If you’ve never sat in or marched or occupied some place against orders to evacuate, singing may seem irrelevant to you. On the other hand, if you’ve participated in a mass movement that included singing, you know the power of joining your voice to the voices of your comrades in arms. Singing creates a sense of transcendence, of a unity so intense, police batons can’t shatter it.
As Americans, we tend to individualism. Our individualism has been nurtured, praised, and enthroned—not for the purposes of teaching us to think for ourselves but for the purposes of separating us from those who shoulder the same burdens we shoulder. We are deluded into thinking that through the lottery or some magical manna from heaven we will become individuals in need of wealth management services. For this reason, we refuse to raise taxes on the rich, even as our lower income and middle class income taxes mushroom. The only transcendence we know is the transcendence of money—the only class interests are the class interests of the wealthy.
Yet lately, thanks to Occupy Wall Street, Americans are beginning to suspect they’ve been had. Big time. While they had imagined themselves members of a classless society since the end of the Great Depression, the past thirty years have finally awakened them, thirty years of shrinking income, of watching the rich increase their share of the pie—not splurging on the creation of jobs, as Republicrats claim, but on ludicrously expensive clothes, watches, shoes, champagne—in other words, luxuries.
But how to create unity among people so disparate, the so-called 99%? Citizens so enamored of their particularity, they mindlessly signed on to a crap slogan like “American Exceptionalism”?
Remember when conventional wisdom for the depressed involved smiling through your tears? The idea was that change could begin outside your skin and sink through into your psyche. Sounded weird because Western civilization perpetuates the belief that our minds and our bodies have little or no relationship to one another. Hey, over here’s the physical end of things, the part of us that operates on stuff. But over here’s the mental part, and that just floats around in the ether, doing nothing more than giving us something to do with our thoughts between television and focusing on work or school.
Surprise. Turns out that if you’re a bit down and you make yourself smile, you don’t feel quite as down after a few minutes of pulling the corners of your mouth toward your ears. True, smiling will not un-repossess your home or zip you back into the driver’s seat at your lost job or even cure cancer (sorry, Norman Cousins). Nevertheless, our physical being is far less stable than we like to imagine. It may be a thing but our mind is a thing as well. And the body may be amorphous but the mind is amorphous too. Turns out they share the same energy, occupy the same space, and draw on the same electrons and neutrons.
Take singing, for instance. Group singing.
In the Civil Rights Movement, the demonstrators sang—constantly. They sang on the picket line, on the bus, in the jails, during demonstrations. Wherever they were, they sang. Why? Because singing transformed them from a bunch of scared individuals into a powerful unit, a body of resistance more powerful than the law and all who carried it out.
The most powerful moment for me—one I included in my novel Bridge of the Single Hair—involved the force I’m talking about. I’m not the kind of person who finds it easy to “group sing.” Group chanting tends to make me clamp my teeth together. Admittedly, I’m an obnoxious individualist—American through and through. I don’t relinquish my separate identity without a fight. But, like all difficult things to do, this one turns out to be unbelievably worthwhile.
Back to 1961: The captain of Parchman Penitentiary, Mississippi’s State Prison farm, came into maximum security where the female Freedom Riders were housed. He brought his trusties and buckets and mops, instructing us to swab our floors and wash out our sinks and toilets. We took the cleaning supplies and set to work.
And we started to sing.
There wasn’t much to do at Parchman in maximum security. We never got out, except once a week to shower. We had no books, unless you count the single Bible shared by the entire block, which was reserved for the devout to read and for the non-devout to use as a bug killer. After all, we had no shoes. We couldn’t write, unless we borrowed the single stubby pencil, using toilet paper as our stationery. Letters were few and heavily censored. The most innocuous statements, such as “the weather remains warm” were blacked out to annoy us. Of course, if you were that easily annoyed, you didn’t belong in Parchman, that’s for sure.
In the evening, we’d all climb up into the top bunk, squint against the eternally burning lights and try to peer through the narrow windows at the night sky, on the off chance we might glimpse a star or two. We’d tell each other stories and we’d sing. The point of the singing was two-fold: entertainment and comfort, the kind of comfort that might’ve come from our mothers via macaroni and cheese or chicken soup and matzo balls or fried chitterlings. Whatever. Thick, nourishing (if fattening), warming and filling.
As we swabbed the floor and sang, Captain Tyson marched in front of our cells, coming to a stop directly in front of the cell I occupied. “Shut up!” he screeched. “Shut up!”
We had an elected spokeswoman. She was a nice person, too nice in my opinion. Far too accommodationist. She echoed the captain’s demand, albeit far more sweetly, and the Freedom Riders fell silent. If Captain Tyson had stood in front of any other cell, I believe that probably would’ve been the end of it. He happened to stand facing me and I looked in his eyes and he looked back in mine. I saw it.
I was eighteen and knew very little but I did know a man like Captain Tyson should never have the satisfaction of triumphing over a group of women who voluntarily entered prison as a way to demonstrate their commitment to justice. Although I cannot sing a note without croaking like a frog, I opened my mouth, looking straight at him.
Ain’t gonna let nobody, turn me round
Turn me round, turn me round
Ain’t gonna let nobody, turn me round
Walking and a-talking, talking and a-walking
Walking into freedom land
Before I got all the way through a single phrase, no doubt to cover up the less than dulcet sound of my voice, the other freedom riders joined in. The cell doors opened. The trusties entered and began dragging our mattresses out, leaving us with cold perforated steel plates on which to sleep. Captain Tyson’s last words were “When y’all get ready to ‘pologize, I bring your mattresses back.”
Perhaps it’s unnecessary to say we never did apologize.
My point is that at the moment the other Freedom Riders joined their voices to mine, I felt almost as if my skin had dissolved, as if instead of one lonely silly girl standing before her cell door, I had melted into the larger body of women and we were one—a singular powerful whole. It was a journey I’ve never had the privilege of repeating. It was a journey the joy of which I’ve never forgotten.
And so I say OWS needs a body of music, rousing, unifying, thrilling. They couldn’t make a mistake to turn to the music libraries of the Civil Rights Movement.