General Assembly 2004 Event 4049
"Harvesting Hope Through Social Consciousness"
Holly Near, Folk Singer and Activist
Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) President Bill Sinkford introduced the 80th Ware lecture by listing some of the past lecturers including, once before, "a poet who used music" to express a message of social justice, Malvina Reynolds in 1972. He listed "We Are a Gentle, Angry People" as one of the key songs which have spread through the Unitarian Universalist movement and "speak to our identity."
Holly Near spoke in story and song of her own personal history, to "share some of the moments in my life that kept me an activist." From the modeling of critical thinking and responsibility by her mother and father to her own overcoming of shyness and embarrassment to add her voice to opposition to war during her college years, to a career in television ("The Partridge Family made me a feminist"), Near's tales of earlier experiences were interwoven with songs "Something Changes in Me" and "I Am Open and I Am Willing."
"My career in Hollywood got interrupted—I got distracted by the world," Near continued. She began to work against militarism, for women, for gay and lesbian rights—and while she admitted that she'd been "accused of being a cause hopper" said that she saw what connected us. Her goal, she said, was to be "fascinated rather than fearful." "We are racing through space at an unimaginable speed. What shall we do today?"
To be an activist has often meant separatism—remaining separate from the dominant culture, finding a safe place, and learning not to need sameness. Taking a stand is important—and Near highlighted the point with a song about an Appalachian mountain woman taking a stand. Taking a stand means, in the words of Bernice Johnson Reagon, "it becomes someone else's job to remove us."
Near told the story of traveling to Japan in 1979 for a conference with Bernice Johnson Reagon, and how it's important to listen to someone's rage and honor it, and to face tragedy without losing hope—a point she illustrated with a song by Reagon, which, after verses about facing loss, included the lines, "You are not really going to leave me, it is your path I walk ... it is your strength that helps me stand...." Continuing in the spirit of hope, Near asked in song the question, "Can you call on your imagination" to imagine the results "if each one did one thing beautifully."
Near took advantage of her status as a guest to say that although we probably can't say it, she could liken today's times to the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. "The whole world is watching" to see whether the people of the United States will take their "huge opportunity on November 4th—we must get George Bush out of office." She said that it is "not a good year" for a third party candidate, though even if "the other candidate" is elected, "we will be out demonstrating in front of him, too" for the issues which are important. "I encourage you," she said, "to vote on behalf of people all over the world."
Near continued by adding that "by denouncing gay marriage, Bush has put hate on the agenda, and by opposing hate, the gay community has put love on the agenda." Then she described her own coming out when she fell in love with a woman in the 1970s, and the supportive and less-supportive reception by friends and family—and then the less-than-supportive reaction of a lesbian friend when Holly was later in a relationship with a man. She talked of the importance of confronting such reactions: "We have to figure out how to love more than we hate."
Saying that "hate and fear based groups and occupying nations are giving nationalism and religion bad names," she sang a song about religiously-based hatred: "I ain't afraid of your Yahweh, I ain't afraid of your Allah, I ain't afraid of your Jesus, I'm afraid of what you do in the name of your God." As with almost all the songs which she sang interspersed among her spoken words, she encouraged the large crowd to join in, sometimes teaching harmony lines. (A free downloadable copy of "I Ain't Afraid" is available on Holly Near's website.)
Near spoke of how important it is to be able to look back and know that we did something of value. Sometimes, she said, she despairs, and then tries to practice remembering others who have been in trouble before us. "Survivors must wonder if there ever will be another day." It's important then to take action, one at a time, and hope that it will build, not knowing whether it will or not. "Let people in history look back at us and see what we've done"—but if that looking back is to happen, we have to do something now.
The important question, Near said, is "How do we stop the huge destructive corporate machine that is moving across our planet?" We won't, she said, all do it in the same way, and it will require a huge amount of courage. And so then she began the song with which President Sinkford introduced her: "We Are a Gentle, Angry People." She told how it started spontaneously in the wake of the murder of openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, the first time singing together "We are a gay and lesbian people," and later became "We are gay and straight together." Then, she said, as we learned more about our sexuality, "there were too many to fit into the words" and it became "We are all in this together."
After singing the last verse, "We are a gentle, loving people," Near led the crowd in the chant, "Yes, we can" and on that note of hope and courage, left the stage.
Reported by Jone Johnson Lewis.