When Marvin Gaye sang the National Anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, he knew he was going to die soon. Rehearsals had been rocky. People feared that he wouldn’t be on time to sing. He arrived late to the arena, disheveled and anxious. He wore a dark suit and oversized sunglasses to cover his bloodshot eyes. His voice trembled on the first line. By the time Marvin got to “...bombs bursting in air...” you could see his hands finally stop shaking. A rhythmic clap began to grow from the audience. By the last lines of the song, the entire crowd had joined in, clapping on beat with Marvin, breaking decorum to honor such brilliance. No one I know remembers who won the game.
If you are in Columbus, Ohio, on July 3rd of any year, you will likely drag yourself downtown with a blanket in the middle of the day, when the sun is still at its highest and most hungry. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a space at Huntington Park, where our beloved AAA baseball team, the Columbus Clippers, delivered back-to-back titles in 2010 and 2011. When night comes, you’ll fall back into someone’s arms, or be the arms that someone falls back into. And you’ll roll your eyes when “Born in the U.S.A.” plays while fireworks scream into the sky, tucking all its darkness into their pockets.
There are days when the places we’re from turn into every other place in America. I still go to watch fireworks, or I still go to watch the brief burst of brightness glow on the faces of black children, some of them miles away from the forgotten corners of the city they’ve been pushed to. Some of them smiling and pointing upwards, still too young to know of America’s hunt for their flesh. How it wears the blood of their ancestors on its teeth.
To be black and still alive in America is to know urgency. What Marvin Gaye knew, even as a man of God, was that Heaven might not be open for him, or for any of us.
There are times when I like to think that I see America the way that Marvin Gaye saw it in the spring of 1970—after he buried Tammi Terrell, and after his brother came back from a bloody war, when Marvin stared at all of our country’s mess and told Smokey Robinson that he couldn’t sleep because God was using him to write the album that would become What’s Going On.
What I imagine to be most difficult is the exact moment when you realize that your wealth and success will still not save you: to be black and understand that you live in a country that values these things, but will still speak of how you earned your death if you leave too soon. Blackness and labor have been inextricable in America for hundreds of years, but still, being reminded of this hovering truth can destroy a man who does not think of what he does as labor, a man who perhaps thinks it’s not “work” if I’m bringing people joy. I think of all these realities bearing down on Marvin Gaye, all at once in 1970, and how he could not, in good conscience, continue as the same artist.
What’s Going On in its most literal and most difficult sense, is not so much an album as it is a small series of questions, almost rhetorical. What are we doing to each other, and what will the world look like if we don’t change?
To be black and still alive in America is to know urgency. What Marvin Gaye knew, even as a man of God, was that Heaven might not be open for him, or for any of us. He knew then what so many of us know now: We have to dance, and fight, and make love, and fight, and live, and fight, all with the same ferocity. There are no half measures to be had. It is true, yes, that joy in a violent world can be rebellion. Sex can be rebellion. Turning off the news and watching two hours of a mindless action film can be rebellion. But without any actual hard rebellion, without reaching our hands into revolutionary action, all we’ve done is had a pretty fun day of joy, sex, and movies. There is no moment in America when I do not feel like I am fighting, when I don’t feel like I’m pushing back against a machine that asks me to prove that I belong here. I know that urge to build a small heaven, or many small heavens. Ones that you cannot take with you, but ones that cannot be taken from you. A place where you still have a name. I believe, at one point, that Marvin Gaye looked at a country on fire, and wanted that place for us all.
We are perhaps at the crossroads that Marvin Gaye was at in 1970, still pushing our shoulder against one of the millions of doors America has built to keep us out. And we are all here, we unlikely patriots. All of us pushed to the margins, trying to fight for ourselves and one another, all at once.
I watch fireworks in July 2013. Two weeks later, George Zimmerman walks free, and Trayvon Martin is still dead.
Marvin Gaye sings, “If you wanna love, you got to save the babies,” and a black mother pulls her son close.
I watch fireworks in July 2014. Later that month, the world turns to the Internet and sees Eric Garner choked to death by police officer Daniel Pantaleo.
Marvin Gaye sings “Trigger happy policing / Panic is spreading / God knows where we're heading,” and thousands of people march from New York to Washington.
I will watch the fireworks in 2015 and black churches are burning in the south.
I will watch the fireworks in 2015 and no one marched for Renisha McBride.
I will watch the fireworks in 2015 and people I love can be legally married on Saturday, and then legally fired from their jobs on Monday.
Marvin Gaye sings “In the morning, I'll be all right, my friend,” and a group of black children watch the sky light up, seeing darkness turned inside out for the first time.
For some of us, denying what this country is and what it is doing to our bodies is impossible. We are perhaps at the crossroads that Marvin Gaye was at in 1970, still pushing our shoulder against one of the millions of doors America has built to keep us out. And we are all here, we unlikely patriots. All of us pushed to the margins, trying to fight for ourselves and one another, all at once. Celebrating while still fighting perhaps represents the ethos of this country more than anything else. To bear witness to so much death that could easily be your own is to rush toward re-defining what it is to be a patriot in this country. It is even to rush towards re-defining “country” as a place where there both pride and safety are possible, at the same time, for all people.
And so a transgender woman steps onto the hallowed ground of the White House and fights to be heard in the name of undocumented transgender immigrants.
And so a woman scales a flag pole and tears down a symbol of oppression with her bare hands, taking time on the way down to deliver a word from the same God that whispered revolution in Marvin’s ear.
And so a community buries more of its own, but does not forget to celebrate, and does not forget to sing.
These are the people who I will remember most when I look up to the sky this year, watch it explode in light, and hear the children laugh.
After finishing the national anthem, Marvin Gaye bowed lightly to thunderous applause before walking slowly from center court. Almost a year later, Marvin’s fading body was resting in his brother Frankie’s arms after he’d been shot by his father. Before dying, he told Frankie, “It’s good. I ran my race. I’ve got nothing left to give.”
Frankie told police that he didn’t get to his brother’s side quicker because he thought the sound of the shots from his father’s gun were fireworks.
Unlikely Patriots is our series of essays for July 4th that celebrates surprising, forgotten, and/or contrarian expressions of love for one's country.
Lead photo: Marvin Gaye. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)