Protest Playlist

Yesterday I found an old playlist on Spotify that I created two years ago for some students. These songs, all "oldies," describe moments of injustice in 20th century America. Troublingly, they have gained a new relevance in recent weeks. Although all of these songs share a critique of power--manifested in white skin privilege, capital, and the government--they differ in approach and intention. Some of these songs speak truth to power as an act of resistance, while others lament tragedy. Some cast blame, and others plead for justice.

In Woody Guthrie's "Blowin' Down This Road," the singer-narrator details the hardships faced by poor Americans. After each, he protests "I ain't a-gonna be treated this a-way." Bob Dylan wrote "Oxford Town" in the wake of the violent backlash against James Merediths' integration of the University of Mississippi. Graham Nash and David Crosby's "Immigration Man" tells the story of Nash--a British citizen--being stopped at U.S. customs and denied entry despite having the proper papers. The assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers inspired Nina Simone to write "Mississippi Goddam," a powerful indictment of whites' reluctance to relinquish their power and grant blacks' legal equality. 

Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying “Go slow!”
”Go slow!”
— Nina Simone, "Mississippi Goddam"

One of the most famous protest songs of all time, "Strange Fruit," condemns the lynching of black men and women--an occurrence as prevalent as a "bitter crop." Pete Seeger wrote "Last Train to Nuremberg" to condemn the Vietnam War, drawing a parallel between German civilians' cooperation in the Holocaust with Americans' complicity in the deaths of young soldiers drafted to fight communism in Southeast Asia.

Who held the rifle? Who gave the orders?
Who planned the campaign to lay waste the land?
Who manufactured the bullet? Who paid the taxes?
Tell me, is that blood upon my hands?
— Pete Seeger, "Last Train to Nuremberg"

"War" likewise critiques America's military intervention in Vietnam, by implying that the cost of the "fight to keep our freedom," for those who fight, is freedom itself. And finally, in Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City," the singer-narrator describes the unfree freedom of northern cities for black men and women who thought they were escaping Jim Crow segregation, only to find systemic racism, discrimination, and persecution. The song's last phrase, "stop giving just enough for the city," implores those with power to stop caring "just enough" to ensure their own survival.

In our current political moment, these songs offer several insights. They inspire resistance, certainly, but they also reveal that the nativism, xenophobia, and racism we see reflected in recent Executive Orders are deeply rooted in American history. These songs remind the listener that they have agency and can take action against injustice, but several also point to white Americans' complicity in maintaining hierarchies of race, class, and national origin.

Listening to them, I am reminded that I have trusted and supported an American government that has long condoned extralegal violence, persecuted "aliens," policed its borders, and sent its citizens to die in defense of their freedom. I too am guilty of having cared "just enough" about myself and not enough for others. Even though I was not alive during the Depression, or the Civil Rights movement, or the Vietnam War, my personal history is captured in these songs. Now it's my responsibility to listen, to remember, and to speak new truths--not alternative facts--to power.

A Gentleman and a Scholar

The YM & YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood is the JCC that I write about most frequently in my dissertation, and it is the JCC that I have studied the longest and whose history I know the best. Over the past five years, I have read through over 50 years of documents--meeting minutes, brochures, newsletters, and correspondence--and done oral history interviews with some the agency's longest-serving staff. After surveying almost 100 years of the Y's history, there are a few characters who stand out in my mind. They distinguish themselves from the blurry ebb and flow for their longevity, their compassion, or their quirkiness. Judge David C. Lewis, a member of the Y's Board of Directors, exhibited all three traits. 

Judge David C. Lewis served on the Y's Board for over forty years. A lawyer by training, as a young man he served as a State Assemblyman and a Municipal Court justice. Up until his death in 1975, at age 90, he remained an active lay leader at the Y. During his years of service, he often agitated for the Y to expand its services beyond the Jewish community and advocated serving all those in need. He became increasingly brash as he aged, but retained a sentimentality for the organization to which he was so devoted.

The first few times I read through the minutes of the Y's Board meetings I found Judge Lewis curmudgeonly. He often insisted that his declarations or positions be inscribed into the meeting minutes; sometimes, a Board meeting would begin with his protest that a point of his had been left out of the past month's minutes, which would inscribe his view into the records of both meetings. More recently I have come to see this behavior as a tenacious defense of his liberal values.

While by no means a racial progressive or an anti-racist, Judge Lewis regularly ruffled feathers by insisting that the Y extend its services to the growing black community in northern Manhattan. He not only believed this was the right thing to do, but saw it as being in Jews' best interest "to avert or alleviate the inevitable frictions which may arise between the two communities." In 1964 and again in 1968, he used the Y's annual meeting with the Distribution Committee of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York--the organization that gave over $100,000 to the Y each year to subsidize its operations--as an opportunity to advocate "the formulation of a policy with some of the Negro leadership in the community to allow [Y] facilities to be used by the non-Jewish community in programs sponsored by the non-Jewish participants." Both times, his fellow Board members scrambled to assure the Distribution Committee that few non-Jews belonged to the Y . In 1968, a member of the Distribution Committee even told Judge Lewis that "he did not believe that this meeting was the context in which to discuss" this issue. 

My interpretation of Judge Lewis shifted as my understandings of the 1960s and '70s crystalized. Lewis moved in circles where many of his colleagues publicly described themselves as liberals and supported liberal causes such as racial integration, anti-poverty programs, and affirmative action, but who resisted when policies integrated their private spaces, threatened their middle class status, or imposed quotas. Judge Lewis spoke up in defiance of this double standard. Although other Board members at the Y may have felt similarly, the resistance to recording his views and the reluctance to continue discussions about his ideas indicates that his was not the consensus or the popular view.

In our current political climate, I am holding tight to Judge Lewis's example. May we all speak out against double standards, and insist that others listen to our ideas for making our communities more cosmopolitan and pluralistic. Within the Jewish community, this responsibility is especially vital. We should heed the words that Judge Lewis had inscribed into the minutes of the December, 1974 meeting of the Y Board of Directors:

‘Judge Lewis notices and deplores, as an obsession of the Board and other agencies, service to Jews to the exclusion of everybody else. He recommends that we open our minds to the needs of the non-Jewish community. It is our duty to act accordingly as well as in our own interests. We need all the friends we can get - always.’

Upon his death in April of 1975, the Y Board shared the following poem authored by Lewis, entitled "Faith." Often he would recite poems at Y functions, to honor longtime lay leaders, install new Board members, or laud Y groups like the Golden Age Club. His poetry was earnest and idealistic, if not particularly good. "Faith" retains it's resonance, however, in spite of its sentimentality.

Let not the disappointment of yesterday;
frustrate your hopes for tomorrow.

Let not regret of the failures in days gone by;
weaken your will for success in the days to come.

Let not past defeat;
bar future victory.

While time has no beginning; and no ending;
every day, is a new day in the life of man.

A day of renewed hope and courage;
Keeping alive, a lifelong faith, of man in himself.

 

 

Charleston Recommendations

During my two-week stay in Charleston, I would spent the workday in Addlestone Library and then departed each evening to explore the city. Although I tried some of the more well-known restaurants--Xiao Bao BiscuitBar at HuskLeon's--and checked out popular tourist sites like the waterfront park and the market, my favorite places, foods, and experiences were more quotidian. For any scholars who have the distinct pleasure of conducting research in Special Collections at the College of Charleston, these are my recommendations for sustenance, libations, caffeination, and a bit of exercise.

Caviar and Bananas: Charleston's version of Dean and Deluca. You can get coffee, pastries, deli items, salads, sushi, charcuterie, fancy specialty foods, wine, and beer. I ate lunch there almost every day, and although I tried many different items I kept going back to the Baja Salad.

Westbrook Brewing Co. Gose: After tasting this beer on one of my first evenings in the city, I discovered that this was my sister's favorite beer! That's saying something, since my sister works in the craft beer industry. Since Westbrook does not distribute to Pennsylvania, I had to drink my fill before I left...

Caw Caw Interpretive Center Early Morning Bird Walk: On Saturday morning, my mom and I drove out to this former rice plantation for a guide-led birding expedition. For $10 each, we borrowed excellent Nikon binoculars, through which we spotted bald eagles, egrets, herons, phoebes, yellow-rump warblers, pied-billed grebes, woodpeckers, wild turkeys, and many other wetland birds. I could not recommend this experience more highly, but wear bug spray. With DEET. 

Black Tap Coffee: This was the best spot I found for a few hours of work outside the library. This small neighborhood shop pours an excellent cup of coffee and has ample outlets, free wifi, and bright sunny windows. 

Queen Street Grocery: One of the most charming things about the area around College of Charleston were the corner groceries. Queen Street Grocery was the closest one to the house where I stayed, and I enjoyed grabbing a beer (the Gose, obviously) and salad to eat there or take-out. 

Colonial Lake: With all the eating and drinking I was doing, I made sure to do plenty of walking every evening. My best walks were around Colonial Lake, where I joined many neighborhood residents who were out exercising their dogs, catching up with friends, and enjoying the sunsets while getting in an evening workout.

Dispatch from the Archives

I found plenty of helpful, interesting information about the Charleston JCC in the archive last week, but I also amassed a collection of the most endearing, charming names: 

Flo Fleischman

Pinky Portugal

Arch Lugenbeel

Wally Butterworth

Rabbi Raisin

Puggy Solomon

And one of the best sign-offs I've ever seen on a letter... 

"As ever, that tubby bundle of lard, Arnie."