Inflecting and Bending: Black Life, Language, and Literacies

On this first day of school, I want us to begin to craft metaphors, tropes, or images that can best capture African American Life, Language, and Literacies.  The trope I choose today is inflecting and bending: inflecting the social world in which you live but always bending it to your own purposes and vision at the same time.  The best way to explain it is to do as the Staples Singers once crooned: take you there.

It is February 13, 1983 and it is the NBA All-Star Game hosted by the Los Angeles Lakers.  Here is what I remember from the starting line-up: MVP Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Isiah Thomas, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks, and Larry Bird… up against Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Alex English, David Thompson, and Maurice Lucas. I was 12 years old watching at my father’s home since he had the biggest television.

I watched for three reasons: 1) it was the all-star game; 2) Dr. J was in it, and; 3) Marvin Gaye was singing.  I have no idea who won (I’ll throw up my East Coast signs here and, most naturally, go with that) and I no longer remember Dr. J’s plays though my eyes were riveted on him.  I do, however, remember my jaw dropping, everyone in the room being speechless and almost in tears, and then cheering louder than the Olympics Games for this move right here:

While I have offered Marvin Gaye’s rewriting of the National Anthem in personal terms, there is a larger historical and political terrain.   As we move through the semester in this course, you will see how African American literacies have to be conceived inside of rigorous historical knowledge.  Marvin Gaye’s anthem is no exception.

The timing of Marvin Gaye’s 1983 anthem and its impact come at a very specific time in U.S. history of race relations.

The organized struggles for African American empowerment that characterized earlier Black Freedom Movements of the Civil Rights and Black Power era had moved to urban city-centers.  So you had a new populist movement of black, urban, working class groups in what you might call the Second Great Migration.

Black urban city-centers were looking at a level of militarization and police surveillance that they had never seen, triggered largely by the State’s (i.e., Cointelpro, J. Edgar Hoover, etc) ongoing covert and overt attacks on the most radical black activists.

Middle class blacks were abandoning urban city-centers for greener pastures, not unlike Gaye’s original recording label, Motown, which had abandoned its black-community-base of Detroit, went Hollywood in the hopes of tapping into a more mass-consumer culture, and set up in Los Angeles.  Meanwhile, a largely working class black culture found their jobs transformed by Post-Industrialized economy into a service-based economy, creating mass poverty and even bigger racialized gaps in wealth in the U.S.

With Motown perhaps as a guiding (because now even more co-opted) symbol, the black protest movements of the 50, 60s, and 70s were now commodified.  For instance, Martin Luther King and, albeit to a lesser extent, Malcolm X’s images could be found everywhere but their visions for equity and equality were not: blacks faced a level of economic and social inequality in the late 1970s that was arguably worse than what they had faced in previous decades.

Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On (which included the song of the same title, where he charted his own brother’s military service in Vietnam, and ended with the song, “Inner City Blues”) have made him an iconic figure in the Black Freedom Movements.  Gaye already had a rhetorical excellence such that black audiences came to expect him to do all of the following:

  • offer his own personal experiences as a lens into a larger black struggle
  • critique American imperialism at home and abroad
  • capture the best of what Soul music is and does— merge R&B and Gospel to capture, inspire, and sustain mass freedom movements
  • bring back the Blues (in both titles to songs and style) as central to the framing of black, urban life
  • layer a falsetto, mid-range singing, and a gospel shout into one seamless whole (it even sounds like he is saying oh lawd in between lines of the Anthem)
  • articulate a voice of resistance in a public black discourse despite all of the State efforts to thwart that voice;
  • grieve and lament the Freedom Struggles of the previous era (we don’t often talk about it this way but the deep need for a  communal grief after brutally violent assaults and murder on beloved heroes and heroines, towns, and communities was dire)
  • seemingly predict the world stage that Hip Hop would take given the kind of Hip-Hop beat that Gaye sets his version of the Anthem to

and last, but not least, and perhaps my own most favorite “bullet” of all…

  • resist, as best as he could, the public expectation and marketing desire that he present himself as a black male sex symbol (part of the reason he chose to perform so many duets with leading black female singers) though he didn’t back down from themes of black love (I stress this final point given both popular and academic tendencies to make opposite camps of music with overt themes like War in Vietnam vs. music about love/sensuality)

I suggest here that we stop and pause… and really listen again… listen to Marvin Gaye again, but this time with the intentionality of really hearing all of this African American history and experience that Marvin Gaye consciously represented.  This time, HEAR this history in Marvin Gaye’s rendition of the anthem…. (and let it play again)

All of the history that I have presented above are right there in Gaye’s deconstruction and reconstruction of the “Star Spangled Banner” and it was what my own family and countless other black families sitting around the television were both consciously and unconsciously responding to.  The “Star Spangled Banner,” composed by Francis Scott Key, which gained anthem status in 1931 had only once before been so radically altered (and was then also regarded controversially): by Jose Feliciano at the 1968 World Series.  Gaye’s choice to so dramatically alter the Anthem (which Whitney Houston was herself inspired by when she sang her version at Super Bowl XXV with its now platinum record sales) for televised sports showed his right and responsibility to politicize the African American experience and to do so, quite literally, in the context of one of America’s most sacred texts.

Gaye inflects all of the history of his moment, but he bends it his way, toward his history and towards the future he wants to create. Democracy, as represented by the Anthem, as represented by Gaye’s revised version of it, is now an African Americanized/African American-inclusive Democracy.  

Think about the ways Gaye and his audience are reading the world.   And now think about how and why Gaye and his audience are (re)writing that world.  This is what we look at when we talk about African American literacies.