I have at least 10 T-shirts directly related to music, but they have different roots and take off in different directions. No surprise that my attempts to corral them into one blog post led to procrastination, so I’m going to do what a long-ago mentor advised: “chunk them down.” Here’s the first chunk.

I like to think that by 2021 everyone knows Sweet Honey in the Rock, but if you don’t, or even if you do, head on over to YouTube and cue up Sweet Honey — All Tracks. That’ll give you a great soundtrack to read this post by and go about the rest of your day.

Sweet Honey was founded in D.C. in 1973 by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, a lifelong activist, cultural historian, and composer as well as Sweet Honey’s leader for three decades until she retired in 2004. (For an intro to her accomplishments, check out her Wikipedia entry and her own website.)

Just about every year I was in D.C., Sweet Honey did an anniversary concert. I went to most of them. The T-shirt on the left in the photo is from the 1983 one and the one next to it is from 1982.

I was definitely at the 1980 edition at All Souls Church, at which the Good News album was recorded. Good News, released in 1981, was Sweet Honey’s third album. The other one in the photo, B’lieve I’ll Run On . . . See What the End’s Gonna Be, was #2; it came out in 1978 on Holly Near’s Redwood label.1 I’m relieved to report that both are in remarkably good shape.

I’ve often said over the decades that I’ve learned plenty of history from music. When I was a young antiwar activist, songs from the civil rights and labor movements started conversations and gave me clues to follow up on. Decades later the songs of Stan Rogers and James Keelaghan, among others, taught me lots about Canadian history and current events that weren’t well covered south of the border. Sweet Honey’s songs often pulled people and events out of the history books or off the front pages and embedded them in mind and heart in ways that the printed page often can’t.

The songs make connections.2

Chile your waters run red through Soweto
If you heard about Chile
then you heard about Soweto . . .
     © Bernice Johnson Reagon

The sounds from the jail cells
of the Wilmington 10
Are echoes of a massacre
keeping Black freedom locked in . . .
     “Echoes,” ©Bernice Johnson Reagon

They call to action.

If you had lived with Denmark Vesey
would you take his stand . . .
If you had lived with Harriet Tubman
would you wade in the water . . .
If you had lived with Sacco & Vanzetti
would you know their names . . .
Do you hear them calling?
Are you living today?
Are you fighting today?
Do you know our names?
Do you know our names?
Do you hear our cries?
     © Bernice Johnson Reagon

That’s not all they do, of course. These albums, and Sweet Honey concerts, included love songs, songs of celebration, and songs that remind us of the generations that precede us and those that follow, like Ysaye Barnwell’s settings of “Breaths” by Birago Diop and “On Children,” lines from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.

At the concert that became Good News Bernice Johnson Reagon interrupts the singing of the title song to say a few words:

It’s good news when you reject things as they are,
when you lay down the world as it is
and you take on the responsibility of shaping your own way —
that’s good news.

Everybody talk about spirituals and they say,
Oh lord, black folks singing about going to heaven!
No, this message is for you tonight November the 8th, 1980, in All Souls Church:
Lay down the world, pick up my cross
They don’t say it’s good times, they say good NEWS
It’s hard times when you decide to pick up your own cross
you gon’ catch hell if you don’t do it the way they say do it
but when you lay down the world and shoulder up your cross that’s —
GOOD NEWS
     © Bernice Johnson Reagon

I do believe I remember myself well enough from that time to suspect that this message was aimed at me — not me alone, of course, but me among the white women who looked askance at Christianity and God-talk of any kind. My antiwar years had introduced me to Christian traditions that opposed war and fought for justice, to the role of Jews in every progressive movement I ever heard of, and of course to the importance of the Black church in the civil rights movement. But feminism had given me another take on “God the Father” — hell, Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology had come out only two years before and I was very much under the influence.

Bernice’s words gave me a whole other take on it. Decades later, on Martha’s Vineyard, I wound up singing in a spirituals choir and learning more about the spirituals, or slave songs. Many of them had double meanings, one for the white masters, one for the Black enslaved people. They were songs of survival and, often, resistance.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, lawyer, scholar, and activist, coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989.3 It refers to the way that the various aspects of our individual identities — race, sex, class, age, sexuality, etc. — intersect synergistically. These days, I have a hard time explaining to people how intersectional grassroots feminism was in the 1970s and ’80s. Listening to the songs on B’lieve I’ll Run On and Good News gets the point across better than I can, and it takes less time than locating and reading the anthologies that broadened and deepened our understanding of how some of those aspects intersect.

From “Every Woman”:

Every woman who ever loved a woman
You oughta stand up and call her name:
Mama — Sister — Daughter — Lover
     © Bernice Johnson Reagon

Mama, sister, daughter, lover.4 This song was recorded, and being sung in concert, in 1978, people. Keep that in your mind and heart.

Notes

1. All the songs on Good News, and several more, are on Breaths, released in 1988 on Rounder Records. The track for “Good News” includes the Bernice rap that I quoted above, so I’m guessing the whole thing is from that concert. It’s in the iTunes store, so it’s definitely available. No such luck with B’lieve I’ll Run On. Redwood Records went out of business in the 1990s, before the digital music biz got going, but used copies of the vinyl LP and, apparently, a CD can be found by Googling.

2. The references in these two excerpts: “Chile” refers to the overthrow and death by suicide of Chilean president Salvador Allende in 1973. The military coup was supported by the CIA. “Soweto,” a township near (and now part of) Johannesburg, South Africa, refers to the uprising of Black students in June 1976 who were protesting the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in the schools. They were met by violent police repression. Official statistics set the number of dead at 176; estimates range as high as 700, and at least 4,000 were injured. The Wilmington 10 were 9 young men and 1 woman wrongfully convicted of arson and conspiracy in 1971. Their convictions were overturned in 1980, after all 10 had served almost a decade in prison. They were not retried, and they were pardoned in 2012, by which time 4 of them had died. Their case was a major rallying point through the 1970s.

3. I’m a serious fan of Kimberlé Crenshaw. Check out her African American Policy Forum. Among others things, it organizes excellent panel discussions on a variety of topics. Important podcasts too. Crenshaw helps keep the focus on Black girls and women with #SayHerName, which refuses to let the Black women killed by police be forgotten, and #BlackGirlsMatter. She’s also an early exponent of Critical Race Theory, which isn’t what Fox News thinks it is — but you already knew that, right? 😉

4. Mother, Sister, Daughter, Lover was the title of a story collection by Jan Clausen, published by Crossing Press in 1980.

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