Thank you Mr. Hill for your warm welcome. I’d also like to thank Bridget Choo, David Sanders for their invitation to address you all today, and to William Huang for his wonderfully adept assistance with the technology. I’m honored to speak to you all. As a Williston parent, I have come to know and appreciate all the good work that you do.
While preparing my remarks, I decided to give them a title: “There are Mountains beyond Mountains, So Put on your Traveling Shoes” and I hope it makes sense once I’m done speaking. Essentially I want to talk to you about some music and art that has touched me and that speak to some important points:
- The Expression of identity through art, storytelling and music
- The ways that artists try to convey their purpose and passions to other people through the stories they tell
- And the ways that sharing stories create awareness of ourselves as members of a larger community.
Much of what I say is inspired by a sentiment Dr. King expressed in his final speech, “I’ve Been to The Mountaintop,” which he delivered on April 3, 1968, a day before he was assassinated. The speech begins with Dr. King saying:
“And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, ‘Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?’ I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there…”
After traveling through history and identifying some of society’s greatest civilizations, he concludes, “strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’” Dr. King recognized that this was an odd thing to say because the world was, as he put it, is “all messed up. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around.” But he recognized the potential for goodness and the beauty that existed in the place he stood, in that historical moment. I believe he was able to open himself up to the many challenges because he had a conviction of his potential to be an agent for social change and justice.
I. Plurality in Action: The Harlem Renaissance
With that said we’re going to cross a number of different “regions of my mind” today, and as we do so I’m going to put on a couple of different hats – or maybe I should say different traveling shoes. I’ll start by talking as a teacher and scholar of the Harlem Renaissance. Then I’ll talk a little bit about my personal experiences with border and boundary crossings. And then I’ll finish up with a quick discussion of a contemporary piece of music that speaks to the themes I outlined above.
One of my passions is literature and the power of art to make visible, identifiable, and deeply human the lives, voices, and perspectives of people in all of their complexity. There’s a wonderful Afro-British writer name Caryl Phillips, whose novels focus on the experiences of blacks immigrants to England, and other kinds of black migration, beginning with the transatlantic slave trade. Phillips reminds us in a collection of essays reflecting on citizenship and belonging, in a post-9/11 world in which all kinds of barriers are being thrown up in the name of national security, that literature has the power to break down differences:
“The first thing we must remind ourselves of is the lesson that great fiction teaches us as we sink into character and plot and suspend our disbelief: for a moment, ‘they’ are ‘us’ (Color Me English, 16).”
What Phillips is suggesting when he describes fiction in this way is that reading and writing literature (or a song or creating any work of art) can be a deeply moral act. Art calls us to let go of our own narrow views, to relinquish our preconceptions, and to try to understand and even identify with characters, be they hero or villain; whether they are like us, or different by virtue of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or nationality. Ultimately what Phillips celebrates is the fact that literature is, as he calls it “plurality in action; . . .it deeply respects the place where everybody has the right to be understood” (16).
Plurality in action is multiplicity in action. It’s something that the artists and intellectuals who participated in the Harlem Renaissance attempted to make real. The Harlem Renaissance is a literary, artistic and cultural movement that took place between 1917-1929. If you think about it, we, at the dawn of the 21st century, have a lot in common with what was then the dawn of the 20th century. It was a time of new beginnings, and great economic and social upheaval, some of which was met with great excitement and some with great fear and trepidation:
- The national economy was transitioning from a largely agricultural to a primarily industrialized system
- In the first decade of the 20th century, the numbers of immigrants from Northern and Western Europe jumped to unprecedented numbers
- the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was passed in 1920
- The Great Migration saw millions of African-Americans abandon the South and travel to northern cities in search of work and freedom from persecution
These migrants imagined the North to be the “promised land.” Northern cities like New York, Chicago, and St. Louis held out the promise of freedom from sharecropping, housing segregation, substandard education, the denial of voting rights, lynching, and other forms of racial violence.
The Harlem Renaissance was composed of a group of black men and women who were writers, painters, musicians, educators, and activists. They, like so many other African-Americans felt pulled to seek opportunity in the North, but for them the greatest attraction was to Harlem, which they styled as the new cultural capital of black America. They called themselves the “New Negroes” because they saw themselves as constructing and portraying a new, more modern, black identity that would challenge old stereotypes of black inferiority. Alain Locke, who is called the Dean of the New Negro Movement wrote, “In Harlem, Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for ‘group expression and self-determination.’”
Some of the writers and musicians we associate with the period include Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, and James Weldon Johnson. Most of them were born just two generations after the end of slavery in 1865. And they were the first group of African-Americans to identify themselves as artists first (as opposed to activists who happened to write, or formerly enslaved people who used writing to create pathways to freedom).
These “New Negroes” believed that by creating positive images of African-Americans in literature, painting and music, and representing black lives with dignity and compassion, they could break down societal prejudices and create new opportunities for social change and social justice. They were convinced of the transformative power of art.
The photographs you saw as you walked in were taken by the famed portraitist James Van Der Zee, who was born in Lenox, Massachusetts, and who opened a studio in Harlem in 1932. Van Der Zee’s photographs capture some of the style and spirit of the New Negroes, their sense of themselves as modern, sophisticated and optimistic.
Van Der Zee’s photographs, like much of the art of the Harlem Renaissance implicitly answers the same set of questions:
- Who am I?
- Where do I come from?
- What do I imagine my future to be?
Another example of a cultural production that addresses these questions is the song that played as you entered, Backwater Blues, sung by the great blues queen Bessie Smith. Backwater Blues commemorates the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The Mississippi floods on a regular basis, and in this case coastal towns were destroyed and people had to flee for their lives. The song is about a flood, but it could also have been referencing any number of natural disasters that plagued southern farmers including drought, and boll weevil infestations. I also read the natural disaster referenced in the song as a metaphor for the many forms of social violence – the man made disasters – that made the South inhospitable to African-Americans and pushed them to make the journey to the North.
Interspersed with the photographs by James Van Der Zee are a series of paintings by Jacob Lawrence, begun in 1940. Lawrence is a celebrated African-American painter whose parents had migrated from South Carolina to Virginia and then New York, where Lawrence was raised. The Migration of the Negro represents Lawrence’s attempt to bring to life the migration of African-Americans in search of better housing, jobs, and freedom from oppression.
One of the paintings depicts a solitary figure, seated on a rock at the shore of a river that he is about to cross. The figure’s head is lowered in dejection. He looks out on a barren landscape. It’s flat, almost colorless, and completely empty of any foliage or fauna, with the exception of a single branch, stretched out like the finger of the Grim Reaper, with a hangman’s noose dangling overhead. The image captures the profound alienation and dejection of a people who were stranded in a hostile environment. As Bessie Smith says in the final stanzas of Backwater Blues:
“When it thunders and lightnin’ and when the wind begins to blow
There’s thousands of people ain’t got no place to go
Then I went and stood upon some high old lonesome hill
Then looked down on the house were I used to live
blues done call me to pack my things and go
‘Cause my house fell down and I can’t live there no more
Mmm, I can’t move no more
There ain’t no place for a poor old girl to go…”
Smith captures the feelings of loss and expressions of lamentation of a people who were made homeless by the flood, but who, on a deeper level, were rejected and forced into internal exile in a nation that denied them full citizenship rights.
On the other hand, Smith’s performance of this song in front of black audiences functioned as an act of healing and resistance. The people who took part in this migration were not only victims, although many suffered great wrongs, they were also resilient and creative and resourceful. This next image by Lawrence captures the power and determination of the group of people, moving together into an unseen future.
Blues musicians, and the writers who were inspired by them to write blues poetry and blues inspired fiction, captured the way in which performances could be a communal ritual in which a people gather and re-collect themselves by telling their stories, or singing their feelings and identifying with each other through these acts. When the blues singer says “I” the audience hears “we;” and there’s strength in the “we.” Unity is achieved through the shared experience of grieving together; hearing your own experiences, or those you could identify with, spoken out loud; and feeling affirmed in the act of speaking and being heard.
A major lesson of the Harlem Renaissance is that home is not a static place; it’s not a structure, or a geographic location. Home is a concept really, that carries with it the idea of belonging, it is the place where you feel accepted, understood and included.
II. What are You?
But for people who migrate, or have migration as a fundamental and defining aspect of their identity, the idea of home can be a very complicated thing. And as I’ve tried to show, from our origins in the West, in this country, black people have been migrants, border crossers, travelers in search of home. This is a concept that I understood on a very personal level before I began to learn the history and theories of African descended people and identities in college and graduate school. My parents were Haitian immigrants to a town in Queens, NY called Rosedale, and the question of identity has always been a multi-layered one for me. On the one hand, I was raised in a neighborhood in which my parents and their friends and relatives attempted in a small way to recreate their Haitian home. The people we mostly associated with were relatives and friends from back home, and their children. Our parents spoke to each other and us in Creole and French, and we answered in English. The music played at family parties was Haitian, as was the food we ate, and the traditions we followed.
This all co-existed in the midst of the ethnic mix that is a defining part of the borough of Queens. I thought everyone’s parents or grandparents had accents because everyone came from somewhere else (be it Ireland, Italy or Jamaica, Trinidad, or Haiti). People would ask “What are you?” in the schoolyard, and what they really meant was “Who are you? Where do you come from? Is there anything about you that I can relate to?”
Now, while I deeply identify with the classic immigrant narrative of America as the land of opportunity and freedom, I was also a child of the 70s and 80s and lived through and experienced a lot of the racial strife and backlash that resulted from the social upheaval of the 60s and the movement for racial integration. We didn’t know this when we moved there, but Rosedale was not only a slice of suburbia, it was also the site of racial conflict. In 1976, Bill Moyers presented a documentary titled Rosedale: The Way It Is. The program addressed the racial tensions in this community, which was, at that time, in a transition from what had been primarily an Irish-American, Italian-American, and Jewish community to what is now mostly a community of African-Americans and Caribbean immigrants. This little corner of the U.S. was a melting pot, but also a cauldron, where intense battles were fought over a school busing program intended to racially integrate the public schools. The backlash resulted in a white flight over the border into Long Island that persists to this day. This story of racial conflict and self-segregation is as much a part of my American story as the one I just told about immigration and multiculturalism.
What I’m trying to sketch out for you here is that the answer to the question “What are you?” is not an easy or obvious one. In my case it could be Haitian, or Haitian-American, or black, or African-American. The answer has also been in other situations and times: Catholic, a Yalie, a professor, a mother, and so on. Some of those identities are part of my core sense of self; some of them haven’t stuck with the same intensity. But what is clear to me now in a way that it wasn’t when I was younger is that Identity isn’t a thing; it is a process. Identity is constructed in relation and response to others. Identities are dynamic and subject to refashioning. Now, I recognize that whenever I have to answer the question “Who am I?,” part of what I have to grapple with is who is asking and why? What is fundamentally true and meaningful about me?
Both life and the study of literature have taught me that a fundamental challenge in life is the construction of a meaningful identity, which means confronting the question of how other people read you, figuring out how to make your values clear and determining the role you want to play in your community.
III. “Beyond mountains, there are mountains.”
The title of this talk is derived from a Haitian proverb, “Beyond mountains, there are mountains.” I didn’t grow up hearing this proverb – or if my parents did use it, they spoke it in a Creole that was so fast it would have gone over my head – but I have a distinct memory of visiting my grandmother in her home in La Valle, Haiti and learning the truth of this statement. To get to her tiny home in the country, we had to take a bus out of the capital. As we rode out of the city and into the rural countryside, the paved roads ended and the bus ascended the mountains, crossing miles of dirt roadways. The dust blanketed our hair and clothing. Eventually the road ended, and an uncle collected us at the nearest major city and bus depot, Jacmel. We children took turns riding on the mule he brought with him and the adults walked for miles, as we descended finally into the valley where I would visit my grandmother. I have a visceral understanding of the fact that in Haiti, beyond the mountains, there are even more mountains.
I first encountered this proverb when I read the book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, by local author, Tracy Kidder. Kidder’s book is about an American doctor, Paul Farmer, who has dedicated his life to working for health and social justice in Haiti, Peru, and Russia. According to Kidder, Haitians use the proverb “in a zillion different ways.” Sometimes it’s used to express the idea that opportunities are limitless; and sometimes it’s used to suggest that when you overcome one great obstacle or challenge, you merely gain a clear view of the next one. Kidder emphasizes, that those two meanings aren’t inconsistent.
I had these meanings in mind when I first encountered a song by the Canadian indie rock band, Arcade Fire. The song’s title is Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) and I have to admit that my first response after hearing the song and viewing the video was bafflement. I thought I’d share with you my thought process as I put the pieces of this song (and this lecture) together.
I have to admit, my first thought after watching this video was, ‘I don’t get it.” I couldn’t see how it related to the proverb, or Kidder’s interpretation of it; though the band members acknowledge that his book did inspire their making of the song. After a little digging, I discovered that the lead singer of Arcade Fire, Regine Chassagne, was born in Quebec of Haitian parents. This was an “Aha!” moment, but that biographical fact alone still didn’t answer the question of how the song and the proverb were connected thematically.
I turned then to the lyrics in search of more clarity. Let me remind you of them:
“They heard me singing and they told me to stop,
Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock,
These days, my life, I feel it has no purpose,
But late at night the feelings swim to the surface.
Cause on the surface the city lights shine,
They’re calling at me, ‘come and find your kind.’
Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small,
That we can never get away from the sprawl,
Living in the sprawl,
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains,
And there’s no end in sight,
I need the darkness someone please cut the lights…”
This is a song about the feeling of disconnection from others, the crisis inherent in being cut off from one’s individual identity and unplugged from our emotions because of suburban sprawl. Essentially, it is a song that expresses the angst that some people feel about growing up in the suburbs and their desire for escape. Upon reflection, what I’ve decided is that Arcade Fire is trying to express the idea that overcoming one hurdle clears the way to view the others that lie ahead.
This really makes sense if you think about the examples I started with, which were communities of people who sought the solution to persecution by moving to other places. Beyond mountains, there are more mountains. When you immerse yourself in the narratives of the Harlem Renaissance, and the migration stories that they told, you find that a whole host of other challenges and obstacles presented themselves to those new northern residents.
Now bring in the African-American Great Migration, or immigration stories in conversation with a song about suburban angst might beg the question, “Are these stories comparable? What do they have to do with each other?” One might even question whether the problem depicted in Sprawl II is, in fact, a problem. In the second half of the twentieth century, when I was a kid growing up in suburban Queens, the suburbs were where black people escaped to, not from.
Well, I actually do believe that while the three narratives I recounted in this talk are profoundly different, and I think its important to heed the historical and social contexts for each of them; I’m also convinced that the feelings expressed in each can move, and be understood, across different geographies. There’s the suggestion of this in the unintentional echoing of images that I hope you picked up on the echo in the final image of the woman pushing a child in a shopping cart across a barren shopping mall parking lot, right before the video cut off, and the barren landscape Lawrence captured in his Migration Series painting that I discussed earlier.
Another favorite writer of mine, Ta-Nehisi Coates has written on the universality of human experiences in popular culture and American history, and he argues that there is no virtue in dismissing the suburban angst expressed in Sprawl II as the province of rich people who don’t know how good they have it. As he puts it, “that kind of righteous absolutism may make you feel good, but it doesn’t actually tell you much about what it’s like to experience the world in another person’s shoes.”
And that takes me back to the topic that I began with – the power of art, music, and literature to compel us to experience the world through another person’s perspective. Perhaps because they had to fight so hard for the right to express their visions of self and society, the Harlem Renaissance artists are, for me, the best example of this final thought: we all have the right and the responsibility to tell stories, in our own authentic voices, grounded in our individual and collective experiences. And you have the potential to translate those stories into opportunities for connection, action, and change.