Backwards Land

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to produce a recording for Michael Vincent a dear friend of mine with whom I’ve shared a diverse journey of 30 years that began in a liberal baptist church in San Francisco where we shared, fellowship, worship, and a calling for justice – politically and practically – in the areas of homelessness, poverty, refugee sanctuary, gay rights, and economic justice. That journey continued into a small studio in Sonoma where 25 years ago I recorded his first record album (actually it was released on cassette). That particular part of our journey together ended this past year in a studio in Sonoma County (Prairie Sun Recording) where got together with some amazing players from Sonoma County and a group of folks from Beth Eden Baptist Church in Oakland to make what both of us consider the pinnacle of our cooperative recording journey.

The album, called The Longest Time, is a tour through a wide ranging series of styles and topics, but focuses much of the time on the lives and perspectives of the people who are largely left out of the “Great America” envisioned by the current occupant of the White House and his acolytes.

The concluding song on the album is a 7 minute and 17 second epic ode to the contemporary history of the American Civil Rights Movement called Backwards Land.

When Michael first played this song for me, I loved it’s heart and hated it’s execution. I rejected the idea of this song for the album because it felt misplaced in our current culture; it was so very very… white.

But I couldn’t let it go… The idea behind the song was so very timely – as The Donald sat in The White House as the designated BOTUS (Bully of the United States), and white supremacists marched with tiki torches and shouted nazi slogans, and unarmed black men were being murdered by police across the country – my heart and mind wouldn’t let go of the fact that, with all its flaws, this song was important.

So I began to imagine it in another way. What if it told an historical story inside a (then) 4 minute song? What if it could give a sonic context for today?

So we began to conceive of the song as a march through history. It begins in the 60s with an almost country music feel over which the words of Congressman John Lewis (then chairman of SNCC) spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. The first verse begins in that period of time when people come “to the public square” to demand justice, and moves forward in time from there. At the bridge, audio from current protests and marches is included within the transition.

As the last verse begins the key changes and the musical style shifts to gospel. An amazing gospel singer (and musical director at Beth Eden), Mickala Cheadle takes the lead to bring the song into the present when we are “here AGAIN in the public square” still fighting, still marching, still demanding freedom and justice.

Mickala leads the chorus this time and is joined by Michael and Mary Neidel ( a wonderful singer of stellar character and beautiful dedication and a dear friend fo mine). As Mickala the chorus finished my dear friend and brother Rev. Dr. Dwight Webster preaches a 60 second sermon that gets right to the point.

I want you to listen to me now because it’s important
Because YOU are important.
We are not moving backward
We are marching forward
We are not giving up ground
We are taking new ground
We are not capitulating to the forces of interposition and nullification
We are instead paving a new road
Where justice will roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream
We do not, and we will not, live in a backward land
We are taking up residence in The Promised Land!

The organ (played masterfully by Eric Young of Beth Eden) swells from under the pastor to the front as the Beth Eden choir joins in and Mickala and her choir take us home to the Promised Land.

As the song found its way to conclude the album, it sounded precisely as I had imagined in my mind when the vision of something that could truly address our world, then and now, had first come to me unbidden.

Producing this song (and this album) was a central piece of my life at this point in time. It grows out of, and intersects with the vision, the work, and the eventual completion of what began for me many years ago and has come to its newest iteration in this website and growing community.

WE do not live in a Backwards Land… WE – all of us together – are taking up residence in The Promised Land.

The Beloved Community Is You

The idea began with a glimmer of film concept and with two men nearing the end of their lives.

One of the men was my father, who died three months ago at the age of 93. He had been a journalist and a scientist and as he drew closer to the end of his life his mental faculties, which had always been his greatest pride, began to succumb to the ravages of dementia and alzheimers.

The second man, Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian, is the same age as my dad. I met C.T. after Katrina when he came to New Orleans to help in the recovery. Over the next couple of years, we shared meals, vans, round tables (and square ones), working together with a wide array of pastors and church people around the country, seeking to help rebuild the city one church community at a time.

In the time we spent together I learned more than I had ever imagined I could about race and culture and faith and politics. I also came to know C.T. as a friend, and quite literally the truest, most shining human being I have ever known. Riding in a crowded van through Ohio was like traveling with an angel. Actually, it was better than that!

About a year ago, as I visited with my dad, I had an epiphany when I realized my dad and C.T. were the same age. In both cases these men were leaving the earth and taking vast sums of knowledge, spirit, and wisdom with them. As I pondered it more I realized that there was a large group of folks, elders of the African American Freedom Movement that were also growing older and moving on. I had just finished my latest documentary film (Raven Awakens) and I was fishing about trying to conceive my next project.

Later, as I was watching a newscast on a Black Lives Matter protest it hit me…

The young leaders of BLM are following a direct line running from the elders of The Movement through the decades leading to the hope of Barack Obama and through that to the terrible, regressive territory where we now find ourselves.

Right now we need the energy and the militancy of BLM, and we need the guidance and wisdom of the elders who have gone before.

But the elders are disappearing.

As I had that thought, it dawned on me that to interview these surviving lions of the movement, get their thoughts, ideas, memories and experiences recorded for a first person “this is what I thought and did” perspective was as vital a task as anything I had faced in my lifetime, maybe the most vital.

So, that was the origin of The Beloved Community Project. I began researching, organizing video shoots, and seeking out advisors and supporters.

As the development side has unfolded over the last year it has become clear that in addition to gathering this material it needed a way to get into the hands and before the eyes and ears of the people who need it right now. Activists, educators, politicians, youth and adults.

It needs a community.

Well… ya think? It’s called The Beloved COMMUNITY for a reason.

So here we are with the new edition of The Beloved Community Project. The opportunity and imperative to gather interviews with the key people (both leaders and grass roots supporters) remains, but we are also seeking to build a community of people who can be, essentially, co-producers.

We want, and need, your thoughts, your ideas, your resources and connections, and even your help in gathering interviews.

We want to know what you need to see and hear and we want to know how it affects you as part of the struggle today.

It is my ultimate hope that by crowd-sourcing the project we achieve several goals:

• Input from people on the ground in the struggle today.

• Resources for finding and interviewing people from The Movement, whom we might otherwise miss.

• Practical assistance from other people with media skills (amateur and professional) who are interested in helping us gather these vital interviews.

• A community of people who contribute to, and utilize, the resources we develop to further their own work and mission.

The Beloved Community is YOU!

We need you.
We need your heart, your soul, your mind, and your eyes, ears, feet and hands.

Please JOIN us today.

Let’s build this Beloved Community together.

Why Beloved Community?

What is the point of a “virtual community” built around the ideas of people who served to build the changes that transformed our country during the 50s and 60s?

Can we build a new beloved community around the ideas, inspiration and actions of the original Beloved Community? That’s the question I am seeking to answer.

The origin of this idea comes from two separate experiences separated in time by 11 years. The first was my experience of Katrina, the second was the election of 2016.

With the first, I was confronted with the reality of Kanye West’s statement that “GeorgeBush doesn’t care about black people…” as I watched from my escape pod in rural North Carolina while friends and neighbors struggled in the toxic soup, on the I10 freeway overpass and in the Superdome (where I nearly ended up myself. For a month after the storm, I managed an email server that was being used by people who had been randomly dispersed throughout the country and were trying to use the email list I was helping to maintain from afar as a way of re-connecting with missing friends and family.

After we were able to return to the devastated city, a friend drafted me into a new group being formed by church people seeking to help New Orleans churches to rebuild and thereby provide a hub for safety and nurturance as their communities began the long haul of restoring hearth an home. In Churches Supporting Churches I met Reverend Dwight Webster of Christian Unity Baptist Church and Dr. C.T. Vivian who had worked side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Along with a number of pastors from New Orleans and beyond we naded together to raise consciousness and raise funds for the churches of New Orleans. As we traveled together around the country and sat around long tables in The Crescent City, we came to be close friends and brothers. In the years since I have told many people that I believe Dr. Vivian to be the most beautiful human being I have ever met.

During our work and our travels together I got to know Dwight and C.T. and I began to experience a fundamental transformation of my mind and heart that opened me in ways I could never have imagined in my life previously and which I really wouldn’t begin to fully grasp the full impact of for another decade.

That decade encompassed the eight years of President Obama and the subsequent rise (or re-rise) of publically, and loudly, expressed abject racism and hatred.

By the night of November 9, 2016 I was in a state of shock.

When I spoke to my daughter on the afternoon of election day I did what everyone I knew was doing, and everyone I watched on TV was saying, “Trump is not going to win!”

But my daughter responded with, “But what if he does?”

The question set me back on my heels (as my daughter often does), but I rallied and made a confession that would soon come back to haunt me (or free me), “It will make me change my life.”

What I mean by that was, it would change my priorities and concerns so radically about what I do every day for work, what I do for art, and how I spend my time. What I meant was that I saw on the near distant horizon a period of potential darkness and absolutely necessary personal response. For me, the prediction of friends who said that an election of Donald Trump would potentially create a galvanized response, and that they were therefore looking forward to it, was coming true. I was awakening to the fact that such a political sea change would usher in a long needed movement for new change and it was going to require a change in me.

The Beloved Community Online and the film project that it supports is the direct outgrowth of these two fragments of my life: my experiences post-Katrina and post 11/9, and it carries with it the reality of what feels to me like an emergency situation.

It is my initial attempt at fulfilling the promise I made to my kid at the dawning of this new and potentially terrifying age.

Welcome to The Beloved Community Project

“Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and you win it in every generation.” Coretta Scott King

The film Beloved Community, and this attendant website,  is based on the assumption that the heroes and exemplars of what came to be called the African-American Freedom Movement have much still to tell us, and to show us, in our current tumultuous time.

While many of these people have already passed from the scene, a number of people who were a part of those original struggles and who walked the line with Dr. Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ralph Abernathy, Diane Nash and others are still alive and still have something to tell us.

The intention of Beloved Community is to interview those people and gather their first person stories of those times while also asking them their views on the current situation. How do they feel things have changed? What still needs to be changed? What methods and theories from the past are still relevant today and what, as they see it, might be done anew?

The basic intent of Beloved Community is to locate and traverse together the paths from the past to the future as they move through our time right now.

Story is at the heart of all human imagination and interaction. It is through the stories we tell – of our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our struggles, and our lives – that humans find a path forward through the struggles of every day.

Stories are how we explain our history and how we explain our hopes and dreams. Stories are the heart of change.

The film Beloved Community is intended as a way of telling the stories of the African-American freedom fighters of the past while at the same time connecting those stories to the reality of right now. Building the Beloved Community that Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of so eloquently, and imagined so deeply in his heart, requires continuously tracing the story of the early struggles and connecting those struggles and those dreams to the struggles, and the nightmares, of today.

The single most important aspect of the film is the attempt to interview as many of the people who were directly involved in the freedom struggle of the 50s and 60s while they are still around, and then work with the activists and organizers of today to piece together a picture of how the historical meets the contemporary.

We want to ask the two-fold question: Does the Beloved Community remain a dream, and a possibility for today and, if so, how do we learn from the past and bring the dream to fruition today?

Ultimately, the goal of the project is to find, in the words of Dr. Vincent Harding (the inspiration for this project), “…the fascinating common ground on which we and our students may stand to shape past and present into a vector of hope and responsibility.”

While there have been many films over the years that have provided a kind of retrospective history of the African-American Freedom Movement (most notably the wonderful series Eyes on the Prize) there has not been a comprehensive look at the personal memories and feelings of those directly involved, with the intention of bringing the lessons of these elders of the movement to the issues and experiences of today. This is the intention and task of Beloved Community.

Many of these elders have already passed on and the impetus for the film grew out of the awareness that it is needful to gather these stories and insights from those who are still here before it is too late. The initial idea for the project came from ten years of interaction that producer Thom Butler has had with a number of these folks while working with a group of church activists in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. The group, Churches Supporting Churches, was formed by Dr. C.T. Vivian, one of the original soldiers of the movement alongside Dr. King, and a wide range of church leaders from throughout the country. Thom, who was living in New Orleans at the time of the storm, was an active participant in this work and a founding member of the board. Through his work with the group (on the ground in New Orleans and in speaking engagements around the country) he became good friends with Dr. Vivian and began to dream of the possibility of more thoroughly documenting his memories and perspectives on the movement and it’s relationship to the present day. From this initial idea has grown the larger concept of Beloved Community.

The Beloved Community was not simply a concept that Dr. King advocated for the movement of the 60s, but was an idea that was meant to bear fruit across all time. The Beloved Community is as much a dream in this time as it was then and the perspectives of those who were there at the time are of particular relevance and significance in the times of racial turmoil and chaos that we now face, particularly in the light of issues that have come to a head since the election of 2016.

Bringing these voices from the past into direct dialogue with those of the Movement today, and into the future, is of vital importance for bridging the gap of time between then and now.

The timing of this project is important both because of the advanced age of many of the primary subjects, as well as because of the particular timeliness of the situation in light of present day protests and discussions in virtually every area of public activity.