top of page
  • Writer's pictureNathan Foley

Stop Resisting - KSU 2021

Updated: Aug 7, 2021

America is widely regarded as the ultimate land of opportunity. For many, it does have that potential, but for large portions of the country, what opportunity is afforded them is predetermined by the oppressors. “These are the opportunities we will allow you,” the oppressors say. “We grant you citizenship, but we do not grant you the respect offered to your white, male, straight, and Christian neighbors. You best not resist, or there’ll be hell to pay.” The oppressed can entertain and serve the oppressors, but they are to forever remain second-class citizens, confined to the strict set of cultural rules orchestrated to strip them of their humanity. Breaking the status quo could mean participating in anything deemed inappropriate, distinctions which rest solely in the hands of the oppressors. It could be as simple as wearing the wrong clothes, listening to the Devil’s music, speaking out against genuine injustice, or singing a song depicting harsh realities. Any number of reasons inspire the oppressors to marginalize and disenfranchise their fellow Americans, denying them of opportunity and genuine respect. It does not matter who you are as an oppressed person, if you so much as step one toe out of line, efforts will be made to silence and destroy you and your livelihood. The sports and entertainment sectors are staging grounds for this in action, with the argument more often than not stemming from the notion that the oppressed should shut up and get back to work, that they have no place to speak about the country they live in, and they aren’t paid to yap their mouths. Culturally accepted roles for the marginalized are defined by the oppressors, and that is where they must be kept, lest the social order of white supremacy crumble. It’s a tale as old as the Constitution: the oppressed may only exist within the bounds predetermined by the oppressors, and if they participate in anything resembling resistance against the social order—anything at all—they will be punished harshly. American sport and music entertainment are prime examples of arenas within which Black Americans are allowed a limited role, but will have their character assassinated if they step out of line, an American custom championed by White America.

The moment a wave stirs within an oppressed community, one capable of disturbing the social order, the oppressors attempt to destroy it. In the first half of the 20th century, the African American community started a movement with the creation of something truly significant: a new genre of music called jazz. Jazz was a monumental cultural discovery in the search for an identity by a community tortured by brutal enslavement and bloody persecution for generations upon generations at the hands of their government and neighbors. But, this cultural enlightenment wasn’t sanctioned by the oppressors. Jazz wasn’t inherently a protest against injustice, but it nonetheless conflicted with the social order that disallowed African Americans from having an identity of their own, so it was only natural for White America to attempt to kill it in its infancy. When discussing the emergence of jazz, critics cracked open their oppressive playbooks and got to work dehumanizing it. In the August, 1917 issue of the Literary Digest, an anonymous critic embarked on a racist assault masquerading as intellectual discussion. In their article titled, “The appeal of the primitive jazz,” a nameless oppressor cherry picks quotes and images to equate Black Americans and jazz to primitives and ungodly raving, like the “maenads” of antiquity. They begin, “The music of contemporary savages taunts us with an...art of rhythm” (1917). The first sentence pounces on the immediate opportunity to manipulate language in order to reinforce White America’s insistence that Black Americans were less than human—perhaps the ugliest form of disenfranchisement: utter evisceration of humanity. They are not humans, but savages that pervert musical rhythm. They continue their violent crusade by referencing a 1914 poem written by Vachel Lindsay titled, “The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race.” The quoted stanza, intended to be read or chanted, goes:

I. Their Basic Savagery

Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,

Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,

A deep rolling bass.

Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,

Pounded on the table,

Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,

Hard as they were able,

Boom, boom, BOOM,

With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,

Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.

Vachel Lindsay was the founder of singing poetry. And true to that title, he horrifically perfects the art by vividly painting the scene of large wild animals wreaking absolute havoc in a wine cellar to the unmistakable rhythms and movements of jazz music. The oppressive society couldn’t outlaw a genre of music just because it was foreign to them, but they could deprive it and the artists who created it the genuine human respect they were owed. The oppressors say, “We allow you to exist in our society, but will not permit you your humanity.” After a couple decades, perception began to shift, and it was accepted as a mainstay in American society, albeit incredibly grudgingly. White patrons could now go to jazz shows and enjoy the music, but the Black artists who performed for them still had to take the service elevators and were forbidden from speaking to their audiences. Despite attempts to destroy jazz, it endured.


Though the efforts may not have succeeded in destroying the genre, it did succeed in abetting the destruction of one of its brightest stars. Billie Holiday lived a troubled life, having seen more hardship by her 20’s than many throughout their entire lives. Her childhood was scarred from being tossed about multiple homes as a child and repeatedly raped once she fell victim to sex trafficking at 14, all of which gave rise to alcohol abuse that progressed into drug addiction—burdens she struggled with for the rest of her days (Nicholson, 1995). She found an escape in jazz. She began singing at night clubs when she was still a teenager, eventually working her way up to becoming one of the most easily recognizable artists of the genre. Much of her work wasn’t necessarily controversial, but one song definitely was. That song is Time magazine’s song of the 20th century, “Strange Fruit.” It is a visceral poem written by American educator and poet Abel Meeropol, depicting a horrifying snapshot of an American pasttime: a lynching. The first stanza goes,

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees

Meeropol was compelled to write the poem because of the now-famous picture of the August 6, 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith in Marion, Indiana (Block & Norris, 2010). When Billie Holiday sang it with heart wrenching power—the club transformed into an all-encompassing dark void, a single spotlight illuminating her solemn face, a once-lively room now bereft of chatter and glass clinking—her audience was forced to experience the raw reality of Black American existence, thanks to the power of song. That definitely stepped out of bounds as far as the oppressors were concerned. One such oppressor by the name of Harry Anslinger, the paranoid mastermind behind the War on Drugs, saw the perfect victim of his crusade in Billie Holiday.


She was resisting social order by enlightening the masses to the atrocities forced upon African Americans, using her art to inspire solidarity with the oppressed. It is difficult to crack down on music, especially if said music is based on fact. That’s why Anslinger jumped at the chance to ensnare Holiday when he discovered her substance dependency problem. In 1947, Holiday was arrested, jailed for a year, and stripped of her cabaret license. As detailed by Randall Roberts in a 2021 Los Angeles Times article, “Notably, Anslinger hated the song and used the power of the U.S. government in an attempt to cut her off. As reported in newspapers of the time, Holiday’s arrest, trial and imprisonment occurred across less than two weeks in late May 1947” (2021). She was stripped of the one platform allowed to her because she used it “inappropriately.” After her arrest, she struggled to stay consistently afloat. She performed to a few sold-out crowds at places like Carnegie Hall, but without her cabaret license, her income was crippled, and her chemical dependencies worsened. She was hospitalized in May of 1959 due to complications with cirrhosis from years of drug and alcohol abuse. While being treated in the hospital, she was arrested yet again for drug possession. As Johann Hari described in his book, Chasing the Scream: The first and last days of the war on drugs, “Narcotics agents were sent to her hospital bed and said they had found less than one-eighth of an ounce of heroin in a tinfoil envelope. They claimed it was hanging on a nail on the wall, six feet from the bottom of her bed—a spot Billie was incapable of reaching” (2015). Her condition began to improve, but she was then imprisoned in her room, handcuffed to the bed, and left to wither. Hari continues, “When finally a friend was allowed in to see her, Billie told her in a panic: ‘They’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill me in there. Don’t let them’” (2015). She died at age 44, on July 17th, 1959. She was the perfect victim to make an example of because she was African American, she sang jazz, she used her platform to spread resistance against grievous injustice, and she was an addict thanks to her incredibly troubled upbringing. She, like her career, was a withered shadow of her former self, yet it was still necessary to the oppressors that they punish her even further. “Stop resisting,” the oppressors say. “You brought this on yourself, junky.” The process of dehumanization is a bloody business, and Billie Holiday was shown the truth in that. Though their tactics have been forced into subtlety by way of dog whistles and implicit insinuations, efforts are still made today to destroy those who question the status quo.


No member of an oppressed population is immune to the patented wrath, not even if they’re among the most easily recognizable sports figures in human history. Despite generations of effort by predecessors like Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Muhammed Ali who helped enable his success as a professional athlete today, Lebron James is still subject to much of the same treatment decades later. After briefly discussing his own experiences in a racist society with fellow NBA star Kevin Durant and host Cari Champion on the “Rolling with the Champion” video series, James was immediately met with fervor by those who don’t recognize his sovereignty as an American citizen. In addition to describing a racist experience from 2017, when the gate to his Los Angeles home was vandalized with the n-word, James shared his thoughts on then-president Donald Trump. He stated, “The number one job in America—the point of person—is someone who doesn’t understand the people, and really don’t give a fuck about the people” (Champion, James, & Durant 2018). Fox personality Laura Ingraham took to her show program The Ingraham Angle to unleash a flurry in response to James’ opinions, opening her critique with the gaffe, “Jumb dock alert!” She ironically called his comments “barely intelligible and ungrammatical,” disregarding his legitimate experience and common opinion of a president whose intolerance is well documented (2018). His opinion was never going to be respected by the likes of Ingraham precisely because he is African American, not because he’s paid to play a sport. The fact that he plays basketball only gives oppressors like Ingraham an excuse to discredit his opinions, because unfortunately unlike Holiday, he doesn’t have any other easily damnable character traits. In the 21st century, she can’t as easily come out and say he is uneducated swine because of the color of his skin, she must instead latch onto some other aspect of his existence to open the door for her, so that she may say exactly those things, tongue in cheek. He had genuine experience of mistreatment at the hands of society, but in the eyes of the oppressors, he should be grateful for the luxury he is allowed and stop resisting what society is subjecting him to. Language such as this is purposefully designed to undermine the position of the oppressed and discredit them entirely, any reality and irony be damned. It paints James as an individual who does not have the right nor the capacity to have an opinion on the subject because he’s a “dumb jock,” while outright refusing to empathize with the context of his thoughts—a cardinal move in the oppressor’s playbook. Ingraham closes her tirade with the oppressive command, “Shut up and dribble.” LeBron James is more than just a basketball player, he is a human being from an historically tortured sect of our society, one that has been subjected to generations of vile hatred, industrial enslavement, and brutal murder. The oppressors say, “Shut up and dribble.” In the eyes of the gracious oppressors, he should be eternally grateful for the opportunity allowed to him, stop running his mouth, and leave the political opinions to the white folks commanding the show.


Our society which dictates that this or that group is beneath the rest and that the marginalized are to shut up and stick to their role bares some resemblance with the fictional society of the Republic of Gilead, created by Margarate Atwood in her dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. A new society topples the United States, dictated by an oppressive few who enslave, brainwash, and force its women to breed for its males. Women are stripped of their names, which are then replaced by Of-(name of their Commander). Life in Gilead is depicted through the eyes of Offred. She was at one time married and had a young daughter, but the new regime put an end to that, forever removing her from the life and family she once knew. Women are reeducated to conform to the new way of life now being forced upon them. Aunt Lydia, a woman tasked with reeducating captured women, describes the process, “This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary” (Atwood, 33). Any whiff of independent thought or action is seen as an infraction against social order, because it is not a woman’s place to enjoy any independence, they are to only be subservient, until it is part of their DNA. Any disobedience to the social order brings major consequences, like being utterly disappeared or sent in for further reeducation. They are forced into the role of conceiving and birthing children through ritualistic ceremonies, and that is all they are to do. They are not human in the same way rulers of society are, and they best not forget it. Women are to have one, oppressed, role in society. If they resist even the slightest bit, they disappear, die, or are brainwashed further into believing that their role in society is just. The oppressors say, “Shut up and breed.” Women in Gilead are subjected to an existence which shares a few similarities with that forced upon African Americans. Africans were ripped from their homes a world away and forced into servitude in an entirely foreign society that did not value their humanity. Their identities were stripped away from them, their former names erased and replaced by the names given to them by their owners. Any who practiced in resistance were sold to new owners across the continent to be forever disappeared, murdered, and tortured to believe that this was their rightful lot in life. Gilead may not directly reflect American society, but it is only a few tyrannical steps away.


If the Lady Day's and King James' of society stopped “running their mouths” and just stuck to entertaining, injustices suffered by millions would continue absolutely unabated, and a society resembling Gilead may one day take root. Unfortunately, injustice and vile hatred towards oppressed populations still exists, despite generations of resistance, but no longer is it invisible. Thanks to technology, the social order can finally be seen live in action, the world over. The Facebook stream of this or that month’s murder of a Black American at the hands of the police forcibly brings the scourge directly to everyone’s attention. Commands of “Stop resisting!” ring out, muddled by the anguished cries of onlookers and desperate pleas of would-be victims, only to be cut off by a pop-pop-pop. The oppressor takes ultimate power into their own hands, dictating the judgement of malicious 12 year olds like Tamir Rice or suspicious men holding cell phones in their grandmothers’ backyards like Stephon Clark. Protests across the country erupt within hours, voices crying for justice. “Shut up and be oppressed,” the oppressors demand. “Stop resisting.” The only difference between now and a hundred years ago is that injustice no longer happens in secret, but that distinction might hold the key to finally defeat the oppressors. If the resistance endures, a dystopian existence like Offred’s might yet be avoided. Despite the limited roles assigned to the oppressed, they and their ever-growing list of allies in solidarity still have the power to challenge the status quo, now more than ever.

References

The appeal of the primitive jazz. (1917, Aug 25). Literary Digest, 55, 28-29.

Atwood, M. (1998). The Handmaid’s Tale (1st Anchor Books ed.). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.


Block, M., Norris, M. (Hosts). (2010, Aug 6). Strange fruit: Anniversary of a lynching [Audio podcast episode]. In All Things Considered. NPR. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129025516


Champion, C. (Host), James, L. (Guest), Durant, K. (Guest). (2018, Feb 15). Kevin Durant x LeBron James x Cari Champion [Video podcast episode]. In Rolling With the Champion. Uninterrupted. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtNWc1AIU20


Hari, J. (2016). Chasing the Scream: The Inspiration for the Feature Film “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (The Opposite of Addiction is Connection) (1st ed.). Bloomsbury.


Ingraham, L. (Host). (2018, Feb 16). The Ingraham Angle [Late night news]. Location: Fox.


Lindsay, V., & Schevill, C. F. (2018). The Congo, and Other Poems, by Vachel Lindsay. with an Introd. by Harriet Monroe. Franklin Classics Trade Pres. Retrieved from: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1021/1021-h/1021-h.htm#2H_4_0004


Nicholson, S. (1995). Billie Holiday (1st ed.). Northeastern.


Roberts, R. (2021, Feb 27). What really happened when federal officers persecuted Billie Holiday. Los Angeles Times.


23 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page