They seemed extraordinary to me, then, as they do now as I listen to their CD, “Selections, 1976-1988.” These women were so large, in all senses, so encompassing in their warmth and passion, even for their audience of white women, that I was stunned—this is the way we can all go, I thought, if we have the courage, we who are all hurt to some greater or lesser degree by the cruelties and injustices of this society.
I am particularly aware of the form these cruelties and injustices take here where the Native American tribes that surround Santa Fe have to fight, always, for their right to govern their reservations. These struggles are now being played out in one pueblo’s refusal to pay the state tax on their casino income (this case is before the US Supreme Court) and to exert ownership of public roads that cut across their lands. They fight, they continue to fight, with humor and sometimes with great bitterness.
There is no hierarchy of suffering, yet I bow my head to the anguish of African-American women, from slavery on, graphically depicted in the Monroe Gallery’s exhibit, current here in Santa Fe, “The Long Road: From Selma to Ferguson.”
Marchers in Selma carried “Stop Police Killings” posters half a century ago, matched with a shot of twenty-three-year-old Raashad Davis, facing officers in riot gear last April in Ferguson. Fire hoses in Selma, semiautomatics in Ferguson: this is progress?
And in Lexington, all those years ago, the women from Sweet Honey asked me after their concert whether it was safe for them to venture out into the street, and I could not honestly answer that it was.
Yet—and this may be the most important aspect of the situation—Sweet Honey is not victimized; their voices rise clear and strong as they celebrate “a new day” in South Africa. And it is their powerful connection with disenfranchised groups all over the world that saves them from presenting themselves, or feeling themselves, as victims.
Those jailed unjustly, tried, convicted, and murdered by the state, can only escape the terrible trap of victimhood by connecting their treatment not only with the individuals they view as perpetrators but with the masses who share their bitter experiences.The worst result of injustice may be the creation of an individual sense of grievance, bitterness and rage, rather than the hope, generosity and even forgiveness that are the fruit of being a part of a wider community.
“I’m going to sing,” a rough-voiced member of Sweet Honey belts out, and yes, they will sing, and go on singing.