“We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes”
There’s a certain haze which gathers below the top of Bays Mountain some mornings after sunrise, some evenings, moments before dusk. It’s like a sheer net someone has dropped on the hay, cascading down the hill toward the barn. In the distance are a few cattle, two donkeys. A pickup truck is usually parked. Birds and crickets sing the truest song of peace. On dark nights, when the sky is clear, lightning bugs flash their fire in visual syncopation across the hill. Their glow always appears to be rising out of the ground. It’s easy, considering where you are, to imagine these are the ancestors of the Highlander Center – the revolutionary spirits who started the movement spinning and have kept turning the wheel toward justice for 80 years.
I sat there one night after hanging up from a phone conversation with my partner. I was feeling sad after learning about the passing of North Carolina Amendment One – a constitutional amendment which would not only write a gay marriage ban into the constitution (it was already written in state law) but would also outlaw civil unions for gay and straight couples alike. For three months, my partner and I had been housing the regional organizer of the Coalition to Protect All NC Families (working against Amendment One). I’d also spent time on the phone talking with people across the state about how this amendment would harm people like me. So, there was a palpable sense that the countless conversations I had with unsure strangers had amounted to defeat.
I was sad, yes, but also could not ignore the pull of hope.
After all, here I was under a tree on a hilltop where, for generations before me, people have come together across color and class lines to forge a way forward, guided by peace and equality. Here I was with 15 artists from across the South (Texas to DC and everywhere below that line) who had agreed to stop their lives for six days so we could figure out together how our work can be used to create a climate of social justice not only in this region, but across the world.
The day had been dedicated to a discussion about nonviolence – a principle tenant of the Highlander ideal and something which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who had been a friend of Highlander founder Myles Horton) championed. It required as much mental paradigm shift as physical practice, and it was a hard day. Early on, one brave woman admitted the culture of violence and oppresion with which she and her family had always struggled made her question whether nonviolence could not only be possible, but worth it. In a room full of people who have made a verbal commitment to peace and respect, it was a ballsy admission, but something many of us could completely understand even if we didn’t have the nerve to admit it.
And so started our day.
This being somewhat of an arts institute, though, we were encouraged to communicate in whatever way was necessary. Some danced it out. Others laid down a beat and led an improvised song. Others grabbed markers and drew in their notebooks. I let melodies run away with my head. Erykah Badu kept singing through my gut reactions, just the refrain over and over “Oh what a day / what a day, what a day.”
When one of our facilitators entered the room singing, “Free free free free / free free free free,” that simple mantra took over.
As the week marched on, this basic sung declaration became my guide. Along with another hymn of sorts with which we’d started our time together: “We are climbing up the mountain / til we reach the top of the hill.”
This last one is sung in two parts, with half the group taking it like a staccato, rhythmic foundation; the other half sings it in higher, longer, legato notes. You stretch out the words “climbing” and “mountain” – those words which represent real things that take time. The singing of the song was a reminder that the climbing and the mountain could not be achieved quickly. That even in this six-day intensive institute about art, culture, and social change, we had only just begun to climb; we had only just approached the mountain.
It was the singing which reminded me of the journey. It internalized the intention (“free free free free…”) and solidified the mission (“we are climbing…”).
On the final day, after breakfast, we gathered in the office at the bottom of the hill and had Skype conversations with activists from around the globe. One man was organizing farm workers in North Carolina – navigating immigration laws to ensure human rights. A woman from El Salvador who had been introduced to violent revolution before puberty was now in the United States dedicating her heart and soul to a peaceful path toward justice for immigrants and others. A woman from South Africa schooled us on “corrective rape” – a practice rampant throughout her country as a response to gay rights, a somewhat institutionalized practice which perpetuates the raping of lesbians particularly. She’s using theater to educate and empower people and, no doubt, to reinforce her extraordinary courage.
At the end of that call, we thanked her by singing “This Little Light of Mine” – an old children’s spiritual which, once upon a time when Highlander was located in Monteagle, Tenn., Zilphia Horton (among others) helped make relevant to adult activists. Now, this woman’s face, which had been very serious as it told of the injustice which still pervades her culture despite what has been written in the law, suddenly leaped into utter joy. She clapped her hands together and smiled an un-erasable smile, powered by the unquenchable light of her heart.
Shine, shine, shine
I’m gonna let it shine
I tell you all this for a few reasons. I’ve been absent for a week or so and wanted to let you know what I’ve been up to. I felt like addressing the passing of Amendment One in North Carolina – something which directly affects me and my family. But, as we learned from the woman from South Africa, the law isn’t everything. I believe the law needs to change, and I believe it will much sooner than many of us – with our culture of pessimism – are capable of imagining. But the law isn’t the whole thing. The law can and will be irrelevant until we live in a culture which embraces human dignity and any expression of love over that of power and control.
We have to change the law, yes, but we also have to change our minds.
I’ve always believed that was one of the most important things music is capable of doing in the world. But, after this past week, it’s become clear to me just how essential it is. Just as you cannot stand still when the fiddle starts sawing and the band is really cooking, you also simply cannot, when surrounded by voices singing the same words about universal truths, disagree.
Whether the Lumineers are stirring their magic around something secular and aimed at just having fun, or whether Sweet Honey in the Rock are asking you to join in this tune below (as we did on the final day at Highlander), it’s the music which cuts through the bullshit and reminds us why we’re here: to celebrate and appreciate what makes us all human.
We’d be well-advised to guide our laws and lawmakers to do the same. But, until we do, until that haze clears, I’ll be over here informed by those revolutionary spirits, pushing the music.
PS – Speaking of which, Occupy This Album: 99 Songs for the 99 Percent drops on Monday with songs by Rufus Wainwright, Willie Nelson, Ani DiFranco, Sean Lennon, Joan Baez, Tom Morello, Kanye West, Russell Simmons, Yo La Tengo, Nanci Griffith, and pretty much any other artist with a conscience in the world.
Kim Ruehl is on Twitter: @kimruehl