- The ‘Power of the Powerless’ – harnessing pain into creativity, into change and into a movement.
It’s quieter on the front that literally started it all — the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul. The four officers involved in George Floyd’s murder have been arrested and charged. A stirring memorial was held for George Floyd and America collectively is marching, trying to force difficult conversations and bring about systemic changes not seen since the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s.
As I sit in my library, listening to the rain and smelling the lilacs wafting through the windows, it gives me time to introspect, to relive the past few days — wonder at the power of the people and at something I had just read this morning. And that caught my eye — how much the Power of the Powerless can wield. I was struck by how much this one life lost, in a series of lives lost, have opened the long-searing wound of racial discontent in this country.
In his amazing article “Donald Trump Is Our National Catastrophe,” Bret Stephens, the conservative columnist, writing in the New York Times recently brought up the legendary 1978 treatise “The Power of The Powerless” by Vaclav Havel, former president of Czechoslovakia and the chief architect of the Velvet Revolution that helped bring down the tyranny of the Czechoslovakia Communist party. When people are hurting and when they reach a breaking point, no amount of tyranny will hold them back.
I helped organize a vigil the same day a memorial for George Floyd was held in Minneapolis. As South Asian Americans we had planned for a silent vigil to express solidarity with the wounded, broken black community. For long, we as a community have been silent about this huge and gaping American blithe towards racism, and it is time now for us to join our voices with the people who are giving the power back to the powerless.
South Asians Rally
The vigil was an amazing experience — the community came together in a way not seen earlier. We do gather for an A.R. Rehman concert or a Shreya Ghosal concert or a Narendra Modi rally; but never ever for fellow minority community that is still struggling to find its bearing in the American fabric. Black America doesn’t figure in our template of the America Dream.
Coming back to the vigil, far from being a silent vigil we had hundreds upon hundreds of folks already gathered, music pouring from huge amplifiers set near a makeshift stage — celebrating and mourning together. We were all caught up in the booming chants of “Say His Name — George Floyd” and Black Lives Matter, a fist held up in the air, the beautiful, symbolic gesture of Black Power. We all were sucked into the synergy, the enthusiasm and excitement of the moment. We mourned George Floyd but we also celebrated life and stood side by side with the black community, the Latino community, the Hmong, the Somalian community as well as the South Asian community who came from different corners of the city, from far flung suburbs to a few blocks down.
This is not new — for centuries African Americans have taken recourse to music, in gospel, to bear the pain and suffering. The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., has some great resources on black music and its origins – how the slaves brought musical traditions from Africa with them. They coped with the horrors of enslavement steeped in song. As an exhibit at the Library of Congress says, “African Americans accompanied their labor with work songs that often incorporated field hollers – call and response chants tinged with falsetto whoops called ‘arwhoolies.’ Jazz, Blues, Rhythm & Blues, Rock & Roll to present day Hip-Hop & Rap — African Americans have always provided a commentary on the social ills through music.”
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C., also has sections devoted extensively to black music — as well as providing a vignette of various slangs, the tone, the diction and the sounds of the black American language. I often hear in my community how they find black “talk” ridiculous, “their diction is so weird, and I can barely understand their English,” but we don’t want to understand why and how the spoken English of the black Americans is so different than the white America or even our own.
Or, how the African American gestures are threatening, or ludicrous, depending on who you are talking to. The visit to the museum last year was certainly an eye-opener for me and my then 14-year old. It’s time we tried to understand the reasons behind the whys. It will help us as a community to bridge the divide between us and the African American community.
Back to Minneapolis/St. Paul — we have a lot to do as a community — we need to continue this journey of introspection against inherent bias and racism, against any kind of religious phobias — including Islamophobia. Understanding and learning about race relations in America, embracing and curing our own inherent biases and learning to harness the power of the powerless as black America has shown time and time again.
Meanwhile, my lilacs continue to gently disperse the air with their fragrance. The rain has now turned into a thundering storm and last night’s movie “Freedom,” a 2014 film starring Cuba Golding Jr about the powerful gospel prayer “Amazing Grace” reverberates in my mind. Art can teach us a lot. It’ll help start the process of understanding who and what the black America really is.
Kuhu Singh lives in Eden Prairie, Minn., a suburb of the Twin Cities. Bidding adieu to journalism a decade ago, she nonetheless loves to write and express her very strong opinions on social media and blogs and sometimes in a few Indian publications. She is a Senior Digital Marketing Manager for a broadcast retail company. Race relations, diversity, social issues fascinate and roil her into action and she volunteers her time with certain political organizations and community organizations.