“Killed Just for Living in Your American Skin”

Author’s Note: It has long been my conviction that artists have a unique and potentially transformative role in bending the long “arc of the moral universe” toward justice. James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, John Howard Griffin (whose birth centennial was yesterday), Thomas Merton, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, and yes, Bruce Springsteen, as I suggest below.

“Artists are here to disturb the peace,” says Baldwin, by which he means an artificial peace, which serves to hide the ugly face of suffering and injustice against our brothers and sisters of color: Black Brown Hispanic Native Asian Indian African alike. “But Lord, when did we see you naked, imprisoned, hungry?” Who are the artists in our time who merit our attention, who unmask the lie and unveil the face of Christ in our neighbor?

This reflection, revised from a post two years ago, feels sadly relevant in the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery (Feb 23, 2020), Breonna Taylor (Mar 13, 2020), and George Floyd (May 25, 2020) — as many white Americans are coming to grips with a reality that is by no means new, not “newsworthy,” but reflects, rather, what Hannah Arendt soberly called “the banality of evil,” unjust systems in which too many “good folks like me” are complicit.

Two years before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bruce Springsteen wrote a song called “American Skin (41 Shots)” in response to the shooting of an African immigrant named Amadou Diallo by plainclothes NYPD officers. The song is built around a kind of mantra, repeating the number of bullets fired into Diallo’s body—“Forty-one shots, forty one shots, forty one shots”—a number that seems “to gauge the size of our betrayal of one another,” Springsteen suggests in his autobiography. Diallo was killed while reaching for his wallet, foreshadowing many more such deaths in communities of color at the hands of police in the decades to come. The live version is worth viewing. [1]

The first verse imagines the scene, and sympathetically, from one of the police officers’ perspectives:  “Kneeling over his body in the vestibule/ praying for his life.” In the second verse, a mother is getting her young son ready for school, trying to impress upon him the gravity of the most innocent actions, such as reaching for a wallet, or taking one’s hands off the steering wheel during a traffic stop.

“She says now on these streets Charles, you got to understand the rules.”

The song’s bridge—“Is it in your heart, is it in your eyes”—asks us to consider how our own prejudices may contribute to the “daily compounding of crimes, large and small, against one another.” The third verse says perhaps what Springsteen says best in his socially oriented songs: like it or not, we belong to each other “in the land of brotherly fear.”

“We’re baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood . . . It ain’t no secret, no secret my friend. You can get killed just for living in your American skin.”

“American Skin” angered a lot of people, not least law enforcement officers in New York and New Jersey. “It truly pissed people off.” Why? In part because it was an internal critique: these were his people, after all, the cops and first responders he would honor just a few years later in his post-9/11 album, The Rising, and more broadly, the working class (white) Americans with whom Springsteen had grown up in Freehold, New Jersey. A number of police groups called for a boycott of his performances at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, and officers working security detail for the band made their displeasure quite clear, in a number of colorful New York ways.

Amadou.Diallo.Time

One night in June of 2000, after performing the song at the Garden, the parents of Amadou Diallo came to see him backstage, as Springsteen remembers it, “two elegant and beautiful Africans who in gentle voices spoke a little of Amadou and thanked me for writing about their son.” A few days later, an elderly black woman approached him as he was walking down the street in Red Bank, New Jersey. “They just don’t want to hear the truth,” she said. And there were, after all, a few police officers who thanked him, saying that they understood what he was saying in the song. “American Skin,” Springsteen concludes, “brought me just a little closer to the black community I always wished I’d served better.”

Clearly there are few artists who wield the kind of influence Springsteen carries as a public figure. Still there are some insights that ordinary “folks like us” might draw from his story with respect to laboring for justice and healing in our society.

A first point, noted above, is the power of internal critique, and with respect to white Americans, in particular, the need for witness among “our own.” For at least sixty years and much longer, black artists, preachers, theologians, and public intellectuals have been wondering where the prophetic voices for racial justice are to be found among their white colleagues.

In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”—undoubtedly one of the most important political and religious documents of 20th century America—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., considered the irony of being accused by his fellow white Christian ministers of being an “extremist.” Perhaps we need a few more creative “extremists for love,” he shot back, recalling that Jesus of Nazareth was similarly accused in his time by the religious and political “keepers of the peace.” [2]

The point is, the public silence and passivity of white Christians in the face of stubborn racial disparities continues to speak volumes to those communities of color most vulnerable and threatened in our time. Add to this the appalling ignorance of Americans of all races—including our current president [3]—with respect to African American, Native American, Latino American, Asian American history, and so on, which is also, plain and simple, American history, our collective family story. From our very beginnings, we are “baptized in each other’s blood,” but too few Americans know or care to remember from where, and from whom, we have come as a diverse immigrant people. [4]

Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via AP

A second point follows. Whatever may be our communities of identity and commitment, if we are not occasionally pissing people off, if we are not meeting with some degree of resistance in our work, if the choices we make never bring us into conflict with the prevailing powers of society, to say nothing of family and friends—which is often where the most visceral pushback to change arises—we might ask ourselves whether we are doing the hard work for justice and reconciliation that needs to be done. To what extent are we building relationships beyond our comfortable circles of kinship that might bear fruit for the transformation of our society true equity and equality under the law and full access to the common good?

Consider Springsteen’s friendship with E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, with whom he shared an iconic stage presence and some thirty years of musical collaboration. It is hard to imagine that Springsteen’s plaintive wish to have “served better” the black community is not at least partly rooted in the mutual respect and love he shared with “The Big Man,” as Clemons was affectionately known, a friendship that endured from 1972 until Clemons’ death in 2011.

A third point follows. None of us are, or ever will be, perfectly heroic in our capacity to love and labor for a more just society over the course of our lifetimes. Like most of the characters in Springsteen’s songs, no person’s life—just as no nation’s history—is unambiguously heroic. No matter your race or economic status, no matter your political persuasion or religious commitments, we all navigate the uneasy fault lines between sin and grace, blindness and sight, fear and love, imprisonment and freedom.

In Springsteen’s telling, it is not the perfectly heroic life or high-profile actions where light and hope typically breaks in. It is in the struggle itself, day in and day out, even (especially) when we do not see immediate results. The long arc of the moral universe bends toward justice insofar as our efforts, as we can only confess in faith, are guided by grace.

Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

I still marvel at how young Dr. King was, when first thrust into the limelight during the Montgomery bus boycotts. As admirers and critics alike recognize, King was a flawed man, an imperfect hero. But clearly he understood and accepted the costs of Christian love and nonviolent resistance far more than most. And on the eve of his death, King committed himself to keep fighting, even in the face of fear and apparent failure. As one eyewitness described his last sermon, in Memphis on April 3, 1968, “He preached himself through the fear of death that night.”[5]

In his 2016 autobiography, Born to Run, Springsteen confesses that he has been “crushed” by periods of severe depression throughout his adult life. [6] No person, famous or hidden, is without some cross to bear. It may not be for us to taste victory on this side of death, but Springsteen’s music reminds us that we can, if we so choose, help one another bear our respective crosses with greater empathy and patience, forbearance and grace.

To my mind, that is the  beauty of “American Skin.” If only for the duration of song, we are drawn into “an ongoing dialogue about what living means,” as Springsteen puts it. We are “involved in an act of the imagination together, imagining the life you want to live, the kind of country you want to live in, the kind of place you want to leave your children.”

It is now 52 years since the death of King, and 22 years since Springsteen wrote “American Skin.” Without question, there are many honorable policemen and policewomen protecting their jurisdictions, courageously and often heroically, under very difficult circumstances. To our police and their families, often taken for granted, we owe much gratitude. But in the aftermath of yet another killing of an unarmed black man and the repeated failures of the state to hold officers accountable in case after egregious case of unwarranted deadly violence against black and brown bodies, yet again we have to ask: What kind of place do we want to leave our children? How many more black bodies laying dead in the streets, in a driver’s seat, in their own apartment or grandmother’s backyard, in some leafy neighborhood or public park where somebody decided they looked suspicious? Dare we hope that the sustained protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd represent a tipping point?

What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground. (Gen. 4:10) In 2020, you can still get killed just for living in your American skin. That cold hard fact is a scandal and blasphemy that cries out to heaven, a slow motion nightmare that only begins to measure the size of our betrayal of one another.

Photo Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images
Photo Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images

NOTES

[1] Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), 435; all subsequent citations p. 433-36. “American Skin (41 Shots)” was first released as a live version on Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: Live in New York City (Columbia, 2001), and then as a studio version on High Hopes (Columbia, 2014).

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), 289-302.

[3] “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice,” remarked President Trump during an oval office ceremony to mark Black History Month. At best, Trump has demonstrated a “laughably vacuous” grasp of African American history, and an embarrassingly tokenist and instrumental approach to Blacks themselves, as during the 2016 presidential campaign, when he pointed out a black man in the crowd to say, “Oh, look at my African American over here. Look at him. Are you the greatest?” See David A. Graham, The Atlantic (Feb. 1, 2017), at https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/02/frederick-douglass-trump/515292/.

[4] Springsteen’s 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad is set in California amid “the increasing economic division of the eighties and nineties,” its atmosphere inspired by John Ford’s film adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Sonically stripped down much like his 1982 album Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad tells the stories of Mexican migrants and others facing “the effects of post-industrialization in the United States and the weight of lost jobs, outsourced labor and the disappearance of our manufacturing base on the citizens whose hard work built America” (Born to Run, 402). “I’d seen it firsthand,” Springsteen explains, “when the Karagheusian Rug Mill, based in Freehold, rather than settle a labor dispute with its workers, closed up shop and shipped south for cheaper, nonunionized labor. The jobs were gone.” The 2012 album Wrecking Ball doubles-down on Springsteen’s “critical, questioning and angry patriotism,” a growing sense, mirroring the Occupy Wall Street protests, that a “big promise has been broken,” while few have been held accountable. See Fiachra Gibbons, “Bruce Springsteen: ‘What Was Done to My Country was Un-American,’” The Guardian (Feb. 7, 2012).

[5] Rev. Billy Kyles, “Remembering MLK’s Prophetic ‘Mountaintop’ Speech,” NPR, (April 3, 2008), https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89326670.

[6] Springsteen writes of being “crushed” by depression periodically throughout his life, especially in his early sixties (Born to Run, 272-74, 308-12; 484-87).

Material adapted from The Artist Alive: Explorations in Music, Art and Theology (Anselm Academic, 2019).

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