Paul Andersen: Then came the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Donovan’s 1968 song, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” noted “the crying of humanity” over the war in Vietnam and widespread civil unrest.
Counter culture balladeers — Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, John Lennon, etc. — put to music a clarion call for social justice.
The movement has evolved with rap and hip-hop, whose syncopated poetry carries outrage and visceral energy from the Mean Streets. Urban strife cries out violently amid civil breakdown in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”
Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” expressed long-term sorrow: “Histories of ages past/Unenlightened shadows cast/Down through all eternity/The crying of humanity.” The Scottish folksinger fronted a daunting observation: When in history has humanity not cried out?
Cries over police brutality and systemic racism today further the advance of what Martin Luther King Jr. prophesied as a slow but gradual gain for human rights. King said that patience is a pained necessity as humanity inches toward meaningful social change. To quote Sam Cooke, “A change is gonna come …”
“How long?” echoed the rhetorical question King posed in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. “Not long,” he said, “because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
That arc has advanced slowly because of what King decried as the complacency of “white moderates,” those too comfortable to raise a fist in solidarity. Today’s surge in protests reveals that white moderates are standing up against racial divisions and will hopefully echo their unity with votes this November, assuming democracy survives under Donald Trump.
Reinhold Niebuhr underscored democratic principles in 1944 when he wrote: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Frederick Douglass cried out for sweeping social change a century and a half ago: “My back is scarred by the lash — that I could show you,” spoke out this former slave. “Would that I could make visible the wounds on my soul.”
Douglass stormed the seemingly impenetrable wall of racism all his life. He witnessed the arc of the moral universe bend to the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Even after the Civil War, this most heroic of freedom fighters suffered the further depredations of freed slaves in the South: “You turned us loose to the wrath of our infuriated masters,” he charged the Reconstructionists.
The Civil War did not end racism or free the slaves, noted WEB Dubois in 1903: “To be a poor man is hard,” Dubois wrote, “but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships. … The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line,” he wrote in “The Souls of Black Folks.”
Racial inequality goes hand-in-hand with economic inequality, said this school teacher turned advocate, observing that the seeds of inequality are sewn in an education system that failed the freedmen and left them to poverty, despair and wage slavery.
“The negro suffrage ended a civil war by beginning a race feud,” Dubois wrote. “The burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.”
James Baldwin in “Notes of a Native Son,” credits “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” by Harriet Beecher Stowe as “the cornerstone of American social protest fiction.” Baldwin labeled the book “a catalogue of violence” where “blacks have been turned over to the devil for the benefit of whites.”
This centuries-old catalogue of violence is what drove Colin Kaepernick to take a knee, only now to be vindicated by those who condemned his courage and feared his message. Then a Minneapolis cop took a knee to the throat of George Floyd and, from a gruesome video taken by a bystander, lit a short fuse to a tinderbox of global activism not seen in decades.
“In this long battle,” wrote James Baldwin in 1949, “the white man’s motive was the protection of his identity; the black man was motivated by the need to establish an identity.”
As the crying of humanity is heard from every compass point, black identity rises across a slowly civilizing world. And the Hurdy Gurdy Man sings songs of love …
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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