Mein Bruder macht zur Zeit ein Auslandsjahr in Jackson im Bundesstaat Mississippi, USA. Meine Familie und ich besuchten ihn in den Osterferien. Im Wahlpflichtkurs Geschichte haben wir zur Zeit das Thema “politische Lieder”. Ich suchte mir das Lied „Say it loud – I‘m Black and Proud“ aus, in dem James Brown seine schwarzen Schwestern und Brüder dazu aufruft, stolz auf ihre Identität zu sein und sich nicht länger ihrer zu schämen. Horace Mac Millen ist der Pastor der kleinen mennonitischen Freikirche, in die mein Bruder in Jackson geht. Ich interviewte Pastor Horace, weil er selbst noch Rassendiskriminierung miterlebt hat und weil es besonders eindrücklich ist, wenn ein Zeitzeuge von seinen Erfahrungen und Erlebnissen berichtet.
„You were pretty young during the peak of the civil rights movement. How did you experience the tention, the rallies, … and were maybe people around you involved?“ „Did you know James Brown’s song „Say it loud – I’m black and I’m proud“ as a teenager and had it a meaning for you that went above „it’s just a cool song“?“
„Did you ever experience that people wanted you to feel that black people are less important then white people, that you couldn’t be proud of being as you are?“
Did you ever experience open direct racism against you or your family?“
„Why do you think songs and singing together (like we shall overcome and free at last) was such an essential part of the civil rights movement?“
„And finally, what should be done against the hidden, indirect racism that is deep in many people’s mind?“
I was born in 1967. So as I was growing up as a child, many of the legal civil rights gains were very recent. It was as much current events as it was history.
My sisters and brother are about a half of generation (15 years) older than me. James Brown’s song was even more important to them.
When you are a marginalised second class citizen, there is a lot of internalised shame and guilt that goes along with it. At one time calling someone black – were fighting words.
The song took something that was once a source of shame and made it a source of pride. It was very powerful, and still is.
I once had a well meaning teacher say that black people had not been included in the history books because they had not allowed to contribute anything do to the oppression they experienced. Imagine the shame of believing your ancestors had contributed nothing significant to Western Civilisation. There were others who said
that Africans were savages and that blacks were lucky to had been brought to America as slaves. Many people said these types of things frequently when I was a child – much less frequently now.
The song came about the same time African Americans were learning of their suppressed and forgotten heritage. That many of the Greek philosophers had studied in Africa. That there had been many great African Civilisations. That blacks did not need to be ashamed because our history and heritage was as great as anyone else’s. Many black children were frequently told by their families to not look up at anyone or look down on anyone. That they weren’t better or worse than anyone else. This message was a necessary reminder to children who lived in a society that valued them less and said they were less than. James Brown’s song captured the ethos of this time and did become an anthem.
My father was born in 1930. The stories of the open racism he faced… For this I’ll leave you with one of the lighter ones. In the 1950’s he was traveling alone by car through the segregated South. Gas stations were not self service then. There was always an attendant. In the case the white attendant came out, looked at my father and said – I don’t like “N-words” except he used the word. My father skilfully defused what could have quickly escalated into a dangerous situation for him by quipping, “I don’t either”. He defused the situation, got his gas and successfully completed his journey. “He got over.”
It seems to me that European-American philosophy and ethics are centered primarily on and around the individual. I believe the Civil Rights movement championed a different emphasis. We are all connected and mutually dependent. Injustice for one person somewhere is injustice for everyone everywhere. We are in this together. One person by themselves cannot change a system. But together we can. Songs like “We Shall Overcome” embrace, promote and encourage that value.
My family was one of the first black families to move into what was then a white neighbourhood. Our next door neighbour immediately came to the realtor that was removing the for sale sign from our house and told him to put the sign in his house. He did not want to live next door to black people. Eventually, he abandoned his efforts to move. Presumably he could not afford to live in a neighbourhood that would allow him to escape from black people.
Racism is not a sometime thing. It’s an everyday thing. I do not believe that one is or is not a racist. Rather, there are many people with various levels of racial animus and bias. Some consciously embrace it. Some are ignorant of it. Some deny it. But fortunately, some acknowledge it in themselves and take steps to fix it. Some recognise systemic inequality and just accept say “that’s the way things are.” Others work to fix it. There is a cost to speaking out. But do speak out. Pay the cost to create a more just world.
von Elise Seiferth