First, an update on my post Why Did They Take My Music…(March 2018): They took away my Aretha!
Miss Aretha Franklin’s funeral was today. Rest in peace, Queen. Miss Aretha had 2 big albums with some of her greatness hits (although by no means all) in 1968. The albums were Lady Soul and Aretha Now.
I wrote about 1968 in April and shared a part of my novel about that year. A couple of weeks ago I went to the National Portrait Gallery exhibit, 1968 One Year, An American Odyssey. It’s a great exhibit. If you’re in the D.C. area, I recommend going to see it. I went with a friend who hadn’t been born yet in 1968 and who is from another country. As I expanded on the written narratives for her and tried to explain how significant the events were, the exhibit brought up memories that I’d forgotten…
It’s 1968 and I’m sitting at the kitchen dining table with my family. My mother and step-father are discussing the news over dinner. (It’s understood that my younger sister and I don’t have the gravitas to add anything important to the conversation so we sit and eat without talking. Sometimes we shrug.) There are riots going on in various U.S. cities and my mother isn’t happy about it. She’s supportive of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s agenda of resistance and reform through nonviolence but she feels that the primary goal of Blacks should be the “uplift” of the race a la W.E.B. Dubois. She believes black power is the improvement of our social condition through our own achievements. She isn’t feelin’ the Black Panther’s message of speaking truth to power or their riff on Malcolm’s pronouncement of “by any means necessary. Those messages penetrate my mother’s well crafted narrative and float around in my head. I’m not yet a teen-ager, I won’t start high school for a few months. But I read, I watch and I listen. I’m confused now by all the opinions and perspectives. I know what I’m supposed to believe but I’m not sure I do believe it.
I looked at the exhibit photos of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and remembered that the music of that year both scared and soothed me. It continued my introduction to alternative ways of looking at things, challenging what I was being taught at home. But I also remembered the songs I listened to on AM radio late at night. I liked to lie in bed with the lights turned off, staring at the green glow of the radio dial. I would drift off, lulled by the stylings of artists like Miss Aretha singing “I Say a Little Prayer, Sergio Mendes doing “Fool On the Hill” and the Temptations soon to be classic “I Wish it Would Rain”.
My mother preferred Della Reese to Aretha Franklin. I loved them both.
I’m taking advantage of being in the southern U.S. this summer by giving myself some American Civil War history lessons. I’ve decided that rather than WWII, the Civil War is the one that should be called “The Big War”. Although it didn’t involve other countries, I think it had more of a lasting impact on this country. Maybe it’s because I’m African-American that, in my mind, it’s the war that is the most significant in U.S. history. We still live with some of its obvious and not-so-obvious symbols.
But it’s a hard war to completely understand. Multi-layered, prickly and complex, it was a briar patch of a war. I don’t know about you but I was only taught the superficial ” blue and gray, we freed the slaves” aspects in primary and secondary schools. (I was too busy partying and trying not to flunk out to take challenging classes in college.) The biggest hole in my knowledge though, and the reason I’m undertaking these lessons is because I come from a family that ran from the enormous effects of slavery and the Civil War. I don’t just mean my family was part of the Great Migration although they were. I mean that the familial response to this part of American history was to deny and detach from the effects. All African-Americans have to face the legacy of slavery and we have varying ways of doing it. Some in my family chose to detach because they believed in the American Dream and so to believe they had to deny the things that made it untrue. They wanted to endeavor, achieve or fail and believethat the outcomes were the result of their own doing. I’m of the “Outliers” school of thought. “It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like…It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”* I believe that the American Dream has a subtext in which slavery is a large factor. But some of my family who were actually from the south (but who have passed on) denied that subtext, choosing instead to detach from the past and redefine themselves. Some went so far as to change the birth cities to ones in the north on their birth certificates, much like when Jews anglicized their last names. They didn’t forgive or tolerate those who acknowledged what history had done to them. And so, much of my family history was concealed and then forgotten.
I choose not to deny and detach. I want to uncover and learn as much about the history that was too painful for many of my ancestors. So while I’m here in the south I’m visiting the sites, reading, reflecting and trying to understand more about the Civil War. And I’m honoring family who lived here before me. I don’t think they had the choices that I do.
Next week I’m going to a living history program. They’ll be asking attendees their thoughts on the effects of the War. I’ll let you know about the responses in a future post. What are your thoughts?
(Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Galdwell, Little, Brown & Co., 2008. * I did read the book but to be honest, the quote is from the summary on Wikipedia. I left my copy at home.)