Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Frederick Douglass and Religion.

A week ago, we sang the Frederick Douglass song I wrote. The video will be available soon. And just when I thought I was done...

I performed a speech of Frederick Douglass' in church this past Sunday. I hadn't planned it. It was the speech about slavery and religion -- and how the religious leaders of the time -- so blithely accepted discrimination with a Biblical defense. And I spent the whole week memorizing it.

Christian leaders were on the forefront of maintaining this cruelty. But... many were not.

He used Christianity as one of his main sources for arguing, logically, for the end of slavery. He also knew the Constitution and used it in his arguments. He was a devout Christian.

So why bring up slavery and religion? Aren't we nicely over it? I can tell you why. It's in the DNA of our country and our faith. Until I read Douglass, slavery wasn't real to me. Yes, I had seen images of floggings, etc. I understood the human physical suffering.

It's the mental anguish that is the true torturer. A whipping ends. The mind endures. The shame, humiliation, degradation. When you read the words in the mind of an ex-slave, you may not have been through his experience, but you will know those feelings, if you are a creature with any kind of compassion.

We have all felt those things. Now, imagine them going on all day, every day. Never could I have told my family, back when I was in the closet, what was going through my head. They probably just thought I was weird or selfish (which I am, too, but that's not today's topic).

I felt from another world entirely, but I was dancing in this one. Desperately trying not to get found out. It was the 60s and 70s. Though much had changed, acceptance and understanding for those "of my kind" simply didn't exist in the bubble of east Texas.

Not blaming anyone. Not shaming anyone. None of you (back then) could have known. I was a very good liar because I used religion to enforce the lie. It's a type of self-help thing attached to the idea of miracles. If you live the "miracle" "as if" it were true, then it would become true. So, it wasn't a lie if I "stepped out on faith." I just pretended.

It's not the same thing as slavery. It's not the same thing as racial prejudice.

So when I get into the mind of a brilliant thinker who began as a slave, I get as close as I can get. Only a fool, I would tell myself, would turn away from this kind of insight, wisdom and knowledge.

What makes the Douglass journey so rewarding is that he handled it all with genuine wit. He could laugh at it while slicing it into ribbons. He could triumph because he had the mind to triumph.

He was free because he never accepted himself as anything but a full human being. A free mind can do anything. Once I let the chains of whatever is holding me back in my head loose; once they are cleared out, then suddenly there is clarity.

Just being inside his mind has changed me. And it's going to go on changing me because, as is written on a site dedicated to him "Every Month is Black History Month." And even more piercing, every month is also white history month. We are all the products of history.

So, I thank 45 for bringing him back to me. And for those of you who read this far, thanks for letting me occupy your mindspace with my thoughts.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Frederick Douglass Tribute.

On Sunday morning, Feb. 19 at 11am, we will attempt to bring Frederick Douglass into the beautiful chapel at St. Clement's Church with a new composition I've been working on. (Our choir is a highly trained, world class choir with magnificent voices and Broadway credits. I'd be a fool to not use them. I'm so excited. If you're planning to come, come early because we'll be in the tiny chapel rather than on the stage in the main theater).

For weeks, I have been obsessing over this great man, reading all his speeches and rereading his autobiographies. I feel wholly inadequate to the task, so I will have to pray for his spirit to rise up and guide me -- and us.

But the only way I truly know how to learn about him is to listen to his words as I say them aloud in my work sessions. Listen to the meticulously careful way he allows his deeply felt, pain and anger to be expressed. Graceful, humble, hilarious, truthful, gentle, unrelenting, credible, sometimes with sarcasm so subtle that it feels more like a loving parent's gentle rebuke and yet so pointed, a razor-sharp, ninja slice so deadly, that no logical argument against it, however brilliant and twisted, is even possible.

Naked, without his mother, alone on a dirt floor. He rose from the bottom of a corrupt society. He had nothing to lose. So he told the truth.

Imagine that. Someone who tells the truth.

In our day, and just as much in his day, clever people are/were able to use just enough of the truth to form an acceptable argument for those predisposed to the message. This happens on all sides. This is the human condition. This is not merely about politics. A good con man knows this.

This is who we are.

But every once in a while some voice comes along. And you know the voice is telling a truth that is grounded in a deeper place.

Someone with nothing left to lose, who has already seen the worst horror, has already lived the worst atrocity, there is nothing left that you can do to him except try to lock him up again.

The Fugitive Slave Act speech that Douglass gives, where he exposes the fact that this law returned the entire country into a slave state, meant that every word and every movement of his could land him in some hellhole, naked on a plantation in Mississippi or Alabama. (Though world famous, had a very angry and frustrated "owner.")

So he simply told the truth.

I experienced this myself when I thought I was going to die, 20 years ago. When I had nothing left to lose, when I knew that my end was coming, a different kind of chemical must've invaded my head from someplace deep inside because I can remember the exact moment when it went away, and I thought to myself, "Is this what life used to be like?"

And I've been chasing that state of mind ever since.

It is like a transcendent experience. No way to convey it it to you. Because there is only my memory of it. Then there is the description of my memory of it. Then there is your reception of the description of my memory of it. And finally, your conclusion about the reception of the description of my memory of it.

I have been yearning to find that state again. To accept my death so presently that I can get my those chemicals pumping back into my head again. That state of mind.

And I found it. I found it in the writings of Frederick Douglass. It is there. It is unmistakable. It is wise. It is final. It is thrilling. It comes from direct experience but it's only a state of mind. And everyone knows it when they hear it.

To be born again.

And it is there in the hand and the pen and the voice and the words and the spirit of Frederick Douglass.

How do you put that into a song?

Or maybe I should be asking myself what, besides music, can capture it?

And once again I shrink from the monumental task. How could I ever write anything that would be worthy? I wonder if Linn-Manuel Miranda asked himself these questions when he was reading about Hamilton? There must've been a moment when he said I know this guy.

I have not gotten there with Fredrick Douglass. And no, I'm not going to write a musical where I portray Frederick Douglass. White people playing black people has already been done and it doesn't really work for me.

But if he is watching me and guiding me, which he literally is because his words are right there in front of me, then the best I can do is just tell the truth. The only way I know how. With utter simplicity and a piano.

And I do have one thing working in my favor.

A deadline.

Thank God for deadlines.

#FrederickDouglassRiseUp #BlackHistoryMonth

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Rise Up, Frederick Douglass.

The autobiographies of Frederick Douglass are FREE.

They are also be the most harrowing, the most lovely, the most forgiving, the most thrilling and the most important books I have or ever will read about the American experience.

Ten years ago or so, while trolling through the "free books" online, randomly enjoying all this new accessibility, I found them. I had heard of Douglass, but like most people, I knew very little about him. I wasn’t researching anything. They were free! That was the promise of this new connectivity.

They weren't easy to read because, at the time, the only copies I could find were photos of the pages in a low-rez pdf.

If you've seen or read "12 Years A Slave," it was nothing compared to what Douglass endured. And then he was friends with Abraham Lincoln.

Born in a shack, naked for much of his early childhood. Illegal for him to be taught. Torn from his mother, who hiked miles every night to hold him just for a moment and then hiked back to start her day as a slave on another plantation.

Started learning when he looked at the master kid’s lessons, surreptitiously. Traded lessons for favors with poor "white trash" kids. Beaten nearly to death multiple times. Then he escaped, helped by an abolitionist.

When he first spoke to an abolitionist group up north, he reports that many/most thought he was like a trained monkey, reciting words that had been given to him. Even those opposed to slavery still had no clue that Black people had minds and brains, and could even be smarter than the self-satisfied White people who lived then (and now).

Faced with his towering intellect, they suddenly realized they were not the smartest people in the room, and they didn't know how to process this.

He should have been the president after Lincoln. Imagine that as an alt-universe.

I’m glad President Trump stumbled over this. It might seem a small thing to those who support him. And who knows? Maybe I’m misjudging him. Maybe he knows all about Frederick Douglass. Maybe that’s just the way he talks. I’m willing to give him benefit of the doubt.

But what I really think needs to happen is for people to learn about Frederick Douglass.

Look in that mirror.

And if you don’t see yourself and your own humanity, go back and pick up his book and read it again.

His story is the epic I’ve been wanting to see dramatized for a decade now. I don’t think I can write it. But I know I can write about him. In fact, I just did.

I think he can teach us a lot more than any of us even know. Thank you, Mr. Trump. Without you, Black History Month would be little more than a series of Google doodles.

Rise up, Frederick Douglass.

Rise up.