Actual Space (In the Age of Trump): Moses Done Gone by Robert Lashley
Editor Robert Lashley, Editor's Choice, January 23rd, 2017
"There is no happy ending glow of the Civil Rights Movement."
“Actual Space” is a regular column for black voices. It is a forum to tell your story, and answer questions on a variety of topics concerning how you cope with being black, what concerns you about race, what you wished you learned, and what gives you hope for the future. Anyone who wants to be honest, give your own particular witness, and go deeper within yourself with something only you can write; there will be space for you. You may also send art and photography concerning blackness, to be considered for a header image. Email Robert at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The first thing the election did was take every bit of youth away from my body. More than that, it aged me to the point of crisis: I officially have a bad heart, and several complications from complex PTSD.
The second thing I realized was that thinking I could talk about serious issues on social media sites was the biggest mistake I ever made as a writer. As I tried to do things to regain my health and take the pain out of my heart; social media began to resemble more of a passive aggressive death cult. People who had yelled at me and other liberals for voting in October were gleefully organizing shows and accounts to “fight the resistance.” Male feminists who insisted their anger toward Hillary was principled were insisting to me that a doxing predator like Julian Assange was principled. Anarchists who were so breathtakingly uncool with Clinton not being pure became breathtaking cool with their praise for Fidel Castro (with his history of concentration camps for gay people and dissidents). And every day, as my rights and my friends’ rights get axed or placed on the chopping block, former friends were more concerned with settling social media “scores” with me over a 9-month-old primary.
On the morning of Trump’s Inauguration, I decided I was going to get a mass of work done, be super effective, and be supportive of my friends if need be. I turned on Aretha Franklin on Spotify and proceeded to have a breakdown. The song was her cover of Mahalia Jackson’s “How I Got Over,” an epochal, progressive rendition of her thinly veiled protest gospel anthem.
To understand the power of Aretha’s cover, one must understand how Jackson made the original one of the most devastating moments in the history of American music. With poetic symbolism deeply connected to negro spirituals, “How I Got Over” brought black anger about slavery to music without white people even knowing it. On paper, it is a song about overcoming struggle and going to heaven. In Mahalia’s voice is the closest a song ever came to encompassing a singular black experience. The question of the title (tell me how I made it over??!!!?) overflows with a rage so deep you wonder why it doesn’t explode, but it doesn’t. In waves that veer between rage and coping, Mahalia holds more than any song and any singer I have ever heard.
I still believe that Franklin’s “How I Got Over” is the shining moment of the most shining career black music has ever seen. It is a frenetic joy march where Jackson’s was a dirge with no hope. It is Aretha in her very best idiom, gospel music, and the record that it comes from (Amazing Grace) stands along with Innervisions and What’s Going On as the best black music has got in the second half of the 20th century.
But Aretha’s “How I Got Over” had the resonance of the Civil Rights Movement, new freedom, and the promised land something more concrete than not. That’s gone now. I and my friends will fight bitter bloody battles over fights I long thought we won, fights with Trump supporters, fights with black male strongmen and preachers happy they once again got stature and swag in the big house, and fights with white moderate liberals who want us to go slow once again (and speak in soft words doing so).
That realization broke me. Tomorrow, I will fight again, and fight for the best verities of the liberal reformation (reason, understanding, dialogue, and creation). As I write this, however, I grieve one last time; and Mahalia—with her mixture of stoicism and unbelievable rage—becomes so painfully relevant. There is no happy ending glow of the Civil Rights Movement. There is no promised land. Beneath Wi-Fi and keyboard gangsterism, there is nothing but the blind and dark journey. And they said unto Moses, because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? Wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt?
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Header image courtesy of Eric Mack. Eric Mack received his BFA from the Atlanta College of Art in 1998. Since, he has held several group and solo exhibitions throughout the world and his work is widely collected. As an abstract painter employing a specific two-dimensional vocabulary, Mack aims to reinterpret the system-based environment that we inhabit. View more of his work here.