A New Song

By Tommy Airey, reposted from Easy Yolk

“What I do know is that love reckons with the past and evil reminds us to look to the future. Evil loves tomorrow because peddling in possibility is what abusers do.”—Kiese Laymon

“Oh, sing to the Lord a new song.”—Psalm 96:1

Thirty years ago, four white cops caught on video beating Rodney King fifty-six times were acquitted in Simi Valley by a jury made up of ten white folks, one Latino and one Asian. In the aftermath, a righteous rage fueled the L.A. Riots. At the time, I was fifty miles south, getting ready for senior prom. Six weeks earlier, our high school basketball team won the CIF sectional championship at the Sports Arena, where the Clippers used to play back in the day. We beat Lynwood, an all-Black squad from south L.A. In our all-white minds, we were getting revenge.

When I was a freshman, we got manhandled by all-Black Manual Arts High School in the state playoffs. They brought a cadre of students and parents down to South Orange County, the metro region with the lowest Black population in the US. Their crowd was small but persistently on point. When they scored or made a stop, everyone in their section of the bleachers would extend their arms out like an alligator and chant in rapid succession, “We love it. We love it. We love it.” As they clapped together, the alligators chomped together. Black excellence completely obliterated our home court advantage.

Frequent ass-whoopins like this fed into our white-man-can’t-jump victimhood mentality. My teammates and I were possessed with the need to prove that we, too, had game, that we could compete with the best that Black ballers had to offer. Our competitiveness on the court and pinpoint fundamentals fused with a racial imagination watered by coaches, teachers, pastors and friends’ parents. We predictably blamed poverty and imprisonment and police brutality and poor grades on bad habits

Meanwhile, our racial habits were formed by suburban white supremacy. No one in my neighborhood needed to say the n-word to get our point across. We believed with our whole hearts that people who were not white, especially Black folks, tended towards laziness, stupidity and criminality. As it turns out, our beliefs had no basis in reality. We were redlined right out of knowing what it means to move in American society when you are not white, let alone have a clue about the root causes of unjust conditions.

I was clueless because my white leaders taught me to cherry-pick history. We could never forget the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, the space shuttle Challenger or 9/11. But no one in suburbia—and I really mean no one—challenged me to remember the state-sponsored genocide of Indigenous people, the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, the ruthless reversal of Reconstruction, the MLK assassination, the acquittal of four cops who beat Rodney King fifty-four times on camera, the Charleston church massacre or Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck.

White leaders refuse to reckon with the racial habits of white America. It’s always about moving on. Mediocre apologies instead of making amends. Reconciliation instead of repair. A colorblind ideology instead of a consciousness that, in the U.S., the color of someone’s skin can still get them killed. White leaders will not budge on budgetary matters that subsidize and protect the so-called success of white people. White leaders know full well that they will be gaslit or ghosted if they even propose to change to the way public schools are funded or replace private health insurance or divest from police, prisons and the Pentagon. White supremacy does not burn crosses at night. White supremacy refuses to remember or redistribute every single day. This refusal is deeply connected to white America’s spiritual crisis.

*          *          *

Two years after more than seven thousand fires swept through Los Angeles, and the National Guard, Army and Marines were called in to “restore order,” I stood in uniform with my right hand over my heart before my final college basketball game. We were playing at Los Angeles Southwest Community College, a stone’s throw from Florence and Normandie, the epicenter of the L.A. uprising. The national anthem played. Standard practice. But then another song piped through the speakers.

Lift every voice and sing
‘Til earth and heaven ring.
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty.
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies…

I’d never heard it before. As I looked over at my team—half-Black and half-white—a couple of my teammates had their fists raised and heads bowed. After it played, as we walked towards our huddle, I asked our point guard Rashad what that was all about. He smiled and answered somberly, “Black National Anthem, Bruh.”

Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black national anthem, sent me into retirement. Our twenty-five-point loss in the first round of the state tourney put a fork in a season that had been done for weeks. On the court, we struggled to score in the paint. Off the court, we could not contain the supremacy sprouting all around us. While Black teammates shared stories about getting pulled over by Orange County cops for DWB (Driving While Black), our backup point guard, who was white, was arrested for a DWI. He was out on bail the next day. Our starting center, who was Black, got locked up for stealing something. He missed the last quarter of the season. In hindsight, I can see that I was afflicted with what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “conscientious blindness.” My well-groomed racial habits shielded my eyes from seeing the white supremacy that even my own teammates suffered under the weight of.

My basketball career finished up fifteen years before Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States. At his inauguration, Rev. Joseph Lowery recited the third stanza of the anthem to begin his benediction.

God of our weary years.
God of our silent tears.
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way.
Thou who has by thy might.
Led us into the light.
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.

By then, Lowery, a veteran of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the 1950’s, was almost 90. I eagerly anticipated the words coming from this long-distance runner for justice. I was in my early days of repentance, an old Gospel word appropriated from war jargon. In the ancient world, someone who repented switched sides in the middle of a battle. Today, we would call him a “race traitor.” One who breaks ranks with whiteness as the norm—as Dr. James Cone wrote—and affirms Blackness as God’s intention for humanity.

After Lowery recited these lyrics, I knew I’d heard them somewhere before. So I Googled it. I learned that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written by James Weldon Johnson as a pledge of allegiance for an all-Black elementary school in 1900. It was and is beloved of Black Americans. “The Star-Spangled Banner,” on the other hand, was written by Francis Scott Key, an avowed racist. Key’s song did not become the American National Anthem until 1931. Black folks beat white Americans to the anthem game by three decades.

In the fifteen years that scrolled by between the first and second times I heard the Black national anthem, I am ashamed to say that my suburban racial habits stubbornly persisted. But shame, I now know, will not lead me to the promised land. A new song will. The hope and healing of white America, particularly white liberal America, is inextricably connected to breaking rank with “bombs bursting in air” and conspiring with this other “way that with tears has been watered.” The power of repentance percolates in pledging allegiance to something else.

Lift Every Voice is more than a new song. It is a paradigm shift. A shift from appropriating Black culture to apprenticing with Black people. A shift from hosting another anti-racist book club to being born again as a race traitor in real time. A shift from following a formula to falling in love. This other, original anthem moves on the rhythm of repentance. It has the power to shape us by shifting the spiritual energy from what we are against to who we are for. Thirty years after the L.A. Uprising, everyone knows what white liberal America is against. Repentance, however, demands a clarification. Who are we really for?

Tommy Airey is a post-Evangelical pastor and the author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018). He is currently working on his second book Conspiracy: A Biblical Spirituality for Breaking Rank. Tommy consistently posts shorter pieces to his blog Easy Yolk.

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