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Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep

February is Black History Month, and it has me contemplating the meaning and importance of history. History is a story that is re-written over and over again, sometimes to include previously ignored or missed information, sometimes to deceive and cover over shameful events. It’s important for history to celebrate milestones and accomplishments of individuals and cultures, but it is also important for it to record and examine shameful aspects of the past.

Recently, Tea Party representatives in my native state of Tennessee held a news conference demanding that legislators have removed from public school textbooks references to slavery, and especially to the fact that many of the “founding fathers” owned slaves. Texas has already passed legislation that would require textbooks to emphasize a right-wing agenda. And Arizona began destruction of the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American studies program based on a new law that prohibits any academic endeavors that—all in one breath—“promote the overthrow of the United States government,” “promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

In other words, white oppression may not be mentioned, discussed, acknowledged, or challenged. Next, those loonies who claim the Holocaust never happened will be getting all references to it removed from the world of education. And then who will they come for? No more Take Back the Night rallies? No more St. Paddy’s Day parades? These new laws are attempting to ensure that no story but that of the rich, powerful, and dominant is heard.

There’s also a move on here in Florida to exclude all state university and community college employees from holding office in the state legislature. (These positions pay around $30 K a year, so most who hold them have other employment elsewhere, not that most faculty members would have the time to do both.) The sponsor of this legislation claims educators have an inherent conflict of interest, though there is already a policy to ameliorate any supposed conflict of interest, albeit it doesn’t seem to be working too well. (At the same time, the elements of the state legislature are seeking to privatize prisons and other public functions, a move that would personally enrich a number of them.)

The people behind these legal maneuvers are people who understand fully the power of education, but who wish to use it, at best, as a public relations forum and, at worst, as a brainwashing technique. All the while, they claim that those who have worked so hard to open history to the realities of millions of lives that were for so long ignored are the ones doing the bad deeds. But ethnic studies programs do not preclude the celebration of white achievement. And slavery can be contextualized as a historical phenomenon that does not diminish the other achievements of the early white leaders of the U.S. Erasing reality does just the opposite, but Tea Partiers and other manipulators of history don’t care about that. All they care about is hiding realities that embarrass them and hiding the many accomplishments of groups of people they wish to discriminate against. It is clear that the agenda here is to stop people from examining history honestly and from multiple viewpoints, and to exclude from the political arena any groups that tend to disagree with them.

I really do believe that the devil is loose, and that many good people will find themselves on the chain gangs once again, metaphorically and perhaps literally. These Tea Party types are driving us back toward the evil aspects of the past, not forward into a better, more egalitarian future. That many of them conceive of themselves as righteous Christians is horrifying.

So, I have chosen to share today the old African-American spiritual tune “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep.” Although it’s a song wherein Jesus instructs Mary not to cry, this is not equivalent to the positivity movement’s denial of feeling or enforcement of cheerfulness. This is a promise of revenge and justice indicating that the evil will eventually drown no matter how powerful they are now.

This song originated in that dark past when rebellion against slavery and white oppression had to be encoded to be shared at all. It has become a shared anthem for many people, black and white (and Native American, as one source notes that 38 Dakota Indians sang it on the way to their execution by hanging in 1862). I hadn’t thought about this song for a long time until last fall when Bruce and I met up with my old high school friend Ruth and her husband, who played a beautiful old-timey version for us. There are many versions available on the web, but I chose to feature the oldest and least fancy of those I could find—to remind me that, yes, all “messages” have an effect, but that some messages are more honest than others. One version of this song contains the lines “When I get to heaven goin’a sing and shout/Ain’t nobody there goin’a turn me out.” There are some places where Tea Partiers can’t recreate history or exclude people.

These are some other great versions with a variety of styles and instrumentation. You could listen to none of them, or one an hour today or one a day for a week. Or just come back and listen to one when you need to remember that change-ups are always in the offing, that “Pharaoh’s army got drownded.”

Pete Seeger

Aretha Franklin

Bruce Springsteen

Inez Andrews

Mike Farris

Silver Hollers with Natalie Merchant

Huntsville Police Department Blue Notes 5

9 responses »

  1. I’ve done stupid things in my past and will do more in the future …denying ‘what’ you come from only denies who you are in a sense. Progress wouldn’t exist if everyone was perfect.

    I wonder too if you could argue an ‘inherent conflict of interest’ with the abundantly wealthy being representative of those with substantially less? No, lol – I doubt that would go over well.

    • Good point about denial of the past denying who you still are. I think we see a lot of that these days. And, yes, yes, yes, the relative wealth required to run for and hold office is a huge problem. Not that politicians can even begin to see it that way.

  2. Knowledge really is power. If I want my manipulations to seem powerful, I must cut down the “trees” of knowledge so the “shrubs” of perception look taller.

    Today, our 15 year old came home from her first day of her 2nd semester of Gr. 10. She was so pleased because her History teacher started the term by destroying a History textbook in front of the class. She really got it and loved it. Shades of “Dead Poets Society.”

    • Funny, Carla, the ripping up of books makes me very nervous. (Even though in college, I did a series where I turned them into sculptures.) I guess I would want to know the context because it seems to me it would be a more intelligent, if less dramatic strategy to pick a book apart in terms of content rather than its physical manifestation. But I know high school teachers have to work hard for attention! And I hope the teacher made a good point!

      • Agreed. Just destroying a text without context seems pointless and there may have been more to it than what I heard. Nevertheless, our daughter came home thrilled and excited about History, a subject she has never shown much interest in before. So it was effective on some level. Interestingly, several kids in the class were appalled that he was destroying an intact book. He made an impact, if nothing else!

  3. One of the inevitable effects of ideology-driven changes to textbooks in one region is that the textbooks will change for the entire country, since the textbook publishers do not publish Texas and Tennessee and Arizona editions of textbooks. Religious fundamentalists want to deny America’s children consensus scientific opinions, and of course history is just as convenient to put on the chopping block. American exceptionalism occurred only because of a personal God who chose this land to bless over all others, not because of two centuries of free labor on the backs of slaves and the ruthless genocide of the people God apparently didn’t bless.

    Anyone who wants such a history should be forced to listen to Mitt Romney sing “God Bless America” and John Ashcroft sing “Let the Eagle Soar” on a regular basis. Bad taste in history is precisely as bad as bad taste in music, and in religion.

  4. Yessir. Nail on head. Or in head as the case may be.

  5. I especially share your horror that some of those who would drive us back to “the evil aspects of the past … conceive of themselves as righteous Christians.” Great choice of music, Mary Don’t You Weep. I’m a big fan of Mike Farris and love his version, but this primitive recording expresses the meaning just as emphatically. Thank you.


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