Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Pete Seeger Has Died — And Other Hard Truths

Like most serious readers, there have been moments in my reading life where a section of prose or poetry affected me in just the right way at the right moment in my development so as to seem to change the way I saw everything after. In those moments, the words seemed to sear themselves into my memory with no effort.

One of the earliest of these I can remember is from Anna Sewell's Black Beauty:

There was a dreadful sound before we got into our stalls—the shrieks of those poor horses that were left burning to death in the stable—it was very terrible! and made both Ginger and me feel very bad. We, however, were taken in and well done by.
I heard horse screams in my sleep for a while. I have remained preoccupied with the suffering of animals and with the absurdities of chance ever since.

In high school, Mrs. Petrovich, my English teacher, loaned me a copy of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. The entire book blew my mind wide open. One of my favorite passages:

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
We lived in the gaps between the stories.
It was the first time I really thought about power — who had it and who did not — and was pivotal in my development as a feminist and, frankly, as a girl who would learn to think for herself. The book terrified me. It felt imminent. It felt very real and very personal and it offended me. I was good and pissed off at the idea that someone had the nerve (!) to think they had the right to control women's bodies. I was too young to realize the realities of this already in place.

Somewhere on my timeline between Black Beauty and The Handmaid's Tale, I saw a poster hanging with this bit of poetry by Martin Niemöller: 

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I think I was in middle school. I felt a rush of simultaneous guilt and sadness, outrage and indignance. I wanted to be the person who would speak up before whoever this person was, but I was secretly very afraid that I was, in fact, the one who would be left standing alone.

This particular piece of writing has been on my mind heavily in recent weeks, and, I must confess, dear readers, that I think I have become the one who would be standing alone. I have realized that I am not an activist. Not when it is difficult. Not when I would have to speak without reinforcement from others. Not when I might offend people I love.

I am not being self deprecating. I don't think I am a bad person. I certainly have opinions on matters that require activism — and no problem voicing them within certain circles. But mostly I preach to the choir. I volunteer — but with no consistency. I am not an activist. Alice Walker says activism is the rent we pay for living on this planet. I think I am behind a few payments.

Here is how I know:

A couple of weeks ago a story was circulating that marriage might cease to be recognized in Oklahoma. I am not an idiot. I know the internet will tell us anything. The validity of the story is not the point — the point is my reaction. I was pissed. How DARE someone tell me that I can't have the piece of paper that makes me wife to the man with whom I want to spend my life? 

And it hit me. This is a taste, just a tiny little taste, of what it is to be a homosexual person who wants to be legally joined to their partner and can not. 

The revelation wasn't that I all of a sudden thought gay marriage should be legal — I already believed that 100% and still do. The revelation was that I was the person who saved my outrage for when "they" affected me. Just like Niemöller in the poem. And it made me ashamed.

Oh, sure, I will tell someone who asks that I support gay marriage. I'll look at bigots with disgust. I'll click "like" when other, braver people speak up. But I don't speak up. And I was sure as hell ready to speak up when it was my marriage.

And Pete Seeger died. Pete Seeger, the champion of activism through music died, and left behind both a legacy and gaping void waiting to be filled with a chorus of determined voices.

I loved Pete. He remains a personal hero. Pete would not have waited until they came for him, this we know.

I am not famous as a writer or as a musician, clearly. But I have a microphone and a laptop and a voice that has remained silent for too long. Not just on matters of equality, either. 

It stops here. I am going to pick up my banjo and pick up my pen and make noise. I am going to keep the folk in Rowdy Folk

I am not going to wait until they come for me. I am going to try my best to be one in the chorus of voices carrying on the legacy of Pete Seeger and making him proud.


  1. It's a scary path, let me tell you. Some will applaud you but others...people you care about deeply...may turn away from you. But as painful as that is I, like you, reached a point where I could no longer be silent. Btw, I'm listening to a Pete Seeger cd I got from the library. It's a collection of stories and music called The Storm King. If you haven't heard it you should. He's long been a hero of mine, too.