In 1971, Marvin Gaye released Inner City Blues.  Those of us old enough to remember may recall his song “Makes Me Wanna Holler…” We may also lament that it has been fifty years and far too little has changed for far too many People of Color since the release of this song. Inner City Blues included lyrics like:

Crime is increasing
Trigger happy policing
Panic is spreading
God knows where we’re heading
Oh, make me want to holler
They don’t understand

Oh, make me want to holler
And throw up both my hands

Money, we make it
Fore we see it you take it

Oh, make me want to holler
The way they do my life
Make me want to holler
The way they do my life

This ain’t livin’, this ain’t livin’
No, no baby, this ain’t livin’

No, for far too many people, the daily reality of systemic racism makes them wanna holler and throw up both their hands. And this is true not just ‘for Old Heads”’ like me who spent the formative years of my life singing variations of the inner-city blues. Sadly, it is also true for our youth, like seven-year-old Black girls attending predominantly white schools in the predominantly white middle class residential suburbs of Philadelphia.

Today, my wife picked up our granddaughter from school. Grand Girl entered our house looking somewhat depressed. She is a second grader and the only Black child in her class. Excited to see her, I called out, “Hey girl!  How was school today?” Her instant reply to me was, “Pop Pop, can you talk to Mommy about putting me in a Brown school?” Without another word from her, I knew exactly what this child is going through. The weight of race and bigotry is already pressing her downward, even as she shares the space of privilege.

Fifty years after Mr. Gaye declared, “This ain’t livin,” a seven-year-old child and her seventy-year-old Pop Pop both want to holler and throw up their hands.

Perhaps I was in a blue funk even before Grand Girl entered the house. I had just opened an email from my 90-year-old mentor, Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Pastor Emeritus of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, California. He sent me a PowerPoint presentation with a simple subject line: “PowerPoint Presentation for Pastors in Prayer”.  I opened the document.  The PowerPoint displayed the names and showed the faces of Blacks killed by police in the US since 2010. There were scores and scores of Black faces. Far too many of them looked just like my sons. I gasped when I saw one young lady who was the spitting image of my daughter. I couldn’t breathe and had to close the slide presentation before coming to its end.

A colleague included on the email later weighed in on the “PowerPoint for Pastors in Prayer.”  He wrote, “If this was a list of white peoples killed by the police, there would be a Civil War and mass dismissals of police chiefs, mayors, and safety directors. All we get is administrative leave, qualified immunity, and what seems like another killing each week, sometimes every day!

Another line in Inner City Blues is:

“Panic is spreading / God know where we’re heading.”  You can hear the fear and trepidation in Gaye’s world-weary voice. It was the same fear and trepidation I heard in my granddaughter’s voice.

In the original ending to Marvin Gaye’s song, he hints that change is possible. Referencing “What’s Going On,” he adds “Mother, mother / Everybody thinks we’re wrong / Who are they to judge us / Simply ’cause we wear our hair long.”  This clearly points to 1960s and 70s Afro-wearing activists. Marvin Gaye argues that these activists have been mislabeled due to appearance. I think about my “children” in the leadership of the Black Lives Matter Movement. I reflect on how a presenter at my Rotary Club meeting castigated these same leaders as anarchists and left-wing extremists. Like Grand Girl, I begin wondering if I can find a Brown Rotary Club I can go to.

“What’s Going On” just at the end of the song, could be seen as part two to “Inner City Blues,” calling for listeners to wake up, get involved, and to refuse to discredit those activists who may not look like previous generations of activists. Our brothers and sisters of yesteryear and today are weary. Looking forward, we still have much work to do. In light of this reality and all that is happening in our world, I offer this simple piece of advice: to our pastors and people who sit in the pews of our churches, listen to Inner City Blues as a meditation piece for our prayers and preparation for action in the days ahead. Let’s pray and work for the day when we no longer and throw up both our hands.

Dr. Aidsand
Wright-Riggins
Executive Director

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