Standing with Ferguson

This post was published in print in the Big Picture News insert to Solid Ground’s November 2014 Groundviews newsletter and online on our website.

Gordon McHenry, Jr. with his son Austin in Olympia, WA on MLK Day 2014

Gordon McHenry, Jr. with his son Austin in Olympia, WA on MLK Day 2014

Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a white policeman in Ferguson, MO on August 9, 2014 wasn’t really an unusual event. Black men (and women, adolescents and children) have been subject to violent discriminatory police practices throughout our nation’s history.

Despite the rage and fear felt by participants, the response of the citizens of Ferguson to stand up to this police brutality has been unusual and noteworthy for its display of courage, organizing brilliance, peaceful protests and perseverance.

Solid Ground stands firmly behind the people of Ferguson and those organizing around our country to end police brutality and bring equity to our justice system.

We have a legacy of working in the community and with the Seattle Police Department to deescalate tensions in communities of color. And while we lost funding to continue this work through the JustServe AmeriCorps program a few years ago, we remain focused on the importance of continuing to counter institutional racism playing out in our current policing environment.

For white folks, it might be impossible to imagine how blacks in this country react in the presence of police because of the way we are daily profiled. Even now, as a black man working in a position of leadership and authority – a trained attorney who lives squarely in the privileges of education, class and status – I find myself reacting to the police with a deeply emotional response of apprehension and anxiety. They are a source of conflict or even danger to me and my family, rather than a source of support/resources. This is not a rational response; it wells up from deep inside, buoyed by generational trauma and reinforced by the experience of black people throughout our history.

As a father, I grieve for having to pass this trauma on to my children.

And so, sadly, Michael Brown’s death could almost have been expected. Another day, another black man gunned down. We remember a handful of their names and stories, but just a handful. Remarkably, Michael Brown’s death has outlasted our myopic news cycle and continues to serve as a rallying point for people organizing against police brutality.

It’s important that organizations like Solid Ground continue to shine a light exposing police brutality wherever it occurs.

Ferguson is a place we’re seeing on television, but the reality is Ferguson is a state of mind, and minds can be changed if they’re informed.

October 22 was a National Day of Action Against Police Brutality, which Solid Ground endorsed and participated in. I am hopeful that this kind of public protest can be a catalyst for meaningful change in our community.

Solid Ground stewards a neighborhood of people living in our housing at Sand Point, who are working hard to lift themselves out of homelessness and poverty. The young people there, whether of color or not, are brilliant, compassionate and inspirational. They are the antidote to the prevailing stereotype of black youth and youth of color as “dangerous thugs.”

Solid Ground is committed to understanding and countering racism, because we know that racism is a root cause of poverty.

Undoing racism is a key to unlocking the door to some particular forms and patterns of poverty established during the earliest history of this country when people of specific racial groups were identified as commodities (e.g., African slaves, Chinese railroad workers, Native Americans and others). Our institutions haven’t changed much over the years – and they are still structured in a way that excludes women and people of color.

But equal justice should exclude no one. The people of Ferguson and many other communities are staking their lives on it. People of Seattle: Let us join them!

Folk instrument’s historical connection to racism in the U.S.

Legendary musician Taj Mahal is featured in the documentary Give Me the Banjo

The banjo is a humble instrument, initially made of wood, skin and gut. Pirated thousands of miles from its African origins, the banjo has come to be the butt of countless jokes, and a symbol of our nation’s racial history.

A stunning new video documentary showcases the instrument’s musical and cultural ramifications.

PBS’ Arts from the Blue Ridge Mountains: Give Me the Banjo  debuts tonight on PBS stations around the country (in Seattle:  KCTS Channel 9) at 9pm. (It will no doubt be repeated many times and be available for rent and purchase; check your local PBS station for details.)

“Give me the banjo…When you want genuine music – music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose – when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!”  ~Mark Twain

Give me the Banjo is a polished, nuanced social and cultural history. It features archival footage of historic players like Gus Cannon and Doc Boggs, performance clips of modern masters like Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka (who was the project’s music director and main collaborator of writer-producer Marc Fields) and Steve Martin (who also narrates) – and a cogent analysis of the connection between the banjo’s history and racism in our nation.

“You can’t talk about the history of the banjo if you can’t talk about racism, slavery, misogyny appropriation and exploitation,” ethnomusicologist Greg Adams says early in the show. And considerable energy is spent documenting how the banjo’s ancestors came to this country from Africa, hostage to the slave trade, and how its role in the American entertainment experience represented dominant culture attitudes towards people of color through time.

In the 1700s, the banjo was the province of slaves and free immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, a handmade folk instrument that connected its players to their home culture.

In the 1830s, Joel Walker Sweeney became the first white man to play the banjo, which he later turned into the featured instrument of the first minstrel shows. As Give Me the Banjo documents, the stunning rise of the black-faced minstrel show as a dominant form of entertainment “trivialized the African-American community,” according to musicologist Christopher Smith, and became an early embodiment of the appropriation that later played out in the early history of rock and roll: “white boys playing the blues.”

From Sweeney to Pete Seeger, the humble five-string manifested a fascinating journey, coming to symbolize in turn industrialized aristocrats, country bumpkins, working class revolutionaries and others. All of these plot twists and turns are lovingly presented in Give Me the Banjo, sumptuously illustrated and musically represented by the finest players. The documentary started under the working title The Banjo Project and used the grassroots fundraising tool Kickstarter to raise funds needed to complete the production. With its depth of research and deft editing, it comes off as a polished project, one that will come to be seen as a classic in the cannon of banjo literature and, perhaps, in the cannon of literature about racism as well.

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