Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Lessons: Better Git Yer Learnin’

Our Native Daughters: Better Git Yer Learnin’

I’ve written fairly frequently and glowingly about Rhiannon Giddens, who is amazing. But I’ve barely mentioned the album, Songs of Our Native Daughters, a project that Giddens spearheaded, and which also included Amythyst Kiah (who I wrote about here), Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla. It probably would have been my favorite album of 2019, if I ever got around to writing that list for my other blog, and I did write about the one cover song on the album, Bob Marley’s “Slave Driver,” for the Cover Me "Best Covers of 2019" piece (which also included a cover by Giddens). They also put on one of the best shows that I saw in 2019, at an outdoor venue, where even light rain didn’t prevent me from really enjoying the show. At one point, I posted on Facebook, “Rainbow to my left, sunset to my right, brilliant music in front of me and raindrops on my head.” It was a pretty great night. 

The liner notes for the album, which are extensive, as you’d expect from a Smithsonian Folkways release, explain the project as an attempt to shine “new light on African American stories of struggle, resistance, and hope, pulling from and inspired by 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century sources.” Giddens gathered the other three women of color, all of whom play, among other instruments, the banjo, an instrument with West African roots that nevertheless became an integral part of American music, including music made by whites (and usually white men). There’s a lot in the liner notes, and you can download them here, although better yet, buy the damn album. It’s fucking amazing (but if you want to hear this song, don’t buy the vinyl—it’s not on that version). 

Rather than try to explain the genesis of “Better Git Yer Learnin’” and what it’s about, here’s a long quote from Giddens from the aforementioned liner notes, because she wrote the song and knows it way better than me. Also, she’s a MacArthur Genius award winner, and I’m not: 

The tune for this song is attributed to the banjo performer Thomas F. Briggs, found in a banjo method book published in 1855 entitled Briggs’ Banjo Instructor. It provides an early glimpse into that first truly American cultural sensation, the minstrel show. These tunes were published with no words, which gave me the opportunity to engage with them as pieces of music with no baggage. After learning quite a few, I braced myself to read the original lyrics, and was faced with a mountain of offensive sentiments and the degraded characters of the “minstrel nigger” and “plantation darky.” I thought about what an actual emancipated ex-enslaved person might have to say in a song like this, and “Better Git Yer Learnin’” was born. Each verse refers to well-known difficulties in the African American world of the mid-1800s, and all around education. Education was what the enslaved person wanted above all else, yet even trying to learn to read was often a punishable offense. 

After the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in 1863 (many in Texas and other territories didn’t find out until the June of two years later—a date celebrated by the holiday Juneteenth), young teachers (white and black) who graduated from schools like Oberlin went to teach at newly formed schools for black children all over the South, but the conditions were so bad many of them took sick and died, or gave up. 

Where all-black schools were established, sometimes white supremacists would blow them up. Opportunities for education were hard to come by but, to a newly freed person, worth fighting for. 

Despite the fact that this song relates to the 1800s, we are still dealing with the incontrovertible fact that black Americans do not get the same quality of education as white Americans. This sort of systemic racism is, to say the least, a huge problem, and won’t be fixed as long as people of color have generally worse economic health than whites, and as long as school funding is often tied to the wealth of the surrounding community. And the fact that the current president of the United States has appointed judges who refuse to confirm that Brown v. Board of Education was correctly decided, and recently made a big deal about trying to prevent schools from using the 1619 Project information about the effects of slavery on our country, makes it clear that we have a long way to go—and that the way will be much longer if we don’t get rid of the racists in the current administration

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