Andrea Hairston and Bernice Reagon: Song and Struggle

Andrea Hairston - MindscapeMindscape by Andrea Hairston is quite an incredible book, I can’t believe it’s her first. Maybe I do, because I confess it just might have taken me a little while and some work to get into it, but damn. I loved this story of hope and struggle and culture and ideals and love and death and some freaky alien future earth. It’s complex and complete with Ghost Dancers and ‘ethnic throwbacks’ in a supposedly postracial world that still hasn’t quite got there (because whiteness still seems like it’s getting in the way), technology and healers and spoken combinations of German and Yoruba. It’s also full of heat and action, symbiogenesis (taking me back to Butler) and plenty of deep thoughts on language, race and struggle. From my favourite character, Lawanda, who sticks to her talk despite being looked down upon for it:

Survival be havin’ words to call home, havin’ idioms and syntax to heal the Diaspora. In your cultural rhythm and rhyme, that’s where the soul keep time. (51)

Her lover, the Major, responds in his intellectual way:

Consider that language, despite science fantasy projections, is essentially conservative, hence our ability to communicate across generations. Even the hippest multi-channeling gearhead uses two-thousand-year-old metaphors, slang (such as “hip”) from 1900 that’s now standard, as well as jazzy, take-no-prisoners inspeak that leaves the rest of us down a corridor as the portal collapses. The battle over language, over naming and experiencing the universe, over what constitutes reality is always fierce. Ethnic throwbacks are ideal warriors in these gory cultural skirmishes. (78)

It’s still one hell of a battle, in SF as much as anywhere.

This novel is all about change through struggle, about launching yourself into the unknown and risking everything to change a world of deep pain and horror. It’s about the people who ground you while that change is happening, and the words and culture and songs you hold on to.

997330I love when things in life coincide, disparate things coming together at the right time — like reading this at the same time I reached the excerpt from a 1986 interview with Bernice Reagon–member of NAACP and SNCC and the Freedom Singers and Sweet Honey in the Rock, she’s amazing–in Eyes on the Prize: The Civil Rights Reader.

Funny because look here, in the epigraph for Book IV, Hairston quotes Reagon: ‘Standing in a rainstorm, I believe.’

Reagon’s interview has been one of my favourite parts so far in wading through this massive collection a day at a time. She brings together music and tradition to show the ways that these two things only truly become your own through struggle. They root you in the strength of your past, and uplift you in the movement for the future. Mindscape was full of the power of music and harmony to sculpt human and alien reality both.  There is Mahalia Selasie (see what Hairston did there?) and her gospel choir working along with everyone else to create a better future, helping one lost soul after another. To heal, to open, to change. Bernice Reagon on music:

Growing up in Albany, I learned that if you bring black people together, you bring them together with a song…. Now the singing tradition in Albany was congregational. There were not soloists, there were song leaders.

Like the struggle in which you find your true self:

I know a lot of people talk about it being a movement and when they do a movement they’re talking about buses and jobs and the ICC ruling, and the Trailways bus station. Those things were just incidents that gave us an excuse to be something of ourselves. (143)

She was in Union Baptist Church after the first march, when asked to sing, she added the word “freedom” to a traditional song. She tells us:

I’d always been a singer but I had always, more or less, been singing what other people taught me to sing. That was the first time I had the awareness that these songs were mine and I could use them for what I needed them to.

At that meeting, they did what they usually do. They said, “Bernice, would you lead us in a song?” And I did the same first song, “Over My Head I See Freedom in the Air,” but I’d never heard that voice before. I had never been that me before. And once I became that me, I have never let that me go.

Reading this is pure joy, no? This is the moment that change happens.

I like people to know when they deal with the movement that there are these specific things, but there is a transformation that took place inside of the people that needs to also be quantified in the picture. (144)

This is what Paulo Freire and Myles Horton and Ella Baker and Septima Clark (and I’m getting to the ladies soon, I promise) were all about, and the process that we are enveloped in through Hairston’s novel. Only there’s sex and violence and you never quite know what is going on and it’s all a bit complicated and there are a lot more ants.

I confess, I fucking hate ants. I could have done without the ants, but I honour their place in Mindscape’s mythologies. She does one hell of a job worldbuilding. Just two more quotes — and I confess I singled out the more political bits because that’s how I roll, but it is not especially how the novel rolls so don’t worry. These points are just in there because it’s people working through why things are the way they are, and this shit explains it. Why don’t I have quotes about music? I don’t know, maybe because it’s woven throughout. But I liked this:

Look, ethnic throwbacks do culture not identity politics. We don’t put stock in color. Race is how the world see you, ethnicity is how you see yourself. (121)

I smiled at the next one, I ask this question all the time:

The Last Days… People be past masters at imaginin’ the end of the world–Armageddon, Ragnarök, Götterdämmerung, Apocalypse Now, the Big Crunch–doom and gloom in the twilight of the Gods–but folk’re hard put to imagine a new day where we get on with each other, where we tear it up but keep it real. Why is that? It’s an ole question, but I gotta keep askin’.
— Geraldine Kitt, Junk Bonds of the Mind

I appreciated that in this novel nothing comes easy, least of all love (whether that be for one person or all of them). No one is perfect, but somehow people manage to pull it together and the point of it all is to imagine a new day. It’s inspiring, so maybe I’ll just end with a quote from Septima Clark, who fought all her life for justice and equality and who also knew that your humanity is found in struggle and in change.

But I really do feel that this is the best part of life. It’s not that you have just grown old, but it is how you have grown old. I feel that I have grown old with dreams that I want to come true, and that I have grown old believing there is always a beautiful lining to that cloud that overshadows things. I have great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift, and this has come during my old age. (Ready from Within, 125)

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