the burden of his heart.
My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow
To the point of death.
My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow.
Stay with me here.
Stay with me here.
Stay with me and keep watch with me.
The words come from the story that unfolds in Mark 14:32-36.  Another version is in Matthew 26:36-39.  They are the words of a breaking heart.  They are the words of one who has seen what the world and its systems of domination can do to the ones who challenge it, and to the ones it deems disposable.  They are his cry for those he loves to stand by him in these moments.

Jesus had spent his public years fighting the injustices perpetrated against the poor by those who had the power to do so.  Landowners who had accumulate the livelihoods of their neighbors through foreclosures treated their victims as if they deserved their poverty.  So-called decent people ignored the blind, lame, and other disabled neighbors who were marginalized and forced to beg for food. Patriarchal laws and structures forced women into sex work, condemned women for sexual sin while excusing men, devalued women's work, and kept unmarried women in poverty and vulnerable to abuse.  Religious opportunists overcharged pilgrims in Jerusalem, doing dishonest commerce on the very grounds of the temple.

Jesus saw what happened to his mentor, John the Baptist, because he dared to challenge the injustices of the land and its rulers.  They arrested and executed him.  He knew that every time he came to the centers of power, the Sanhedrin and the colonizing Roman leaders began to plot his death.  He knew of the recent arrest and condemnation of Barabbas, another rabble rousing leader among the people.

Jesus knew that the people in power would do whatever they needed to do to keep their power and prosperity.  Their willingness to crush the masses of the poor were evidence of their greed and willingness to abuse power for their own benefit.  They would have no qualms about doing their worst against him if he continued in faithfulness to proclaim the Jubilee economics God calls all people to follow.  His message of liberation would bring their harshest retribution.

In the garden Jesus was exceedingly sorrowful.  His grief was overwhelming.  He had come on a mission to proclaim good news for poor people, release of prisoners, a place for the marginalized, the Jubilee year of the Lord.  He had raised the hopes of the masses, and they had followed him and cheered his entrance to Jerusalem.  Such a crowd of supporters only solidified the intention of the rulers to destroy him.  His heart cried out for someone to stay by him in this hour.

Some would say Jesus failed in his mission.  I have no doubt he was disappointed in the way things had turned.  Yet I also believe he had eventually realized that it would come to this.  If he continued faithfully in his mission, the powers that be would do what they must to stop him.  Committed to a loving path, a non-violent way, Jesus was unwilling to arouse his followers to violence.  He would therefore receive violence without returning it.

Rulers knew what to do with Barabbas's ilk.  Those who raised a violent hand against the system deserved to see the punishing violence of the system.  That is the proof of the system's "justice."  Unauthorized violence must be put down by authorized violence, a paradoxical virtue of good order.  Even the oppressed should theoretically be thankful for an orderly system of violence to prevent the chaos of uncontrolled violence.  Executing Barabbas would be "redemptive violence."

Jesus was harder to deal with.  He did not come at the state with violence, but with the challenge of a social vision of justice and beloved community.  He was hard to battle.  It was not obvious that he needed to be punished.  But he was as great a threat as Barabbas, and maybe worse.  So he must, of course, be stopped.  The people with power must be allowed to define justice, not a small-town outsider who has listened to the cries of the poor and created false hopes in the masses.

Around midnight in the garden, Jesus was grieving the dream.  He would rather have seen the Romans and the Sanhedrin persuaded to begin restoring justice to the land and its people.  He knew that many had been won to his challenging vision of society.  But others had hardened their hearts.  For this reason of power or that reason of power, they would see him dead before they would join his cause.

Jesus was grieving the continued oppression of the poor and marginalized.  He knew that his execution would be intended and used as an example to the poor and the masses.  He would be killed in public view on the highway to show what happens when someone challenges the powerful.  Hearts would be broken and discouraged.  Some would feel like giving up.  The poor would be hung on a cross on that day as every day before.  But not everyone gave up.  Some told and retold the story of his campaign for justice, eventually writing it down and passing it through generations.

On this day in 2019, the shoppers at the most noted low-price store, were greeted with the violence of a system of power known as white supremacy.  That power system directed a young man to find a place where he could execute the enemies of the system, outsiders defined by having a Hispanic heritage.  Mexicans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, Latinx people of any label, whether US citizens or recent immigrants, became targeted as killable flesh.  The white supremacist cry of, "You will not replace us" echos from Charlottesville to El Paso.  White ownership of the land, white privilege to determine who is acceptable and who is outcast, white power over life and death--this is his mantra and destiny.

In Dayton, after midnight, patriarchal systems directing anger and hatred toward women drove a young man to act upon his fantasies of killing the women he knew and grew up among.  Even his own sister died at his hands.  Misogyny or misanthropy, a fascination with killing drove him to identify women, and perhaps others, as targets deserving to die, if for no other reason than his lust for power through spilling blood, a privilege of white men in a culture addicted to violence.

Around midnight this weekend, Jesus reminds us that his heart, his soul, his deepest being, is overwhelmed with sorrow, even unto death.  Jesus tells us to share this sorrow for the poor and the outcast, the darker skinned, the outsider, the women, the people who have been designated killable flesh.  He reminds us that when we have done this to the least of his brothers and sisters, he has died with them.  Jesus and the poor, the outcast, the women, the person of color, are executed on the public streets again, bodies displayed in public view as a reminder of how the power of this world operates.

If we are followers of Jesus, if we would be like this sorrowing Lord, we must become men and women of sorrow on a day like today.  We cannot set it aside as if this way of the world is inevitable.

We must refuse to believe that this is the only path power can take.  There is a power rooted in love.  There is power that comes by building relationships across the barriers that divide us.  There is power in a vision of justice that includes every brother and sister, every person among us.

We sorrow, and we become defiant.  We will not stand by and let white supremacy be the truth of our communities.

There is a truth of beloved community, and we will live in it.  Stay with me here.  Stay with me here and keep watch with me.  Stay with me here.  Live in this vision, in this justice, in this world of love, this world as it should be.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Defiant Imagination, Part 3: Other Songs of When They See Us

Having written a lengthy analysis of the song "Moon River" and its pivotal significance as part of the soundtrack of When They See Us, the remainder of my comments on the songs and soundtrack will take more of the form of vignettes, or glimpses into the artistic synergy of song and film in conveying a powerful story of injustice, defiance, and solidarity in the stories of Raymond Santana, 14; Kevin Richardson, 14; Antron McCray, 15; Yusef Salaam, 15; Korey Wise, 16; and their families.   It's not so much full of academic language and theory.  Much of this is an attempt to reflect on the story of the Central Park 5, the Exonerated 5, while becoming acquainted with music that has not been on my playlist.  The general sense of a prophetic or defiant imagination has been crucial to my own work, yet I have not taken much opportunity to hear the way such imagination permeates and interacts with popular culture.  What follows are some forays into that sort of reflection.
* * * * *
Another song like "Moon River," displaying a similar kind of defiance as seen in the Louis Armstrong example, is "Hope," by Pete Josef.  Different from most songs that are part of the soundtrack, this is a verbatim musical setting of a beloved poem by Emily Dickenson.  One of the U.S.'s most popular poets, Dickenson wrote usually short poems of only a few lines.

Dickenson's brief "Hope Is the Thing with Feathers," is a poetic reflection on the power of hope in the image of a songbird.  It "perches in the soul," implying that it resides at great depth within a person's thoughts and feelings.  In any time and place there remains a steady voice, singing "without words" and not stopping.  Even strong storms cannot stop the bird's voice from coming through, giving strength to the soul, burning and warming like a fire.  No matter how cold, no matter how far and foreign a place, hope holds forth with a vigorous, yet undemanding presence.

This song plays over the scene when Yusuf returns home from prison, as viewers peer into his inner drive to make a life although still feeling out of place among his family and friends.  A steady voice of song within Yusuf is not silent, but defiantly rises up in him to achieve what none would expect of him.  The scene then turns to the family of Kevin visiting the prison.  Kevin is feeling lost there.  His sister proceeds to talk to him about identifying "something to look forward to." It is a strategy of hope that gains strength from his inner power, bolstered by the truth that no matter how far away they are from him, he is never alone.  What she sees deep in him "perches in the soul," and from that place will give him the strength to endure.  The song reveals the young men's tenacity in the face of forces working to crush them.  Though they are young and tender, like the delicate image of a songbird, they persist in their vision of a world that is not what others would claim it to be.
* * * * *
In the earlier post, I also identified a kind of defiance in the story of Ruby Bridges--readiness to place one's body over against the oppressive forces that would seek to destroy a people.  It is a mode of living in an alternate narrative and reality, already before it is fully visible, that provides courage to take steps to change things.  Mos Def's song "Umi Says" passes on the wisdom of generations, received by son from mother, to "shine your light on the world." Life offers no promises or guarantees.  The song plays briefly in the film, as if from the car radio when Kevin is ridingwith his sister Angie.  He is struggling with all that he has missed in life and with the many barriers he still faces after release from prison.

She says, with the wisdom of "Umi," that he has what it takes to rise in his life.
You got time. A lot's changed, but you know what ain't changed.  You.  That was my biggest prayer for you--that you'd stay safe, and you'd stay your sweet self.  I know you've seen things, maybe had to do things, defend yourself, survive, whatever might have happened.  But in the end you have the same heart.  You gotta carry that with you outta here, okay?
With that strength of identity, she believes he can overcome.  His life can matter for something greater.  She can see in his eyes and hear in his voice that he longs to redeem the lost time, the damaged life, even the park where he was beaten and falsely accused.  Mos Def's lyrics speak of the struggle and emotion, the desire to give up, to shrink back.  Yet Umi keeps pressing him to know that his life has to count for more than just surviving with me and mine.  He needs to be in the fight for freedom.  He needs to be part of building a united front in the work of liberation.  There is a path to take, and only when we place our full selves, our emotions, our hopes, our dreams, and our bodies on the line will we begin to see the change that we are becoming.
* * * * *
Another song that feeds into the Ruby Bridges kind of defiance is by Andreya Triana, "Song for a Friend."  This song plays over a series of scenes with parents and family talking on the phone to their children in prison.  Next the film shows how the families worked hard to be able to visit the young men while they were locked away.  The song lyrics bring attention to the aspect of Ruby's story of spending a year as the only pupil in her class, facing so much hatred and attack for taking a stand.  Yet she did not feel alone.  She knew that her parents and their larger circle of friends were with her in the struggle.  Her body was on the line each day, and yet their bodies were in line with her to embrace and uphold her.  The very body of Jesus stood with her as she prayed for the forgiveness of her persecutors, using his own words toward those who had condemned him.

In the same way, Ray's father and abuela put their bodies through the regular phone calls, the work to support him, the travel, the security searches, and in every way possible demonstrated their presence to him.  He did not have to doubt that his bodily struggle found solidarity in them, and their embrace in the visiting room gave flesh and blood to the defiance of solidarity.  Abuela reaches to touch Ray's arm under the voice of Antron's mother saying to her own son, "I'm walking through this with you."

Antron expresses regret that his mother has to work so hard to come see him, but she says she would come every day if allowed.  "You're not too much trouble," she says.  Digging deeper, she gets him to tell about what's troubling him.  It's a dream that feels like a nightmare.  It is so real he isn't sure whether he is awake or sleeping.  He hears the sound of steps drawing closer.  Each night, it seems they get even nearer.  His mother soaks in that story, then flips the script on him.  She tells him to keep on listening, because those steps are her feet getting closer every day to picking him up and taking him home. 

Antron says, "I feel like everybody in the world hate me, Ma."  But she replies that she loves him "enough to make up for everybody.  All I do all day is love you."  She goes through a litany of ways in which she will always be with him, describing the interconnection between his body and hers in the struggle of fear, pain, and joy as his life progresses.

The song's lyrics repeatedly focus on the love expressed through bodily presence:  resting one's head on a shoulder, being held close, being brought into the arms of love, and having someone by one's side.  These are given as evidence of never being alone, of support when it seems hard to breathe or to move, and of having a faithful friend to the very end.  The family support of these young men is not merely an abstraction, but a defiance demonstrated through bodily presence.
* * * * *
The first post in this series on the defiant imagination brought together my experience of viewing When They See Us with scholarly work of Robert M. Franklin on the life and thought of Malcolm X.  Malcolm's defiance, his refusal to be who the world had tried to make him to be, becomes a vocal type of defiance, a public challenge in word and agenda.  Malcolm brought critical insight into the structures and systems of white supremacy and the cultural accommodation to racism.  He demanded that things change, and if not by transformation of the whole society, then at least by construction of alternate patterns and structures that would insure justice for those who have suffered long under oppression.

The opening songs of the first episode demonstrate a kind of confidence and brash self-acknowledgement that could represent the mindset of these young men.  In the post-Civil Rights Movement era, recognition that many things had changed for the better, normalization of some levels of integration in housing, employment, education, and public facilities might provide a level of encouragement about the future of race relations.  Yet the genius of white supremacy as an ideology is that it continues to remake itself in new forms.  The end of the 1980s marks a dramatic shift toward a new encoding of racism which centers around rewriting the criminal codes to increase lengths of sentences, multiply criminal charges, and expand incarceration of minorities exponentially.  The 1989 case of these five young men takes on an iconic role in shaping the demonization of young black men as "superpredators" who must be locked away from the rest of society.

Opening scenes include the songs "I Got It Made," by Special Ed, and "Microphone Fiend," by Erik B. and Rakim.  Both celebrate the giftedness and freedom of young men expressing their power and striving for success in the world.  A kind of defiant attitude is built into the tone of these pieces, and it gains intensity when the young men join the large crowd that goes into the park on the night that the violent rape occurred.  "Fight the Power," by Rage Against the Machine, redirects the gifts and freedom of black youth toward continuing the struggle for structural change.  The point of rhyming should be to strengthen a sharp mind and embolden a brave heart.  Intellectual and emotional growth feed into analytical capacity to understand social structures and systems and remake them for justice, not merely letting the powerful recreate their domination systems while young people enjoy life without cares.  This tone of defiance is interrupted by the scenes of criminal violence that lead to massive police action in rounding up anyone "fitting the description," including the young men who were initially charged and browbeaten to be witnesses against one another for crimes none of them saw, much less participated in.

The overwhelming power of the domination system becomes apparent when its technologies of repression get applied to the young men who have not skills or understanding to defend themselves against police rush to judgment, imagery of monstrous black youth, forced confessions, prosecutorial misconduct, and fearmongering public media.  The defiance of the song remains relevant, but the persistent power of oppression is no small opponent to defeat.
* * * * *
"Love and Hate," by Michael Kiwanuka plays in the second episode as the trial is beginning.  It begins playing over interviews with community leaders who are challenging law enforcement, the court system, and the media for failing to listen to the truth, failing to investigate and uncover the flaws in the case, and failing to see the young men as human beings.  It continues and builds as the young men, their families, and their lawyers make their way into the courtroom.

The song's lyrics are not uniformly defiant.  They also contain cries for help:  "I need something; give me something wonderful."  At moments they express doubt and anticipate setbacks: "Now I feel some days of trouble."  The defiance of this message recognizes that it is not a simple fight.  It is a long fight, and there will still be casualties along the way.  Yet there is no concession, no giving in.  There is resolve to continue the struggle and achieve without surrender.
How much more are we supposed to tolerate?
Can't you see there's more to me than my mistakes?
Sometimes I get this feeling makes me hesitate...
I believe
She won't take me somewhere I'm not supposed to be.
You can't steal the things that god has given me!
No more pain and no more shame and misery--
You can't take me down!
You can't break me down!
You can't take me down!
* * * * *
The lyrics of "U Don't Know," by Jay-Z, describe the conflicting narratives of black youth caught up in gangs, drug trade, and crime, versus the creative capacity of those young people to make another kind of life through intelligence, art, business, and hard work.  The defiant narrative acknowledges that at times the less desirable path of high risk and potential showdowns with police may seem like the only option a young black person may have.  Whatever elements of character that went into the ability to succeed in music and entrepreneurial life also contributed to survival and advancement outside the law.  Jay-Z celebrates his emergence as a powerful economic force having done the work necessary to go above and beyond all expectations.  In contrast, this song plays near the end of the third episode, over the visual depiction of Ray's turning to selling drugs as his only solution to being out on the streets without opportunities for more legitimate employment.

"Who We Be" by DMX again reflects this contrast of life possibilities, emphasizing the inability of the normative gaze to look upon the lives of young black men with any clear sense of their humanity.  Describing the harsh conditions, the stereotypes, the compromised choices that affect poor urban young people, the lyrics intermix the human struggles, the aspirations, and the possibilities of faith.  With detailed references to the experience of arrest, the courts, remote imprisonment, solitary confinement, and mental fragility, this song plays over the story of Korey as he strives to keep himself together, hundreds of miles away from his family, targeted by other inmates so that his only refuge is in solitary confinement.  Having been taken under wing by a sympathetic prison guard, he begins to hope for something better, but faces a parole board intent on forcing another false confession out of him in order to consider releasing him from jail.  Korey continues to languish in prison, holding himself together with visions of his family and friends, of his past experiences and choices, thought of as someone other than who he really is both inside and outside the prison.

After the movie, after "Moon River" and the images of the actual five men, the credits begin as still shots from scenes from the four-part movie flash in the background.  "Picture Me Rollin'," by Nipsey Hussle plays with its promise to "make it home."  Acknowledging the ever-present threat of racial profiling, false accusation, unwarranted arrest, and further consequences of a broken criminal justice system, the song still urges the listener to believe that rather than stopped, beaten, and arrested, the protagonist is still in the car and rolling forward to get home.  It may still seem that life is offering odds like "a dice game," but the singer's hope in God's care and drive to press forward, betting against those odds.

In all these songs, the defiance to stand up against an unjust world appears, at the same time as they recognize the struggle will be long and hard.  Just as we viewers of this film and listeners to the music must recognize, the path to overcome white supremacy continues as an uphill battle.  Frustration is rampant, and patience wears thin.  Many will not tolerate such a wait.  Others remain in denial that there is even a battle to fight.  And those in the midst of the struggle must with the late Nipsey, be
Tryna to stay focused, kinda like Moses,
Like somebody chose us.  This weight on my shoulders--
I feel these emotions, but still I keep going.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Defiant Imagination, Part 2: Frank Ocean's "Moon River" and Seeing Possible Worlds

As the final episode of When They See Us was coming to a close a song began to play that grabbed my attention.  It was a new arrangement and performance of an old standard.  It had been foreshadowed earlier in the episode by a recurring appearance of an unknown prison inmate ("Singing Inmate") who took every opportunity to sing "Moon River" as loudly as he could.  In those scenes, he was singing it with the powerful intonations of a golden-throated crooner.

I should include a comment on the type of writing I am doing.  I do not intend in offering my interpretation of a song's lyrics and music to be telling you what I think is in the mind of the composer.  I am not even claiming to know why the song was included as part of the movie soundtrack.  I am writing about possible meanings of the lyrics and musical structure, intertwined with the scenes of the film, and filtered through the interpretive context of my own viewing.  I'm not saying that it is arbitrarily subjective, but I am saying that interpretation of texts and films is multivalent.  The song's performer and the soundtrack composer may have different perspectives.  Yet I am analyzing musical lines, harmonic relationships, and actual words and sentences which do guide the interpretation.  So, don't take me as saying that I am offering the authoritative meaning of this song or soundtrack.  I am offering a reasonable and reasoned set of insights into a powerful creative composition of music, lyric, and film.  Now back to the song discussion.

Lena Horne, Barbara Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Pat Boone, and especially Andy Williams had made this song part of their performance repertoire.  Some artists like Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, and Eric Clapton with Beck, gave it their own twists.  "Moon River" is one of those songs that was pervasive in popular entertainment throughout my childhood, but I did not really learn the song or know much about it.  Vague memories of watching the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's suggest that I must have once known that Aubrey Hepburn sang it in the movie.  I mainly remembered the song as a standard sung by Andy Williams who was on television all the time in those days.  Beyond the opening line, I couldn't have told you the lyrics.

I think I listened carefully to the song for the first time after hearing the Frank Ocean version during the epilogue of the final episode of When They See Us.  This new cover of "Moon River" played as images of the actors faded into the actual exonerated men, with text overlays describing the current life situation of each of them.  Looking upon the bodies and faces of these boys who became men while wrongly imprisoned presses the viewer's consciousness into recounting specific events and relationships portrayed in the four-episode film, linking the visual narrative to flesh and blood.  In the context of these men's experiences of interrupted youth, injustice, and eventual exoneration to face a life so different from their plans, the song's lyrics opened up a wide space for imagination.

The song's lyrical images portray looking across a river toward what may be on the other side.  Getting across a mile-wide river is a daunting challenge, at the end of which one cannot be sure what she or he will find.  Then, the image shifts to traveling on the river, representing moving toward dreams of one's future.  The dreams are accompanied by heartbreak and the narrator's uncertainty about what's around the next bend.  As poetic imagery often does, the song starts mixing metaphors: the words speak of chasing the end of the rainbow as equivalent to flowing with the river's direction around bend after bend.  The narrator is pursuing what he or she longs for, not fully knowing what that is.

Thus the river is portrayed first as a barrier between the protagonist and the future.  Is it even possible to get across to the other side?  What will the other side bring?  Second, the river is a path upon which to journey.  The journey finds a sojourner facing an uncertain future, hoping, longing for what could be, but without assurance of what actually may appear.  And finally, the river is also the companion.  The narrator describes "two drifters off to see the world" who are "chasing after the same...rainbow's end."  The caring companions, the fellow-travelers, equally facing the unknown, sharing and bearing their hope and burden together--this may be the deepest message of the song.  If I step out into this river, it will bear me along toward its destination.  We will travel the same direction and meet the same obstacles and vistas, whatever they may be.

Ocean adapted the lyrics to his own version of the song.  It's a "crazy world" that they will see, not just "such a lot of" world.  Things won't always make sense how they turn out, but even the nonsensical is something we may find and see and experience.  With reference to the end of the rainbow, Ocean adds the phrase "chasing after" to give an even stronger sense of desire and longing.  Believing that there is something good to find, the protagonist passionately chases a dream yet not clearly formed.

He doesn't use the word "huckleberry," but says simply "my friend."  He omits there a reference in part to Mark Twain's famous character, for any number of reasons that could include the often racist language of that story from another era.

A final major lyrical change is the addition of more concrete lyrical descriptions of the formation process of one's life.  "What I see, who I become" echoes behind the lines about traveling on the river journey.  Ocean is making explicit that by joining this river journey, his life is taking a particular form through the experiences and growth specific to the river's path.  He says "Life's just around the bend."  It's not only the figment of imagination, the rainbow's end, that is around the bend.  With or without the rainbow's end, the protagonist's life will emerge from the contingent circumstances, the unanticipated relationships, and the mystery of the world encountered on the journey.  This practical language presses the viewer's mind toward the unexpected world unfolding for the exonerated men, filled with challenges and also possibilities.

The performance itself brings intellectual and emotional challenges to the listener.  The surprising opening stanza sung by a child's voice drills into the emotion of how the tragedy of this story explodes into the lives of children who went to the park one afternoon.  It's not an untrained voice, but neither is it a smoothly polished voice.  Quickly, another voice joins with harmony for a phrase--but the harmony turns out to be another melodic line in a different key, a beautiful dissonance of open harmonics.  Soon a kind of improvisational polyphony emerges as the mode in which the song progresses.  Going from solo line, to rich harmonies, to echoed motifs and improvised riffs, the performance partly deconstructs the traditional crooning ballad.

At times staggered entrances to melodic lines, fractions of beats apart, give a sense of fragmentation, a center that cannot hold, a whole that is invisible and out of reach.  These stuttering entrances and rhythms especially appear in relation to the lyrics about the uncertainty of the river's direction and destination, through heartbreak and uncertainty.  This performance itself touches a deep consciousness of the injustice and unreasonable path the young men's lives have taken.  

Yet the repeated motifs, the sense of a hopeful if uncertain destiny, are powerful themes and echoes throughout.  The polyphonic structures feed toward longer homophonic phrases of multiple layered harmonies.  Ultimately the richest, most intense harmonies and elaborate ornamentational riffs occur on the lyrics about chasing what is around the bend.  These unproven hopes, the deeply held conviction that even in a world that has been snatched away, where hopes are crushed, there is yet something worth finding up ahead.  It is a liberative theme, a recognition that the world as it is is not the world as it should be.  That better world, even if only partial and fragmented, still calls us forward.

This particular song drew me into recognizing how much a role the soundtrack had played for interpreting the film.  So I went back to review the soundtrack, making note of other songs that had projected an interpretation of the story.  In the process, I realized the way that the defiant imagination was at work in the music and the story.  "Moon River," like "What a Wonderful World," challenges the realities of a world dictated by white supremacy and white vision.  The river, always a potentially dangerous realm of currents, darkness, and hidden dangers, also represents the flow of life, the structures of how land and sea flow one into the other, the constancy of change and possibility of the new.  Ocean's interpretation recognizes both meanings, yet casts its lot with the someday, the dream, the chasing after what may and must be there for us.   Rivers have been a fruitful image to narrate the experiences of African Americans resisting oppression in the U.S.

Mavis Staples sang about lynched black bodies floating in the Mississippi River, that harsh and hateful world in which no black person is safe.  The song of lament was itself an act of defiance for putting into words and music the truth about life and death under a system of racist oppression.  Dissonant tones emphasized the incomprehensibility of such hate.  The lament ends with a call to action to "stop them from going in the river."

Other traditional songs such as "Roll, Jordan, Roll" and "Deep River" recognized the danger of a great river's treacherous current and deep waters.  Yet they also saw also great promise in the power of a river that can carry one from harsh circumstances to beauty and joy, even overwhelm an army of enemies.  They sang of a river deep and wide that marked the passageway toward relief from suffering and fulfillment in a land of peace, a true home, a welcome table, a banquet at which they were honored guests.  As we know, all such songs point not only to an afterlife, but also to a promise of goodness toward which the defiant person can strive in this lifetime.  Not only eschatological Jordan, but the Ohio River or the Detroit River as markers of emancipatory power, are part of such songs.

One of my favorite songs and another river song, Kate Campbell's "Lanterns on the Levee" has much in common with this version of "Moon River."  The coming together of two people, by Kate described as the falling rain which enters the river's flow, is again a central message.  Hardships, falls, failures, disappointments, heartbreaks, can be isolating.  They can feel as if one's very life is dissipating, dissolving.  But joined with the strength of the river's strength, that life takes on new possibilities.
You can fall like the rain
And I will be a river, winding forever,
Strong and true.
I'll carry you away to the peaceful waters...
Perhaps Campbell's lyrics possess a different degree of optimism about what may be around the bend, that it will be peaceful.  Yet the offer of shelter recognizes more storms will come, even from beyond the horizon.  The path is winding, and goes on and on toward new horizons.  What it will bring is unknown, but whatever comes will be better through solidarity among those on the journey.

"Moon River" reflects a kind of defiance which looks beyond the so-called realism of the world and sees a truth much deeper.  In a recent conversation with local artist and community leader Pierce Freelon, we discussed something he had said about "creating black spaces without asking permission."  This is part of the defiance I see in this work of art.  Recognizing that the young men who were falsely accused and wrongly incarcerated found themselves at the mercy of a world which saw them as evil, the film and song also help open one's consciousness of building possible worlds that differ from the world that powerful people seek to impose on the rest of us.

A world made for everyone cannot ultimately be hoarded and controlled by a few.  In the midst of the horrors of a world with its designs on breaking, throwing away, and killing young black men, there is yet a remainder of truth, beauty, and goodness which one can glimpse and place one's hope on, just around the bend.  Look around at all those on the journey with you.  Chase the dream with all you've got.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Defiant Imaginations, Part 1: Thoughts on Malcolm, Ruby, and Louis

Absorbing and responding to the Ava DuVernay film event, When They See Us, will take some time and more than one post here.  As I thought through what I might want to write, I found myself thinking back over some previous learning that seems to be relevant to what I have seen in this film.  So this first post goes back over a series of insights initially spurred by a textbook I used in the Shaw University undergraduate course, Foundations of Knowledge and Ethics.  It was an introduction offered to first-year students on the European and African American traditions of philosophical and religious ethics.  One of the thematic claims of the book has become an important part of my understanding of how persons and communities must respond to systems of injustice, and it continues to stir my moral imagination as years go by.

Robert Franklin's book Liberating Visions examines the lives and words of four important African American leaders who offer powerful moral visions for humanity.  He assigns each one a thematic adjective for the kind of life a person should live:  Booker T. Washington, the adaptive person; W. E. B. DuBois, the strenuous person; Martin Luther King, Jr., the integrative person; and Malcolm X, the defiant person.  Analyzing their views in light of character ethics, Franklin helps the reader see a social vision of the virtuous life, human fulfillment, and the good society through their eyes.  All are powerful social insights worth examining, but Franklin's interpretation of Malcolm X is the one that the music of  When They See Us has brought to the forefront of my thinking.

In theological studies, the term "prophetic imagination" has become a popular term.  Walter Brueggemann writes in The Prophetic Imagination that the tradition of prophetic ministry from Moses to Jeremiah to Jesus engages God's people in dismantling oppression and reconstructing a world built on justice in loving communities.  J. Deotis Roberts plays on the popular Protestant and Baptist theme of the "priesthood of all believers" in his ecclesiological book The Prophethood of Black Believers to emphasize how the black churches have contributed to a richer understanding of the task of the church than mere comfort and religious observance, extending into challenging injustice and working for the common good.  This prophetic calling finds a particular expression in Franklin's use of "defiant" to describe the imagination.  Defiance is a crucial element and a helpful descriptor of certain ways that the prophetic calling may find expression and embodiment.

Over twenty years ago, I was invited to participate in a conference on moral education sponsored by  Shaw's Program in Ethics and Values and Duke's Kenan Institute for Ethics.  I had anticipated following a keynote address by Robert Coles--no small task.  I was doing some research into his work in preparation, and it led me to reflect further on Franklin's interpretation of Malcolm. Eventually I presented my paper under the title "Political Realism and the Defiant Imagination." 

Realism is that school of thought in politics and theology which tends to fall back on the balance of powers mode of reasoning.  Keeping all the existing powers in a condition of balance or detente--not at one another's throats, but also not stirring much change toward better justice--is considered the best one can do in the real world.  Hence, realism offers little beyond incremental change for those who suffer under the crushing weight of oppression.  The very idea that someone might challenge the existing powers is considered both ludicrous and dangerous by the realist.  As Franklin realized, Malcolm ultimately did not let his imagination be captured by political realism.

Malcolm had been a budding, intelligent, and hopeful child, doing well in school until his early adolescent years.  Despite his giftedness, one of the teachers he had respected and trusted most advised him that he should not have ambitions to be a lawyer, to take up a profession of intellect and prestige.  He should be realistic and aim to take up a trade, a solid way to make money that would not require him to transgress into the realms of power and status in which he would not be welcome.

The story of Malcolm's life which follows that period shows his dissolution from the prior ambition to achieve into a life that accommodates itself to the world's worst expectations of him.  The white world, the world of powerful people, would expect Malcolm not to amount to much.  They would look at him and see something dangerous, something damaged, something likely to be trouble, and not someone.  They would not see him.  They would see a phantasm, a stereotype, an inevitability.  To some extent, one can look at his life and conclude that Malcolm walked down a path that fulfilled what the world saw in him.  They remade him in their image of his destiny.

Franklin recognizes, however, that Malcolm does not ultimately remain what society had expected him to be.  After being imprisoned for breaking and entering and larceny, Malcolm's original intellectual curiosity and drive began to resurface, largely because of the nurturing friendship of members of the Nation of Islam.  Malcolm reports that he began to copy the dictionary, line by line, page by page, to improve his reading and facility of the English language.  He began to read extensively in history, philosophy, and political thought.  He was instructed in the teachings of the Nation of Islam and trained in their discipline of a life in submission to Allah.  He saw that to accomplish greater things, he had to set aside impulsiveness and raging emotion.  He learned that the limits that had been placed on his life were artificial and externally imposed.  He learned to defy the expectations of society and aim for something greater and more in tune with his true nature.

Malcolm's defiance drove him to gain the education he had missed before.  He became a powerful speaker and capable leader.  He applied his practical knowledge to become a strategic thinker and incisive analyst of the political scene.  And when he was confronted with the inadequacy of the orthodoxies that he had previously accepted, he pursued with relentless critical effort the truth of historic Islam.  Malcolm represented a defiance courageous enough to challenge the existing power relations, to say what must be said, and to be persistent in the face of powerful forces aligned against him.  His radical critique conceded nothing in his effort to dismantle the dominant cultural systems which oppressed African Americans.

Remembering this account of Malcolm's life and his emergence as a leading intellectual of his time, I found myself drawn to Robert Coles's account of the remarkable young Ruby Bridges as another example of defiant imagination.  At age 6, her parents guided her to be one of the first four children to integrate the New Orleans public school system.  She was the only black student enrolling in her particular elementary school.  The white parents took their children out of the school.  Only one teacher agreed to teach in a school with a black child.  So Ruby's teacher taught the class with only one student. 

Federal Marshalls escorted Ruby to and from school because of the rowdy, violent protests that surrounded the school and the streets leading up to it.  Ruby was not particularly scared by the crowds.  She said they looked and sounded like Mardi Gras parties, with shouting and throwing things.  So she bravely walked in and out of the school each day.  Eventually, some white parents brought their children back to the school and the protests subsided.  Still, Ruby remained alone in her classroom.  In the next school year, the actual integrated classrooms began to come about in New Orleans.

Robert Coles became very involved with Ruby and her family, offering psychological care as much as was needed.  He learned a great deal in the process.  One of the central stories that he tells concerns an observation by her classroom teacher.  As Ruby was approaching the school, the teacher observed the little girl stopping, turning to face the yelling crowd, and saying something to them.  When Ruby got to class, the teacher asked about what she had seen.  Ruby explained that she had not been talking to the people, but to God.  Coles asked later for a fuller explanation.  Ruby told him that every day she stopped, usually before getting to the school, and prayed to God for the people.  That day she had forgotten until she was at the school steps.  Cole was shocked that her feelings toward this hateful crowd were leading to her have concern for them and pray for them.  She went on to explain that the prayer she said every day was to ask God to forgive them because they did not know what they were doing.

Her family and church had already instilled in Ruby a way of living in the world that was shocking to Coles and to many others.  They had joined a long procession of courageous defiers unwilling to let conditions of injustice stand.  They defied the barriers placed against the education she and other black children deserved, putting bodies in action to challenge the social order. 

Moreover, her family and community was already embedded in an alternative moral narrative.  She had understood the loving response of Jesus toward those who had done him wrong, and in defiance of the expectation that she should be afraid or should return hatred for hatred, she was seeking the good of those who wanted to do her harm.  She hoped against hope that her opponents could be changed, and she and her community imagined a better world could come about in which enemies become allies, even friends.  As an adult, Ruby Bridges still affirms that we must go against the grain of the world if we want to see change come for the better.

I became aware of a third example of defiant imagination during the period of Everly's illness.  A friend had given her a recording of "What a Wonderful World," made famous by Louis Armstrong.  Everly's first reaction was irritation.  She has never been a person who wanted to paint a rosy picture when things were not rosy.  No romanticizing and no pretending--she liked to simply say what she saw, what she felt.  So she could see no reason to play "What a Wonderful World" when she felt awful and the prognosis was not promising.  In what world could one call it wonderful to know that a person is dying of cancer at the peak of her life?  I understood her point.

It occurred to me that I had never given that song much thought.  I also wondered why someone might think it an appropriate recording for a friend who was fighting through cancer and chemotherapy.  But I knew that the friend was also not one to sugar-coat life's struggles or try to positive think oneself out of real problems.  I bought a Louis Armstrong album and took some time to listen to him sing the song.  I read a little about its themes and its popularity.  I began to understand that this kind of song represents a particular kind of defiance when sung by people who have been dealt every injustice and disadvantage by those with privilege and power.

There is a stance to take to the world when it treats you as if you are inferior, outcast, and unworthy, that defies those treatments.  It is a way of knowing the good, the true, and the beautiful that disavows the knowledge projected by the powerful.  Refusing to accept the world as it is offered, the defiant imagination of the oppressed recognizes that the good things in the world also belong to them.  They know the truth of the world, that it is not what the lies of the powerful would assert to be true.  They know that the beauty of the world, perhaps always mixed with ugliness, yet remains beauty.  In defiance, Armstrong can sing about the particular sights of natural beauty that he passes, the kindness of heart and soul experienced in community, and the hope of a better life as the struggle for liberation presses from one generation to the next.  Living in a world overshadowed by injustice, he can recognize that world as false, as the great lie.  In contrast, the truth remains that it is a wonderful world.

This is not the same as positive thinking.  It is a way of thumbing the nose at the oppressor.  It is a stone-faced challenge to the world's claim on one's life.  It's the laughter of one who knows that the joke is not on her.  It's not pollyannish blindness, but clear sight which sees both the wrong and the right.  It's not pretending, but a kind of honesty that knows tragedy as well as beauty.

I've been motivated to develop this discussion of the defiant imagination after having watched the powerful miniseries, When They See Us.  The title itself focuses on vision.  Presuppositions about the nature of the world and the people in it operate as filters on what human beings see.  The term "normative gaze" identifies a biased perspective shared by those who hold power in society and culture--their way of seeing things defines reality because it is assumed to be the normative way to see.

Yet the words and actions of those who are not in power can challenge the assumed truth.  Seeing beyond the current busyness, they may glimpse a truth not polluted or distorted by the interests of the oppressor.  Taken as part of a declaration, the film title names the way that white people see black people, one which automatically puts black people in jeopardy.  Taken as part of an interrogatory, the title asks whether the black young men have been truly seen at all.  In this case, the young men are waiting to be seen for who they really are, not for what the fantasies of white culture imagine them to be.  A defiant imagination gives its holder the possibility of challenging and overcoming the normative gaze of the oppressor.

The film project itself is an exercise of defiant imagination.  It challenges the dominant narrative, the way that the young men and their families were "seen" by the newspaper reporters, the police, the prosecutors, and by many of their neighbors.  In the next posting, I will discuss how various songs in the soundtrack of When They See Us help to feed a defiant imagination.

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