Mercy, Mercy Me: African-American Culture and the American Sixties

By James C. Hall | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
AFRICAN-AMERICAN ANTIMODERNISM
AND THE AMERICAN SIXTIES

Come round by my side and I'll sing you a song
I'll sing it so softly, it'll do no one wrong
On Birmingham Sunday the blood ran like wine
and the choirs kept singing of Freedom
“Birmingham Sunday,”LYRIC BY RICHARD FARINA1

Imagine, if you can, the morning of Monday, September 16, 1963. You are ready to work. Your typewriter is at the ready. You have coffee, maybe cigarettes. No distractions. But there is still an edginess, the pressure to produce, the commitment that words on paper entails. So you delay and retrieve the newspaper at your door. The New York Times headline: “Birmingham Bomb Kills 4 Negro Girls in Church; Riots Flare; 2 Boys Slain.” Continue working? Four children—Denise McNair, age 11, and Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, each age 14—killed just prior to a worship service at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Later that day, James Robinson, age 16, is shot in the back by police trying to break up rock throwing between white and black teenagers. And, finally, Virgil Ware, age 13, is shot by a white teenager (an Eagle Scout) who had spent the afternoon at a white supremacist rally. Five hundred National Guardsmen and three hundred state troopers had taken control of the streets. Six black children slain, killed by men, by representatives of the state, by other children. Continue working? Prior to the explosion, the girls killed at the church had heard the completion of Ella Demand's Sunday School lesson, “The Love That Forgives.” That same day, President Kennedy had stated in an address that “a new national awareness of discriminatory practices against Negroes was bringing progress toward the goal of equal opportunity.”2 Forgiveness? Progress? Continue working?3

Or, perhaps more importantly, just what might constitute work, especially intellectual or artistic work, at this particular historical moment? If one is an artist how should one respond to this brave new world? What strategies of representation might possibly be up to the task of expressing

-3-

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