My heart’s been heavy this week, and I’m gonna blame it on the news. The issues I addressed on Tuesday got me down, first.
After that, the response to Michelle Obama’s “That’s America” statement — which has been already turned and twisted and reduced into a quote-unquote unpatriotic soundbite that is as best a caricature of the deeper truths I think she was trying to underscore.
Then I found myself staying up late and watching BBC News the other night. Lord have mercy. I wonder how many people switch off the national news — which comes prepackaged with a Bart’s People or celebrity news type of segment at the end for that little kick of feel-good to end the broadcast — to see what’s happening in the rest of the world, where things aren’t nearly so shiny and pretty? It hurts to look. I can’t even lie.
This particular evening, more than half the broadcast focused on unfolding tragedies in Africa — Anarchy in Mogadishu. Utterly heartbreaking prostitution in Zimbabwe. The murder of aid workers delivering food to the most desperate people in the Sudan. After enough looking, it forms what feels like a thundercloud over your mind. And somewhere in that cloud, a song drifted back into my memory. Syl Johnson’s “Is It Because I’m Black?”
What you know about that?
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know Syl’s version until the Wu Tang Clan sampled this classic soul joint for “Hollow Bones”. I grew up knowing a different version of Syl Johnson’s classic — a reggaematic version by Ken Boothe.
But when I discovered Syl’s version, I fell head over heels. The song is a protesting plea, disguised as classic gangsta lean low rider material, and it was released in 1969 — an era of increased consciousness and black empowerment when the music spoke directly to the struggles of the civil rights movement.
Johnson’s lyrics present blackness as a burden — “looking back over my false dreams that I once knew, wondering why my dreams never came true. Is it because I’m black? Somebody tell me, what can I do? Something is holding me back. Is it because I’m black?” He gives voice to the kind of depressing thought that so many of us minorities, immigrants, and people trying to come up in the world have had at some time. Is this all there is? Is this my lot in life? “I wanna be somebody so bad. I want diamond rings and things, like you do. I wanna drive Cadillac cars. But you keep on putting your foot on me, and I believe I can break away and be somebody, somehow, some way. I heard somebody say sometime, “you can make it if you try.” And some of us, we try so hard, we try so hard,” he groans. Heavy lyrics and a heavy song.
It’s the kind of sentiment Bill Cosby has railed against, and that people like Pat Buchanan would determine as “ungrateful.” Does that make the question invalid, or pointless? I don’t think so. Not at all. The sharp contrast of equality that Syl Johnson was singing about in ’69 has diminished, yes. We have overcome and then some, in so many ways. Still so much remains to be done, and I think particularly these days — feelings of difference and awareness of continued inequality are there more than before.
Syl Johnson’s song feels like throwing your hands up in defeat, and that’s not the tone I want to leave you on today. So what’s the response to “Is It Because I’m Black?” I think it might be Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” which will be included on Protest Anthology, a new collection of music and interviews to be released on April 8. Check out the high priestess of soul at the Harlem Festival in 1969.
That song captures the swelling spirit of the same period, and turns Syl Johnson’s lament around by celebrating blackness, and infusing our spirits with hope. And hope is what I want to feel. Hope that we can get past this racial stalemate in this country, and lend a hand to brothers and sisters at home and around the world who need our help.
I’m looking for a few good charities to support, bellas, to give back to communities in need both here and abroad. I’ve been doing some research on Charity Navigator. Do any of you have suggestions?