A project of Brooklyn Historical Society
Writings from Racial Realities
Anna. Click to enlarge
Anna by Sara Lucas


   When I was 20 years old, my search for the roots of American music took me to Ghana, West Africa, where, after four months into traveling and studying the songs of the Eastern Volta Region, the U.S. presidential election of 2000 played itself out. Like so many people my age who were teenagers during the Clinton years, I was apathetic and cynical in regards to politics, and found very little distinction between George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. And even though I was registered in Ohio (ahhhhh!!!!) I abstained from voting. I want to say that it was because I was disorganized, that spending that summer of 2000 in Massachusetts as an ice-cream truck driver on the beaches of Cape Cod and registering there had complicated my status. Or that no one had informed me that I could vote absentee at the embassy in Accra when I arrived in Ghana or even through the mail in the U.S prior to my departure. But what it really came down to was my apathy. For the whole of November when I was living in Accra you could hear the BBC everywhere you went. At the time, it was astonishing to me that the citizens of Accra were more concerned with the outcome of our presidential election than students from the U.S. who had traveled there to study. They had, after all, just had a successful, democratic election where the newly elected president had ousted the incumbent and corrupt regime. As far as I could tell, everyone who could vote had voted. Watching their election process put us to shame, I thought.

   When the final re-count for the U.S. Presidential election of 2000 was tallied I was in a small village with limited electricity. I had been invited to the cultural museum in the village’s center where chiefs and important elders assembled in the compound around a small, transistor radio to listen to the live broadcast of the results of the re-count on the BBC. There was a full moon. It provided the light that allowed me to see the tears in the eyes of the chief and elders of the village. There was a pregnant silence after we learned that Bush had been chosen as president and then the chief’s single statement.

   “This is not good. Bush does not like the black people.” The weight of what I had done, or not done, was immense.

   As I settled in to watch Barack Obama’s 2009 presidential inauguration, I found myself at the beginning of my third year in New York; sick, broke, without a home or a day job but with a year of touring ahead of me, the release of my first record recently behind me and an unwarranted optimism that had carried me through other strange and unconventional decisions I had made in my life. All in all, I felt lucky: I was living my dream as an artist regardless of the financial consequences. I had just returned from a month-long tour in Italy and had tacked on extra time at the end to go to Sicily in order to learn more about my mother’s family, leaving me only six days to discover a lifetime of meaning before making sure that I was back in the States to vote for the first black president. As important as it was to see my grandparents’ mountaintop village, I was not going to sabotage voting because I was traveling abroad. Eight years before this I couldn’t say the same.

   But since I had just visited my grandparent’s hometown in Sicily, I spent a lot of time in my jobless state between the election and the inauguration thinking about my grandmother, Anna. I thought about how when I asked her, not long before her passing four years before, if she would have liked to go back to Sicily. She replied in her raspy voice,

   “Why the hell would I want to go back to Sicily?! I want to go to Montaaana!” she looked longingly at the sky and raised her hand in a gesture that could only mean she considered the unknown Montana in her mind as her own private heaven.

   I thought a lot about my college years spent only an hour and half from her house in Youngstown, Ohio, and the many fortunate trips I made to see her in order to hear her stories, look through her old books of photographs or put large puzzles together while we sucked on butterscotch and listened to Bobby Darin. I thought a lot about her notebooks full of songs, which I found in one of her many “bureaus”—hundreds and hundreds of songs she had written down between the years of 1928–1941 that I combed over and later inherited. There were Tin Pan Alley songs, classics of the American Songbook, Duke Ellington compositions alongside Gershwin Tunes. I remember “Am I Blue,” “In my Solitude,” and “I Loves You Porgy” jumping off the page where they lived in her perfect penmanship and playing out in my head. I, too, knew these songs and loved them as well. I had been impressed by her meticulous scrawl, the ordering of the songs chronologically alongside the names of each member of the big bands that had come through Youngstown and played, and her attention to the detailing of each band’s repertoire. And all because she had listened to them on the radio, on Sundays, when she cooked for her entire extended family. I asked her, “Why? Why have you done this?” I knew she loved music, but this was cataloging on a grander scale. She replied, “So that I could learn English better.” Her mother, always strict, traditional and often abusive, had not permitted my grandmother, the first-born, to attend school after 8th grade, only a year after she had started to have a handle on English, ordering her to stay at home and raise all of her younger siblings. She spent these years cooking, cleaning and rearing, and when she made mistakes or crossed authority, her mother would force her head into a bowl of cheese to the point of suffocation or drag her through the streets by her hair as punishment. Her only solace, it seemed, was Sundays, when she was free to listen to the radio all day while she cooked. I had never understood, until that moment, how important these songs were to her identity and how she had forged this identity on her own. And had never understood how lonely she must have felt growing up this way, a mother to her own siblings, a necessary pest in her mother’s eyes, a young bride in an arranged marriage to a not so distant cousin. 

   Except for occasional visits, I didn’t grow up around my extended Sicilian family and ended up forging my own identity, very separate from theirs, through the music I grew up with in my predominantly black, activist community in St. Louis, Missouri. Quite often I was the only white kid in my class, and it was an identity I was constantly reminded wasn’t mine, but it was what was available and the easiest for me to understand. Since I loved music I used it as a way to be accepted by my community. This is a self-awareness I possess only in hindsight. I learned everything I could from my black teachers: every civil rights song, every spiritual, every blues song. When I was hungry for more, my mentors would guide me into jazz, R&B, gospel and the beginnings of hip-hop. I held onto this identity so strongly that when hard-pressed to write a meaningful essay for my college applications, I ended up writing about Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, the Black National Anthem. I had always loved this song, and as a child I studied it like one would a great book. James Weldon Johnson’s lyrics represented the truest realities in my young life. Like the song Amazing Grace, the potential for its universality was, and still is, limitless. Though it was written by a white ex–slave trader, Amazing Grace transcended its status as a song simply about a white man changing his ways. And the subsequent verses remain, for the most part, unclaimed regarding authorship. People wrote them and sung them. I felt the weight and importance of Lift Ev’ry Voice similar to, if not, more meaningful than the role of Amazing Grace in our oral and written musical histories.

   The presence of this complex racial identity coupled with my interests in music led me to my being an African-American Studies major in college, my subsequent study abroad in West Africa and, later, my teaching endeavors in New Orleans. It was only in my early twenties when I started to write my own music that I became marooned and isolated from the communities that I had drawn inspiration from in the past. My new community became a network of DIY spaces mostly in the South and Northeast United States and more specifically, New Orleans and Providence, Rhode Island. Formal structure and expression were meant to be discarded. New creative freedom made writing and performing exciting and different and a sense of rebellion and community coexisted in my new world of art and music exploration. “Race” was redefined. I was no longer a minority, but was completely surrounded by my new, primarily white artist friends who contextualized their art outside of the norm. One friend, who I now admire greatly, considered her music “outsider” music. I had laughed and dismissed it as the musings of an art school grad and as a result an argument ensued in her Brooklyn loft. I could never reconcile art created by an elite, creative class as “outsider” art. Looking back I realize we were both right. She operated as an artist outside of corporatism. For me, I could only define my music in terms of race and class. By the time I arrived in New York in 2006, I was driven by the idea that I could sell my music and that someone might actually want to buy it and see me perform. I was unconcerned with Outsider vs. Insider. I just wanted to make people feel. When I realized that this was the single most important reason to create and perform music, I became consumed by the idea of touring endlessly and selling records.

   In my Greenpoint, Brooklyn, sublet in January of ’09 I realized that, after all of this work we had finally decided to do as citizens, I was not connecting to some of the people chosen to speak at or perform at the inaugural ceremony. I remember nothing of what Obama said and was annoyed and distracted by the sound quality of Aretha Franklin’s performance so much that I can’t even remember what she sang. Was it the National Anthem? I can only venture to guess. But I do remember when Reverend Joseph Lowery stood up to say the Benediction. I began hearing words that I knew and I started to speak with him at the same time, unaware at first of where these words were coming from. I know very few prayers from my secular upbringing. But suddenly I realized that he was, quite simply, stating the third verse of the Black National Anthem verbatim. The magnitude of this moment hit me so hard that I started hyperventilating. I continued saying the words with him, wondering who, out there in the world, was doing the same thing that I was. I felt alone, a need to be around others. I said out loud, “Does anyone know what is happening?!” It was a different loneliness from the one I felt that day in the Volta Region in Ghana, when the results from the previous election had rendered us, so many of us in the world, inconsolable. It was a different loneliness from the one I felt in my impressionable early twenties when, disconnected from my childhood community, I was able to forge a creative self outside of the confines of my childhood. Until this moment, I hadn’t realized how lonely I had become. The Reverend was giving me something, so many things, by reciting Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing. Catharsis, confusion, a reward for at least trying, an inheritance, a beginning and an end, a truth, a reason to continue and above all, a dare. I know that it meant many different things to many people. But for me, he was giving me a way back in. To who I was and where I was from, the challenges those things proposed and the complexity of what they presented. There were no easy answers to what we were all asking from politicians at that time and so many of my own have gone unresolved, accompanied by disillusionment and disappointment. But for that moment I felt like I was offered something from the Reverend Lowery, something that I had learned along the way, and that could resurface and light me up and make me feel. More than any part of my travel and creative endeavors of the recent past, this moment reminded me of who I was and momentarily centered me in a way that, from time to time, I miss. These days I find myself perusing YouTube looking for his speech, and replaying it as a reminder that sometimes, every once in awhile, I can feel okay. I imagine my grandmother doing the same thing, decades before, glancing at her notebooks when she wasn’t busy raising six children and reciting her favorite songs out loud.