“I believe that many of you understand that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. That we cannot be full evolved human beings until we care about human rights and basic dignity. That all of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone. That our visions of technology and design and entertainment and creativity have to be married with visions of humanity, compassion and justice. And more than anything, for those of you who share that, I’ve simply come to tell you to keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.” – Bryan Stevenson
On Labor Day, Julia and I had a gig that was cancelled. We considered ourselves fortunate to be able to sit outside and catch up on back issues of The New Yorker. One of the articles was about Bryan Stevenson. What caught my eye was that Bryan was helping to build a national lynching memorial museum called the Memorial to Peace and Justice. Bryan is a lawyer from Delaware who moved down to Alabama without family, friends or any support. Recognizing the correlation between the lynching mentality that was established in the South and the mass incarceration and excessive use of the death penalty for citizens of color, Bryan founded the Equal Justice Initiative . This organization guarantees legal representation to each of Alabama’s death row inmates. Bryan points out in his TED talk that the US is the only country in the world that will jail children for life. Some of Bryan’s clients are thirteen and fourteen years old. He believes that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I believe that for every person on the planet. I think if somebody tells a lie, they’re not just a liar. I think if somebody takes something that doesn’t belong to them, they’re not just a thief. I think even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. And because of that there’s this basic human dignity that must be respected by law.” Bryan’s desire to build the museum in Montgomery, Alabama is to challenge each county where lynching took place to own up to it. This is not to shame them but to urge them to acknowledge the wound so that it can begin to heal.
Later in the day, Julia and I binged through the rest of season one of Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down. This, highly addictive and amazing show, was a natural extension to reading about the Equal Justice Initiative. Set in the South Bronx in 1977, The Get Down shows how racism and poverty create a boiling pot of crime that is a necropolis for many but which cannot extinguish the creative spirit that must express itself. With hues of a superhero genre, the show emphasizes that the real success that is achieved stems from love, friendship and the synchronicity of bonded effort across community lines.
The show illustrates how we have demonized creativity that arises out of poverty such as graphitti and hip-hop. One of hip hop’s pioneers, Grand Master Flash is a character on the show. When interviewed he said that Hip hop’s message was simple, “We matter. We stand for something.” His character on the show instructs a talented aspiring DJ who is slipping into graft, “It’s about music. It will move you forward and open up doors that everybody says are shut. It will give you the whole world for free if you just hold back nothing. Ah… do you hear that? It’s life and destiny, that is the Get Down!”
“We love innovation. We love technology. We love creativity. We love entertainment. But ultimately, those realities are shadowed by suffering, abuse, degradation, marginalization. And for me, it becomes necessary to integrate the two. Because ultimately we are talking about a need to be more hopeful, more committed, more dedicated to the basic challenges of living in a complex world. And for me that means spending time thinking and talking about the poor, the disadvantaged…thinking about them in a way that is integrated in our own lives.”- Bryan Stevenson
There are those who inspire tirelessly and selflessly like Bryan. They are superheroes. They are here to reflect the spark in the rest of us. For me, there is a difference between identifying ourselves as victims and committing in whatever way we can to being the expression of love that helps us rise up to a greater freedom within and without. Thank you for what you do and who you are. You are that expression.
Barring love to uphold justice prevents the completion of the circuit that fulfils our aim. Locked within us are the answers we seek to resolve the struggle that our minds cannot reconcile. Belief is an individual process that becomes entangled with our upbringing as well as loyalties to both the need to be accepted and our innate fear of punishment. Love transcends our need for self-preservation. Wanting to uphold for all beings what we desire for ourselves is not rational but instinctual. Nestled in our conflict is the desire to embrace our vehemence and outrage, to allow the song of life to rejoin itself in harmony.
Last week I posted the Stream of Light about Elie Wiesel onto Facebook. A musical acquaintance of mine made some accusatory and ugly remarks about Mr. Wiesel. I deleted his comments. He was outraged and asked me to unfriend him for censoring him. We messaged back and forth. I apologized for deleting his comments without asking him to. My acquaintance is very passionate about standing up for the rights of displaced Palestinians and he felt that Mr. Wiesel, who stood for other groups rights, failed to do so for the Palestinians and was antagonistic to their plight. I looked up an article written by a Palestinian writer who was a fan of Mr. Wiesel’s book Night but who was disappointed in Mr. Wiesel’s actions. Since my acquaintance also works for peace, I pointed out that although outraged, our ability to not close the hearts of those who are needed to amend or help facilitate justice, is vital.
Elie Wiesel, who would have concurred that he was not a saint, said:
“No nation is composed of saints alone. None is sheltered from mistakes or misdeeds. All have their Cain and Abel. It takes vision and courage to undergo serious soul-searching and to favor moral conscience over political expediency.”
At the end of our conversation, my acquaintance and I reached an understanding. We both were able to be heard. In fact, that Friday night as Julia and I sang for a service at a temple, I was wrestling with the issue of people wanting a home for themselves and their families. The depth of the situation, is parallel to the plight of the Native Americans, whose land many of us rent or seem to own.
During the service, Julia and I were asked to sing Jerusalem of Gold, by Naomi Shemer. The song reflects 2,000 years of yearning for a homeland. In the middle of it, I held one of the chords and stood there with my eyes closed. I had to wait, overcome by what felt like an endless torrent of tears. The innate connection to the song felt deeper than my identification with my tribe. The moments of holding that chord in silence felt like the collective longing all of humanity has for shelter, to belong, to be embraced by the dignity of their own wholeness.
When I related this event to my mother, she shared this excerpt from one of the I Am discourses:
“When you enter into the understanding of what Indestructible harmony means to Life, you will have entered into the Powerhouse of the universe, because discord is disintegration; and the only thing that is Eternal Perfection is Indestructible Harmony. There is no freedom without Harmony, no permanent health without Harmony, no Victory over that which you call evil, which is discord, except Indestructible Harmony.”
Last night, here in Iowa, Julia’s mom gave me an article she has saved for me about Elie Wiesel talking in a church. Mr. Wiesel confessed that he was only able to speak and sing in this church because he was able to put aside his anger and recognize that not all Christians had turned their backs on the Jews during the holocaust. What he said after that was what had stayed with the author of the article ever since:
“I believe people who can stand together and sing together, can live in peace together.” – Elie Wiesel
Even in the midst of all this heart wrenching unrest and the Civil Liberties that we still need to stand for here in America and around the world, remembering our harmony will help us to sing as we stand. I believe our internal harmony bridges the gap between us.
May you hold the chord, even as you struggle to regain your voice within the silence of yearning.
We stand in solidarity with Commons, John Legend, MLK and all of those who long to see this truly be the land of the free and the home of the brave.
“…the same bridge that Dr. King and the people of the Civil Rights movement marched on, 50 years ago. This bridge was once a landmark of a divided nation, but now it’s a symbol for change. The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and social status. The spirit of this bridge connects a kid from the South Side of Chicago dreaming of a better life to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy. This bridge was built on hope, welded with compassion, and elevated by love for all human beings.
Thank you. Nina Simone said it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live. We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the voting rights, the act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you that we are with you, we see you, we love you, and march on.
from Commons and John Legend’s acceptance speech at the Oscar’s.