Friday, July 04, 2008

the black national anthem controversy

just in time for the 4th of july, there's some hot black mess in the media that's going to have fox news foaming at the mouth for weeks.

when i was a kid in the 70s, we sang the black national anthem whenever we had to sing the national anthem, say the pledge of alliegance or salute the flag. who taught it to me? who told me what it was? who told me why it was important? maybe a music teacher. or my father. i'm not sure. the truth is that everyone -- from my great-grandparents to my next door neighbors to the children i didn't play with -- treated the song with a reverence and an importance that let me know it mattered a great deal. like the sandbox in the backyard or the pound cake under that glass dome on the kitchen table or fish and grits for dinner on fridays, it was always there. here's the kicker: every black anyone in my little kid world knew this song and they knew it cold. they sang it from the heart, with feeling. and in a way, all of us knowing this song gave us a kind of solidarity and a unity that bloomed all the time.

feeling this togetherness as a child in the south amongst black folk gave me a glimpse into the jim crow years that my now 92 year old father lived through and how, in the moments when all we had was each other, we looked out for each other in so many unspoken ways that don't seem to happen anymore -- probably because white people aren't lynching us as much as they used to or hanging us at their town picnics. what's ironic is that we need that solidarity now more than ever. but i digress.

when i first saw a photo of a lynching (in Jet magazine in the 70s) what struck me the most was that the white people wanted to pose with the twisted hanging bloody bodies. they were laughing and pointing and having so much fun. and don't kid yourselves, yankees -- lynchings and cross burnings happened all over the country, not just the south. even nat king cole's upscale beverly hills neighbors burned crosses on his lawn.

any chance of a national apology to black people for all of this crap? probably not.

i don't know every negro in america but i can't think of any black people that don't know this song. don't believe me? ask an african-american you know to sing it. i don't think we should stop singing it until they acknowledge what happened during slavery and reconstruction and -- at the very least -- apologize for it. there has never been a collective reckoning amongst all americans, where we talk about these ugly racist things openly and deal with our feelings in a supportive way. like south africa, we need a truth and reconciliation commission of our own. everyone should know who emmett till is.

any chance that carolyn bryant, the woman responsible for emmett's murder, will ever see the inside of a prison cell? probably not.

on my last visit home, my adorable 4 year old nephew thomas stood proudly before the entire family after sunday dinner and sang the whole song -- with no help from anyone, not even his musician father. only four years old! where did he learn it? pre-k. then again, of course they're teaching little black children the black national anthem. they live in ATL -- a black mecca if there ever was one.

with thomas' happy little rendition (that left my friend reeling), i realized that singing the song nowadays was really an act of protest. with that in mind, i had to admit that i thought it took a lot of balls for rene marie to sing that song in denver the way that she did.

an act of treason to have a black national anthem, you say? get off of your jingoistic high horse and get real. clearly, america is a nation divided. i know way too many southerners who sing "dixie" (a song straight out of the minstrel tradition) as their national anthem and salute the confederate flag as they do so. the united sons and daughters of the confederacy have been doing this in federal/state/locally funded public settings ever since they lost the civil war and no one has ever batted an eyelash, much less called their actions treasonous. this is the same organization that recently decided to put up this massively huge confederate flag in the middle of a busy interstate in florida. nationally, no one has noticed -- certainly not fox news.

much, much more as this develops.

oh -- and happy july 4th, america! ( know i already celebrated my independence day on juneteenth...)

Denver singer opts for black national anthem lyrics over 'Star-Spangled Banner'

Rene Marie's unexpected choice at a mayor's event where she was asked to sing the more traditional song has prompted a chorus of criticism.
By DeeDee Correll
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

July 4, 2008

DENVER — The jazz singer, invited to perform the national anthem before the Denver mayor's annual state of the city address, stood at the microphone and let loose her voice.

What came out were the lyrics of the song known as the black national anthem, set to the tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"Lift ev'ry voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring," belted out Rene Marie, as the expressions of city officials behind her grew puzzled.

It was, Marie later said of the unpaid gig, an artistic expression of her emotions about being a black American and a decision she made months ago to no longer sing the national anthem. But instead of telling that to the mayor's office beforehand, "I pulled a switcheroonie on them," Marie told the Denver Post.

Now elected officials and residents are joining a chorus of outrage: Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. called her actions disrespectful; Mayor John Hickenlooper accused her of deceiving the city for the purpose of a political statement.

"We all respect artistic license and support freedom of expression," he said. "But in a tradition-laden civic ceremony . . . making a personal substitution for the national anthem was not an option. We asked for 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and that's what we expected."

Even Sen. Barack Obama, campaigning for the presidency this week in Colorado, weighed in.

"We only have one national anthem," Obama told the Rocky Mountain News on Thursday. "And so, if she was asked to sing the national anthem, she should have sung that. 'Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing' is a beautiful song, but we only have one national anthem."

On newspaper websites, comments have poured in by the hundreds, most of them critical of the popular local singer. Some have said her performance would harm Obama's presidential bid, a suggestion Marie dismissed as "a serious overestimation of my influence as an artist."

She did not return a call seeking comment, but on her website she defended her decision in a statement:

"I am an artist," she wrote. "If I wait until I am asked to express myself artistically, or if I must ask permission to do it, it would never get done. I knew that if I asked to do my version of the national anthem, the answer would be 'no.' "

Marie, 52, said that as a child raised in the segregated South, she sang both songs. But she grew to feel the sentiments of freedom expressed in the national anthem weren't a reality "for black folks living in a town with Jim Crow laws, where the flag often hung from buildings they could not enter," she wrote.

"Nobody but black folks found comfort in 'Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing,' " penned by James Weldon Johnson and put to music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, in about 1900 to commemorate President Lincoln's birthday. The hymn was sung at protest rallies during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s.

So Marie decided to meld the two anthems in what she describes as a love song to her country. She said she also rewrote the melodies to "America the Beautiful" and "My Country 'Tis of Thee," but kept the lyrics. She calls the three-part suite "Voice of My Beautiful Country."

Though she apologized to the mayor for any distress she caused him in her performance Tuesday, she stopped short of the public apology others are calling for. "As for offending others with my music, I cannot apologize for that. It goes with the risky territory of being an artist," she wrote.

Her chances of performing her art for the city again?

Probably not good, according to Hickenlooper, who said he wished he had interceded during Marie's performance.

"We will do whatever it takes to ensure that a situation like this never occurs again," he said, "even if I have to sing the national anthem myself."


the prisoner's wife said...

you are SO right on!

i was browsing the News & Notes blog and the comments about this woman's actions were sickening. i view her act as a artful protest. i'm not mad at her at all, in fact, more people need to hear the song sung OUTSIDE of negro events.

Queen Esther said...

here's the bottom line: no one that i can think of ever waited for permission from the powers that be to protest anything. that's not the way dissent works.

if you're an american, dissent is your right. no -- actually, it's your duty. just ask the founding fathers.

right about now, some white southerner is about to salute the confederate flag that he holds so dear and sing "dixie" as a part of some civic ceremony or whatever. i guarantee you that no one will notice. or care.