An Ink That Can’t Be Erased

Port Hudson Native Guard (1863)
Port Hudson Native Guard (1863)

    The U.S. Civil War is a topic that all Americans are aware of, at least in some sense. The fact that slaves played a pivotal role in this time is well known. Yet, for thousands of black men that fought for the Union, oftentimes dying, their story was largely forgotten. In her 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry book, Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey – the 19th Poet Laureate of the United States – gave life to the story of an all-black regiment that kept an eye on captured white Confederate soldiers. They were stationed on Ship Island in the Gulf Coast, and were not treated the same way as their white comrades. Through the writing of a literate, but nameless, guard, the toils of war are told through his eyes. In the multi-part poem, which mirrors the book’s title, Trethewey’s fictional character, a former slave, composes journal entries over a more than two year period. Although the soldier was born nearby and is considered a free man, he feels the tight grip of his past still holding him. Guarding white prisoners, the role of the jailer now seems reversed; he imprisons men who would have no qualms about owning him. This intelligent and literate soldier shows that the power of the written word is an equalizer, which frees the mind from bondage.Continue Reading

Driftin’ Along

Woody Guthrie (Source: U.S. Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs division)
Woody Guthrie (Source: U.S. Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs division)

    In 1912, a man was born, one who’d become a voice for the hard-working people of America. His name was Woody Guthrie. He was from a small town in Oklahoma, where the people did what they could with what little they had. His parents did what they could to raise their children, even though it was often difficult to get by. Before Woody was in school, he would make up songs and sing them on stage, which was really his front porch. His mother taught him and his siblings songs. In fact, Woody’s grandmother said that his mother loved music as a kid, singing and playing piano. His mother would explain the background to the lyrics and told her children to try to understand how other people see things. In his autobiography Bound For Glory, Guthrie recalls that he loved listening to his mother sing “The Sherman Cyclone”; he fell asleep listening to the words, “thinking about all the people in the world that have worked hard and had somebody else come along and take their life away from them” (Guthrie 88). Over the years, Guthrie would face the same scenarios as other down-on-their-luck workers. Yet, his heartfelt lyrics, describing the plight of the destitute, gave needed voice to the voiceless. Guthrie’s vision was one that unified the poor, no matter their background or skin color.Continue Reading

Voices of the Weary

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., joins hands with other African American leaders while singing 'we shall over come' at a church rally in Selma, Alabama on March 9, 1965. He is expected to lead a demonstration march. From left are James Farmer, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, unidentified, King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. James Bevel. (AP Photo)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., joins hands with other African American leaders while singing ‘we shall over come’ at a church rally in Selma, Alabama on March 9, 1965. He is expected to lead a demonstration march. From left are James Farmer, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, unidentified, King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. James Bevel. (AP Photo)

    The Civil Rights Movement was both inevitable and necessary. Black people all across the country, especially in the South, knew it was time for their voices to be heard; they were tired of being treated as second-class citizens, or worse. For many years, African Americans found solace in singing spirituals in their predominately black churches. Of course, some of those were burned down by the KKK. In 1963, that same hate group bombed a Birmingham Baptist church, killing four black girls; African Americans weren’t even safe inside their own places of worship. During the Civil Rights era, African Americans often marched hand-in-hand, while singing about the freedom they dreamed of. With the untimely assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., songs sung within King’s continuing non-violent movement, while bringing hope to many, were not going to sway the hearts of oppressors. The soulful songs of the Civil Rights Movement, however, helped bring millions of black-as well as white-people together, which strengthened the fight for freedom.Continue Reading

Together in Song

Noted folk singer Pete Seeger entertaining at the opening of the Washington labor canteen, sponsored by the United Federal Labor Canteen, sponsored by the Federal Workers of America, Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). First lady Eleanor Roosevelt seen at center. 1212 18th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. [13 February 1944] (Source: Library of Congress – Photograph by Joseph A. Horne)
Noted folk singer Pete Seeger entertaining at the opening of the Washington labor canteen, sponsored by the United Federal Labor Canteen, sponsored by the Federal Workers of America, Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). First lady Eleanor Roosevelt seen at center. 1212 18th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. [13 February 1944] (Source: Library of Congress – Photograph by Joseph A. Horne)

    In 2009, author Alec Wilkinson published The Protest Singer, a small book about folk singer Pete Seeger’s hugely impactful life. This was a project that took three years to complete and would not have been the same without input from Seeger himself. Wilkinson called Seeger when the singer was in his late 80s and in the sunset of his long life. Even still, the famous singer made time for the author and the two got to know each other. Seeger passed away, sadly, five years after the book came out. Yet, the work is invaluable in terms of familiarizing all types of readers with who Seeger was and what he stood for. When Wilkinson asked his subject if he could write a book about him, Seeger told him that there was already an abundance of things written about him; however, Seeger said, “What’s needed is a book that can be read in one sitting” (Wilkinson 9). As the author pieced together the amazing life of the folk singer, he discovered Seeger’s genuine love for America and its working class. The singer, who often wrote about justice and rights, was not out for fame and riches; on the contrary, he wanted to be a voice for people without money and power. That didn’t mean, however, that he only wanted to hear his own singing at performances. It wasn’t about him. What he really wanted was participation across the country and for people to use the power of song to change the nation.Continue Reading