Thank you, Aretha.

When I was in graduate school, I taught as an adjunct at several colleges in western Massachusetts.  My car was old – it still had a tape deck – and I listened to a lot of mix tapes on those drives.  My tape with “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Oh Me Oh My” among others by Aretha Franklin got worn out and broke one sad day.  Even today those songs take me back to the winding roads around Amherst.

No doubt like many people around the world today, I’ve spent the morning listening to Aretha Franklin’s music.  I am wondering what makes one so sad when we lose someone whom we didn’t know personally.  My only response is that when a great artist goes, we are reminded of all of the reasons that their art elevated us.  Great art reveals the vast depth of human potential.  That is exciting, joyous, delightful.  If eyes are the window to one’s soul, then great art functions like a window into our own divine nature.  Surely, we think, Aretha’s voice must have come from a sacred place.

It is that place where Mozart’s concertos, Shakespeare’s soliloquies, Paul Robeson’s spirituals, Handel’s oratorios ….. all originated.  Great art not only touches our spirits, it reminds us that we all have inside of us a spark of the eternal flame that is divine.  Our great artists are like a bridge that help us to touch that place in ourselves that is most precious.  They remind us of the human capacity to create something which is truly beautiful and uniquely authentic.  It is natural to mourn the loss of one our intermediaries to the divine.  However, their passing does not change the light and love they created through their art.  Like the divine spark that is in each of us, it is everlasting.

Check out the Operavore on Aretha Franklin.

 

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On Revolution

–“Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives.  This world is a place of business.  thoreauWhat an infinite bustle!  I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive.  It interrupts my dreams.  There is no sabbath.  It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once.  It is nothing but work, work, work. … I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.”


Henry David Thoreau reflected on the “infinite bustle” of life back in 1854 in “Life Without Principle”.  I like to present that quote to students and ask when they think it was written.  They are usually surprised at when it was written.  Except perhaps for the use of the term locomotive, it sounds as if it could be contemporary.  If the Transcendentalists were concerned that life was zooming by too quickly, what does that mean for us today?  We live in a time that makes the 1850s seem comparatively sleepy.

emersonRalph Waldo Emerson reminds us in “The American Scholar” that it is important to reflect upon the moment in which we live.  It can be difficult to have enough objective distance to read one’s own times.  But, he writes, “This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it.”  Knowing what to do with it is the part of that statement that can penetrate the spirit.  How can we know?  Emerson would, I think, urge us to listen to our inner selves, to nature to hear the missive for our times.

Next week this nation celebrates the severing of ties with Great Britain in 1776.  Thirteen fledgling colonies on the Atlantic ocean declaring independence from the constraints of empire was a revolutionary act.  What actions are revolutionary in our times?  In a time that is inundated with information, quietude is revolutionary.  In a time when public reaction strikes like lightning, pausing to think slowly is revolutionary.  In a time when 280 character responses are expected, writing deeply is revolutionary.  In a time of infinite distraction, reflecting enough to truly “know thyself”, as Socrates advised, is revolutionary.  We will never know “what to do with” our times, as Emerson wrote, if we don’t know ourselves.

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Music and History Class Intersect

Never had I imagined that something as mundane as reading final exams would inspire a blog post.  Every spring I teach the second half of the US History survey (since 1865).  Teaching at an engineering university means that I get a lot of upperclassmen who are just filling in their last humanities credit.  So I like to find ways to change it and keep it fresh for both the students and myself.  The road to grading this pile of exams began in January.

On the first day of class I spent some time trying to sell them on attending an event or two in a special series sponsored by Carnegie Hall that dovetailed nicely with our semester titled The Sixties: The Years that changed America.  (The exhibit at the New York Public Library continues through September 1.)  I offered extra credit to anyone who attended an event and wrote a reflection essay on the content.  I also showed the trailer for the film from the Monterrey Pop Festival which was playing in the city at that time.  Playing some music from that festival at the opening of class inspired me to continue that each class session.

Over the weeks, we listened to pieces of music that correlated with time periods that we discussed in class.  For example, we heard African American spirituals, early Blues, ragtime, and jazz.  We also listened to part of “The New World Symphony” and marked the recent passing of trumpeter Hugh Masekela.  This routine of opening class with music was derailed somewhat by the number of snow days we had this semester (which put us behind slightly) but we finished strong with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” when discussing the 1960s – the early 1980s.  (I like to use the Geto Boys’ “Fuck a War” and NWA’s “Fuck the Police” with chapters on the 1980s and 90s.  In addition to being socially significant, hearing the word “fuck” in these songs wakes students up at 8:30am!)

On the final exam, as a result of these musical interludes, I asked the students to write about any song that they think best illuminates or comments upon the present moment in American culture.  I was hoping for some essays that would make for different, perhaps even interesting, reading.  The responses and the students’ analysis offered much more than I had anticipated.  I learned about songs I had never heard and got insight into the students’ perspective on the current political climate.   Students wrote about songs including Eminem’s “Untouchable”, “The Currents” by the band Bastille, “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar, and Father John Misty’s “Bored in the USA” (which was a nice callback to our discussion of “Born in the USA”).

However, the majority of the students wrote about Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino’s “This is America”.  I thought I was having a senior moment having not seen or heard of this video, but, it turned out that in a beautiful act of synchronicity the video was released just a few days before my students took their history exam.  This campus tends to be pretty conservative politically; however, I can say without hesitation that this song, which has become a number one hit, definitely resonated with my students.  Many of them wrote fine essays contextualizing the content of the song with our semester’s long discussion of social movements.  A number of them noted the importance of politically motivated art in giving voice to injustice.  One student said that as a result of this class, he now understood that social progress is a long road but music can help raise awareness along the way.  Well said.  If you haven’t already, check out the video.

 

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120 Years Ago Today …

… Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey.

Tonight Grant Cooper and I will be facilitating a community discussion on the life and writing of James Baldwin at the public library in Union, New Jersey.  Talking about Baldwin on Robeson’s birthday put me in mind of a birthday event in April 1965 at which Baldwin, and other luminaries, offered reflections on Robeson’s career as an artist and activist.  The event was hosted by Freedomways journal, a periodical that chronicled the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 70s.

At the birthday event Baldwin observed, “[I]n the days when it seemed that there was no possibility of applying the rigors of conscience, Paul Robeson spoke in a great voice ….”

Both of these men still speak to us today in a great voice.  Let’s hope that our society is ready to listen.

Happy Birthday, Paul Robeson.

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Response to Simon Callow’s “The Emperor Robeson”

This is a letter that I sent to the New York Review of Books in response to Simon Callow’s article in the February 8th issue “The Emperor Robeson.”

I’d like to add here that I have a great deal of respect for Gerald Horne’s work as an activist and author.  His book Black and Red (SUNY, 1985) is a seminal study on the intersections between left-wing politics and African American civil rights activism during the Cold War and it had an important influence on me as I began my years of research on Robeson.

To the Editor:

In his article “The Emperor Robeson” Simon Callow’s observation that “it is hard to find anyone under fifty who has the slightest idea who he is” felt like a gut punch to me.  Not only are there new books coming out about Robeson regularly, as evidenced in Callow’s essay, but there is an emerging generation of writers and performers who has taken on the mission of spreading Robeson’s story.

I first encountered Robeson at age twenty-five, and (while still under fifty) have written a dissertation and two books on Robeson as well as a book on the Council on African Affairs, which he co-founded.  Additionally, there have been several one man shows on Robeson produced in recent years that have toured in the U.S. and internationally.  These include plays by Daniel Beaty, Stogie Kenyatta, and Tayo Aluko.  Artist/ film director Steve McQueen has announced plans to make a film on Robeson, and the Whitney Museum in NYC mounted a fascinating exhibit of McQueen’s on Robeson’s FBI file in 2016.

I work with actor Grant Cooper and Winfield Artists, LLC taking a program on Robeson based on my biography of him into community centers, colleges, high schools, and middle schools.  Since 2015, we have visited dozens of groups introducing hundreds of young people to Robeson some of whom attend the Paul Robeson School in Bronx, NY.  And I am sure there are many others (who are under fifty) around the world doing similar work on Robeson.

An eighteen-year-old student in a seminar I taught on Robeson in 2016 summed up this spirit in a handwritten note, “It has been a pleasure taking your class,” he reflected.  “Learning about Paul Robeson was valuable information for me.”  Maybe we have to lift the veil that shrouds Robeson’s legacy one heart at a time, but there are a number of us in this and the next generation who are up for the task of spreading Robeson’s valuable story.

Lindsey R. Swindall, Ph.D.

 

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More Lost Items of Winter!

Last winter I documented lone gloves that were lost in random places. This year there are gloves in the street and gloves on fences …

And hats on fences!

Lost hats in other places …

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Strangely, people are losing scarves, shoes and shirts …

And shorts on cold mornings?!

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What will turn up next ….

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Baldwin Discussion 2.0

I am very excited to announce that Grant Cooper and I will be returning to Success Academy’s High School of the Liberal Arts in midtown Manhattan to facilitate a second discussion series on James Baldwin.  Last year’s series was tremendous with strong participation from parents, students, teachers and staff as well as other community members.

The new series will run on Monday evenings in January and February 2018.  This year’s theme will be current events, and we will focus on how Baldwin’s writing, especially his non-fiction essays, can bring context to issues with which the United States is grappling right now.  We’ll explore how can Baldwin’s insight, for example, help us to better understand recent events in Virginia, and other places, concerning Confederate monuments.  Baldwin’s keen observations of American culture and history are timely as the nation struggles to reconcile brutalities of the past as well as issues like present-day police brutality.

Grounding his words in a foundation of love but not shirking from the emotional labor required to face and come to terms with who we are as a people, Baldwin speaks to us today.  Perhaps there has been no more important time than now to sincerely look into the mirror which Baldwin bravely holds up to the American countenance in his work.

Looking forward to lively discussion, seeing friends from last year, and observing once again how Baldwin brings people together.  Stay tuned for details!

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