Like most teenagers I was learning all about who I was as an individual, and beginning to form many of the traits that would make up the person I was. As a musician, for me that meant creativity, out of the box thinking, always trying new things artistically, trying to stay in touch with who I was artistically, etc. The stuff many musicians, artists, writers, etc go though as with many people that never get involved in such pursuits at all.
Growing up in the late eighties early nineties meant living through a period of social change and awakening for many people nationwide. For young people this was especially true, as with young people probably from the beginnings of man we saw things that were not right, did not seem right and wanted to know why they were that way and why they were allowed to stay that way. We had questions.
One of the issues at the forefront for all people at that time, was the issue of the all white South African government's system of oppression of the majority black population of that country, known as Apartheid. People wanted to know why it was allowed. It was the nineties and here was racism like that we had long before the civil rights movement here. Blacks had no rights in a country that was taken from them and in which they were still the majority. If they protested they were met with heavy, violent crackdowns - the type we saw dictators engage in recently during the Arab Spring.
For young people of color, like myself it caused many of us to wonder about where we came from, and what it meant for us to be people of color in our country. We weren't oppressed in the same way people were in South Africa, we knew that, but we had all experienced some form of racism. Perhaps we had been followed around in stores by obvious undercover security when we knew we were not there to steal a thing and never had. Perhaps we had seen it in social situations with adults. Maybe we had been profiled by law enforcement or treated differently in an institution like a job, religious organization, extracurricular group, athletic team, etc.
But, what was happening in places like South Africa was something else entirely. The racism here was definitely not as in your face, but employed much more subtly. We felt it's stings when it reared its ugly head from time to time, but it's thread was so carefully sewn into the fabric of our everyday lives that to say anything often lead easily enough to people saying “oh you're just being paranoid” and the like. Plausible deniability goes a long way when oppressing people along with great PR. “Who us? You really think we would do that? You must be exhausted. Perhaps it's you that are the racist.”
Part of my losing my innocence regarding fairness happened while I was working at a local fast food restaurant in high school. Most of the people that worked there were young, but occasionally an older person would take a job. There was one such person that got a job at the restaurant one winter. During lulls in service we'd chat. I started telling him about what I was learning regarding South Africa, and at first he would just listen shaking his head and just saying “uh huh” and the like in response to it.
One day he started talking about how when he was my age he was involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960's as a writer for small periodicals. He talked about how he had been involved with numerous organizations and that there came a time when he was called in for questioning by the local police. He was doing nothing wrong and had been involved in no violent movements, so he figured he had nothing to lose, and apparently thought he might learn something. He related that when he got there, they talked to him for a few minutes about what he was doing, and asked if he knew the laws concerning violence, etc. After about ten minutes they said somebody else wanted to talk to him.
The man I worked with was African American and he said that the man they brought in was also an African American man who introduced himself as an FBI agent pretty much right away. They began talking and, though he never came right out and said that he was looking for communists or worried about the spread of communism and that man I worked with's involvement in such, he began talking about how the FBI had a bad rap.
He started off with the quote about how a wise man once said freedom of speech was not free, and said that that could be interpreted in many ways. He began talking about how sometimes certain people needed to be quieted down due to their ideas. They may not be advocating for overthrow of their government and they may not be advocating for anything threatening at all. They may hardly ever be heard.
But if those people were stressing the rights of individuals to be free too often, the fear was people may begin to think too much, and so those people needed to be quieted down. They needed to be gotten under control, and that even thought it was technically illegal, the government had ways of doing this to individuals they feared had ideas that may get people to want things like better wages, equality for minorities, women, native Americans, etc.
He explained that this was what communist nations asked for and insinuated our government felt it necessary to nip it in the bud through blacklisting people, spreading lies and rumors to ruin their reputation and discredit them and even send government undercover officers to convince them to help out in schemes that would cross the line into illegality, to ensure to give them a mark that would follow them and simultaneously set an example of them.
The man I worked with said he then asked the agent whether or not he realized that those were precisely the kinds of things our government accused leaders in communist countries of doing to quash freedom of speech and people advocating for democracy. The man said he was, but that he was only doing his job, and that the sit down was to both serve as a warning and as a way to get the word out that people would be suffering consequences if they spoke out against the American government in attempts to fight for more rights. He also apparently made an inquiry as to whether or not the gentleman would be interested in working as an informant, or whether he knew of anyone that would. The gentleman answered that he would not be interested, that he knew no one and politely thanked the agent for the warning.
After the story, he told me that when you talk about freedom in this country you really should consider what precisely that meant and how the government will respond. Will it see it as innocuous freedom of speech or as a threat and act to tamp it down accordingly? I can't say I fully understood that day what he was telling me, thought today I think I may perhaps a little better. I don't know whether what he was saying was the truth or not, but I do “get” a little better what he meant when he was talking about how freedom isn't free. I only hope our government doesn't do such things to innocuous poets, writers, journalists and the like... can you imagine if they did?
To read about my inspiration for this article go to