Chris Hedges Opinion Original

Chris Hedges: They Crush Our Song for a Reason

The powerful keep those they exploit from knowing who they are, where they came from and the crimes of the ruling class. As social inequality mounts, so does the campaign to keep us in darkness.
Song – by Mr. Fish

By Chris Hedges / Original to ScheerPost

August Wilson wrote 10 plays chronicling Black life in the 20th century. His favorite, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, is set in 1911 in a boarding house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The play’s title comes from “Joe Turner’s Blues,” written in 1915 by W. C. Handy. That song refers to a man named Joe Turney, the brother of Peter Turney, who was the governor of Tennessee from 1893 to 1897. Joe Turney transported Black prisoners, chained in a coffle, along the roads from Memphis to the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. While en route, he handed over some of the convicts, for a commission, to white farmers. The prisoners he leased to the farmers worked for years in a system of convict leasing — slavery by another name.

In Wilson’s play, Herald Loomis, a convict who worked on Turner’s farm, arrives in Pittsburgh after seven years of bondage with his 11-year-old daughter, Zonia, in search of his wife. He struggles to cope with his trauma. At a boarding house, he meets a conjurer named Bynum Walker, who tells him that, to face and overcome the demons that torment him, he must find his song.

It is your song, your voice, your history, Walker tells him, which gives you your identity and your freedom. And your song, Walker tells him, is what the white ruling class seeks to eradicate.

This denial of one’s song is instrumental to bondage. Black illiteracy was essential to white domination of the South. It was a criminal offense to teach enslaved people to read and write.

The poor, especially poor people of color , remain rigidly segregated within educational systems. The backlash against critical race theory (CRT), explorations of LGBTQ+ identities and the banning of books by historians such as Howard Zinn and writers such as Toni Morrison, are extensions of this attempt to deny the oppressed their song.

PEN America reports that proposed educational gag orders have increased 250 percent compared with those issued in 2021. Teachers and professors who violate these gag orders can be subject to fines, loss of state funding for their institutions, termination and even criminal charges. Ellen Schrecker, the leading historian of the McCarthy era’s widespread purging of the U.S. education system, calls these gag bills “worse than McCarthyism.” Schrecker, who authored  No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the UniversitiesMany Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America and The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s, writes:

The current campaign to limit what can be taught in high school and college classrooms is clearly designed to divert angry voters from the deeper structural problems that cloud their own personal futures. Yet it is also a new chapter in the decades-long campaign to roll back the changes that have brought the real world into those classrooms. In one state after another, reactionary and opportunistic politicians are joining that broader campaign to overturn the 1960s’ democratization of American life. By attacking the CRT bogeyman and demonizing contemporary academic culture and the critical perspectives that it can produce, the current limitations on what can be taught endanger teachers at every level, while the know-nothingism these measures encourage endangers us all.

The more social inequality grows, the more the ruling class seeks to keep the bulk of the population within the narrow confines of the American myth: the fantasy that we live in a democratic meritocracy and are a beacon of liberty and enlightenment to the rest of the world. Their goal is to keep the underclass illiterate, or barely literate, and feed them the junk food of mass culture and the virtues of white supremacy, including the deification of the white male slaveholders who founded this country. 

When books that give a voice to oppressed groups are banned, it adds to the sense of shame and unworthiness the dominant culture seeks to impart, especially toward  marginalized children. At the same time, bans mask the crimes carried out by the ruling class. The ruling class does not want us to know who we are. It does not want us to know of the struggles carried out by those who came before us, struggles that saw many people blacklisted, incarcerated, injured and killed to open democratic space and achieve basic civil liberties from the right to vote to union organizing. They know that the less we know about what has been done to us, the more malleable we become. If we are kept ignorant of what is happening beyond the narrow confines of our communities and trapped in an eternal present, if we lack access to our own history, let alone that of other societies and cultures, we are less able to critique and understand our own society and culture.

W.E.B. Du Bois argued that white society feared educated Blacks far more than they feared Black criminals. 

“They can deal with crime by chain-gang and lynch law, or at least they think they can, but the South can conceive neither machinery nor place for the educated, self-reliant, self-assertive black man,” he wrote.

Those, like Du Bois, who was blacklisted and driven into exile, who pull the veil from our eyes are especially targeted by the state. Rosa LuxembergEugene V. DebsMalcolm XMartin Luther KingNoam ChomskyRalph NaderCornel WestJulian AssangeAlice Walker. They speak a truth the powerful and the rich do not want heard. They, like Bynum, help us find our song.

In the U.S., 21 percent of adults are illiterate and a staggering 54 percent have a literacy level below sixth grade. These numbers jump dramatically in the U.S. prison system, the largest in the world with an estimated 20 percent of the globe’s prison population, although we are less than five percent of the global population. In prison, 70 percent of inmates cannot read above a fourth-grade level, leaving them able to work at only the lowest paying and most menial jobs upon their release.

You can watch a two-part discussion of my book Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison, and the importance of prison education, here and here.

Like Loomis, those freed from bondage become pariahs, members of a criminal caste. They are unable to access public housing, barred from hundreds of jobs, especially any job that requires a license, and denied social services. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimates in a new report that 60 percent of the formerly incarcerated are jobless. Of more than 50,000 people released from federal prisons in 2010, the report found, 33 percent found no employment at all over four years, and at any given time, no more than 40 percent of the cohort was employed. This is by design. More than two-thirds are rearrested within three years of their release and at least half are reincarcerated. 

You can see a two-part discussion on the numerous obstacles placed before those released from prison with five of my former students from the NJ-STEP college degree program here and here.

White members of the working class, although often used as shock troops against minorities and the left, are equally manipulated and for the same reasons. They, too, are denied their song, fed myths of white exceptionalism and white supremacy to keep their antagonisms directed at other oppressed groups, rather than the corporate forces and the billionaire class that have orchestrated their own misery.

Du Bois pointed out that poor whites, politically allied with rich southern plantation owners, were complicit in their disenfranchisement. They received few material or political benefits from the alliance, but they reveled in the “psychological” feelings of superiority that came with being white. Race, he wrote, “drove such a wedge between white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.”

Little has changed.

The poor do not attend college, or, if they do, they incur massive student debt, which can take a lifetime to pay off. U.S. Student loan debt, totalling nearly $1.75 trillion, is the second-largest source of consumer debt behind mortgages. Some 50 million people are in debt peonage to student loan companies. This debt peonage forces graduates to major in subjects useful to corporations and is part of the reason why the humanities are withering away. It limits career options because graduates must seek jobs that allow them to meet their hefty monthly loan payments. The average law school student debt of $130,000 intentionally sends most law school graduates into the arms of corporate law firms.

Meanwhile, fees to attend colleges and universities have skyrocketed. The average tuition and fees at private national universities have jumped 134 percent since 2002. Out-of-state tuition and fees at public national universities have risen 141 percent while in-state tuition and fees at public national universities have risen 175 percent.

The forces of repression, backed by corporate money, are challenging in courts Biden’s executive order to cancel some student debt. A federal judge in Missouri heard arguments from six states attempting to block the plan. To qualify for the debt relief, individuals must make less than $125,000 a year or $250,000 for married couples and families. Eligible borrowers can receive up to $20,000 if they are Pell Grant recipients and up to $10,000 if they haven’t received a Pell Grant. 

Education should be subversive. It should give us the intellectual tools and vocabulary to question the reigning ideas and structures that buttress the powerful. It should make us autonomous and independent beings, capable of making our own judgments, capable of understanding and defying the “cultural hegemony,” to quote Antonio Gramsci, that keeps us in bondage. In Wilson’s play, Bynum  teaches Loomis how to discover his song, and once Loomis finds his song, he is free.


NOTE TO SCHEERPOST READERS FROM CHRIS HEDGES: There is now no way left for me to continue to write a weekly column for ScheerPost and produce my weekly television show without your help. The walls are closing in, with startling rapidity, on independent journalism, with the elites, including the Democratic Party elites, clamoring for more and more censorship. Bob Scheer, who runs ScheerPost on a shoestring budget, and I will not waver in our commitment to independent and honest journalism, and we will never put ScheerPost behind a paywall, charge a subscription for it, sell your data or accept advertising. Please, if you can, sign up at chrishedges.substack.com so I can continue to post my now weekly Monday column on ScheerPost and produce my weekly television show, The Chris Hedges Report.


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Chris Hedges
Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.

17 comments

  1. Heartening to read of August Wilson, the biracial playwright who has been largely ignored
    by the publishing establishment. Another contemporary biracial novelist and playwright, still alive, and equally ignored, is Harold Jaffe. See his Othello Blues, Revolutionary Brain, and Strange Fruit & Other Plays.

  2. In the Memory of the character Bynum Walker , I would like to share here what a song is composed of , in case anyone wants to write their song and then put it to a melody .
    Here ya go : I am _________ . Chorus sings You are _____________.
    That is enough but you can go through some story in that format , back and forth between the me and the we , and now comes the Bridge – the bridge is the answer from the unknown , out of the blue , it is the universe responding to the I am . A beautiful example of a bridge is in “River Run” by Carly Simon :

    Let the river run,
    Let all the dreamers
    Wake the nation.
    Come, the New Jerusalem.

    I like to say that a song is an answered prayer . I love the idea of a ” conjurer ” as I never heard that term before . I may use it in a song !

  3. I meant to add that though August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone wasn’t about the Kansas City bluesman Big Joe Turner, the play deliberately uses his name. Moreover, though Wilson won awards for his plays and some were made into films, he struggled with the white “art” establishment from the beginning.

  4. It should be obvious to anyone who bothers to review its history that this is precisely why Reagan initiated “education reform” using the terrorist rhetoric the US was “falling behind” other countries. That it was, instead, designed to roll back public education to its beginnings, when the goals were to provide only sufficient literacy to read written instructions and train students to unquestioning obedience to authority, is finally being realized; but unless you’re following the topic you won’t know it.

  5. Any debt relief is just pathetic tokenism. Abolish all debt – it’s simple. There are two economic systems: the imaginary one that we read about every day, economists theorize over and government use to oppress whoever they want and the one when money can just be printed at will to bail out the powerful and wealthy with the lie that this is part of the latter mythical economic system.

    1. Hedges is a treasure.He must be heard. His books and pieces like this are the truth about America and the culture we live in. He and some of the other critics of the American system like Chomsky,Nader and Assange must be silenced before their voices can be heard by the masses. There are many others who I do not know but they are out there striving to wake the people up before it all goes away in slavery or a Nuclear war which I personally believe is eminent as the US loses its world domination.

  6. I think this is one of the most important subjects that Mr. Hedges has brought to light.

    I reflect on my own experience as a folk musician, being able to participate in soul sustaining renditions of old labor protest songs, historical folk songs and reels, jigs, and hornpipes from ancient ancestors in small jamming groups in cafes and pubs here in the states. Our folk music is a social glue that helps us stay together as a people but as time went on it became more and more difficult to find meeting/jamming places as music for profit took its tole.

    I saw bluegrass music degenerate into something that is electric, ultra loud, as fast as possible with a heavy rock and roll base that over powers the melody such as it is , making it meaningless. Young folks dance around hectically and crash into each other and even get injured from time to time. “Music” has been made into a overwhelming vibrational drug. If you cannot stand the culture you live in, just drown it out I guess.

    Then COVID-19 comes along and not by accident I think. It constitutes an attack on the very essence of our culture, folk culture included.. Meeting places, already scarce had to shut down and participants in folk music scattered to the four winds or stayed in seclusion for protection. And some died.

    It is difficult to put this loss into words but I know someplace deep inside that America is failing. COVID-19 is a real viral disease but corporate American is the metaphorical one. Both are killing us.

    1. It is the commodification of everything in our culture. We have devolved to a nation with one freedom, and one right. The freedom of commerce, and the right to consume everything –nature, art, populations, planet– in furtherance of that commerce. The most deadly word in our language is “more.” The word that is driving us to oblivion.

  7. Here we go yet again with the lament of black oppression. It must be nice to be a white male of privilege….like Chris Hedges, whose main contact with the black race is in a controlled environment such as being a volunteer in a prison. When the day’s over, I’m willing to bet that he goes to a home that is devoid of any immediate black neighbors.

    Enough of this white guilt, only black lives matter mind control baloney.
    Don’t all people matter? What about the rest of us that aren’t black that can’t afford healthcare, make minimum wage, are single parents, are abused and exploited at work (if we can find it), are beaten, harassed and arrested by the police, are denied credit due to predatory credit rating agencies’ unfair reporting practices, have no money to eat, and are forced to pay exorbitant rents, insurance policies, and car payments?

    And all the while, we continually hear the babble that it’s really the ”people of color” that are somehow the ones whose suffering matters the most.
    All races have been slaves in the past to someone; no one is somehow more special than anyone else.

    1. There’s only the human race with different ethnicities within. Looks like you’ve been lead down that ole worn down and ancient “divide and conquer” road Dave. Focus you’re ire towards the capitalist system that creates that division that wants to keep people divided and confused. Mr Hedges isn’t doing you any wrong by reporting on the fruits of that ancient strategy of division.

    2. There hasn’t been nearly enough white guilt. Or white awareness, or white responsibility, or white acknowledgement, or white sustainability, or white people living within moral and material limits.

      Where are you? If you live anywhere in the western hemisphere you are living on land that belonged to Native Americans for at least 21,000 years, and many people claim much longer. Those Native people were exterminated by the tens of millions so we could take everything they ever had. Here in this country in the lower 48 contiguous states, it is estimated that indigenous populations were reduced by 98% in the nonstop warfare committed against them over the course of three centuries, with an estimated minimum of ten million and as many as sixteen million lives lost to European invasion.

      Spare me your universalizing about how all people have been victims, because it’s not true. The truth is that White people have invaded the entire planet over the past 500 years, brutalizing and slaughtering and destroying everyone everywhere we went. We are probably the worst humans who ever existed, and we total weenies about taking any responsibility for our history, losers in the extreme. We go on and on ad nauseam about how other people aren’t “perfect” and how they “had war,” and all our other pathetic arguments.

      We won’t live within our material or moral limits because we want the money we make out of all our invasions and stealing. Well, the good news is that we’ve brought about our own extinction in the near future, and that’s the good part.

      No, all humans haven’t been just like us. Not even if they had violence, which most of them did have, but not all of them had. There are documented nonviolent societies and cultures in the world. Yes, they produce better humans. Deal with it.

      1. Chris, if you’re reading this, this is what you perpetuate. See the continued and growing division at the drop of a hat?

        As soon as you choose to elaborate on any race in this country, the context automatically gets twisted into an us vs. them vacuum.
        People in general in the U.S are short on critical thinking skills, as the poster that I am responding to clearly demonstrates.

        Why not focus more on your brilliant reporting of our common adversaries that are running all our lives (regardless of race) instead of the singling out of a selected group? By not doing so, you’re helping to create the very suppression that you rally against.

  8. The ruling class doesn’t just “keep those they exploit from knowing who they are, where they came from and the crimes of the ruling class.” Above all, the rulers keep those they exploit from knowing their own power, from knowing their own class victories and how these were achieved. That’s what the ruling class really fears, that the working class might use its power over production and distribution to transform itself from a ‘class in itself’ to a ‘class for itself’. For the working class, “knowing who they are” goes no further than being ‘class in itself’, but knowing what it can actually do takes to being a ‘class for itself’.

  9. The last of the last sentence: “… and once Loomis finds his song, he is free.”

    my take
    That freedom is peculiar, painful and problematic. It’s a core, intangible, and perhaps transcendental freedom, a freedom to think and to know for one’s self, or as was put by Schopenhauer, “Pure knowing subject, clear vision of the world.”
    It is a freedom beyond and distinct from the pop definition of freedom, and when this type of freedom is uncovered by the greater world it is liable to be punished with the forfeiture of the common, mundane, assumed and (sick) guaranteed freedoms, the ‘living’ freedoms.
    I am not gone hyperbolic or exaggerating.
    And yet the holding of that single freedom may be ample compensation for the loss of all the rest. If life is made much more difficult, its burdens so much heavier, that single freedom brings a corresponding increase of strength and resolve which the greater world is unfit to contest… yet can, of course, destroy.

  10. It is odd, sad and telling that Hedges decries the manipulation of information by introducing one of his own.

    The current wave of book banning is exclusively a conservative/Republican project, not an American one, and while Hedges’ complete omission of that crucial fact jive with the left-ish, Neo Progressive demagogic propaganda talking point about the conservative-liberal similitude, it is not only a fake-fact, but it also obfuscate an easy out from the rolling conservative anti-knowledge juggernaut, and the only legitimate instrument of change in a democracy, namely vote it out.

    It is odd because obviously contradictory, sad because it ignores the obvious solution, and telling since it emulate the general left-ish, Neo Progressive trend of preferring political expediency even if the price is the very foundation of the progressive creed, namely strict adherence to truth and full disclosure of facts.

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