The Songs We Sing–Or Don’t Sing

One of my favorite uncle’s favorite song was “Coming to America”, from one of his favorite singers, Neil Diamond. This uncle passed at an age younger than I am now from undiagnosed lung cancer that developed during his time as a construction worker ripping out asbestos from old buildings with no protection; work solicited for many minorities.

This uncle had been a favorite (and still is), not just because he was less than ten years older than my elder sister and I, but he was a truly fun. He loved to watch movies, a trait shared with his siblings, the eldest of whom fondly remembered being taken to the cinema by their alcoholic, but also often charming father who abandoned them soon after their mother died following complication after the birth of the youngest. He was quick to smiles and laughter, rarely got angry, was a hard worker loved by many, many peoples. He was always making some kind of business to take care of his family, often holding down two or three jobs to make ends meet.

He loved Neil Diamond for his warm showmanship and distinct voice. “Coming to America” was a popular song during the 70’s, especially around the time of the Centennial, or great anniversary of the birth of the United States of America otherwise and now know by me as the US of Hypocrisy, of Racism, of Delusions, of Lies for many concrete reasons. However, one cannot deny that for many, the US of A, as hailed in Neil Diamond’s song could certainly inspire love, devotion and a sense of pride to be there, to have arrived, to have been made citizens after hardship. What it entirely left out, but wasn’t written to include was the horrific losses, the genocide, the theft, the betrayals and oppression the indigenous endured for others to sing so poignantly about being allowed to be Americans.

I used to love that song, and in some ways I still do. I remember being a little kid and lip-syncing the song, even saluting while citing the Pledge of Allegiance which Diamond partially quotes. This was somehow a guilty pleasure because my parents were anti-government and I was not allowed to recite the pledge in school or sing the national anthem “The Star Spangled Banner” anyway.

Recently, Gabby Douglas eventually apologized for not placing hand over heart when the song was played at the 2016 Rio Olympics and footballer Colin Kaepernick has been more recently been villainized for refusing to do so on the green. Apparently, despite articles and other information (and I omit academic papers and the like since those are often the originators of quotes on the subject) having clearly shown how the whole song lyrics, not just the selected verses for school, use deeply racist and offensive statements defending slavery with clear threats to non-Europeans.

In my previous article here at K.I.N. my focus was on decolonizing Indigenous Studies. It was about how attitudes and behaviors of those still rooted and supported by colonization, whether indigenous or non-indigenous, can have harmful effects on other students, in classrooms, and despite it not being intentional disruption. Despite those disruptions and harmful effects, students do continue to learn all the ways European invasion and colonization has deeply affected indigenous peoples for centuries. Whether it’s the study of laws and policies affecting the indigenous and others, media studies, literature, art, pop culture, certainly accurate history and/or actual native lifeways, we learn of the attempted changes, assimilative activities, culturally appropriative practices, of the Eurocentricism and racism that exists on all levels of societies.

If you’re like me, even though I was on one hand a rebel and stubborn in many ways when growing up, I was also unhappy and dissatisfied without truly knowing why although I later tried everything to fit the “norm”, to be dutiful and “good”, to do my utter best and just as the “American Dream” and “Bootstrap” enthusiasts promise: finally be given the societal nod of approval. It’s all a lie, but for minorities especially. Hollow, empty, I found myself not so much disillusioned as disappointed in myself for having started believing (hoping) otherwise.

I believe no minority, no indigenous person has ever not experienced racism, and for many, which is why there is historical inter generational trauma, they do not know anyone who has not. Each can give name after name, situation after situation from birth until death where you are downed, humiliated, mocked, threatened, minimized simply because of the color of your skin. Your trauma is multiplied all around you, often unvoiced, which makes the emotional and psychological distress even stronger and deeper.

So it comes as a kind of relief, a huge, “So that’s what it is?!” when Indigenous Studies further opens your eyes. You were not crazy. You were not inferior. Your people were not just unable to take care of themselves, lazy, sexually promiscuous, addicts or thugs, and if they were, there were definite reasons that created and exacerbated the circumstances. You think back to all those TV shows and films, the characters you loved, but still felt hollowed by. The books you read and used to love though felt left out in the stories….

The songs you happily sung but which emotion, since you now think about, you and your people and everyone like you…actually mean nothing to you. They have erased you, your pain, your history, your peoples, and more than that, if you express that pain or ask about that exclusion, you are waved off, thought too sensitive or even worse, have aggression or threats directed at you. Though there is much hard work to be done, now that we are all achieving equality, they find that equality oppressive, and claim reverse racism.

As you lose friends you can no longer relate to or more often, they don’t want to relate to you anymore, through indigenous studies, through working on causes, issues and concerns, it binds you more tightly to those who share your goals, be they indigenous or non-indigenous. Let’s keep supporting and loving each other.

3 comments

  1. thanks for your blog Red. It reminds me of how our anthem evolved. In 1999 Hinewehi Mohi sang only the Maori version at one of our beloved All Black rugby games. There was so much controversy because “it should have been in English so everyone could understand”. She was a game changer and now officially there must be both English and Maori – previously the Maori was not widely considered. Not that the anthem is particularly relevant itself, but it is a small victory.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think that is one of the most frustrating parts of the issue of the national anthem in the USA, as referencing your own in that it evolved/changed. There was change because it was needed, because of finally repressed indigenous history/language etc. needed to be included…but Change happened though I realize absolutely it was not easy and ongoing changes to society/systems aren’t either. Even small victories, small steps, for trauma survivors as the indigenous of New Zealand or other Pacifica islands too, are critical to overall healing. Each small victory strengthens the whole.

    In the USA, there is such racism wrapped up in the concept of nationalism, of patriotism, so much symbolism. Just like the Constitution of the USA, which still lists indigenous as “savages” and any African people as slaves, the Star Spangled Banner anthem heavily promotes slavery and the defense of its use. All outdated. There is simply so excuse, no reason for it to be used, nor the Constitution to continue as is except for the Eurocentric comfort.

    Liked by 1 person

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