Stories for Little Children When we were in our single digit years one of the stories my Daddy told us was of “the Union Band.” One of my father’s character traits was that of Griot in the African American story-telling tradition. He saw it as part of keeping our ties to our ancestors and helping to keep in the front of our minds how we got here, from whence we came, and this “how” and “whence” included the resilience, dedication, and perseverance of our forbearers in our people’s uninterrupted fight for freedom.
When he intoned about the “the Union Band” his voice would drop into a grave cross between a whisper and a groan: During what White historiography calls “the Civil War,” the revolution to overthrow the social system of chattel slavery, most escaped, formerly enslaved, Africans, highly willing to join the Union Army, were relegated to the mess squad, latrine duty, the kitchen and… “the Union Band.” The Union Band marched in the back of the formation of White Union soldiers, our would-be liberators.
My father took great pains to make it clear that we were a people, our ancestors, who woke up one day with a yoke around our necks and standing over us was a man with a long, long whip. When they got a scent of freedom, the expression of this scent took many forms. One of these forms was the revelation of our spirituals — all revolutionary songs calling for the overthrow of slavery — from the plantation to behind Union lines. Yes, while we were not afforded the dignity of equality in the Union Army, we more than made up for it in the way we fought, and in all other areas. The Union Band was one of these areas. The beauty, power and transcendent quality of these former enslaved-would-be freedman — my Daddy told us, “There has never been a more beautiful sound coming from humans anywhere in the world in the entire history of humankind.” He told us this with a certainty in his voice as if it was decreed from Allah herself.
The 1960’s During my teen years there was a plethora of cultural contributions which amplified the stories my father told us in our first years on the planet. The music of the time, our music, insisted on holding a space for messages of revolution, and one of those messages came to me from a duet called Bunky and Jake, an African American Sister/vocalist, and her White American partner/guitarist. I came in contact with their rendition of “I am the Light of this World” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tz_y9wMpLY), a spiritual/country gospel song, which in the tradition of this African American art form, was performed by many artists, with each different performer adding their own lyrics to fit their specific situation.
Bunky and Jake told us in the chorus,
Just as long as I’m
in this world,
I am the light
of this world.
Consistent with the version performed by Reverend Gary Davis (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qqk_kHaP7aU), their first verse started with these two lines referring to how he played his guitar:
I got fiery fingers
I got fiery hands
Then Reverend Davis finished the verse with
And when I get to heaven
I’m gonna join that fiery band.
Apropos of the fiery times of the ‘60’s revolutionary movement, Bunky and Jake replaced those two lines with their own:
To the band
The next verse is all Bunky and Jake:
What kind of band you talkin’ ‘bout?
I’m talkin’ ‘bout the Union Band
I belong to the band
As a fifteen-year-old whose mother and father were constantly using culture to inform for meaning in what I was experiencing, I didn’t need anyone to explain these verses to me: This was confirmation of my father’s story about the hallowed Union Band. “I’m talking’ ‘bout the Union Band…”
More than that, as the African American People’s Freedom Struggle rose in higher and higher waves from 1960’s to early ‘70’s, my parents enjoined us to be certain to make our contribution. One of our great socialist revolutionary leaders of the time, Ella Baker, was teaching us what an effective contribution needed to look like. In the spirit of Bunky and Jake’s adjuration, “I belong to the band, Hallelujah,” Ella Baker taught us that she merely wanted “to be one in the number, in the fight against tyranny.” This line was then to be memorialized by the great Black Liberation gospel group Sweet Honey ‘n the Rock in a song that is popularly known as “We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest.” The official title is “Ella’s Song,” as this anthem of the Black Liberation Movement of the ‘60’s-70’s is entirely quoted from a speech by the great Ella Baker.
The message “one in the number” was a key lesson for this budding activist of 20-years-old, what with the dominant culture’s push for each of us to fight to be top dog, even if it is top dog in a freedom fight. Ella told us to be one in the number; Bunky and Jake taught me that I need not be the leader of the band — I just needed to be in the band. I am in the band.
Not long after I got this message, the movie Glory came out, and some of this generation’s greatest male actors, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, Jimhi Kennedy, were depicted in a scene from the middle of the night in the encampment of their Union Army regiment. They were readying themselves to go into battle the next morning. Again, as preparation, they began to sing the dire songs of those who know they are going to die so that others may live free. This scene, towards the end of this film, is to date the most vivid and fantastic depiction of the Union Band Hollywood has allowed us. The transcendent beauty was just as my father had described it to us.
Fiery Times We are in the midst of an apocalypse. It can be argued that the conscious wanton annihilation of Black Americans is moving at a pace that may exceed any other time in our history. It is under such conditions that reliance on what worked best for us comes front and center. And this reliance assumes our training of our progeny in the ways of our forbearers. Let us continue the tradition of the Union Band and let us each be one in the number in the fight against tyranny.