“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”- Thomas Jefferson
When the independence of America was declared in 1776, Thomas Jefferson gave a very remarkable statement that all human beings in this universe are created equal and all of them are privileged of the same basic rights which cannot be alienated at any cost. This very statement became the defining characteristic of American Constitution for the days to come. The Declaration of Independence had provided the rationale that no people can be discriminated on the basis of caste, colour, creed, religion and gender. It envisioned that the rights to equality and freedom were “self- evident truth” which cannot be curtailed at any circumstances. The cherished dream of liberty provided the Americans with a new hope and aspirations. This declaration later became the foundation of American Dream for prosperity, equality and happiness. Does this vision of Jefferson at the time of American Independence being followed properly? Are all Americans treated equal regardless of their colour, religion and sexual orientations? The answer is “No”. Still many blacks in America find it very difficult to live with dignity and respect. The African Americans are still treated very inhumanely. They are stigmatized and their self pride and self respect are at stake. They are dehumanized. Though American Constitution promises all its citizens with equal rights and opportunities, the blacks still find it very difficult to incorporate themselves in the American main stream. The legacy of slavery system still haunts them. In their daily life they get the impression that even after the abolishment of slavery two and half century ago, the majority whites are discriminating them. The whites have already internalized that superiority complex which is deeply rooted in their unconscious. It gets manifested time and again. It is the main reason for their ill treatment of the minority blacks.
Songs As Form of Resistance
The dehumanization, stigma and inequality that have been inflicted upon the blacks get manifested time and again in the songs, movies and literature they produce. They have strongly raised their voices against the discrimination and hatred they face in their daily life. Many singers have raised their voice for equality, fraternity and brotherhood time and again. Bob Marley is one of them. He sings the songs of rebellion, protest and tries to produce the counter culture. He tries to break the hegemonic culture of the whites and shows his revolt against the stigma the blacks have to endure. Bob Marley was the Jamaican born singer, lyricist and musician. He had a mixed ancestry. He was born of the white father and a black mother. Marley always identified himself as black African and sings about the struggles of blacks and their oppression by the whites.
Bob Marley’s songs have always supported for the African cause. He released his album named “Survival” in the year 1979. This album was full of political and rebellious rhetoric. He severely criticized the attitude of the White rulers towards the Blacks. The songs like “Zimbabwe”, Africa Unite” and “Wake up and live” are charged with the issues of black’s oppression. In his song “War”, he shows his strong support for the blacks and criticized the racist attitudes of white rulers. This song is regarded as one of his best song which changed forever the dynamics of blacks’ resistance movement. In the song he says,
“What life has taught
I would like to share
Those who want to learn…
Until the philosophy which hold one race
Superior and another inferior
Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned
Everywhere is war, me say war
That until there is no longer first class
And second class citizens of any nation
Until the colour of a man’s skin
Is no more significance than the colour of his eyes
Me say war
That until the basic humans rights are equally
Guaranteed too all, without regard to race
Dis is a war”
These lines very clearly reflect his protests against the whites’ treatment over the blacks. We can find a very humanist attitude in this song where he says we should judge a person not by the colour of his skin but by the feeling, compassion and the behaviour. This song clearly exemplifies the resistance of the blacks against the whites’ discrimination. The colloquial diction used in this song gave the message to the Blacks that they should always preserve their language and culture. The irregular and deviated grammar shows the form of protest against the whites’ linguistic hegemony. This symbolic message Marley tries to convey is very powerful and impressive.
Bob Marley’s another song “Buffalo Soldier” is a very popular song for black resistance. It gave voice to the millions of African American who had experienced the feeling of alienation but could not express. This song gave them the medium to vent their ire and frustration. The lyrics of this song have many symbolic connotations. In the song he says,
“Buffalo Soldier, Dreadlock Rasta
There was a Buffalo Soldier
In the heart of America
Stolen from Africa, brought to America
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival
I mean it, when I analyse the stench
To me, it makes a lot of sense
How the Dreadlock Rasta was the Buffalo soldier
And he was taken from Africa, brought to America
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival”
The song tries to trace the origin of the African Americans and makes them aware about their roots. What Marley means to say is that the Africans were forcefully taken to America. They were stolen from their mainland and now they are facing many struggles to run their life. The Africans are not treated with respect and dignity. The term “Buffalo soldier” has a symbolic meaning. It is the derogatory term used by the Americans to address the blacks. The Whites do not consider the Blacks their equals. The term “Buffalo Soldier” signifies the attitude of whites towards the blacks. It means the Whites do not give the respect that the blacks deserve.
The roads might be blocked, hope can be killed unborn but their victory is sure to be gained.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is another song which is considered as “The Negro National Anthem”. Originally it was written as a poem by Johnson Rosamond Johnson in the year 1900 to commemorate Lincoln’s birthday. Later it was recorded as a song and sung by different singers. In the year 1990, singer Melba Moore recorded a modern version of the song. This song is considered as the official African American National Hymn. The lyrics of the song is as follows
Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of liberties;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing the song full of the faith that the dark past has
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till our victory is won
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with the steady beat, have not our weary feet
Come to the place where our father sighed?
This song signifies what liberty and freedom means for the African Americans. This song generates the feeling of revolution on the part of black Americans. The song tries to say that the paths may be perilous, the journey may be long but the passion for liberty and freedom will outdo all the obstacles and hurdles that might come on the way. The hope binds the African Americans together. The dream which their forefathers had seen can materialize if they are committed and determined for the cause. The roads might be blocked, hope can be killed unborn but their victory is sure to be gained. Their past was dark and bitter but their future is bright and sweet. This song motivates the African Americans to continue on their journey of freedom. They will reach their destination because of their courage, endurance and fortitude.
Harlem Renaissance as a literary movement
In American literature, during the decades of 1920s and 1930s, there was a cultural movement called “Harlem Renaissance”. It was a movement in American arts and literature which prioritized the black voices and experiences. At that time the mainstream American literature was hostile towards the black population. The negative stereotypes were associated with the blacks that time. The poets and novelists associated with Harlem Renaissance were blacks and they tried to present in the literature their cultural pride and rich heritage. They invented new styles and themes in writing. They raised their voices against the atrocities and discrimination meted out against them. Zora Neale Hurston, Claude Mckay, Langston Hughes, Walter White were some of the prominent figures associated with the movement. They wrote to raise consciousness among the black people. Through the novels, poems, dramas and the songs they demanded equal rights and liberties.
Langston Hughes was one of the prominent figures of Harlem Renaissance. He wrote a poem called “Harlem” which became very much popular amongst the blacks. The poem became an icon in their struggle against racism. The poem has a very strong sense of conviction and it appeals the blacks not to silently endure the atrocities but to fight. It is highly symbolic with lots of imagery and metaphors which directly appeal to the readers. The poem warns the whites and at the same time motivates the blacks to raise their voice for humanity and equality. The poem goes like this
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-
And then run?
Does it stink like a rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Langston Hughes through this poem means to say that everything has its limit. The torture and atrocities against the blacks has reached its optimum level. If any further mistreatment is carried out, the blacks will stand together and blow away the whites. They will run out of their patience and explode like a bomb. This poem is a fine example of Afro American resistance.
The mainstream American literature at that time used to create the negative stereotypes regarding the blacks. The attributes like primitivism, barbarism and uncivilized were associated with the blacks. The black character in any novels or plays was usually the rogues and villains. The blacks were presented as barbaric by the mainstream poets and novelists. They created the dichotomy between the blacks and the whites. Whites were presented as being civilized, rational and educated whereas the blacks were presented as barbaric, uncivilized and half human. The black poets protested it through their literature. They created the counter culture which to a larger extent changed forever the dynamics of American literature. After the movement the mainstream American literature started to take the black issues seriously. The poems, novels and plays written by the black writer started to get published by the white publishers. Before the movement, the black writers’ works were not published by the mainstream publishers saying that the blacks cannot write the stuff worth publishing. The Harlem Renaissance remains as a milestone in the Afro Americans’ fight against racism.
The literature is the reflection of every society. The feeling, happiness, anger, frustration, dilemma etc are manifested through the literature. In other words, the literature carries within itself a mood of society. The direction towards which the society is heading can be known by the type of literature it produces. So, the Afro Americans also used the medium of songs and literature to vent their ire against the whites. They used the forum of literature to generate consciousness among the people. It made the whites in America to seriously contemplate on their attitude against the blacks. The resistance in the form of literature helped blacks become more aware of their rights, liberties and freedom. So, it can be said that literature is the most effective way to revolt against the wrongdoings. It has that universal appeal which other mediums lack.
Binod Dhakal is a guest editor at Kutniti. He is a freelance researcher and has interest in post colonialism and new historicism.