Lift Every Voice in Song, Lift Every Name With a Voice

by Robbin Williams

The plantation body politic is still with us when people put others in between themselves and either suffering or death

I went to pick my daughter up from summer camp and my niece, Ava, went along with me. She’s six years old, but she remembers people’s names after her first introduction to them. Moments after meeting a new girl, she walks along with her hand-in-hand, whispering and smiling about some plan they have. She notices when someone has changed their hairstyle. My daughter Nora, who is nine, rarely combs her own hair. She ponders scientific theories and social issues for extended periods of time, often asking questions or reciting facts that seem like non-sequiturs, in relation to what’s being discussed when she brings them up. She has little concern for what other people are doing most of the time; she focuses instead on what she reads. When we’re leaving her school and someone says “Bye Nora,” I have check to see if she knows the name of the person who’s addressed her. Sometimes she does.

Despite how social Ava is, she’s not always nice to my youngest daughter, Evie, but I think I understand why. Ava is so socially-engaged that it seems to make her mildly anxious when someone doesn’t reciprocate her attention. Because Ava isn’t worried about her connection with Evie, who is always excited to play with her, she doesn’t focus on it as much. She’s anxious about her relationship with Nora though, who is more independent and, consequently, somewhat more indifferent to her. The prospect of being snubbed by Nora compels Ava to snub Evie, to treat someone else the way she’s worried about being treated, so as we drove Nora back home from summer camp, I wasn’t surprised to hear Ava say something like “We’re going to have a special club, but not for three-year-olds, right Nora?” Evie was one of the only three-year-olds who was a regular part of Ava’s social life, at the time, so her goal was evident. She wanted to create a situation in which she could subject someone else to the alienation she was worried Nora might make her feel. She wanted to measure her own distance from exclusion, to establish the idea that she was invulnerable to the same treatment, by putting Evie in-between that prospect and herself. This situation is an example of parallax.

In a fable that provides helpful analogues, parallax could be used to measure the relative distances between two planets and a black hole. In keeping with the influence of Greek mythology on astronomical naming protocols, let’s say one of the planets starts to imagine it’s a god. Proof of its divine status is the fact that it’s further from death, destruction or trauma, represented by the black hole, than the other planet. When one planet (person) witnesses trauma or becomes a source of torment for another person, they are “creating proof” of their relative superiority, cherishing feelings of exaltation that are rooted within the fact that the suffering person is in between them and what threatens them both.  

It’s important to highlight daily instances of parallax in order to underscore how universal the phenomenon is. African-American and Afro-Caribbean slavery are an example of how parallactical thinking has compelled people to mistreat each other, but the peculiar institution is only a starting point for consideration of the underlying ontological dilemma. Humans abuse other humans in order to provide supposed proof of the fact that they are invulnerable to the same treatment.

Rational white actors would have found other ways to achieve their agricultural goals if it wasn’t for the fact that they received psychological recompense from enslaving and abusing other people, the same form of “compensation” that, according to W.E.B. DuBois, made low wages tolerable to white workers in the early 20th century.[i] To discuss the need for that recompense is to talk about something that transcends whiteness, however. White male privilege made this form of abuse possible, but a larger point about humanity will be missed if we don’t acknowledge the fact that other people with virtually unchecked power would do similar things.

If an attempt to subject others to remote-control is evidence of an underlying human impulse to brutalize and dominate then the myriad ways in which people puppet others, project their insecurities and enact parallax are effects that stem from the same cause as slavery. The plantation body politic is still with us when people put others in between themselves and either suffering or death. This phenomenon is satirized in the animated film South Park when the mission of an all-black battalion of American troops is summarized by their code name, “Human Shield.” Described as the “all-important first attack wave,” a computer simulation shows that the role of this battalion will be to stand in front of the white troops, in order to block them from enemy fire. One of the black soldiers objects to this plan, saying, “Have you ever heard of the Emancipation Proclamation?,” and the white commander to whom the question is posed responds “I don’t listen to hip-hop.”

But some realities elude satire, resurging as stark reminders that black bodies are available for parallactical play when white people contemplate their mortality. In 2020, quarantine measures and shutdowns began weeks before Passover in the United States, in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. The film The Ten Commandments played on television, as it does every year, depicting the flight of the angel of death that is described in Exodus and the sparing of those houses whose posts were painted with the blood of a lamb. A couple months later, signs appeared in people’s yards with the words “Black Lives Matter.” The letters of those words were written with the blood of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and posted between each of us and the violence that is essential to the definition of our country.

The cynics—who are prepared with an answer for everything, much like the racists for whom preconceived ideas are a default—branded BLM a Trojan Horse for Communism. The protests weren’t warranted responses to bigoted brutality, according to them, they were a Marxist revolt that was normalized and rationalized by a society that was eviscerated by political correctness and left-wing, cosmopolitan fascism. This thinking is the continuation of a meme. As the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover justified his formation of the treacherous Counterintelligence Program by declaring that black American militant groups were just a cover for insidious Marxist activity. This opinion reflects his belief that black people were incapable of objecting to conditions in America without being prompted by the thinking of foreign adversaries and that even today, the black bodies seen protesting in the streets are controlled by the minds of white foreigners. It also supports a tenet that is so ingrained in the thinking of many white people that it is unconscious, that black people are generally incapable of self-governance; that slavery was justified because black people are like children; that efforts like COINTELPRO weren’t the cause of black degradation, they were reasonable measures that were justified by black incompetence.

Maybe it was Pain and the Death that black people lifted their voices to sing of as a gateway, combining their belief in the idea of respite from their troubles—deliverance into Heaven when they died—with camouflage for escape plans in the material world. The routes to freedom, buried in their songs, are proof that enslaved black people were capable of poetry, which has been described as saying you’re talking about one thing when you’re actually (or also) talking about something else. [ii] Whatever the threat, it caused white people to put black people in between It and themselves, and they did so for so long that the practice of controlling black peoples’ bodies, in order to ward off existential threats, became embedded within their thinking, rooted within their civilizations and forgotten; so invisible to them that they started to believe the effects were the causes of black peoples’ degradation, that black leaders were voices lifted by the marionette strings of white thinkers, that black protestors were bodies lifted into action by others.

Of course, some black people are controlled by white minds. One young black man was used as a human shield for white objection to reparations, a “commodified persona”[iii] positioned to speak in opposition to the appeal that was made to the House of Representatives by Ta-Nehisi Coates and other public figures; a black face for white racists and ingrates to hide behind, as they denied black people acknowledgement of their struggle, at the very least. Like the narrator of Invisible Man, who thinks the town’s white leaders—to whom he intends to make a Booker T. Washington-style speech—are the only men who are in a position to judge his personal worth, this spokesperson may have been interested in being granted anomaly status, being told “you aren’t like those others” by people he regarded as the only relevant arbiters, assured of the fact that his thoughts were unique and that he was special. What he might not have realized, however, is that the white people who used him didn’t really care what he had to say. They just needed a black puppet to publicly oppose reparations, so they could thwart the movement without being accused of racism. His testimony might as well have been on mute. With a black face in front of him, a white congressman felt comfortable saying slavery was only “a factor,” with regard to the present state of African-American life, suggesting that it wasn’t as significant a determinant of current social dynamics as one might suspect.

People like the young man who spoke in opposition to reparations seem to think disagreeing with other black people is proof that their conclusions are the result of independent thinking, that they’ve achieved a form of wisdom that’s impossible for others, who are either brainwashed or less intelligent, or both. By this logic, many black people accept liberal policies, promote discussions about reparations and advocate for police reform because they slavishly follow the front for Marxism that is the Democratic Party. In contrast with the supposedly benighted black masses, a black Republican who is the Kentucky attorney general admitted that he didn’t recommend murder charges to the grand jury when police officers shot recklessly into Breonna Taylor’s home, as if her killing didn’t qualify for consideration as a homicide. He provided cover for authorities in other cities who concluded immediately that there was no foul play when Malcolm Harsch was found hanging from a tree in Victorville, CA, and again, ten days later, when Robert Fuller was found hanging in Palmdale, CA. If personal interest motivates a black official to respond with indifference when a black body is destroyed, why should white authorities trouble their minds?

Some law enforcement reminds us of the similarities KRS-One noted between the word “officer” and “overseer,”[iv] as they use excessive force to prove race still trumps class and that being white means something, even if you’re not affluent. In the ongoing domestic conflict, the only difference between war with foreign adversaries and culture war is whether or not you’re native to the place where you kill. Consequently, it doesn’t matter that Kaepernick didn’t mean any disrespect to the people who die in other countries for what our country says it believes, and that he simply wanted there to be greater acknowledgement of the people who die here at home for what our country actually believes. The pundits flipped the script, lifted by the strings of the oligarchic unseen, to suggest that he was disrespecting those who’ve served, those who’ve died. Meanwhile, our self-styled leaders send the bodies of jarheads to block themselves from death from abroad and support enforcement that makes casualties out of the domestic disenfranchised. We honor all of the fallen.

When we lift the names of those who’ve died, we distinguish them from the dust to which they’ve returned, differentiating them from the fodder fed to the greedy forces of ruthlessness, exclusion and brutality. When we say someone’s name, we acknowledge their personhood, the part of them that’s harder to contain within the matrix of social ideas we use to classify people. By voicing one of the things that is most distinct about someone, we emphasize their precious individuality, the humanity that will never be sufficiently categorized. We honor all of the fallen. 

One might say my niece needs to learn to manage her concern about being excluded. I might not be helping the matter though. I sing horribly for her over the phone so she can act out the part of a judge and tell me my performance deserves an “F minus”; one time she warned me that I might not qualify for membership in an imaginary group she was forming by saying “It’s really hard to get in this club, uncle. You have to have talent and excellent skills.” I talk to Ava about not playing games that center around the exclusion of Evie—a self-proclaimed “excellent puzzle kid”—but I need to talk to Nora as well, about remembering people’s names; about saying Ava’s name without the big-cousin annoyance that makes it seem like interacting with her is a chore; about lifting the names of others so we remember not to empower the forces that attempt to control people remotely, as if they’re faceless automatons, leaving them in the paths between ourselves and various forms of harm.

It’s often noted that black people select distinctive identifiers for their children, names that allude to an African heritage from which their ancestors were estranged; new sounds that echo old ones, to set their young people apart.[v] Maybe black parents are creating medicine for a disease that is endemic to humanity, an antidote that takes as many forms as the distinctive individuals it protects. In a world where people are told that all that matters are their manipulable, material bodies, the sound we use to address someone creates a unique, immaterial space for their existence: an invitation to transcend. 

[i] A point that is referenced in David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness.

[ii] In “Education by Poetry,” Robert Frost says “Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.”

[iii] I was introduced to this phrase in an article called “Sharing Culture or Selling Out?” by Alexis Celeste Bunten.

[iv] In the song “Sound of da Police” from Return of the Boom Bap.

[v] 1 Peter 2:9 reads “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

Robbin Williams lives just a couple blocks east of the Missouri/Kansas state line with his wife and their two daughters. He likes to make music out of disjointed phrases and accidental percussion and he spent the last year documenting graffiti and murals, including some generated by recent social movements. His debut volume of poetry, Juanita, will be published in 2023. His poem, Untitled #3: For Uvalde was published on Kawsmouth in fall 2022.

Categories: Essay, Visual