For this week’s song I’d like to present you with Common’s: Letter to the Free. This song was written for the 2016 Netflix documentary 13th by director Ava DuVernay. The song and the documentary attempt to draw a throughline between slavery and the modern American prison industrial complex by discussing the history from the end of slavery via the 13th amendment and how the United States transitioned towards mass incarceration of black people through the black codes and mass disenfranchisement. I believe this song, especially the first two lines of the first verse, can be used to understand the difficulty of representation of the lost voices of the enslaved. It can provide us a lens for which we can contextualize Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten’s writings on the representation of and spectacle of black suffering. Specifically, to quote Hartman: “At issue here is the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator”.
Let’s begin with the very first two lines of the song:
Southern leaves, southern trees we hung from
Barren souls, heroic songs unsung
Common is leading with explicit imagery of the quotidian acts of violence inflicted on enslaved black peoples, following it with what might be seen as a call for recognition of the lives of the enslaved whose stories go unheard. The second lyric is of interest as I believe it ties directly to Hartman’s writings on the impossibility of slave representation. This desire for the recognition of the enslaved cuts towards the dialectical struggle between recognition and normalization of violence. It is the case, that through the repressive instruments of white supremacy and slavery, the historical record may be unable to singularly convey the barbarism of slavery and its institutions. How then do we critically interrogate the historical narrative while not inversely reinforcing its authority? How can we represent the “consciousness of the subaltern” outside of the ‘dominant representation of the elites”? From what I understand Hartman thinks this issue can’t necessarily be resolved. The conditions of the slave left them destitute, illiterate, and powerless long after their legal “emancipation”. Our historical record is necessarily laundered through the lens of those who had the capacity to speak. The closest we can get are those former slaves able to get an education and later articulate their experience. But as I understand it, the point Hartman is making is that this necessarily alters the perspective, those within slave conditions were barred from speech, robbed of their ability to tell their story outside of laundering it through a capable entity. To quote Hartman:
“Accordingly, this examination of the cultural practices of the dominate is possible only because of the accounts provided by literate black autobiographers, white amanuenses, plantation journals and documents, newspaper accounts, missionary tracts, travel writing, amateur ethnographies, government reports, et cetera. Because these documents are “not free from barbarism,” I have tried to read them against the grain in order to write a different account: of the past, while realizing the limits imposed by employing these sources, the impossibility of fully recovering the experience of the enslaved and the emancipated, and the risk of reinforcing the authority of these documents even as I try to use them for contrary purposes.”
Common’s lyric “Barren souls, heroic songs unsung” now reads less as a call for recognition, and more a lamenting of those whose song can’t ever be sung. We are left then as spectator, unable to elucidate the suffering of the slave whose voice has been robbed through centuries of violence.
To briefly cover the rest of the song, Common continues in the rest of the verse explicating the transition from chattel slavery to sharecropping and eventually to the modern prison industrial complex and convict leasing.
Forgive them Father they know this knot is undone
Tied with the rope that my grandmother died
Pride of the pilgrims affect lives of millions
Since slave days separating, fathers from children
Institution ain’t just a building
But a method, of having black and brown bodies fill them
We ain’t seen as human beings with feelings
Will the U.S. ever be us? Lord willing!
For now we know, the new Jim Crow
They stop, search and arrest our souls
Police and policies patrol philosophies of control
A cruel hand taking hold
We let go to free them so we can free us
America’s moment to come to Jesus
A clear line from slavery to the modern institutions of policing and incarceration is drawn by Common. We can see here the referenced “elusive emancipation and travestied freedom” by Hartman.
Lastly, a comment on the chorus:
Freedom (Freedom)Freedom come (Freedom come)
Hold on (Hold on)
Won’t be long (Won’t be long)
The chorus is clearly meant to emulate the tone and cadence of slave songs such as Wade in the Water (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxZ4H-gq_lc), chanting the desire for eventual emancipation from the repressive systems of white supremacy.