Friday, 24 July 2015

From Lynchings to Police Brutality: The Words of W.C. Handy ResonateToday

I'm reading a book called Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired "Stagolee", "John Henry" and Other Traditional American Folk Songs.

In the book, author Richard Polenberg describes the effect of a particularly brutal lynching on American composer W.C. Handy and his subsequent decision to leave the South.

Handy reported his reaction, a mixture of horror, anger and depression: "All the savor had gone out of life. For the moment only a sensation of ashes in the mouth remained." - Richard Polenberg, Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired "Stagolee", "John Henry" and Other Traditional American Folk Songs

In a later incident, recounted by Polenberg in the book, Handy recalled appealing to a law enforcement authority for protection, whereby he was scoffed at and his attacker was assisted instead.

Handy moved to New York in 1918, almost a century ago, but I'm struck by the significance of these events today and the similarities to the Sandra Bland case. Black and brown people in America, the UK and around the world are still being subjected to racial violence; they continue to witness these attacks on fellow citizens (through the medium of film and social media, if not in person); and they continue to suffer a form of post-traumatic stress due to the relentless nature of these attacks.

Just as Handy described his devastation, so people today are overcome by the pervasive, racist and violent attacks in our society today.

Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired "Stagolee", "John Henry" and Other Traditional American Folk Songs is published by Cornell University Press and will be released in November 2015.

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