Most of the people who read this know I write novels, and you also probably know that I teach at Community College of Philadelphia. Our students are products of a public school system in free-fall. Frankly, without our union, the work would be impossible. Our salaries are low, but we have reasonable course-loads, good health care, and a remarkable degree of freedom to choose our own materials. People have built professional lives here, including me. I’ve been at the place since 1993.
Then, a new college administration came along, and things got rough, and then got toxic. President Guy Generals is demanding slashes in healthcare, and a 25% work-load increase that would make it impossible for us to work with students. He and the board of trustees show no sign of budging from this position, and have stopped negotiating. Thus, we’ve been working without a new contract for over a year.
So what do we do? We try our best to organize, to let students know where we stand and get those students to stand with us. We raise some hell. On the first Thursday of November, group of faculty, staff and students waited in the cramped space outside the marble conference room as the college’s board of trustees held its executive session. Student and faculty speakers had been scheduled for three o’clock. Now, it was three thirty, and there was some danger that the crowd in the hallway would disperse.
Someone started a chant: “What do we want?” “Contracts” we called back. “When do we want them?” “Now!” This went on for around thirty seconds. Then it stopped. Maybe we felt self-conscious. Maybe we were just out of practice. We tried another: “Two, four, six, eight! Why don’t you negotiate!” That didn’t last long either.
Here’s another thing some of you may know about me. I sing a lot, and shamelessly. I always have. It may come out of years of creating elaborate song parodies with my family and friends. I checked in with a union officer, and he granted me permission to begin a round of : We Shall Not be Moved. It was what Pete Seeger called a “zipper song” where you could insert lines to fit a situation: “We are fighting for our students! We shall not be moved!” That got some general participation, and if I’d been on my game, I might have kept it going for a while, and added verses pretty much indefinitely; I’m good at that.
Then someone asked, “What about We Shall Overcome?”
I’ll admit that something about the suggestion seemed a little off to me. That song felt too grand and portentous. It wasn’t meant for biding time before a meeting. Still I was glad for any input, and sure, I started to sing it along with a few others, but it dwindled after a verse and a half.
After the meeting, the social media response began.
It was some woke white folks who started it: A bunch of mainly white faculty singing a hymn that was central to the Civil Rights Movement is a form of microaggression. We caused deep discomfort in the African Americans who were present. Then came the response from some other folks– yes, yet more white folks– who were either there or weren’t there, and posted videos of Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen singing We Shall Overcome, and so on. Two faculty of color joined the discussion which grew increasingly personal and accusatory. It was like a group of people poking at an open wound until it starts to fester and turn gangrenous.
And I remembered how I felt when we began to sing We Shall Overcome, that it didn’t suit the circumstances, that it belonged to a kind of continuum of struggle and I wasn’t sure our immediate struggle was something we’d aspire to “someday.” Plus, frankly, the rhythm was all wrong. Initially, I found myself wanting to reply to those messages along the lines of “Hey, it’s not my fault.” Then, I found myself wanting to stay out of the fray. Finally, to my own surprise, I got slowly, truly and absolutely angry.
I wasn’t angry at microaggression-sensitive white folks or white folks who were half-asleep like I can be at the end of a three hour block of intense teaching. I certainly was and am awake enough to know that good intentions can’t excuse thoughtless actions. Heck, I wrote a whole novel about that, focusing on how the good intentions of the privileged pave the road to hell. However, here’s the truth: I was angry at the idea that We Shall Overcome belongs to one period in its history, and one group of people. I was angry at the inherent connection of purity to progress, a classic right-wing equation. I was angry that a political idea or a strategy, or what’s even more absurd, a song, shouldn’t cross borders. Or maybe I was just angry at the thought of someone telling me what I could sing.
At the same time, it’s disingenuous to pretend that We Shall Overcome is just any old song. It’s associated with the 1963 March on Washington— and everything that led to and beyond that march. Yet according to a recent article in The Atlantic, the song has complex origins, beginning a distinctly European 17th century hymn, changing verbs and pronouns over the years, and surfacing on the picket line where it was sung by workers in a tobacco-factory, primarily African American women.
To make things all the more ambiguous, it’s likely that this song– along with other protest songs that began their lives as hymns (like We Shall Not Be Moved)– were discovered by a white labor organizer who heard them on the picket line. She was Zilphia Horton, born in a coal-mining town in the Ozarks, alienated from her family because of her politics, and the cultural director of the Highlander Folk School, an incubator for nonviolent resistance. It was Horton who secularized sacred songs like We Shall Not be Moved or popularized the new words to The Battle Hymn of the Republic which transformed that march into Solidarity Forever. As the Highlander Folks School began to focus on anti-segregation work in the ’50s, its leadership included African American women like Bernice Robinson and Septima Clark. Rosa Parks attended Highlander four months before she refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery.
Of course, most of these songs of protest had their origins in the pews of a church, yet they were snatched– or appropriated– from those pews by people who weren’t Christians, like the students of existentialism who made up the vanguard of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Bob Moses who quotes Camus, the student of philosophy Stokely Carmichael. Of course, there were Christians among those students and the local people who shaped their organizing strategies, but ultimately, when the community gathered at the end of their all-night meetings and sang: This May be the Last Time, they weren’t referring to Christ’s second coming; they actually knew that their battle against white supremacy might get them killed. Sometimes, it did.
Who owns a song? More to the point, who has the right to be included in the legacy of what people used to call “The Movement”? Out of SNCC’s radical democracy came the Berkeley Free Speech movement— begun by white college students who’d returned from their summer in Mississippi in 1964, Radical Feminism– which some may argue grew out of an anonymous SNCC position paper on “The Position of Women in the Movement” probably authored by Mary King and Casey Hayden– and much of the anti-authoritarian Left I gravitated towards when I came of age in the post-Watergate era.
Who owns the Movement’s icons? At the Women’s March on Washington last year, I was heartened to a revival of the black power fist and the women’s symbol. Is that a form of cultural appropriation, or an acknowledgement that we can and should learn from each other? When we borrow organizing models from SNCC– or examine those models in the context of SNCC’s internal conflicts — are we engaging in microaggression? Is it worse to not name SNCC at all?
So who owns We Shall Overcome? Apparently, a court decided that the first verse is now in the public domain. But more to the point, who owns the legacy of the movement that made that song an anthem? Martin Luther King’s commitment to nonviolent resistance was influenced by Gandhi. Gandhi was inspired by Tolstoy. A cursory exploration led me to Tolstoy’s own list of books that influenced his thinking, and in later life, they include explorations of the life Confucius, the Buddha, and Lao-Tzu.
Who owns the legacy of resistance? I was lucky enough to grow up with some veterans of these experiments in radical democracy. What does it mean to organize without a leader? How can we gather strength and stand up to illegitimate authority?
At Community College of Philadelphia, we work to shape our students into active citizens who face these questions every day. My novels center on those questions too, and the first one I published was about– of all things– a 14th century Peasant Revolt. It began with an epigraph by William Morris:
“[People] fight and lost the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of [our] defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, [others] have to fight for it under another name”
I altered the original male pronouns (my my academic way) because we all know better now. Along the same lines, we should know better than to arrogantly dismiss or shame those who feel a sense of cultural ownership of a song that is associated with a historical moment. Can we figure out a way to honor that history, while also knowing that the history resonates in ways that cross borders?
In 1939, when Zilphia Horton gathered her appropriated songs into a booklet to distribute to unions throughout the country, labor leader John Lewis wrote in that booklet’s introduction, “A singing army is a winning army.”
There will always be new singers, and we can’t know how those songs will change. Frankly, how can I keep from singing? (Click on that final link. It’s beautiful).