On Saturday, the 4th, hubby and I walked to South Lake Union to watch the fireworks. Packed in among people of all colors and orientations, each of us unique but also united, we gazed up into the sky together. How many of us found ourselves hoping that next year’s 4th would be a little less heart-breaking? There were some big successes this year (gay marriage!) but failures, too. And postponements. Our greatest failures: when the majority fails to advocate for the minority, when the powerful fail to advocate for the powerless, when the wealthy fail to advocate for the poor.
Do you know that six churches have burned in ten days in the south? Predominantly African-American congregations. I found it difficult to concentrate while the music accompanying the fireworks blasted five songs in a row about fire.
Among other American songs (and Coldplay, go figure), the fireworks show included a country song called “Made in America,” about the narrator’s father, who only purchases American-made objects (fair enough) and was himself “made” in America (whoa). I looked around me, and many of the people who stood around me in the crowd were not “made” in America. They are, nonetheless, as American as someone who was born here. I thought of Puerto Rico, and other territories asking for increased rights under the US Constitution, who are part of this country but nevertheless do not enjoy the same rights. I thought of immigrants, legal or illegal, who felt compelled enough to leave their home and all that they know, and risk everything (even death) to come here hoping for something better, who may or may not find it when they get here. They weren’t “made in America,” but their stories are part of the American story. I thought of all the tribes of people who were “made in America” before country songs or America existed, who’ve been displaced and whose women continue to experience, disproportionately, sexual abuse that goes ignored by law enforcers.
For that reason, the music selections at this year’s 4th seemed almost aggressively chosen and out of place. They did play this one song, “Birds in the sky, you know how I feel…” that I like…
After walking back home through the smoke-suffused streets of Seattle, in our darkened living room, sea-salt air wafting in through windows open to the hot summer night, hubby and I watched What Happened, Nina Simone?
What’s weird is, for the past two weeks, I’ve had that song “Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood” stuck in my head, and also my yoga teacher plays the song “Birds in the sky, you know how I feel…” I didn’t know either of those were Nina Simone. I’ve heard so many of Simone’s songs before and never knew who they were, or that they were the same person. To be honest, I’ve heard her unique voice before and hadn’t known if she was a man or woman. It doesn’t really matter, because every Nina Simone song I’ve heard is more about authentic feeling than who is singing it. She doesn’t have a perfect voice, but it’s the most expressive thing I’ve ever heard. From the movie, I got this impression of a woman so full of feeling that it just burst out of her, from her voice, from her piano-playing fingers, from her words.
Later in her career, as the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, Simone became an outspoken advocate–and sometimes drew backlash for it. But she seemed to not believe she had a choice, that she had an obligation, a duty to speak out. At the same time, it was clear from the film that her husband was exploiting her, that she allowed him to, and that their daughter suffered the most from her parents’ limitations.
Nevertheless, Nina Simone is a hero, an imperfect person–a person!–and a hero. She Did Something.
It was a sad story, but also exactly the perfect thing to watch on the 4th of July. I recommend the movie (on Netflix streaming!).