Charleston, Juneteenth and "No More Auction Block For Me"

Wednesday’s abominable act of racist terrorism (and yes, we must call it terrorism) casts a strange kind of shadow over this Juneteenth. Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white supremacist who opened fire on Emanuel AME -- a church of powerful symbolism to the Black community in Charleston and, to a degree, throughout the south -- chose the date of his attack to fall on the 193rd anniversary of the suppression of Denmark Vesey’s rebellion, which was planned at that same church. Clearly this violent racist gets the importance of symbolism, at least on some instinctual level. That the 150th Juneteenth -- a holiday marking the ultimate end of slavery -- falls just days afterward reveals both how much remains unfinished a century and a half later and how sick this unfinished business makes this country. How unfinished? Not too far from where Mother Emanuel is located, the Confederate flag flies on the state capitol, the very same flag that Roof had on his truck, right under the words “Confederate States of America.” That should provide all the answer we need.

For the past two years I’ve been researching the history of the gospel hymn “No More Auction Block For Me.”


A hypothesis I’m working with has been that this is possibly the most influential and yet unrecognized song in American history. I could very well be proven wrong on the “most influential” front, but what seems irrefutable is that this is a song that has had a massive impact on American popular music. Its recorded origins, predictably, go back to the institution of the first Black regiments during the American Civil War. An early iteration was sung as a marching song by these same regiments. It’s very likely that there were earlier versions, possibly sung in secret by slaves themselves, but the Civil War is when the song first made itself into recorded history.

This naturally placed it at a fortuitous crossroad. The Civil War, as a key event in ushering America into the modern age, was one of the first major instances of transculturation in the country’s history. There had of course been plenty of examples before with the collision of English, Scottish, German, Irish and countless other European ancestries. But for Black spirituals -- themselves the offspring of African musics and European hymns -- to travel so far and to reach so many white ears that otherwise may not have heard them; this was a giant leap in forging what we now understand as popular music. And in fact, the far-reaching travels of newly-freed Black men and women during both the Civil War and Reconstruction was what allowed what we now understand as “the blues” to form, gestate and become such a major staple of American musical culture.

“No More Auction Block” traveled along with all of these innumerable tunes and hymns. The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University toured a version around the country during the 1870’s. In the decades afterward, as the Black freedom struggle evolved, so did the song. Paul Robeson performed a noteworthy version. So did Odetta (hers is particularly moving). So did Joan Baez. Bob Dylan performed it, and it is now confirmed that the hymn’s structure provided inspiration for “Blowin’ In the Wind.” The above version from Sweet Honey In the Rock is one that departs significantly from traditional renditions, but still keeps intact its gospel feel and is certainly still recognizable as its original.

Some scholars speculated that “No More Auction Block” was also a major influence on the 1948 People’s Songs Bulletin version of “We Shall Overcome” (which, at least musically, is the version we all recognize today). And, if one elongates the notational phrasing of “We Shall Overcome,” the similarities between the two are quite apparent.

What does all of this have to do with the racist murders in Charleston? Truthfully, I was already planning to write a longer blog post about “No More Auction Block For Me” in recognition of the 150th Juneteenth. Tragedy has obviously intervened here, likely reshaping, along with countless other tragedies, both discussion and action around American racism for some time. But there is a certain significance to listening to the song in light of the Mother Emanuel murders.

During the transatlantic slave trade, forty percent of all captured Africans passed through the Charleston Harbor, by far the greatest percentage to pass through any slave port in America. The city of Charleston was, in many ways, the most important of all auction blocks. Little wonder that this same harbor was the site of the Civil War’s opening battle. Its position in the South Carolinian Lowcountry and the high concentration of both slaves and freed Blacks meant that the area was a key site in terms of the preservation of African culture and its evolution into a particularly African-American one. It bears acknowledgement that Zilphia Horton, then music director at the Highlander Folk School, first heard “We Shall Overcome” while visiting a Charleston tobacco workers strike.

Charleston, then, is a site where the ghosts of unfinished Reconstruction continue to haunt. It is, like the song, a city that illustrates the torn consciousness of modernity: its hope and promise, its radical potentials for new and amazing worlds to be imagined shuffling alongside the terror and gaping wounds of a society that drives people into the dirt and holds nothing sacred. Dylann Roof, the way in which the Stars and Bars fly openly around this country; these represent the painful latter side of this contradiction. The Black Lives Matter movement, still growing and and evolving, reflects the belief in something better that animates the former.

“No More Auction Block For Me,” in its continuation and evolution well past the Civil War, touches both ends of the modern spectrum. That it hasn’t wound up a dusty museum piece 150 years after slavery’s final end should tell us quite a bit about how much of freedom’s promise has yet to be fulfilled. It should also tell us something about how insuppressible the desire for that freedom can be.

On Barrel Rolls and Judge Dredd: The Aesthetics of Being a Cop

The now-infamous barrel roll from one of the vicious cops that broke up the McKinney, Texas pool party first had me chuckling in the midst of an otherwise horrifying incident. Now, upon further reflection, it just has me more horrified. There is nothing funny about what took place in McKinney last week. On the one hand, Corporal Eric Casebolt is clearly a man who has watched one too many episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger, which on its own is pretty laughable. On the other hand, an American police department -- an institution that ostensibly exists to preserve order -- thought it was a good idea to give this racist man-child a gun. Let that sink in.

Of course, this kind of perverse immaturity isn't hard to find in any police department if you know where to look. Cops parking illegally while they pop into a convenience store for a soda, turning their lights on in their patrol car so that they can run a red and not have to wait, arresting young women who rebuff their feeble attempts at flirting; these sordid tales of entitled petulance can run the gamut from the irritating to the straight up despicable. And while it's easy to blame the individual officers, the reality is that there is indeed, forty years after Frank Serpico, a very real culture among police with very real consequences.

We may not notice because we are so used to seeing it, but everything about the police is specifically selected to communicate a sense of domination and authority. Uniforms are crisp, angular and unmistakable. Riot gear, which has infamously become more and more common as police have become more militarized, is intimidating as much for its look as it is for what it can actually allow the person wearing it to do.

Nine years ago, the NYPD started introducing Dodge Chargers -- the ultimate "muscle car" -- into its fleet. The cars, which were specially made by Chrysler for the NYPD, can go up to 150 miles per hour. When questioned about why it was necessary to have cars that can go so fast in an urban area famous for its congested traffic, then-Commissioner Ray Kelly replied "What we like about it is the diversity."

And we should also naturally consider the way in which police are represented in the world at large: the police procedural television programs, the buddy cop flicks, the way in which we are constantly barraged with the tongue-clucking of "do what the officer says" whenever some young kid is gunned down. We laugh at Onion articles titled "Insecure, Frustrated Bully With Something to Prove Considering Career In Law Enforcement" because they certainly ring true on a very instinctual level. But really what we are talking about here is an experience that purposefully instills both a sense of being society's last line of defense and one of unquestioned authority. It's not just who the departments pick; it's what they need their representatives to be if they are to serve their function.

Twelve years ago, I was outside a Washington, DC Metro station helping out with an informational table for a socialist group. The table was shut down by a police officer who told us what we were doing was "illegal." Since there are several laws on the books -- including Supreme Court decisions -- that allow people to set up small stalls on street corners as long as they don't obstruct traffic, I challenged him on it. It was a futile endeavor, but being young and cocky (and, let's face it, white) I wanted to see what kind of rise I could get out of him. When I told him that what we were doing was perfectly legal, and that it was his violation of our right to freely disseminate information that was in fact illegal, his eye started to twitch, and he replied: "I'm a representative of the law, that's enough for you." It really and truly was all I could do to stop from laughing; it reminded me so much of this:


The comic version of Judge Dredd, as fans of 2000 AD will know, was actually a rather brilliant satire of power, authority and the police. Both of its film adaptations have been downright awful. The Stallone version is barely tolerable, and only if the viewer willing to believe that the filmmaker was intending a satire so broad that it had to make the audience itself the butt of its joke -- sort of like what Paul Verhoeven was going for with Starship Troopers. At the time, however, I could not help but think that this cop, who was probably no more than five years older than me, had watched this particular moment in the movie and thought "that's what I want to do with my life!"

Twenty-five years ago, there was enough distance from the extreme urban decay and techno-porn of, say, RoboCop for people to understand what was being satirized. Now that distance has been closed, making a hyper-militarized and unaccountable police that much more plausible. The idea of being society's last resort against its own savagery is appealing on some level to the modern, anxiety-ridden human being, however illusory, violent and untenable it may be in reality. Now take that same anxiety, nurture it, give it weapons training, an imposing uniform, a gun, a taser and a souped up muscle car -- all the while encouraging its owner to believe that their worst fears are indeed just inches away from their front door. 

Again, this is easy to mock. But take the strange concoction described above, place it in a system reliant upon racism and a robust prison industrial complex, and the very palpable danger becomes quite clear. It is how Cleveland cop Michael Brelo could think that jumping on the hood of a car and firing forty-nine bullets was a reasonable response to a couple sitting in their car. It is how the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association boss Patrick Lynch can belligerently declare the NYPD a "wartime police department" and be taken seriously. From the point of view of law enforcement under contemporary capitalism, this is the ideal arbiter for the regulation of our lives. As other writers and activists have pointed out, late capitalism doesn't just need to regiment what we do while at work; it requires a very clear notion of what we can and cannot do generally, the parameters of which shift depending on skin color, gender, age, and so on. And there's the crux: the culture and aesthetic of the police aren't some freakish anomaly growing out of its own lack of accountability. It serves a very specific need at the political economic core of the status quo.

That the brutal police attack in McKinney took place at a swimming pool is telling. Echoes of Jim Crow abound. That even without legally sanctioned segregation, someone thought that Black youth did not "belong" at this community pool, that they should "go back to their Section 8 housing," speaks volumes of the kind of logic that permeates modern society: that even leisure time has to come with permission. And it's not just the most obvious "fringe racists" who think so. It is enforced and sanctioned. Where there were simply teenagers having a good time, an appointed representative of the state authorized to use violence saw a threatening horde invading an innocent respectable community. What did he feel was the best course of action? To go Dirty Harry. It is indeed a farce, but it's a farce with terrifying implications.