BACK in the 1940s, an American blues singer by the name of Big Bill Broonzy came up with a song that initially no recording label wished to release.
This is how it begins: “This little song that I’m singin’ about/ People you know it’s true./ If you’re black and gotta work for a living/ This is what they will say to you.” It then goes straight to the chorus: “They says, ‘If you was white, you’d be all right/ If you was brown, stick around,/ But as you’s black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back’.”
Much has changed since then, but too much hasn’t. Some 20 years later, at the cusp of the 1960s, author James Baldwin concluded an extended essay in The New Yorker thus: “If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfilment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
The fires burning across the US undermine its claim to be a model democracy.
A great deal happened in that decade. There was the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King articulated his dream of the day when “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”. This was followed by the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, key pieces of legislation that were deemed to have changed the course of American history.
Technically, perhaps they did. But just as the period of reconstruction that followed the American civil war of the 1860s ended all too soon in tears and renewed discrimination against ex-slaves, the practical consequences of the legal changes 100 years later fell far short of black aspirations. America erupted in violence in 1965 and 1967, and most notably in 1968, following the assassination of Dr King exactly a year after the day he had called out his nation’s government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”.
“These cities are burning now/ All over the USA,” Jimmy Collier and the Reverend Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick sang that year. “You know if the white folks don’t settle up soon/ We all goin’ to wake up to Judgement Day.” Just a few years later, Bob Dylan described the status quo in these words: “If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street/ Unless you wanna draw the heat.”
Dylan was born and brought up in Minnesota, and briefly attended university in Minneapolis, the city where George Floyd was publicly lynched last week. That’s where police officer Derek Chauvin brought his knee down on Floyd’s neck, and kept it there for eight minutes and 46 seconds, three minutes longer than it took Floyd to die.
“That’s not a chip on my shoulder, that’s your foot on my neck,” a currently popular meme cites Malcolm X as saying. That is by no means the only echo from those times that continues to ring true. In 1970, Baldwin wrote to the incarcerated Angela Davis: “We know that we, the blacks, and not only we, the blacks, have been, and are, the victims of a system whose only fuel is greed, whose only god is profit. We know that the fruits of this system have been ignorance, despair, and death, and we know that the system is doomed because the world can no longer afford it….”
He was wrong, as he probably would have admitted if he had lived this long, about “the world can no longer afford it” bit, but in the past few days we have seen reminders of how the system may be doomed. Not that Donald Trump and his allies, nor for that the leading Democrats, will acknowledge as much.
Even Trump and his acolytes were obliged to acknowledge, more or less, that Floyd’s murder was an atrocity. Not surprisingly, though, they have little to say about the fact that it took several days for the Minnesota authorities to charge Chauvin with murder — third degree, mind you — and the three colleagues who facilitated the crime had not been apprehended at the time of writing, and rioting.
Far too often, policemen are not charged for such egregious violations of human rights, or get off lightly, if not scot-free. And the authorities are invariably more outraged by the backlash, peaceful or violent, than by the unpunished crime.
The fires burning in towns and cities right across the US starkly illuminate the absurdity of its claim to be a model democracy. The multicoloured backlash is beautiful to behold, yet it may just lead to another uncomfortable calm before the next inevitable storm.
Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2020