A Happy Thanksgiving to all my family and friends in the USA. As always, there’s so much to be grateful for – starting, of course, with family and friends. Traveling the country to the extent I am right now, I have plenty anecdotal evidence pertaining to what makes this country great. The majority of people in the States are warm, outgoing, kind and compassionate, and they don’t judge a man (or woman) by the color of their skin. They are industrious, they are independent, and they are innovative. The country itself is has great beauty, with a parks system that preserves that beauty. The cities are lively, and filled with arts activities that inspire further liveliness. Those villages that remain have charm and community galore. And Lord knows I don’t need to talk up the nation’s musical heritage, my area of primary interest.
Unfortunately, it remains all too evident that this nation itself, institutionally, is not representative of its primarily good people. Writing a book, as I am, about a descendent of slaves, someone born into a share-cropping cotton-picking Alabama family during the days of Jim Crow, at the same time as the country is confronting an epidemic of police shootings, largely targeted at young blacks, it’s apparent to me that institutionalized racism is still alive and well in America in 2014. That problem dovetails all too neatly into another primary social concern of mine, that of gun rights/gun prevalence/gun deaths. Those gun owners who proclaim to be “law abiding” and who so vociferously (and often violently) defend their perception of the Second Amendment tend to be white, and conservative; poke the boil of their viewpoints, and racial prejudices often come seeping out like pus.
Just last Sunday, I visited the American Museum of History in DC, where I was reminded that for all that this nation fought valiantly for its independence from the British Empire, for all that the Civil War was ultimately fought about black emancipation, the Armed Services were not desegregated until 1948: blacks and whites did not actually fight alongside each other in uniform until the Korean War. Come Tuesday evening, I was in Manhattan, driving to a concert, when the traffic was stopped by a multi-racial street march, triggered by the grand jury decision in Ferguson, but protesting the killings of young blacks by police forces all across the nation – including, sadly, New York City, even thought the NYPD is more representative of the city’s ethnic demographics than is Ferguson. I am sure that the young people marching on Tuesday understand that there is no point being able to fight alongside your fellow country-man of a different skin color if you are not safe to walk your own community safely because of your skin color. Black Lives Matter, indeed.
And none of the above easily segues into the other thing I feel we can’t say we’re grateful for: the industrialization of the nation’s commerce, in which chain stores have replaced mom-and-pop stores nationwide, so that every city and small town in the country has the same long “Route 9” strip mall mile or more of Walmarts, K-Marts, and CVSs. (The strip I stayed on outside Prattville, AL was all but indistinguishable from the strip outside Kingston, NY.) This feeds, literally, into the food chain, by which the vast majority of Americans will be sitting down today to eat a factory-farmed turkey, or worse yet, as I was subjected to witness last year at the in-laws, a “turducken,” a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey. (Safe to say I declined the invite this year.)
Leaving aside the issues of poor health caused by such diets, the fact that Americans have greater collective rates of obesity, diabetes and associated heart attacks and strokes than any other leading nation, and leaving aside the lack of a national health service, which causes many people (especially self-employed musicians) to end their lives in poverty and pain, the factory farming of animals is inherently bad for the planet. A lot of my friends – a lot of the people who may be reading this – do not want to hear the inconvenient truth that the best way you can help the environment is to go vegan.
And so, as we give Thanks today in the States, let’s also be willing to give pause to the problems that surround us. Those of us now in or around our 50s must handle our concerns as the adults we profess to be. To our kids: be grateful that you still have the freedom to protest, and use it wisely. Remember the battles that were fought over the right to vote, and do not allow that right to be taken away by modern versions of the Jim Crow Poll Tax or Literacy Test. Better yet, unless you are actively willing to build a better system, from the ground up, and today, not tomorrow, use that right to vote, especially on a local level. The turn-out of young people at the “Midterm Elections” earlier this month was pitifully low, and the institutions that are so resistant to change are perfectly grateful for your lack of participation.
I am thankful, then, today, for all that I do have in this country. But I will never apologize for speaking out for justice. Remember to be that change you want to see. And have a Happy Thanksgiving.