A Soundtrack for Black History Month: How Fares the Dream?

It’s that time of year again: Black History Month — and below is my updated playlist/soundtrack for the civil rights and black power movements… But first a few remarks.

Black History Month: the one month of the year when, traditionally, American school children get to learn about George Washington Carver (our “black Leonardo”) and Booker T. Washington, and maybe if they’re lucky W. E. B. DuBois and Thurgood Marshall.

Hopefully, they would have already learned about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in January for his birthday, which is now a federal holiday. They probably won’t hear much about Malcolm X, though. There is a Malcolm X Day, but only in Berkeley, California, though a recent op-ed piece in Time argued for making it a national holiday.

This Black History Month thinking about Malcolm X seems more relevant than ever, and not only because of Manning Marable’s stunning new biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.  While we may have a black president, the “financial crisis” has exposed the extent to which the last 30 years have witnessed a massive rolling-back of economic equality and opportunity in America with a gap between rich and poor that is now as bad as anything since the Great Depression, and this rolling back has had a particularly strong impact on African Americans, as an article in the current issue of Nation makes clear.

In a recent column in The New York Times, the Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman reflected on the impact of these economic conditions on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “dream”:

When King spoke in the summer of 1963, America was a nation that denied basic rights to millions of its citizens, simply because their skin was the wrong color. Today racism is no longer embedded in law. And while it has by no means been banished from the hearts of men, its grip is far weaker than once it was.

He dreamed of a nation in which his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But what we actually became is a nation that judges people not by the color of their skin — or at least not as much as in the past — but by the size of their paychecks. And in America, more than in most other wealthy nations, the size of your paycheck is strongly correlated with the size of your father’s paycheck.

Goodbye Jim Crow, hello class system….

In the 1960s it was widely assumed that ending overt discrimination would improve the economic as well as legal status of minority groups. And at first this seemed to be happening. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s substantial numbers of black families moved into the middle class, and even into the upper middle class; the percentage of black households in the top 20 percent of the income distribution nearly doubled.

But around 1980 the relative economic position of blacks in America stopped improving. Why? An important part of the answer, surely, is that circa 1980 income disparities in the United States began to widen dramatically, turning us into a society more unequal than at any time since the 1920s.
(via How Fares the Dream? – NYTimes.com.)

The “financial crisis” has been hard on African Americans in more ways than just the disproportionate impact of the widening of economic inequality — the massive unemployment has also hit the black community particularly hard:

Economists say the African-American unemployment rate is so high — 15.5 percent at last count — for a number of reasons, including less education for blacks, job discrimination and huge job slashes in the public sector, where many African-Americans are employed.
(via For Black Americans, A Longer Time Without Work : NPR.)

And much of the Republican and Tea Party-inspired policies of recent years have also been particularly bad for African Americans (no big surprise there, though the details are important).  Government/public-sector jobs were historically one of the key paths into (at least the lower rungs of) the middle class for blacks. When the Republicans attack government payrolls, it is also an attack on African American advancement — which no doubt suits many of them just fine.

So Malcolm X’s more militant perspective and his late interest in ideas of economic nationalism resonate for me pretty powerfully these days.

Malcolm X

Do You Remember Malcolm?Miriam & Mbongi Makeba — Black & Proud: The Soul of the Black Panther Era, Vol. 1 (2002) [YouTube]
Malcolm X No Sell Out — Keith LeBlanc — Malcolm X – No Sell Out (1983) [YouTube]
Stop Singing and Start SwingingMalcolm XBlack Power: Music of a Revolution
Standing and FightingMalcolm XBlack Power: Music of a Revolution
Don’t Sit-in, Stand Up / On Black NationalismMalcolm X
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (excerpt) Manning Marable

Gil Scott-Heron

This past year, we lost one of the most important figures for any “soundtrack” of modern African American experience, Gil Scott-Heron. His passing left me feeling profoundly bereft, in a way I’ve seldom felt with the passing of a “celebrity.”  Perhaps it was because I was lucky enough to see him perform in the early 70s, when he was “young, gifted and black” — and beautiful and powerful, and I was young enough to be powerfully shaped and impressed.  Or perhaps because music reaches right into our emotional centers, particularly when it is music that speaks to our heads as well as our hearts — music like this, spanning his 40 year career from Small Talk at 125th and Lenox to the album released about a year before his death, I’m New Here.

The Revolution Will Not Be TelevisedPieces of a Man (1971)
The Get Out Of The Ghetto Blues
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1974) [listen]
Whitey on the MoonThe Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1974)
No KnockThe Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1974) [YouTube]
BrotherThe Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1974) [YouTube]
Sex Education Ghetto StyleThe Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1974) [get]
Johannesburg
From South Africa to South Carolina (1975) [YouTube]
Winter in AmericaFirst Minute of a New Day (1975)
We Almost Lost Detroit
Bridges (1977)
B-MovieReflections (1981) — I sometimes listen to the full-length 12-minute version of this on repeat for hours at a time
On Coming From A Broken Home (Part 1)I’m New Here (2010) [read about it]
Me And The Devil
I’m New Here (2010) [watch - great video]

For more on Gil Scott-Heron, check out:

Gil Scott-Heron – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Gil Scott-Heron – official site
Gil Scott-Heron, Poet and Music Pioneer, Dies at 62 – NYTimes.com.
Gil Scott-Heron dies aged 62 | Music | guardian.co.uk.
Gil Scott-Heron on Amazon.com

The Playlist

Where possible, I have added links for you to listen to (or in some cases download) the songs— unfortunately, many on YouTube. I’ve also included links to the albums on Amazon.com, and you can find most of the albums listed here in a “Black History Month” Amazon store I set up, along with related material like the Malcolm X biography.

Finally, for another take on the same theme, check out “Power to the People – Soul Music in the Black Power Era” on the “Midnight Solstice” radio show, available for streaming and download here.)

Song — Artist — Album (Year) [Links]

Marvin GayeWhat’s Going On
(1971) — such an achievement as an album that it needs to be included in its entirety as a single entry…
What’s Going On

What’s Happening Brother [YouTube]
Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky)
Save The Children
God Is Love

Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) [YouTube]
Right On [YouTube]
Wholy Holy
Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)

And I’d like to end with a track that doesn’t exactly fit in this playlist, but is going out to a friend, who needs to listen and ought to know why:

For more…

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