• Call + Response

Sound & Color by Marcus Robinson

An essay on the social connections of Alabama's blues-rock group the Alabama Shakes.

Brittany Howard, frontwoman and guitarist of the Alabama Shakes

Sound & Color

The Alabama Shakes is an awesome fucking rock band. Think of a black country girl that grew up on blues and punk music clashed against electric guitars and rhythm. There’s a warmth and edge to Brittany Howard’s voice that I adore; she, to me, feels like the last soul singer and she doesn’t even make traditional soul music. The power she yields is undeniable and the richness of the band, overall, is delectable. I heard buzz about the band about a month after their second album Sound & Color dropped. On my second day of listening to the album, I was fully immersed. Alone in my cheap one bedroom efficiency with floor-to-ceiling wood paneling, I blasted song after song on full tilt; enjoying the band and enjoying life. It was one of those rare moments of adulthood were nothing feels bad. Imagine being alone on a beautiful beach at sunset: no one else on Earth matters, just you, the sun, the sand, the crashing tide and the fiery horizon. That night, it was just me, my uncomfortable two-seater 1980’s couch and The Shakes. The day was June 17, 2015. And, in the middle of my fiery horizon, news of the Charleston church shooting broke.

I’m not a religious person nor am I an atheist; for better or worse, I try to place my faith in people. Faith, naïvely, that people actually care about other people. That’s the thing about having faith: you have it whether it makes logical sense or not. That night, June 17th, my faith was shattered in a way that I’m not sure I’ll ever fully recover. I love people, but living in a country that continually denies my humanity and dignity is exhausting. I was paralyzed by grief and left numb. I was overrun by my emotions and a part of my humanity died that night along with Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson.

This Feeling

At moments, I can feel cynicism swallow me whole and, subtly, I lose my grip on placing value in people. Lately, in a way of trying to find a semblance of relief, I’ve been avoiding the news and stories about black trauma. Being constantly reminded of the terrible world we live in is a burden that feels unshakable. Whether it’s the latest footage of seeing police officers relentlessly assault a black body or seeing white Americans hurl racist insults and their subsequent ass whooping, this cycle of violent, troubling videos continually exposes the state of affairs in America and, possibly, the world. On Twitter, I’m reminded that Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water and that our government would rather create a space army, like a plot line from a 80’s D-list action movie, than to save it’s citizens. On Facebook, I’m reminded that correct information isn’t the real goal; it only matters that what is shared is entertaining or not. On Instagram, I’m reminded that we continually chase fleeting aesthetics.

Even further back than the church massacre, I remember having to turn off the auto-play feature on Twitter in 2015 because people wouldn’t stop sharing videos of reporters Alison Parker and Adam Ward getting murdered by former co-worker Bryce Williams. I never watched the video, but when multiple accounts throughout the day kept sharing the clip, it felt like people had an insatiable desire to see death. A recent trend has been people sharing videos of racist getting pulverized for using the n-word or harassing minorities until they can’t stand it anymore. For example, there was a “before and after” style video released on Twitter that involved an elderly white lady calling young black folks “niggers” while riding a DC Metro Bus. That was the “before” clip, which lasted around 30 seconds. The “after” clip showed the white lady’s face completely doused in her own blood. While I felt no remorse for the racist woman, I didn’t need to see evidence of her attack or even wished she’d been attacked. Her body laid in a pool on the Hopscotch Bridge in Northeast DC and the day went about like nothing had ever happened.

I haven’t reached my limit for caring but this numbness feels like a reaction to something plaguing this country. Daily usage of social media feel like mental gymnastics: seeing news of black pain and instantaneously deciding to respond or not. Do I read this article about 6,000 homeless DC kids getting ready to start the school year or do I watch the “Bitch, I’m A Cow” video again? I want to do both, but I’m not always strong enough to make what feels like the right choice.

While no videos of the Charleston church massacre exist, seeing pictures of murderer Dylann Roof has always disturbed me. His icy smugness carries the stench of white superiority and it immensely bothers me that he and many others in this nation’s treacherous past have easily murdered praying black folks. After generations of degradation, I’m tired.

To be black in America is to struggle and our humanity is tangled into our ability to survive, but what happens when the fight is too much to bear?

On the day of it’s release, I saw Crazy Rich Asians, a slick, beautiful, funny movie about young Chinese adults falling in love while struggling with traditional vs contemporary norms. Before the movie, in a sea of not-so-interesting trailers for upcoming releases, a preview of The Hate U Give ran. The film follows the life of a black teenage girl, Starr, as she navigates life between living in her predominately black neighborhood and going to a predominately white, wealthy high school. The crux of the movie is Starr witnessing firsthand the killing of an unarmed black teenager by the police. The film leads to our protagonist leading protesters against riot gear wearing cops and making rousing speeches to galvanize supporters and stir the emotions. When the trailer was over, I had zero interest in seeing it.

The Hate U Give looked like the director and actors took great care in crafting the story and everyone seemed to be giving their all. Also, it seems like 20th Century Fox spent good money to create the film. It’s great seeing a movie directed by black people starring black people that isn’t derivative of a comic book franchise get good dollars to finance it. And I think the message of what the film wants to say is important: the killing of black people by the police must end and it’s important to find the strength, will and voice to fight for your literal life. But, while watching that trailer, I couldn’t help but be perturbed by the black trauma that the film will undoubtedly explore. It’s exhausting when of the majority of products being continually offered are soaked in pain and despair.

For the last dozen years, Black Panther and Girl’s Trip were the exception, not the rule like 12 Years A Slave, Birth Of A Nation and Django Unchained. BET rolled out a gaudy six-part docuseries on the murder of Trayvon Martin. Other than the election of Donald Trump as President, the acquittal of Martin’s murderer George Zimmerman was the watershed moment of American culture of the past decade. But we’re so close to Martin’s murder and the subsequent effects on the America psyche, how can we properly evaluate the event with any historical perspective and accuracy, and, most importantly, why do we need six, hour-long episodes to discuss the event when the details are fresh in our collective consciousness? Cynical as it may seem, trafficking in black trauma on the big and small screen seems profitable.

The Hate U Give shows this brave young woman standing against riot gear wearing, smoke grenade launching police. But we’ve seen this image dozens of times before in real life; why rehash it again? Do we need these reminders? Who are the we: the black folks needing to be reminded of our history, the white folks needing to be reminded of their shame, or both? Or is it just for viewership numbers?

Still from Sound & Color official video


Disillusion and jadedness are all signs of my desensitization but I understand how that is a part of the problem. Since the Charleston church massacre, a part of me forgot the power of art and film and how these stories, our stories, can be used for good. A few days after I saw Crazy Rich Asians, I watched Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a movie that I had actively dodged for a few weeks while many people lauded the film. When the original trailer for BlacKkKlansman premiered in May, I was highly skeptical that it would be worthwhile. But, with it gaining critical praise and social media buzz, I decided to give it a chance.

Early in the film, there’s a scene where Kwame Ture aka Stokely Carmichael is speaking before a black college student union in Colorado Springs. Played masterfully by Washington, DC native actor Cory Hawkins, he preaches black pride with fire, passion, comfort and understanding. Ture understood black pain and youth animosity; Hawkins beautifully channeled Ture’s spirit. And, as I sat in that cold, dark theater, I couldn’t help but to be reminded of the first time that I watched Lee’s Malcolm X with my mother and my aunt on VHS in our small apartment in Southeast DC in 1993.

X introduced me to an individual I’d only seen on baseball caps and church fans. In my favorite acting performance ever, Denzel Washington was the full embodiment of what man is: complex, flawed, broken, resilient, humbled and brave. To watch his life blossom from hoodlum to hero had a profound effect on my little life. He taught and exemplified black pride and black strength, through his rise from the ashes until his untimely demise. I wonder what other seven year-old’s watched that movie and had their little lives changed. And in that cold, dark theater, I wondered what people would be moved by Hawkin’s performance and were inspired by Kwame’s spirit. Twenty-five years later, the power of art and film moved me again.

BlacKkKlansman may be one of the best films in Spike’s stellar career and, hopefully, the movie reintroduces a new generation of young people to his filmography. The end of the movie shook me to the core. I was near tears as the fatigue of our journey and the long road still left to travel weighed on me. However, not only did the significance of the film stick with me, but, also, a renewed understanding of why these stories need to be told and shared.

While videos of violence will never motivate me, we still deserve to tell our story in other meaningful ways. America needs to be reminded that black bodies, black women bodies, black gay bodies are in danger until that danger is no longer present. We need America to know of the struggle of our brothers and sisters in Flint that still don’t have clean water until they get the decency they deserve. Being the other when the majority views your existence as a burden is fatiguing, but we cannot minimize ourselves to appease our oppressors. Even stemming from pain, these stories can inspire change. And I’m not going to let Dylann Roof or George Zimmerman or Jeronimo Yanez or Donald Trump take away my humanity. Don’t let them take away yours.

Marcus Robinson is a Washington DC based writer. Robinson enjoys creative writing and shares his work with the public through his personal blog. He aims to become a stronger writer through publishing.