Every father hopes to pass on a part of himself to his children. Mine was no different. He would be pleased to know that I have taken up his love for music. I have come to love the music of his time as much as he did and his favorites have become my favorites.
I recently read a response to a pastor who is actively engaged in the struggle for racial justice. The young woman who posted the response was concerned that social justice was becoming all he talked about and, as a result, he was losing her as a follower. I too struggle with the thought of being consumed with the racial fires recently stoked to a flame. I’ve heard from many that it’s becoming all I talk and write about. It’s turning them off as a reader. I was at a loss to explain my consumption. It pulled at me in ways I didn’t understand. Am I being consumed?
While out for a run and doing some soul searching, one of my father’s favorites came up on my run playlist. At first, Smokey Robinson’s smooth blend of Rhythm and Blues and Native American drums revived me. It’s beat and my cadence fell in sync and steadied my faltering stride. Then like a lightening bolt, Smokey gave me the words that explained my inward struggle. And in his words I found my own.
I was born and raised in the ghetto
On the run down side of the track
And there are forces who do everything they can do
To hold me back because my skin is black
Oh but more and more I mind
Hell, it’s about time
It’s just my soul responding
To being second-class in a land I helped to form
It’s just my soul respondingJust My Soul Responding by Smokey Robinson
It was here that the soulful Native American drums that lay beneath the struggle of the indigenous people, recalled in the previous lyric, gave way to the mournful sounds of the blues guitar, that called up the sorrowful seasons of African Americans in the deep south. It matched Smokey’s mournful wail. There was something in the way he sang the words. The words said it, but his voice gave it life. His soul was responding.
The music spoke to my pain, but I smiled knowing I wasn’t alone. Smokey understood why I find it so hard to keep quiet. His words explained it. They were the words that gave expression to my feelings.
My father listened to his music at night, after we went to bed. His stereo was just on the other side of my bedroom wall. Many nights I drifted off to sleep listening to Miracles, Temps, and Tops. Smokey Robinson released this song in 1973. The words had little meaning for me as a child; it was just good music. But now I know why my father liked it so much. I’m sure it spoke to his pain too.
Smokey wrote the song as a protest, as the country flexed in response to the Civil Rights Movement. More than four decades later his words still speak. And though much has changed, not enough hearts have changed to make things new. No, these are the old flames of racial injustice. And my soul is responding just as my father’s and Smokey’s did in the sixties and seventies. The great American author Anne Rice encouraged writers to, “go where the pain is.” Well this is where my pain is. So if you think I’m talking about it too much it, Smokey had words for that too…
If I’m bitter don’t blame me.
It’s just my soul responding.