The Voyager & Blind Willie Johnson: Some Thoughts At Midnight

In September of 2013, the Voyager-I spacecraft left the solar system. It was the first time that an object dreamt, created and operated by a species as new and as infirm as the humans had gone beyond the far reaches of the sun that had sustained the very life form that built it.

On that spacecraft were greetings in 55 languages, pictures showing life on Earth and 27 songs that were ‘representative of humanity’. One of those songs was “Dark was the Night, Cold wass the Ground” written in 1927 by the black jazz musician, blind Willie Johnson.

He was so called, because his mother had thrown rye in his eyes, after she was beaten by his father for allegedly being with another man. Willie died in penury, after contracting malaria, shortly after his house burnt down.

When in 1977 Carl Sagan and the Mars Voyager Team chose his song, it was part of the US Library of Congress’ selection of songs that were deemed to be ‘culturally significant’; Sagan wroteof the song that “…since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight”.

It is significant then, that amongst the 1st sounds of the earth that a wandering extra-terrestrial may hear would be the music of a segregated, blind man, who never found peace happiness or joy in his life.

In the same month as the Voyager-I was making history, another queer circularity of life was making itself apparent. As the UK remembered Winston Churchill – arguably Great Britain’s finest and most remembered Prime Minister, a guest was signing the memorial book at No 10 Downing Street. Churchill in the late 1880s was responsible for the setting up of ‘internment camps” for African tribes’ men. These camps were not so dissimilar to the concentration camps of the Nazis. In one of these camps, there lived an African tribal elder. After a year in captivity, he was released. It was surely a twist of faith that the great-grandson of that tribesman was – the man signing the guest book that day in September 2013 – the President of the United States of America, Barak Obama.

These two instances, if anything, don’t call for either lessons or judgment. They simply are to be remembered, for they represent the opposites of the human condition. The loneliness of despair and the potential of human endeavor.

Robert Francis Kennedy, speaking to the black students of South Africa, on their day of Affirmation in June 1966 said,:

“There is discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere. These are differing evils, but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility towards the suffering of our fellows.”

“But we can perhaps remember — even if only for a time — that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek — as we do — nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.”

It is perhaps this duality – that led Tagore to write, ‘where the mind is without fear and the head is held high’. In the battle between – what Shakespeare calls nurture and nature – while we struggle and fall to our baser instincts; our hopes, dreams and aspirations push us to pick ourselves up and keep climbing. Out from the dark forests, into the sunlight slopes. The battle will not be won in our life time. It may even not be won in the lifetime of the human species on this earth – but that should not stop us from fighting.

As Brad Pitt’s character in the film Troy said, “In a thousand years from now even the dust from our bones will have disappeared; what will people remember?” Let people remember that we fought. Not with each other, but with ourselves. Being human is not about empathy and sympathy, it’s about choosing to live our lives by something. As Kennedy said, ‘we can perhaps remember…….

If not, then as the Script sing, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for everything!”


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