The Call to Listen
As the credits roll at the end of the movie, One Night in Miami, Leslie Odom, Jr’s velvet voice sings:
Listen, listen, while the storm in our heart is raging…
Listen, listen, listen
To message of hope in the whispers of ghosts…
The movie is a fictional re-imagining of a real night in February 1964, when Cassius Clay, NFL legend Jim Brown, Malcolm X, and singer Sam Cooke spent an evening together in a hotel in Miami, following Clay’s heavyweight title win against Sonny Liston. We will never know what really happened that evening, but the movie, based on a play of the same name, surmises the conversations between the four. Within a year, Clay would convert to Islam and become Muhammad Ali, Brown would leave the NFL for Hollywood, and Malcolm X would be assassinated. Cooke would also be dead, murdered in his hotel room, but not before he released the Civil Rights anthem: “A Change is Gonna Come.”
As I listen to Odom’s beautiful song, “Speak Now,” written for the movie, I think about these black icons so many years ago, debating religion, civil rights, personal responsibility, and the heavy yoke of fame, wrapped in the barbed wire of racism. The movie reminded me, as so many contemporary athletes, public figures, even President Obama have, that no matter how far a black person climbs, the backlash of their success, the backlash of their blackness, still tears at their sense of self-worth and safety.
As beneficiaries and power brokers of a white supremacist society, whether consciously or unconsciously, all whites view their world through the prism of systemic racism and we have, wittingly and unwittingly, cradled that power for our own benefit. I think the fear and repulsion inherent in this realization has kept whites from confronting our history, and these truths for far too long. It’s not lost on me that I’m referencing a song in a movie to tiptoe into a discussion about race, such is the distance between my lived reality and the daily experiences of black Americans.
Recently, Morgan Wallen, the country music star, was in the news for calling someone the N word. It was heard on video by enough people to compel multiple radio stations across the country to stop playing his music. Of course, that didn’t stop his record sales from soaring. It was reported that his music revenues rose 1220% (no typo here) since he used the racial slur. Apparently, some in the general public wanted him to know that they were okay with his use of the repulsive word. As is often the case in our country, the privileged was now the victim. As more and more black and brown people in this country demand to be heard, more and more white people claim that no one is listening to them!
I’ve no doubt this is the rationale behind the latest in a long history of redefined narratives and false equivalencies. You see, Wallen is not an ignorant racist, for whom the N word just bubbles up when he’s too drunk or too angry to push it below the surface, he is a victim of the “cancel culture.” And the hordes of people who rose to his defense aren’t racists either, they just think that everyone should be allowed to speak their mind, without being told to shut up, “It’s called the First Amendment baby!”
We’re hearing a lot of folks lamenting about this cancel culture. It’s become quite a catch phrase for the average white person unhappy with being called out. They wag their fingers and call it a slippery slope: just because you don’t like what I’m saying, doesn’t mean you can stop me from talking, they preach. Well, yes and no. It’s not cancel culture that is shutting down the most obnoxious, toxic members of our society, but it might, finally, be “consequence culture.”
The sad truth is that white Americans have been quite detached from consequence. If they run a red light, they get a warning; if they lie about where they live, they jump the Covid vaccine line; if they storm the Capitol, they ask the Judge if they can still go to Mexico for a vacation; if they call someone a Ni$%%r, they get a royalty check. And so, when faced with condemnation for what we believe is our God given right to skate past any recrimination, we whine about free speech.
If you were black, not so long ago, you couldn’t speak to a white woman, quite literally, without being beaten to death. Today, you can’t raise your arms and kneel down before a police officer without the distinct possibility of still being shot. White people in this country are so used to saying and doing whatever we want, we believe that this privilege is inherent, and we bridle at any restraints. The inverse is true in Black America. One only has to imagine what the riots would have looked like if blacks were climbing up the steps of the Capitol on January 6th. Or think farther back for a moment: what would have happened in Michigan if a group of black and brown men marched their assault rifles into that State house rotunda?
Listen, listen, listen
To the echoes of martyrs praying…
The people in this country with the most reason to scream and yell are still, by and large, singing: Listen, Listen, Listen. Despite the false equivalency, the Black Lives Matter protests, even those that devolved into violence and looting, were nothing like the Capitol riots. They were mostly peaceful: fact. They were a call for social and racial justice: fact. They were a rising up against the horrific murder of George Floyd and too many like him: fact. They were an agonizing shout from the mountain tops, that black lives do matter, that black lives have value and cannot be discarded with impunity: FACT. What are the fundamental frameworks within our society that make this simple sentence, ‘that black lives matter,’ so threatening? And to the sanctimonious among us who quickly respond, with a tilt of our heads and a patronizing deepening in our voices that, “All lives matter,” I would say it’s pretty evident that is not the case, or we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.
Today we celebrate President’s Day, which began, of course, as Washington’s birthday, the man who, according to legend, said “I cannot tell a lie” (He could, however, own slaves…) Flash forward to 2021 and a second impeachment trial because our 45th President spent months telling the Big Lie, with the sole purpose of holding onto his power at any cost. But Trump wasn’t alone, that’s the real tragedy. Senators, Representatives, Attorneys General, military veterans, suburban moms, members of the “media;” they all lied, or they allowed themselves to believe the lie. They all said the election was stolen, because they didn’t like that they lost, because they couldn’t believe they lost. They couldn’t accept that their power as white Americans had been curtailed by black and brown Americans in, of all places, the voting booth: that alter of personal freedom.
If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that freedom sinks very deep in a dung heap of lies and hatred, but, eventually, eventually: truth rises. Speaking out, being counted, being heard prevails. No matter the vote count of the impeachment trial, truth rises.
Listen, listen, listen
I swear we’ll never find a way to where we’re going, all alone
Don’t take your eyes off the road.
How weary are these words? How weary and how resolute. They speak to a long line over time: of slaves running under a sliver of the moon; of marchers, linked arm and arm, fending off power hoses and batons; all the way to the kaleidoscope of young people who took to the streets in protest this past summer. How weary and how resolute; to live these words, to know them as real, not as a reminder framed in a song, sung at the end of a movie.
During the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Doc Rivers, our former Celtics coach, said to a reporter, his voice cracking “We keep loving this country, and it just refuses to love us back.” I can sit with the shock of that profound truth, with the aching, ancient and brutal pain it lays bare. I can sit with that pain, and know it as fleeting, for no other reason than because the pigment of my skin protects me from its permanence.
Perhaps because of that, and despite everything too, I find myself humming this song, Speak Now. I find myself daring to hope, that maybe, just maybe, the prevailing of our Democracy, and the loud, insistent calls for racial justice before and since, feel something like that elusive love: begrudgingly, miserly, finally … returned.
For the children will grow on the seeds that we sow
They listen, they listen…
I have been gifted these last 23 years with a beautiful sister-in-law, Maureen Walker, whose lived experience and soaring intelligence are really, the foundation for my awakening understanding of racial dialogue and justice. She has been a teacher to me, not just in the complexities and nuances of racial reconciliation, but in the wisdom of giving yourself over to awareness, perspective and advocation. When I hear the words of Odom’s song, I am reminded, anew, of how much I have gained by just listening to Maureen speak. She is the author of “When Getting Along is Not Enough, Reconstructing Race in Our Lives and Relationships,” as well as her blog: www.maureenwalker.com.