If I Had a Song

The day our national narrative began to shift

The other day I surprised myself when I wrote this sentence:

“I long imagined myself to be a writer, a feminist, and an activist, only to realize that for many years I wasn’t really practicing any of these.”

Writer and feminist, I conceded, I could make a case for. What was living but a chance to accumulate material for writing? And hadn’t feminism long informed my values and actions? But activist? That was the word that gave me pause. It conjures someone marching in a crowd, waving a sign and shouting, or lying down in the street, waiting to be arrested. Definitely not me.

Then a message arrived in my in-box early this morning. It was a reminder from Liz, a musician, writer friend, and sometime DJ, who was hosting a radio program on KFAI on protest songs. Comforted to know I wasn’t the only person awake at 5:15 a.m., I responded immediately to tell her I planned to listen. As I made breakfast, I started humming.

Later, ear buds in place, I queued up her show while mowing, never enjoying cutting the grass quite so much. With the first chords of “If I had a hammer,” I teared up. My voice and heart swelled to the familiar lyrics. Many of the songs played were written decades ago, but the spirit behind them is timeless. There were songs from the labor movement like “Solidarity Forever” by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and “Joe Hill,” sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock. Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit and Judy Collins, “Bread and Roses.” (To hear the complete show, go to kfai.org, select “On Demand,” and choose “Stone Soup” for September 12.)

I grew up on this music. It shaped me. More than anything, it planted a seed in me. So what if the seed had been dormant for a long time?

Yesterday, my friend Claire and I showed up at the federal building near Ft. Snelling, where we have volunteered to sit in on immigration hearings for people who have been detained and whose futures are being determined: asylum, voluntary departure, detention, removal. Our role is to observe the judge, the attorney for the Department of Homeland Security, and the detainee’s legal counsel, if there is any, and note if any human rights are being violated. If a person doesn’t speak English, is a translator present? If the person doesn’t have legal representation, does the judge explain the purpose of the hearing and answer the person’s questions? We’ve been impressed by the judge and grateful when detainees have a lawyer sitting next to them. So far, we’ve seen no one’s rights being violated. But what we have seen are people shackled at the wrists and ankles, many from countries where human rights violations and violence are ongoing.

As we left the federal building, Claire noticed the flag at half-mast. 9-11. We paused, probably each remembering where we were when the Twin Towers collapsed. That was when I saw the straight line connecting that day and this one.

9-11 left our country reeling. We’d never been attacked like that before. Out of the shock of violation came a sprawling fear that lumped “everyone else” into one. It was on that day that our national narrative began to shift from red, white, and blue to black and white.

Maybe because of my “day in court,” certain lines from the songs I listened to lingered:

Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.

How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?

If I had a song, it would be a protest song. “I’d sing out danger, I’d sing out warning, I’d sing out love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.”

 

 

 

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