By Jordan Alexander Stein
If I hum a few bars, you might begin to recall the tune. It goes like this. In August 1970, a warrant was issued for Angela Davis’s arrest. Two guns she’d legally owned and registered turned up in a courtroom shoot out a week before, and this disgraced philosophy professor, doubtful of getting a fair trial in Ronald Reagan’s California, went underground. For two months, Davis evaded police and the FBI, before she was arrested in a Times Square motel, resurfacing to one of the most publicized trials of the twentieth century.
Those are the verses most people know. But the song I’d rather sing you begins elsewhere—sometime in 1971, when Nina Simone carried a balloon into the Marin County jail where Davis was being held for trial.
The charm of Simone’s (literally) uplifting gesture is unmistakable as Davis narrates the episode in Shola Lynch’s fantastic recent documentary “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.” The film reenacts the scene with the camera’s eye following a red helium balloon down a dark institutional corridor, toward a doorway flooded with overexposed light. This visual tableau signifies freedom. Coming in the middle of the film, while Davis is still in jail, its aesthetic makes a promise that the film’s plot has not yet delivered. The balloon becomes politics by other means.
In 1971, “Angela Davis” meant something that might now go by the name “Chelsea Manning,” “Edward Snowden,” “Mark Carson,” or even “Iraq.” These proper names have exceeded their headlines and become dense signifiers of the contradictions of the American democratic system itself. Like the balloon, democracy is an invention of the eighteenth century. And even to their admirers, both, at times, can be full of hot air.
As Americans prepare to celebrate the 237th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, their independent government is still confining at least 154 foreign nationals at a prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a significant number of whom inhabit another, crueler signifier of contradiction, “infinite detention.” The dire conditions of the US prison camp at Guantanamo could feel like they belong to an entirely different world than Simone’s whimsical balloon. To juxtapose them might seem ridiculous. Balloons don’t solve political injustice, and, despite what you may have seen in movies, they don’t even carry people to far away places. Moreover, there is little room for whimsy in US politics. Whims are highly subjective things, usually considered an aspect of arbitrary rule, a deviation from the allegedly rational decision-making practices of liberal government. No one who lived through the Bush administration could want more political whim.
If Simone’s whimsical balloon cannot free the detainees at Guantanamo—if, indeed, it did not even free Angela Davis—does that balloon matter? More immaterial still than a balloon might be the kind of song for which Simone was and remains so well known. In the scheme of things, balloons are like songs, insofar as each amounts to little more than a small gesture, a tiny expression, an insufficient agent. What we really need are big, transformative actions, because the world we live in—environmentally no less than politically—is, to use the common phrase, fucked. We owe the world and each other undeniably more than a small gesture.
What Simone’s balloon stands to remind us, however, is that a small gesture is still more than no gesture. An insufficient agent can still be a needful one. The plea I’m making here, in other words, is for both/and. An important hope for un-fucking our world can be found in more robust democracies, but that doesn’t mean that we can do without balloons. It certainly doesn’t mean we can do without songs.
The above is an excerpt from a piece published today on LARB Channel Avidly on the intersections of politics and sound. Read the full piece (it includes links to the music) here.