By Charles Sarvan –
One of my sons took me to see the Martin Luther King film, ‘Selma’, which opens with 15 September 1963 and the explosion at an African-American Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four children. The scene reminded me of the poem ‘Ballad of Birmingham’, published in 1968 by African American Dudley Randall (1914-2000):
“Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”
“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”
“No baby, no, you may not go
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children’s choir.”
She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.
The mother smiled to know that her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.
For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.
She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”
By using the word “ballad” in the title, Dudley Randall situates his poem within a folk tradition. Characteristic of ballads, there’s a heavy reliance on dialogue: readers would have noticed that the poem consists of eight quatrains of which the first four are taken up entirely by dialogue between mother and child, the latter wanting to join Martin Luther King’s non-violent Freedom March. (The march for freedom and employment took place on the 28th of August 1963. Randall here is exercising poetic license.) Details are kept to an effective minimum with the result that the poem moves rapidly. Ironically, it is the mother’s attempt to protect her child by keeping her away from politics (specifically, from hate-filled and violent whites) that leads to the awful and tragic denouement. Such a loss is permanent, and the mother will never smile again (stanza 6).
Permit me at this juncture to make a note of explanation. Derrida, of deconstruction fame or notoriety, wrote that some words are not satisfactory. However, they being all we have, we use them but such terms should be placed “under erasure” to indicate that their meaning is questionable. So it is with the words ‘race’ and ‘racism’, and that is why I place them between quotation marks. There is no scientific basis for ‘race’ but, though ‘race’ doesn’t exist, racism continues to flourish: that much for human ethics based on reason and decency. (See, ‘The term “racism” and discourse’ in Sarvan, Sri Lanka: Literary Essays & Sketches.)
In a ‘racist’ society, there is no safety or sanctuary, not even in a church, temple or mosque. (Neither does religious conversion purchase immunity from ‘racist’ persecution, as the Jews experienced under Isabella of Spain and, centuries later, at the hands of the Nazis.) In Birmingham, Alabama, white Christians killed black Christian children in a church, in a “house of God”, the same God both groups believed in and worshipped.
Other religions and other times; other places and other cultures also go to confirm sadly that ‘race’ – a human construct and belief, and not a scientific fact – is a far more emotional and potent force than religion. It seems to me that ‘race’ divides more than religion unites. In this sense, the human proves more powerful than the divine; power in this world stronger than the seduction of reward in the next. (Or does the ‘racist’ convince himself that his ugly and inhumane action meets with divine approval?) For example, will I be wrong if I say that most – certainly not all – Sinhalese Christians are Sinhalese first and then Christian; that, when put to the test, they will instinctively identify with Sinhalese Buddhists and not with Tamil Christians – even if, in legal parlance, the latter are “the injured party”?
(As with ‘race’ and religion, so it is also with ‘race’ and class. As Nelson Mandela observes in his autobiography, ‘race’ and colour are very powerful and can obliterate class consciousness and class solidarity. Indeed, peasants and workers have been known to be the most prejudiced, with a ready propensity to violence. The horizontal line of class is swept away by the force and rage of the vertical division of ‘race’. ‘Racism’ is much stronger than socialism, though many a self-declared socialist is quite comfortable harbouring ‘racist’ beliefs, and countenancing ‘racist’ policy and action. The noun-phrase “racist socialist” is an oxymoron.)
Of course, this is a generalisation and I am mindful of Sinhalese who are principled and courageous. Though all too few in number, they help humankind to hold on to hope. These individuals reach beyond the narrow and divisive concepts of ‘race’ and religion to our common humanity. In other words, and in the final analysis, they stand neither for Tamil Christians nor for Tamils in general but for certain desiderata: for ideals such as justice and equality, for fair-play and inclusion. As I wrote about (Sinhalese) Adrian Wijemanne, had the Sinhalese been oppressed, Wijemanne would have fought with equal courage, clarity and self-sacrifice. Similarly, and as I have written elsewhere, some of the most powerful criticism I have read about Israeli policy towards and treatment of the Palestinians has been written by Jews, by Jews living in Israel. Like Martin Luther King, such individuals too had / have “a dream”, a dream they tried / try to make real.