Music, Race issues in America, and Songs of Home, pt. 2
As I release Songs of Home, pt. 2 this week, I feel it is necessary to provide some more insight into what I feel is important about this record, if to no one else but myself, and why I hope it finds importance in other people’s lives.
The first songs I wrote for this record were “Winter, 2001.” and “Born in the Wrong Time.” I wrote them together, as a single song, but it made more sense to separate the tracks on the record. Those songs are a continuation of the “County Fair” character (also the character in “Bless the Winds”), which is sort of autobiographical fiction, but more of an archetype for the millennial experience, before and after 9/11.
“Bless The Winds”
Originally, it was meant to be the focus of the record, but after writing “Eric and Lily” on the first record, I became intrigued by looking at my “home” through the eyes of someone who experiences it in a far different way than I ever did as a child, and now as an adult. As I have noted before, this intrigue resulted in personal interviews with friends of mine who are immigrants from Mexico, and three songs (“Coyotaje”, “My First Job”, and “Stranger”) that act as a contrast to the small town-raised, white millennial story.
Since writing this, it seems race issues all across America have been increasingly heated, whether it be immigration issues, black-white relations, etc. Republican debates have been filled with the discussion, riots have been aggressive, and tension seems to be growing daily.
In my own hometown, I have been personally involved in a heated debate over my high school alma mater’s “Rebel” mascot, since the Fort Smith Public School Board voted to change the mascot in July. In addition to writing an essay (See: To A Town Divided: A History of the Southside Rebel) about the history of the mascot’s adoption upon the school opening in 1963, I have spoken at School Board meetings in support of this change, and been involved in ongoing debates (“debates” is probably the incorrect word. “rants” and “brawls” may be a better description) on Facebook with locals who are outraged at the change, who repeatedly feel justified in their outrage for various reasons, few of which involve confronting the historical significance of the mascot as it relates to current race relations on a local and national level.
The Republican debates seem to confirm a mentality on a national level that I am observing here in Fort Smith. Dr. Ben Carson, most notably, responded to Meggyn Kelly’s question about how he, as President, could help heal the racial divide in America. Dr. Carson first referred to “Purveyors of hatred who take every incident involving people of two different races and try to make a race war out of it…” and goes on to reference an NPR interview in which he responded to a question about race relations by saying that he is a Neurosurgeon, and tells the audience that “When I take someone to the operating table, I’m actually operating on what makes them who they are. The skin doesn’t make them who they are, the hair doesn’t make them who they are, and it’s time for us to move beyond that…because our strength as a nation is in our unity…”
This is a common philosophy on race that I have repeatedly encountered during this mascot discussion. The idea that we are “one race”, and that our race doesn’t determine who we are, and so we should all learn to “look beyond skin color”. While the majority, if not all, of my personal encounters with this philosophy have come from white conservatives, Dr. Carson’s affirmation of this philosophy is important as a black American seeking the Presidential nomination by a largely white audience.
While I do feel the “we are one race: human” mentality carries a lot of truth in it, I personally feel it is insufficient if not harmful when trying to apply it to race relations. Specifically, the notion that we should “see beyond color” is troubling and confusing to me. To act as though race does not exist seems to me an unnecessary denial of the reality of race, skin color, and heritage. Perhaps the “see beyond color” philosophy is popular among some because it implies that how we have dealt with race relations throughout history is less important than how we deal with it moving forward, and that if we separate ourselves from that, there is some sort of “clean slate” that exists.
To me, this mentality skirts the issue. The context in which it is lauded is under the pretense that to “see race” inevitably results in hatred, divide, and disunity. But this is a false pretense, and I contend that to “see race” and be frank about it in discussion, has potential to create an America in which we acknowledge and celebrate racial differences, and dissolve the association of “race relations” with hatred and divide. Undoubtedly, this is a far more painful and difficult process, at least in the short term, than to pretend that we “don’t see race”. But to pretend that we don’t see race is to apply a “band-aid” to deep wounds that have cut ever deeper over the course of history. To see race, I feel, allows us to heal those wounds and gain a deeper understanding of others’ heritage, and through that process, we can truly stop looking at “race” through the collectivist lens that tends to focus on disdain for racial stereotypes, and start truly seeing the individual human beneath those racial stereotypes.
I decided to write songs about immigrants from Mexico because I found their story fascinating. These are people who live in the same town as I do, and yet have come to it in a completely different way, and see it, and The United States as a whole, with a far different perspective than my own. Through it, I have learned to appreciate my own place in the world while learning to appreciate and admire the place of others.
I am grateful to get to tell these stories. I don’t tell them with the intent to change someone’s political views, though certainly there is political relevance to them. I tell these stories because they are stories of the human condition, and as a writer I feel a responsibility to look beneath the shallow surface in which our fleeting and fickle socio-political culture exists, and find the human story that we all share. I hope that those who hear these stories can experience them as a listener in a similar way that I have as a writer.